Posts Tagged ‘Carl Furillo’

The First Integrated World Series: Gionfriddo’s Grab

April 24, 2015

With New York leading Brooklyn 3 games to 2 in the 1947 World Series, the last two games would be played on consecutive days in the Bronx. Brooklyn needed to win game six to force a game seven. The Yankees simply wanted to end it quickly. Game six became one of the more famous of all World Series games because of one substitute’s glove and one superstar’s reaction.

Game 6

Al Gionfriddo 5 October 1947

Al Gionfriddo 5 October 1947

Desperate to win, the Dodgers jumped on Yankees starter Allie Reynolds for two runs in the top of the first. Consecutive singles by the first three Brooklyn batters loaded the bases. A double play traded a run for two outs, but a Sherm Lollar passed ball plated the second run. The Dodgers sent Reynolds to the showers with two more runs in the third on three straight doubles.

In the bottom of the third, New York finally got to Dodgers starter Vic Lombardi. A double and wild pitch sent Lollar to third. Then a ground ball error scored him. The Yankees then tied the score 4-4 on five consecutive singles, knocking Lombardi out of the game. New York went ahead in the fourth on singles by Aaron Robinson, Tommy Henrich, and Yogi Berra (playing right field rather than catching).

The hitters took the fifth inning off before the critical sixth inning. A single and double in the Brooklyn top of the sixth sent Bruce Edwards to third. Cookie Lavagetto, pinch hitting for the third game in a row, lifted a sacrifice fly that scored Edwards. A double by pinch hitter Bobby Bragan plated a second run. With Dan Bankhead running for Bragan, Eddie Stanky singled, then a PeeWee Reese single drove in both runs. Consecutive outs ended the top of the sixth.

To start the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers made three major changes. Joe Hatten took over on the mound, Lavagetto went to third, and speedy outfielder Al Gionfriddo went to left for defense. With the score 8-5, New York’s Snuffy Stirnweiss worked a one out walk. One out later Berra singled sending Stirnweiss to second. Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio stepped in and drove a ball to deepest left field. Gionfriddo raced back, leaped for the ball and caught it. Initial reports indicated that Gionfriddo had robbed DiMaggio of a homer, but a frame by frame analysis of the film and a look at photographs indicate that Gionfriddo caught the ball a couple of steps from the bullpen gate and his momentum carried him to the gate. His arm was up and it appeared he’d snagged the ball as it was going out of the field of play. Whether it was going out or going to be a double (or triple) two runs, at least, were going to score. The catch ended the inning. Nearing second when the catch was made, DiMaggio kicked the dirt in a show of emotion, something no one could remember seeing him show in 11 years of baseball.

The Yanks loaded the bases in the seventh, but Hatten got out of it. After an easy eighth, he needed three outs to send the Series to game seven. He got none. A single and a walk brought in Brooklyn relief ace Hugh Casey. He got an out, then a single loaded the bases. A ground out force brought in a Yankees run, but a tapper back to the mound ended both the threat and the game.

It was a good game, made famous by Gionfriddo’s great catch, still one of the most famous of all World Series fielding plays, and by DiMaggio’s reaction to the grab. It would be Gionfriddo’s last big league game. It tied the Series 3-3. Game 7 would decide the champion.

Game 7

The Scooter

The Scooter

Game 7 of the 1947 World Series was played 6 October in Yankee Stadium. Spec Shea started his third game for the Yanks, while Hal Gregg took the mound for Brooklyn. The Dodgers struck first, picking up two runs in the top of the second. With one out, Gene Hermanski tripled and a Bruce Edwards single brought him home. A single by Carl Furillo pushed Edwards to second and took Shea out of the game. He was replaced by game four’s hard luck loser Bill Bevens. He gave up a double to Spider Jorgensen that scored Edwards, but then got out of the inning without further damage.

New York got one back in the bottom of the second on twin walks and a Phil Rizzuto single. In the fourth a walk, a single, and a Bobby Brown pinch hit double tied the game, and sent Gregg to the clubhouse. Then a Tommy Henrich single off reliever Hank Behrman, scored Rizzuto with the go ahead run.

Brown’s at bat had taken Bevens out of the game. In his place was relief ace Joe Page to start the fifth. He was magnificent, allowing only one hit and striking out one. Meanwhile the Yanks added a single run in the sixth on a bunt single and steal by Rizzuto followed by an RBI single. They tacked on one more in the seventh on a Billy Johnson triple and an Aaron Robinson single. By the ninth, the Dodgers were down 5-2 with their four, five, and six hitters up. Dixie Walker grounded out, Eddie Miksis singled to keep Brooklyn alive. Then Edwards grounded to Rizzuto at short. A 6-4-3 double play ended the game, the Series, and Dodgers hopes. New York was world champ by a 5-2 score.

It was a terrific World Series, particularly if you liked offense. The Dodgers team ERA was 5.55 and the Yanks were at 4.09. Brooklyn walked 38 while striking out only 37. New York’s numbers were almost as bad at 30 walks and 32 strikeouts. Having said that, Spec Shea had two wins and a 2.35 ERA for the Yankees and reliever Hugh Casey had two wins and a save to go with an ERA of 0.87 for the Dodgers.

For the Yankees Rizzuto scored three runs, including two in the Series clincher. Henrich had 10 hits, five RBIs, and a home run. DiMaggio’s average was only .231 but he scored four runs, drove in five, and had two home runs in six hits. Billy Johnson led both teams with eight runs scored. For the Dodgers the heroes were Jackie Robinson for simply showing up and performing well in a pressure situation (he had three runs scored and three RBIs), Casey on the mound, and Reese who hit .304 with five runs and four RBIs. Then there were the subs, Lavagetto and Gionfriddo. Lavagetto had one hit for the Series, but it won game four. Gionfriddo had a key stolen base, walked in a crucial situation, scored two runs, and made the catch of the Series, one of the most famous in World Series history.

It was the second Yankees-Dodgers World Series (1941 being the first). There would be five more (and even more after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles). The 1955 Series has become the most famous (because it’s the only one Brooklyn won), but none of them were better than 1947 in either drama or intensity.

 

 

 

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The First Integrated World Series: Lavagetto’s Double

April 22, 2015

After sweeping Brooklyn in the Bronx, the New York Yankees stood poised to take the 1947 World Series handily. They would have three games in Ebbets Field and if they could win two, the Series was theirs. For Brooklyn, they had to win at least two to send the Series back to the Bronx. The fans ended up getting three interesting games.

Game 3

Hugh Casey

Hugh Casey

Game 3 was played on 2 October. The Dodgers sent Joe Hatten to the mound to stop the Yanks. New York countered with old-timer Bobo Newsom, aged 39 and seven years from his game 7 loss in 1940. Neither man got through the fifth inning as the game turned into a slugfest.

Newsom was the first to go. The Dodgers got to him for six runs in the bottom of the second. With one out, a walk, a double, and a single plated two runs. Another out, and a single  put men on second and third. A two-run double by Eddie Stanky made the score 4-0 and sent Newsom to the showers. Vic Raschi, of 1950s fame, replaced him. He watched Jackie Robinson single, then another two run double, this one by Carl Furillo, made the score 6-0. Finally a Dixie Walker ground out stopped the bleeding.

The Yankees responded with two in the third, but Brooklyn got one of those back in the bottom of the inning. In the fourth New York got two on a walk, a Sherm Lollar double, and a Snuffy Stirnweiss single. Not to be outdone, the Dodgers got both back in he bottom of the fourth on a pair of walks and two singles. By now it was 9-4.

The fifth saw a walk and a Joe DiMaggio home run narrow the score to 9-6. It also sent Hatten out of the game, replaced by Dodgers ace Ralph Branca. Branca finished the inning, but gave up a run on a Tommy Henrich double in the sixth and then a Yogi Berra home run made it 9-8 in the seventh. It was the first ever pinch hit home run in World Series history, and it sent Branca to the clubhouse and brought in Brooklyn’s bullpen ace big Hugh Casey. To this point, Casey was most famous for a 1941 pitch mix up with two out in the bottom of the ninth in game four of the World Series that let the Yankees win the game. He got redemption in 1947. He went 2.2 innings, gave up one run, one walk, and struck out one, and allowed only one other runner as far as second. The Dodgers won 9-8 to close the Series to a one game Yankees advantage.  Both teams had 13 hits. Fans wondered if the next game would also be a hammering match.

Game 4

Cookie Lavagetto

Cookie Lavagetto

There was never a World Series game quite like game four. It became one of the most famous of all World Series games. In it, a journeyman almost did the impossible and the Dodgers bench stepped up. Bill Bevens started for New York and Harry Taylor began the game for Brooklyn. By the time the day was over they sported two of the stranger pitching lines in World Series history.

Taylor faced four batters. Snuffy Stirnweiss and Tommy Henrich both singled, then Yogi Berra hit into a fielder’s choice which Dodgers shortstop PeeWee Reese dropped to load the bases. A walk to Joe DiMaggio brought in the first run and sent Taylor to the showers. He’d faced four men, given up two hits, a walk, got no one out, and given up an unearned run. Hal Gregg replaced him and got out of the inning with a pop to short and a double play grounder.

Bevens then went to work. He was wild, but he was effective. Over the first four innings he issued four walks and struck out three. He left men on base in every inning but the fourth. Meanwhile his teammates tacked on another run with a Billy Johnson triple and a Johnny Lindell double. With the score 2-0, Bevens went into the fifth with a no-hitter still going. He walked Spider Jorgensen and pitcher Gregg. A bunt  sent Jorgensen to third and a grounder to shortstop Phil Rizzuto got a second out, but allowed Jorgensen to score without benefit of a hit. The score stood 2-1 and the Dodgers still didn’t have a hit.

Bevens walked one more man in both the sixth and seventh, but no Brooklyn player picked up a hit or scored. By the bottom of the ninth the Yankees were still ahead 2-1 and Bevens pitching line stood at 8 innings pitched, 8 walks, 5 strikeouts, 1 run allowed, and 0 hits allowed. It wasn’t pretty, but it was three outs from the first no-hitter in the World Series. A fly recorded the first out, then Carl Furillo walked. A foul provided the second out. At this point, Dodgers manager Burt Shotten, sent speedy outfielder Al Gionfriddo in to run for Furillo. Gionfriddo immediately stole second, leaving first open. The Brooklyn pinch hitter, Pete Reiser was walked intentionally. No one was quite sure why. There were two outs and Reiser had a bad leg. Anything that stayed in the park was likely to result in an out. With Reiser unable to run, Shotten sent another speedy player, Eddie Miksis, to replace him at first, then called on pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto. He was a backup third baseman who’d gotten into 41 games that year and hit .261 with three homers and a double. So far he was 0-2 in the Series. He turned on a Bevens pitch and drove it high against the right field wall (it missed the “Hit Sign, Win Suit” sign) and bounced back toward the infield. Gionfriddo and Miksis were, with two out, off with the crack of the bat. Gionfriddo scored to tie the game and Miksis easily beat the throw to plate the winning run. Lavagetto stopped that second with his second double all year.

Bevens had given up one hit and lost. Taylor hadn’t gotten anyone out and had not taken a loss. It was a strange pair of pitching lines in one of the more memorable World Series games ever played. As importantly, the Series was now tied at two games apiece.

Game 5

Joltin' Joe

Joltin’ Joe

There was no way game five was going to match the drama of game four, but for intensity, it was close. The Dodgers sent 22-year-old Rex Barney to the mound. New York countered with game one starter Spec Shea.

In the first, Barney got out of a bases loaded jam, then put two on in both the second and third but no Yankees scored. Shea, on the other hand, was perfect through three. In the fourth Barney, with two outs, walked both Aaron Robinson and Phil Rizzuto, bringing up Shea. The Yankees pitcher singled to left to bring home Robinson with the game’s first run. Another walk loaded the bases, but a grounder to second ended the threat. Brooklyn finally got a base runner when Shea walked PeeWee Reese. A pop to first and a grounder kept Reese at first. In the fifth, with one out, Joe DiMaggio hit a home run to deep left field to make the score 2-0. Following a second out and a walk, Joe Hatten replaced Barney on the mound.

The score remained 2-0 until the bottom of the sixth, when Al Gionfriddo, pinch-hitting for Hatten, coaxed a walk, went to second on another walk, then scored on Jackie Robinson’s single. With the score 2-1, Shea got into a bit of trouble in the seventh, but pitched out of it. By the bottom of the ninth he’d walked five, struck out six, and given up three hits. Dodgers catcher Bruce Edwards led off the ninth with a single, went to second on a bunt, and stayed there after a fly failed to advance him. Brooklyn then sent up yesterday’s hero, Cookie Lavagetto to pinch hit. Shea struck him out to end the game.

With New York up 3 games to 2, the Series shifted back to the Bronx for game six and an if necessary game seven. The Yanks had to play .500 ball to win, the Dodgers had to win both. Like game 4, game 6 became a classic.

The First Integrated World Series: Dem Bums

April 14, 2015
Burt Shotten and Duke Snider

Burt Shotten and Duke Snider

The 1947 World Series holds a unique place in baseball history. First, it was a heck of a Series, known for two famous games and two equally famous moments in those games. But most importantly, it was the first ever postseason series of any kind that featured an integrated team.

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers were a team in turmoil. Leo Durocher, their manager for years was banned from baseball, a black man was on the team, a number of players were opposed to having him around, another group was at best ambivalent. The man who was to hold this all together was Burt Shotten. He’d been an outfielder back in the 1920s, then did a little managing and coaching before becoming a Brooklyn scout in 1946. With Durocher sidelined, Shotten got the call to replace him (He arrived three games into the season so Clyde Sukforth managed the first two games). He was considered easy-going and easy to get along with, just what the Dodgers needed in a volatile atmosphere. The Dodgers had finished third in 1945 and second in 1946, both under Durocher. So it’s not like they came out of nowhere to win the 1947 National League pennant, but Shotten got a lot of credit for keeping the lid on in the clubhouse.

Most of the turmoil surrounded the first baseman, rookie Jackie Robinson. As the first black man to play in the Major Leagues since 1884 (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Robinson was the center of the great integration experiment of 1947. He played well, despite all the turmoil. His triple slash line was .297/.383/.427/.810 with an OPS+ of 112. He tied for the team lead in home runs with 12. His 115 runs, 125 hits, and 29 stolen bases led the team. His BBREF version of WAR was 3.1. All that got him the first ever Rookie of the Year Award (there was only one that year, not one for each league). Shortstop PeeWee Reese was even better. He’d weathered the racial problems on the team to post a triple slash line of .284/.414/ 426/.841 for an OPS+ of 121. His WAR was 6.2, tops among hitters. He’d tied Robinson for the team lead in homers, led the team in walks with 104. The other two members of the infield were second baseman Eddie Stanky and third baseman Spider Jorgensen. Stanky was one of more vocal opponents of employing Robinson, but later became famous for his confrontation of the Phillies when they were attacking Robinson during a game. He hit .253, scored 97 runs, and walked 103 times. Jorgensen, who’d been a minor league teammate of Robinson, hit .274 and was second on the team with 29 doubles.

The center of the opposition to Robinson was with outfielder Dixie Walker. Walker demanded either a trade or Robinson’s demotion to the minors. He got neither. It didn’t carry over onto the field. He hit .306 with a team leading 94 RBIs and an OPS+ of 121. Right fielder Carl Furillo was famous for his rifle arm and hit .295 with 88 RBIs. The normal center fielder was Pete Reiser. Today he’s known for running into walls and otherwise being hurt. In 1947 he was hurt again, but managed 110 games, a .309 average, and 14 stolen bases.

The catcher was Bruce Edwards. He was a better catcher than he’s usually given credit for by both fans and historians. His problem was that he wasn’t Roy Campanella who would, within a year or two would completely overshadow Edwards. One of the backups was Bobby Bragan. He’d initially supported Walker’s position on having Robinson on the team, but by the end of the season was one of Robinson’s strongest friends and supporters. The other backup was Gil Hodges who’d not yet moved to first base and become a Dodgers stalwart.

The Dodgers had a deep bench, with seven players appearing in more than 30 games. The big name for later Dodgers history was Duke Snider, a 20-year-old rookie who wouldn’t play in the Series. For the current team, the more important names were Gene Hermanski, who’d done a lot of the replacement work when Reiser was hurt, and Cookie Lavagetto, Al Gionfriddo, and Eddie Miksis who would become household names in Brooklyn by the end of the Series.

The pitching staff was in transition. The big names of the early 1940s, Whit Wyatt and Kirby Higbe were both gone, Higbe to Pittsburgh as a way to curtail his influence among the anti-Robinson faction in the locker room. Hugh Casey was still around. He’d thrown the most famous pitch in the 1941 World Series and was still the main Brooklyn pitcher out of the bullpen. He had 18 saves, an ERA+ of 103, but he gave up 23 runs in 29.2 innings. The great names of the 1950s, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, weren’t yet in Brooklyn. Ralph Branca was. He’d had a terrific year going 21-12 with an ERA of 2.67 (ERA+ 154), a 1.246 WHIP, and a 6.9 WAR. The other starters were lefties Joe Hatten and Vic Lombardi. Both had more innings pitched than hits allowed, but Hatten gave up a lot more walks than strikeouts (105 to 76). The other right handers were Hal Gregg, who started 16 of 37 games and had an ERA of 5.87, and Harry Taylor who would put up one of the strangest pitching lines in World Series history while participating in one of the most famous of all World Series games. Clyde King, Rex Barney, and Hank Behrman, all right handers, were the other pitchers with more than three starts. The bullpen, other than Casey, relied on a combination of pitchers who doubled as spot starters (Barney, Gregg, etc.) and relievers none of whom pitched more than six games (except Ed Chandler who’d been in 15 games). The most notable was Dan Bankhead, the second black player to join the Dodgers. His ERA was over seven.

It was, all in all, a good team. It was short power and beyond Branca the staff wasn’t very strong, but it hit well, ran well, was a good fielding team for the era, and the darling of Brooklyn. It would draw crosstown rival the New York Yankees in the Series.

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Bums Win

September 25, 2014
The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

Game seven of the 1955 World Series is arguably the most famous game in Brooklyn Dodgers history. April of 1947 is its only rival. Finally, after years of frustration going back to 1901 the Dodgers finally were World Champions. It had last occurred in 1900.

The Dodgers were playing the Yankees for the sixth time (’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53 are the others) and were 0-5. Some had been good Series’ (particularly 1947) but Brooklyn always lost. The 1955 team was still very much the same team as the 1952 and 1953 teams but there were significant changes. First, Walter Alston was now the manager. He’d been a minor league manager for a while, but in 1954 took the leadership of the team. The infield was different from the more famous “Boys of Summer” infield. Gil Hodges was still at first and Pee Wee Reese still held down shortstop, But Jim Gilliam now spent more time at second than anyone else. He could also play the outfield in for game seven he was in left. Utility man Don Zimmer was at second. Jackie Robinson now was the primary third baseman, but for game seven he was on the bench with Don Hoak at third. Carl Furillo and Duke Snider were still in right and center field, but Sandy Amoros did most of the work in left. As mentioned earlier, on 4 October 1955 he started on the bench. He didn’t stay there. Roy Campanella having his last good year, was the MVP winning catcher.

The pitching staff was in transition. Don Newcombe was still the ace, Carl Erskine was fading, Billy Loes was still there, but a key newcomer (he’d been around awhile, but wasn’t anything like a star) was 22-year old Johnny Podres. Ed Roebuck and Clem Labine did the bulk of the bullpen work, but 19-year old bonus baby Sandy Koufax was on the roster (he didn’t pitch in the Series). Podres, the game three winner, got game seven.

He faced a Casey Stengel New York Yankees team that, after a string of five consecutive World Series victories, had finished second in 1954. They were back with a new lineup that included Moose Skowron at first, Gil McDougald at second, Andy Carey at third, and shortstop Billy Hunter. Gone was Johnny Mize while Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Collins were on the bench. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were in center field and right field with Irv Noren doing most of the work in left. Elston Howard had finally integrated the Yanks in ’55 and now backed up in left.

MVP Yogi Berra caught a staff that included Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Tommy Byrne, Bob Grim and Don Larsen. Ford was the ace, with Turley a close second. Larsen was still learning (and would figure it all out in one game the next World Series). Byrne had a good year but as usual walked more than he struck out. He drew game seven which was played in Yankee Stadium.

Both pitchers got through the first inning without incident. Byrne gave up a walk in the second and Podres gave a double to Skowron, but no runs came across. It stayed that way to the top of the fourth. With one out, Campanella doubled, then went to third on a grounder to short. Hodges then singled to left scoring Campy with the initial run of the game. In the bottom of the fourth New York got a runner as far as third before a pop up to short ended the threat.

Reese led off the top of the sixth with a single then went to second on a Snider bunt. An error by Skowron made Snider safe. Then a Campanella bunt put runners on second and third with only one out. Byrne intentionally walked Furillo to load the bases, then gave up the mound to Bob Grim. Hodges hit a long sacrifice to right center that scored Reese with an unearned run. A wild pitch (that didn’t allow Snider to score) and a walk reloaded the bases, but pinch hitter George Shuba grounded out to end the inning. As a short aside, it’s a measure of how much the game has changed that both Snider and Campanella, the three and four hitters, laid down bunts in a critical situation.

Shuba’s pinch hit was critical to the game. It removed Zimmer from the lineup and forced Gilliam to take second. That brought Amoros into the game in left. That immediately made a difference. Martin, playing second in this game, walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth and went to second on a bunt by McDougald, who was safe at first. Berra then slammed a drive down the left field line. Amoros, a left-hander, got to the line, stuck up his glove (on his right hand) and snagged the ball. A toss to Reese and a relay to Hodges completed a double play. Bauer then grounded out to end the threat. Most experts agree that Gilliam, with his glove on his left hand, would have never been able to make the play in left, but southpaw Amoros became an instant Brooklyn hero.

It was the turning point of the game. Podres allowed two base runners in both the seventh and eighth innings but worked out of both jams without damage. In the ninth a comebacker to the pitcher, a fly to left, and a ground out short to first ended the game and brought Brooklyn its first World Series championship. Brooklyn went crazy.

The big heroes were Amoros with a great catch and throw, Campanella with a run scored and a key bunt, Hodges with both RBIs, and Reese with a run and a fine relay on Amoros’ catch and throw. But the biggest hero was Podres. He’d pitched a complete game shutout. It was true that it wasn’t a masterpiece. He’d allowed eight hits (the Dodgers only had five) and walked two, but he’d also struck out four and pitched out of each jam. It was the first year an MVP for the World Series was awarded. Podres won it easily.

The Yanks played well. McDougald had three hits, but was doubled up in the sixth on Reese’s relay. Skowron had a double, but also an error, while Berra had the only other extra base hit for New York and smashed the ball to left that started the double play that was so pivotal to the game.

The game marked the high water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year they were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. In 1957 they had a bad year and by 1958 were relocated to Los Angeles. They did well there winning again it 1959. A handful of the 1955 winners were still around: Snider, Furillo, Gilliam, Zimmer, and Koufax among others. Most notably for fans of the 1955 team, so was Podres. He pitched two games and picked up the win in game two.

 

 

Cheap Pieces of Cardboard

January 21, 2013
1957 Don Kaiser Topps card

1957 Don Kaiser Topps card

On another blog site (The On Deck Circle–see blogroll on right) there was a wonderful article on your individual Hall of Fame. It asked who were those guys that made your personal Hall of Fame. They didn’t have to be great players, only players you remembered fondly from your youth. The reason didn’t matter, only the fact that you remembered them. One of my choices was a totally obscure pitcher named Don Kaiser. Why him? Well, simply because his was the first baseball card I ever owned.

In the town where I grew up, the elementary school was six or seven blocks from home and I would walk to school daily. Yep, I’m one of those geezers who walked eight miles a day to school in the snow in July, uphill both ways. Well, maybe not quite like that. Back then, most small towns in my part of the world, at least those with which I was familiar, had a small neighborhood store located either across the street from the elementary school or at the corner of the same block. You might remember these. They were mom and pop operations with a store in the front, a few rooms in the back where the family that ran it (usually an older couple) lived. The place sold all manner of items, from soap to motor oil to candy. They were the convenience stores of their day and they were quite popular with a community where the automobile was just catching on. By my time they were fading, but the one near my school still operated. It was universally called “The little store” to set it off from “the big store”, the large franchise grocery stores that were just then invading the landscape. Because they were bigger and nationally backed, they were cheaper and the day of “the little store” waned quickly in my part of the world.

I had an allowance and was not a great financier. In other words, I spent the money. One habit was to stop in “the little store” once a week and pick up some candy or bubble gum with a nickel (you could actually buy something with a nickel back then). In April of 1957 I stopped in looking to feed my face with something sweet, sugary, and totally decadent. The candy was up by the main counter where they kept the comic books, the aspirin, and all the tiny things that were easy to steal. There was this big, old-time cash register where the guy had to ring up each item by hitting keys with numbers on them. Beside it was this box of shiny packets that said “Topps” and “baseball cards.” I’d never heard of such, but it sounded interesting. So on a whim I bought a pack, expending my entire nickel on this new and maybe dubious item.

I got outside, and being a methodical sort, I looked the packet over carefully before opening it. The pack had a ballplayer sliding on the top, said “Topps Baseball Gum” and 5 cents. There were five cards in the pack (you could feel them though the waxed paper) and a piece of gum. Now that meant six items and I’d just put out five cents, so I was getting five cards and a stick of gum for less than a penny each. So I turned the pack over, opened it carefully. The gum was on the bottom so I took it out, stuck it in my mouth, and after a couple of chews realized I’d overvalued the gum.

The cards were facedown in the package. I could make out the gray background with red lettering. There was a cartoon up in the corner and a line of statistics, most of which meant nothing to me. Then I turned over the card and there was Don Kaiser, my first ever baseball card (see the picture above). I’d never heard of him but it didn’t matter, there he was and I could make out his face and see the “Chicago” on his uniform. He never did much, lasting three years in the Majors and a handful in the Minors, but I always watched for him on the TV, listened for him on the radio, looked for his name in the box scores in the paper. Because I picked him up first, I’ve always considered him my first card.

I looked at the others. To this day I remember which players were in the pack: 

1957 Foster Catsleman Topps baseball card

1957 Foster Catsleman Topps baseball card

Foster Castleman was next. He was another journeyman that I’d never heard about. As with Kaiser I watched, listened, and searched the box scores for him. OK, he played for the Giants, which was bad, but he was still suddenly a real person to me.

Gil McDougald 1957 Topps card

Gil McDougald 1957 Topps card

Gil McDougald was in the middle of the pack. I’d heard of him and hated him. Actually I didn’t particularly hate McDougald, but he played for the hated Yankees and here he was in my packet of cards. What the heck were the baseball Gods thinking giving me a Yankee? I wasn’t sure what to do, but I kept him anyway and quickly he became a favorite of mine, even if he did play for the evil, awful Yankees.

1957 Stan Lopata Topps baseball card

1957 Stan Lopata Topps baseball card

Next came catcher Stan Lopata. I think I vaguely knew who he was, but I wouldn’t want to swear to it. The Phils were OK by me, but nothing special and for some reason I never followed Lopata much.

Carl Furillo 1957 Topps baseball card

Carl Furillo 1957 Topps baseball card

And then I turned over the final card and there he was: Carl Furillo. I knew in that moment that I was in love with these cheap pieces of cardboard. Here was one of my heroes. He played for the Dodgers (my team), he was good and now I could actually see what he looked like. Back then the TV cameras seldom zeroed in on a player close enough you could see his face, but now I knew what Furillo looked like and, well, the day just couldn’t get any better. Well, maybe, but there was no Duke Snider in the pack.

I went home, pulled out the cards, showed my grandfather, and watched him look them over carefully. He congratulated me on the purchase, hoped I’d find a few Cardinals next time, and didn’t raise my allowance.  He did begin to explain to me some of the stats on the back of the card and that meant quality time with him and it also meant I was learning something new about the sport.

Well, even without a raise in allowance, next week I’d have another nickel and another package of cards. The store was still going to be there and surely there were enough packs that at least one would be left. There was. I have no idea who was in the next pack.

The 50 Greatest Dodgers

November 27, 2012

Don Newcombe, the 8th Greatest Dodger

Back a year or so ago I did a post on the 50 Greatest Yankees ever (according to ESPN). Turns out that the network did an entire series of these lists. You’ll have to look around pretty hard (or type in “greatest Dodgers” or whichever team) to find their lists but they are interesting.

One of the lists is the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers list. The top 10 (in order) look like this: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Zack Wheat, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Mike Piazza, Don Newcombe, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance. And before anyone asks, Don Drysdale is 11th. Not a bad list actually, here’s a few comments on the list.

1. To create a full team you end up with Gil Hodges (16th on the list) at first, Robinson at second, Reese at short, and Roy Cey (14th on the list) at third. The outfield is Snider, Wheat, and Pedro Guerrero (15th on the list). Campanella catches and the first position player whose position is already covered is Piazza, making him the DH. The staff (four men for a World Series rotation, at least one being left-handed) is Koufax, Newcombe, Sutton, and Vance. Way down at 46th is Ron Perranoski, the only reliever on the list.

2. The list is a decent mix of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with LA being slightly favored in the higher parts of the list (see Guerrero over Babe Herman or Carl Furillo for example). There are, as you would expect with the Dodgers, an inordinate number of pitchers in the top 15.

3. They did put Dixie Walker on the list (he’s 25th). With the way he left the team (his opposition to Robinson) I half expected he’d be overlooked.

4. Wheat in the top 5 is inspired, as is Vance in the top 10. It’s unusual for guys who played that long ago to get much support when up against newer players that voters remember. However, Wheat over Campanella is questionable. Wheat and Vance are the only two players on the list who spent significant time with the Dodgers prior to 1940.

5. During their time together (most of the 1970s) Steve Garvey got a lot more press than Cey. This list placed Cey higher (14th to Garvey’s 17th). I think that’s probably right.

6. Jim Gilliam is at 43rd. That’s way too low. His versatility (second, third, center, and left) made him so much more valuable than his hitting stats (which aren’t bad either) made him appear.

7. Reggie Smith is at 26th. Again, I think that’s too low. I might slide him into the top 15. I know I’d put him in the top 20. I might even jump him over Guerrero. Smith is one of the more overlooked players in both Dodgers and Red Sox history.

8. The picking of  Newcombe over both Sutton and Drysdale is  interesting. Both ended up with more wins and Newk did have the drinking problem. I’m not sure the voters got it right. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Newcombe was the ace of the most famous (if not most successful) team in Dodgers history and that has to be worth something. Now, if he coulda just won a single World Series game (he went 0-4).

9. Now about first place. When I first became interested in baseball, Robinson was my hero. As he waned, Snider replaced him. Then as the Duke faltered, Koufax became my guy. That got me through high school and hero-worship of big leaguers. So I have no problem with those three being in the top positions. I’m not sure about the order. The ultimate problem is Robinson’s status as a civil rights icon. It so overshadows his on-field accomplishments that I’m not sure it didn’t get him first place more than his playing  ability did. Having said that, I recognize he was a heck of a player and when added to his late start (because of circumstances not of his making) and the abuse he suffered, maybe he is first. But Snider was as good, maybe better. And Koufax is simply the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I have my own order, but I have no real problem with the current order.

10. The location of a few more well-known names: Hershiser (12th), Valenzuela (13th), Wills (22nd), Reiser (31st), Podres (33rd), and Nomo (49th).

11. The most glaring omission? Carl Erskine.

Playoff Baseball Comes to the West Coast

June 11, 2012

Felix Mantilla

Prior to divisional play beginning in 1969, the Major Leagues had a playoff system to determine pennant winners in case the regular season ended in a tie. It wasn’t used all that often. The American League used it all of once (1948) and the National League a bit more frequently (1946, 1951, 1959, 1962). The most famous occurred in 1951. Arguably the best occurred in 1959.

In 1959 the Milwaukee Braves were two-time defending NL champions. They featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter and Warren Spahn. They went into the last weekend of the regular season tied for first, then went 2-1 against Philadelphia to finish the year with a 86-68 record.

Their opponents were the Dodgers, the team they had replaced atop the NL in 1957. But it was a vastly different Dodgers team. First, it was no longer in Brooklyn, having relocated to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. Second, most of the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers were gone. Hall of Famer Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Carl Furillo were still around; but the new team featured Don Drysdale, Wally Moon, Johnny Roseboro, and a wild lefty named Sandy Koufax. Drysdale and Koufax were on the 1956 pennant winning team, but neither was considered a major player on that team. Gone were Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine, a stalwart of the Brooklyn mound who began the year in LA, but retired before the season ended.

The 1959 playoff format was a best of three series with LA getting two home games. The Milwaukee home game was 28 September in County Stadium. The next game was the following day in the LA Coliseum, the first playoff game ever on the West Coast. Game three, an if necessary game, would be in LA the 30th.

With both teams having to win late in the season, the first game saw Danny McDevitt start for the visitors with Carl Willey on the mound for the Braves. With two out and second baseman Charlie Neal on  second, Dodgers right fielder Norm Larker singled to drive in a run in the first inning. Milwaukee struck back in the second with two runs on a bunch of singles and an error. The two runs took McDevitt out of the game and brought in bullpen man Larry Sherry.  LA got the run back in the next inning on three singles and a force out. In the sixth, Roseboro led off the inning with a home run putting the Dodgers up 3-2. Sherry pitched masterfully shutting out Milwaukee on four hits (and two walks) making Roseboro’s homer the deciding run.

The next day the teams played one of the great playoff games ever. The Dodgers started Drysdale and the Braves countered with Lew Burdette. In the opening frame with an out Mathews walked, Aaron doubled, then Frank Torre doubled to plate both runs. The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the first with a  Neal triple followed by a single by Wally Moon. The Braves got the run right back on a single and error by Snider in the second. In the bottom of the fourth Neal homered to bring the Dodgers within a run. Again Milwaukee got the run right back with a Mathews home run in the fifth. It drove Drysdale from the game. The score remained 4-2 until the top of the eighth when catcher Del Crandall tripled and came home on a Felix Mantilla sacrifice fly. The score remained 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. With three outs to go, Burdette stumbled. Moon, Snider, and Hodges all singled to load the bases. Out went Burdette, in came bullpen ace Don MaMahon. He proceeded to give up a two-run single to Larker. Out went McMahon, in came Warren Spahn. A sacrifice fly by Furillo tied the game.

It stayed tied through the tenth and eleventh, the Dodgers managing one hit in the eleventh. By the twelfth, Stan Williams was on the mound for LA and Bob Rush for Milwaukee. Williams got through the twelfth without giving up a hit, but with two out Rush walked Hodges. Joe Pignatano singled moving Hodges to second. Furillo then singled to shortstop Mantilla who was playing short instead of his normal second because of a defensive substitution in the seventh. Mantilla managed an error letting Hodges in with the winning run and putting the Dodgers into the World Series. They would win it over Chicago in six games.

In the years since, playoff games prior to the World Series became a staple of baseball. Now we don’t consider it unusual to see a round of games between the end of the regular season and the Series. Back in 1959 it wasn’t at all normal. It happened three times previously in all of NL history. So there was a level of anticipation that was different from today’s playoffs. And it was the first postseason play (although technically the games counted as regular season games, they were considered by most a playoff) on the West Coast. With game two, the West Coast got a great introduction to playoff baseball.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, I

November 4, 2011

Ken Boyer's 1955 baseball card

The last post here detailed the list of people on the 2011 Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. I promised I’d give a thought to the ballot and comment. Here’s the first of three sets of comments.

I’m going to start with the infielders Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Ron Santo. There’s a reason these guys, and the rest of the players on the ballot, are still around 25 years after their retirement for the Veteran’s Committee to assess. All have serious flaws in their career that makes it difficult for some people to put them in the Hall of Fame. For these three it’s a combination of things.

Hodges was arguably the finest first baseman in the 1950s. Johnny Mize was aging, Willie McCovey was just coming up, others just weren’t as good. And that’s part of Hodges’ problem. He’s the best of a weak era. It’s an era dominated by outfielders and catchers, not first basemen (compare it, in reverse, to today). The other part of his problem is that he was never the best player on his team. At best he was third to fifth depending on the year. Campanlla and Snider were almost always better, Robinson was better in the first few years of Hodges’ career, and sporadically Carl Furillo was better. It’s kind of tough to argue that a team goes four or five deep Hall of Fame-wise (and I left out Reese on purpose). In Hodges favor he was a good first baseman, a decent hitter, a member of a truly great team, and his experience managing the Mets and becoming the apostle of the five-man pitching rotation are probably being overlooked by most fans.

Boyer and Santo were both third basemen whose careers seriously overlap, so direct comparisons can be made. They are, beginning with Boyer in the late 1950s and ending with Santo in the early 1970s, the best National League third basemen of their era. OK, maybe Dick Allen was better, but he was a terrible teammate and made Albert Belle look like a wonderful man you’d want to pal around with. Boyer won both a ring and an MVP award (both in 1964), Santo won neither. Santo was probably the better player. Boyer’s good years were shorter, Santo was more likely to be overlooked on his own team because of Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins (and fan favorite, but no longer great player, Ernie Banks). Another problem they have is that the truly finest third baseman of the era, Brooks Robinson, played in the other league and outshone both.

So do I vote for them? Well, yes and no. I would cast a vote for Hodges and for Santo and set Boyer aside. I’ll go so far as to say that I think Santo is probably the best player eligible and not in the Hall of Fame. And in a final point, let me note that all three men are dead. With Cooperstown’s emphasis on Hall of Fame Weekend that may change how the committee votes. If it does, it’s a  great shame.

Nest time I’ll look at the outfielders, or maybe I’ll take the pitchers.

The Duke of Flatbush

March 2, 2011

Out where I’m from there’s only one “Duke.” He rode tall in the saddle, represented everything that was good in the USA, won an academy award for wearing an eyepatch. When you say the name “John Wayne” people stand to attention and remove their hats and begin humming the national anthem. Well, I was that way about Duke Snider too, so his death hit me hard. Sunday I put up a very brief note about the death of Snider. Today I want to talk a little more about him. I don’t want to spend it going over his stats. You can look those up for yourself. I want to explain why his death hit me so hard.

Ebbets Field 1957

When I was a kid there was one team I rooted for year after year, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve never been quite sure why. Maybe it was because my grandfather hated the Yankees and the Dodgers played them a lot in the World Series. Maybe it was because they had great players and I recognized that. Maybe it was just to be perverse and bug my grandfather who was a Cardinals fan. Whatever it was, they were my team and they were glorious in the way only a child can understand glory.

It didn’t take a genius, and as an elementary school student I certainly wasn’t one of those, to see just how much Jackie Robinson meant to the team. For a while I wanted to be Robinson more than anyone else in the world. But a little bit of watching and listening told me that by the time I was wholly aware of the team, other players were better than Robinson, but you could tell he was still the engine that made the team run. He was still the heart and soul of the team. Roy Campanella’s greatness was obvious and no one ever swung a bat harder.  Carl Furillo’s arm was a sight to behold and with him out in right field Abe Stark’s sign was almost never hit. Pee Wee Reese’s leadership was obvious too, but Snider was something very special.

He was easily the best hitter by this point. You’ve probably heard by now that he had more home runs and RBIs than anyone else in the 1950s. That’s true, but it’s a little disingenuous. Snider had the entire decade, while Mays lost part of a couple of years to Korea and Mantle didn’t show up until 1951. Of course neither of those things diminishes his ability and, frankly, I neither knew nor cared about any of that back when I watched him play. I kept trying to figure out if I could duplicate his swing. I couldn’t. 

He was a great center fielder who seemed to catch everything. I remember he had this funny habit of backing up for the ball, not turning and running to a spot then turning back to the ball like Mays did it. I tried to do that as a kid and usually fell over my feet. The Mays way I could do, so in some odd sort of way I decided that Snider was a superior fielder to Mays because he did something that was harder and did it well. I may have been wrong, but it worked for me way back when. And all that falling over my feet got me a trip to first base where I played for several years back in little league. Thanks, Duke.

The team moved to LA in 1958. Now I was wedded to the team, not the town, so, unlike a lot of people, the move didn’t bother me. As long as the guys were still there I found it easy to transfer my love from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Snider’s numbers began to falter. The LA Coliseum was death on left-handed hitters. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 with him still in center field so it didn’t matter to me that he was getting weaker. By the time I noticed he was falling off, I’d transferred my allegiance to a kid pitcher named Koufax who seemed to have some promise, so it didn’t hurt quite the same when Snider was sent to the Mets. It did hurt when he ended up with the Giants. The Giants? God, that was almost as bad as sending him to the Yankees. The @#$%ing Giants? What didn’t they just send him to the @#$%ing Yankees and get it over with?

I sort of lost track of him after he retired. I got older and he got obscure. Later on when he finally made the Hall of Fame I started paying attention to Snider again. He did color work for the Expos, got in trouble with the IRS over money from card shows, but he was still a  hero to me. Back a few years ago ESPN did a thing where they asked you to vote for the greatest player of each team. Robinson won for the Dodgers and Koufax was second. Snider came in third. Despite a genuine admiration for both Robinson and Koufax, I voted for the Duke.

They are mostly gone now, my old heroes. Snider was in some ways the last of them–the heroes of my earliest youth. I know Don Zimmer and Tommy LaSorda are still alive, but I don’t think I even knew who Zimmer was and I never associate LaSorda with anything but managing. Dodgers aces Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe are both still around also, but when your new hero is Sandy Koufax (if you don’t believe me, see my avatar), other pitchers tend to fall by the wayside. But Snider remained the last link to my first heroes. I know that soon there will be no more Brooklyn Dodgers (I think Koufax may be the youngest left and he’s in his 70s) and that will make me sad.

So good-bye to the Duke of Flatbush. He never knew he was a hero of mine, which may help account for his longevity. May he rest in peace.

Hit Sign, Win Suit

May 29, 2010

Abe Stark (center)

If baseball has a cathedral, it’s Yankee Stadium. But for most of the first half of the Twentieth Century there was a second one that was almost as famous. It was in Brooklyn and called Ebbets Field. It was home of the Dodgers and home of some of the quirkiest people who ever graced a ballpark. Hilda Chester may be the most famous, but Abe Stark was the more significant. 

Stark was born in 1893, became a tailor, and in 1915 opened a clothing store at 1514 Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. The store did well and Stark made money. There is dispute about how much of a baseball fan he really was. Some claim he was an entrepreneur who saw a way to make a buck, others say he was a fan and saw an opening on the stadium wall. 

Whatever the reason, in 1931 Stark bought space on the outfield wall of Ebbets Field. There was an open space just below the right-center scoreboard. Stark stuck his sign there. It read, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”  The deal was that if a player hit the sign on the fly he would win a suit. There’s a lot of disagreement about how often the sign was hit. Some sources indicate almost never, others say a few times a year. There’s universal agreement that Mel Ott of the Giants did it first. There was, of course, a running joke that the Dodgers had two right fielders, the current holder of the job and Stark who stood in front of his sign to ward off hits. (Didn’t happen.) 

Apparently the official scorer would inform Stark anytime the sign was hit and at the end of the season, or the last time the opposing player was in town during the season, the lucky guy could pick up his suit. If he hit the sign more than once, he got more than one suit. The player didn’t get a top-of-the-line suit, but got a fairly inexpensive one (I’m trying not to call it a “cheap suit”). In Bob McGee’s The Greatest Ballpark Ever (certainly worth a read) there’s a story by the infielder Woody English to the effect that he won three suits, didn’t like the looks of the ones he was offered and agreed to take one suit of much better quality.  One story states that Stark was so grateful for Carl Furillo’s work in saving him money that he gave him a pair of pants as a gift for being a great right fielder. I couldn’t find any comment from Furillo acknowledging it ever really happened. 

The sign made Stark famous. In 1954 he was elected President of the New York City Council and served in the job until 1961, ironically the period when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He closed the store in 1959, two years after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. In 1962 he was elected President of the Borough of Brooklyn, holding the job until 1970. He died two years later. 

Stark’s name is still around in Brooklyn. A school is named for him, as is a senior center and a skating facility. Not bad for a guy most famous for a sign in a ballpark. 

BTW–the woman in the picture above is Dorothy Hamill, later Olympic figure skating champion.