When New York was Baseball and Baseball was New York

by John Delach

The period from 1947 until 1956 was identified by Ken Burns, the creator of an award-winning documentary about baseball as the era when New York was baseball and baseball was New York. It would be difficult to dispute that statement as during nine of those ten baseball seasons, one of the three New York baseball franchises participated in the World Series. In fact, in seven of those years, both opponents were New York teams. All involved the New York Yankees, and six, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and one, the 1951 series saw the Bronx Bombers play the New York Giants.

The Yankees won that series four games to two, but to reach the World Series, the Giants had to play the Dodgers in a best of three game playoff. Tied one-game apiece, Game 3 was played in the Polo Grounds. In the bottom of the nineth inning with two men on base, the Giants slugger, Bobby Thompson hit what became known as “The shot heard around the world” while Russ Hodges, the team’s radio voice screamed into his mic: “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant…”   

1948 was the only exception. That year, the Cleveland Indians outlasted the Boston Braves winning that series, four games to two. The Cleveland team’s superb pitching staff overwhelmed Boston since the Braves only had two aces of their own. Their only recourse was to chant the Braves mantra: “ Spahn  and Sain and pray for rain.” Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and, despite the best efforts of Warren Spahn and Johnny Mize, that formular fell short of victory!

Arnold Hano, a lifetime Giants fan wrote a delightful book about the first game of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Giants played in the Polo Grounds with the title: “A Day in the Bleachers.” In it he describes his take on the characteristics of Giant fans and their rival fans of the other two teams.

He explained that Giant fans were unique, but he could have added a bit peculiar, because of the strange layout of the dressing rooms at the Polo Grounds. Instead of being located under the infield stands behind the first base and third base dugouts, the locker rooms at the Polo Grounds were in a building behind the bleachers that towered over the fans. Teams, going onto the field had to take a passageway out of the building and on to the field in full view of the fans.. So too did unlucky pitchers who had to make the reverse journey after being taken out of the game.

Hano believed this forced Giants fans to have a unique perspective when greeting their opponents. “On the whole, it was a quiet, well-behaved crowd. It seemed that the Giant fan held no deep animosity for the Indians.”

Hano characterized Dodger fans to be…” a surly lot, riddled by secret fears and inferiority complexes. The sight of two Dodgers on one base is legend. It seems a Dodger trademark and the fans know it. To compensate they become rude, overbearing and superlative-addicted.”   

In contrast, he described Yankee fans as follows. A Yankee fan is a complacent ignorant fat cat. He knows nothing about baseball except that the Yankees will win the pennant and World Series more often than they won’t and that a home run is the only gesture of any worth in the entire game.”

The Yankees beat the Brooklyn Bums in the 1952 and 1953 series forcing their fans to again react in the manner that Hano described them with their vows of: “Wait until next year.”  

Next year, 1954 belonged to the Giants and Hano was one of their fans who waited on line to secure a bleacher ticket for Game One of their World Series against the Cleveland Indians. In the top of the ninth inning with the score tied at 2-2 and runners at second and first base, Vic Wertz, the Indians first baseman hit a long flyball into the deepest reaches of the Polo Grounds’ center field commonly known as Death Valley.

Willie Mays, the Giants center fielder took off at the crack of the bat. Mays blazed a run in the direction of the bleacher seats in center field. At a point, 385 feet from home plate, Mays and the ball came together, and the Giants superstar made and unbelievable catch over his left shoulder imitating a football receiver catching a long pass thrown by his quarterback.

But instead of continuing on, Mays came to a dead stop and used his momentum to pivot 180 degrees and as he made a sweeping turn to his left. He brought his right arm around his body extending it full length before releasing the ball in a laser throw that reached second base on a fly. Both runners were aware of Mays’ arm strength forcing them to remain on base in case he managed to catch Wertz’s blast. When he did, his throw to second guaranteed that they would remain there.

The Giants won that opening game 5-2 in extra innings and they won the 1954 World Series in four games. Most experts believe that Willie May’s sensational play that became known as, “The Catch,” was the turning point of that series.

What Mays did in the field, James Larmar (Dusty) Rhodes accomplished at the plate. He won Game 1 by breaking up the tie in Game One with a pitch hit home run in the tenth inning. In game two he battered in two runs for a 3-1 Giants victory and in Game Three he hit a two run single in the team’s 6-2 victory,

Said manager, Leo Durocher: “He thought he was the greatest hitter in the world, and for that one year, I never saw one better.  

(To be continued.)

On the Outside Looking In will not publish on December 21 but I expect to return on December 28. May each of us who celebrate Christmas have a warm and joyous Christmas.