The Last Win in New York

Willie Mays as a New York Giant

Willie Mays as a New York Giant

You’ve all seen the film. Willie Mays turns, runs back, his cap goes off, he reaches out, the ball falls in his mitt and he turns to fire the ball back to the infield. It’s the famous catch off Vic Wertz’s bat and is one of the handful of most famous plays in World Series history. It occurred in 1954, the last stand of the New York Giants in postseason.

The 1954 Giants were a team coming off a down season in 1953. After winning the National League pennant in 1951, they’d dropped to second in 1952, then fallen to fifth in 1953. It was much the same team, but with a couple of significant changes. Wes Westrum was still the catcher. He hit under the Mendoza Line for the season, but was a decent catcher. He’d led the league in caught stealing a couple of times, but also in passed balls (more on that later). The infield was Whitey Lockman, Davey Williams, Alvin Dark, and Hank Thompson. They had all been around in 1953. Dark and Thompson both hit 20 plus home runs with Dark leading the infield with a .293 average. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Don Mueller patrolled the outfield corners. Irvin had 19 home runs and Mueller hit .342. But the big change was the return of Willie Mays from the military. Mays hit .345, slugged .667, had an OPS+ of 175 and hit 41 home runs with 110 RBIs. He was also, of course, a superb center fielder.

The pitching staff consisted of Johnny Antonelli having a career year, Ruben Gomez continuing his run as a starter, and 37-year-old Sal Maglie contributing 14 wins. The closer was Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, whose knuckleball accounted for most of Westrum’s passed balls. Manager Leo Durocher’s bench was fairly thin, but ace pinch hitter and sometime outfielder Dusty Rhodes hit .341, had an OPS+ of 181 (higher than Mays).

The Giants weren’t favored in 1954, the Dodgers were. But the Giants went 25-19 against Brooklyn and Milwaukee (the other NL teams that played .500 ball) while the Dodgers were only19-25. The six games made a difference as New York took the pennant by five games, posting a 97-57 record.

They drew record-setting Cleveland in the World Series. The Indians had rolled to an American League record 111 wins (since bettered) but the number was deceiving. They’d feasted on the second division teams and played only so-so against the first division. There were no second division teams in the Series. Behind Mays’ famous catch, Rhodes two home runs, Dark’s .412 average, and pitching that held Cleveland to a .190 average New York swept the Indians in four games.

For the Giants it was the end. In 1955 they finished third. In both 1956 and 1957 they were sixth (of eight teams). By 1958 they were no longer the New York Giants. They moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. They had been a great franchise in the 1880s and had gone on to glory in the first 25 years of the 20th Century. After that they were sporadically good, but had become the third team in New York (behind both the Yankees and Dodgers). The 1954 season was their last hurrah. They would not win again until the 21st Century.

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9 Responses to “The Last Win in New York”

  1. Glen Says:

    Nice post, V.

    What a lot of people fail to realize is that the “golden era” of baseball, at least as far as attendance was concerned, was NOT the 1950s.

    Attendance was pretty low in the 50s. A lot of this had to do with demographic changes; the flight from the cities of the Post-War era, people being fearful of going to the ballparks that were in burgeoning ghettos. More people than ever lived in the suburbs and owned their own cars, and there was poor parking for venues such as Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds. How the Yankees managed to stay in the South Bronx in the 50s is a mystery that I don’t understand, but they managed to stay. (I seem to recall that they came PRETTY darn close to moving the Yankees to The Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey in the early 70s).

    An excellent and pragmatic book that I recommend on this kind of thing is “The Dodgers Move West” by Neil Sullivan. It’s an unsentimental and objective view on the Dodgers shift to California (along with the Giants, of course ), and the story behind other franchise moves of the 50s (the Braves moving from Boston to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore and become the Orioles). It’s a fascinating book.

    Glen

    • verdun2 Says:

      My wife’s grandfather was a lifelong Browns fan until they moved to Baltimore. Then he joined the legion of the sane and rooted for the Cardinals (an action my grandfather would have applauded). Thanks for the tip on the book, Glen.
      v

  2. sportsphd Says:

    My father-in-law saw the catch in person. He would have been 16, give or take a week or two. He was from Queens, but he was a lifelong Yankees fan. I figure it was because he was born in ’38, at the beginning of a dark period for the Giants. He always said the catch was the most amazing thing he had ever seen in person.

    My wife took me to Cooperstown the year after he passed, and they at the time had a display on the 1954 World Series, including video of Mays’ catch. It was the first time she had ever seen video of the the catch that her dad always talked about.

  3. William Miller Says:

    Glen makes a great point about attendance during the so-called Golden Age not always being that hot, especially once you got outside of two or three big cities. If you look at the actual attendance figures of the biggest and most famous games of that era, many of them were far from sellouts.
    Certainly, the move seems to have worked out well for both the Giants and the Dodgers.

    • verdun2 Says:

      I remember when both the Dodgers and Giants moved. Being a Dodgers fan I was stunned, but because I didn’t live in New York, I had no trouble maintaining team loyalty. It was afterall, a loyalty to the players more than the ownership. I’ve read countless works on how awful it was for Brooklyn, but you never hear anyone say how marvelous it was for Los Angeles. It’s as important to remember LA’s joy as much as it is to remember Brooklyn’s sorrow.
      v

      • Glen Says:

        Well, my grandfather (the one who grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, not the one who grew up in Conway, Pennsylvania), would sure disagree with that last line!!! Ha! Nope!

        In 1958, Grandpa switched his energies from rooting for “dem bums to simply rooting for WHATEVER team was playing for the hated Yankees! What’s ironic about this is that after he got married to my grandmother (who was from East Harlem), they moved into an apartment at 104 West 174th Street in The Bronx, a mere half-hour walk to Yankee Stadium! And my father grew up as a YANKEE FAN (naturally, just like any other kid who lived so close to Yankee Stadium!) NO ONE ever hated the Yankees more than my grandfather! NO ONE! So it took real guts for his son to root for the Yankees, which was the one thing that his father hated more than ANY SINGLE THING in the WORLD!

        Then the Mets came along, and he rooted for them, and my father moved to Queens after getting married and sort of lost interest in baseball. BUT NOT MY GRANDFATHER!!!! HE DESPISED THOSE YANKEES, MAN!!!

        And I would have to guess that he despised anything that had to do with the city of Los Angeles, as well. (Although he never WENT to California, as far as I’m aware of.)

        But a funny little footnote about this is that I have an acquaintance who lives north of San Francisco, and SHE hated the Giants for an interesting reason. She grew up loving the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, and when the Giants came along, that was the end of her beloved Seals. She HATED the Giants! She’s a Cubs fan living north of San Francisco, HATING the Giants!

        Glen

      • verdun2 Says:

        Now I have to admit that’s a unique reason to despise the Giants. Thanks for passing that along.
        v

    • W.k. kortas Says:

      I remember something that Bill James wrote in the Historical Abstract about the Giants in their final few years in the Polo Grounds; he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the clubs with the richest history in baseball, playing in the nation’s largest city and featuring one of the most exciting players ever to play the game, was drawing less than 8,000 people per game.

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