Thursday, October 28, 2010

Say Hey, Giants Fans Show Their Wistful Side

With the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 World Series, here is a look back a couple of years at an article where fans talk about their love of the New York Baseball Giants - Editor

From New York Times
April 14, 2008


The members of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society know this: Their team’s history is just as rich as that of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Their Giants won more pennants and World Series titles than the Dodgers did.

They had Christy Mathewson, John J. McGraw and Willie Mays.

Yet these 60 or 70 Ottophiles, nearly all men — and mostly of a certain demographic that saw those Giants play — cannot stir a revolution.

They cannot alter this irrefutable fact: They long ago lost the nostalgia battle to Pee Wee and the Duke, as well as to Jackie Robinson’s civil rights breakthrough, and to the deep connection between the Dodgers and their borough and the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series victory.

For half a century, the Dodgers have bathed in waves of wistfulness denied the Giants, who have no match for the Boys of Summer sobriquet created by Roger Kahn in his elegiac 1971 memoir.

“Very few are standing up for Buck Ewing and Amos Rusie,” said the historian John Thorn, referring to a couple of antique Giants Hall of Famers.

Consider this outrage: The Mets used Ebbets Field, particularly its rotunda (named for Robinson), as an architectural model for their new Citi Field. No recognition has yet been accorded the quirky home of the Giants.

“They didn’t incorporate any of the Polo Grounds in the design,” Steven Rappaport, a member of the society, who grew up among Dodgers fans in Flatbush, said during the nostalgia society’s meeting last Thursday.

“Maybe it’s a good thing,” he added. “You couldn’t duplicate it.”

Still, even if he is forgiving, it is a sore point. “Another example that we don’t get no respect,” said Bill Kent, the society’s president, who as a youngster turned turnstiles at the Polo Grounds (to earn his way into the ballpark by the fourth inning) or sneaked in (over a fence behind home plate).

The old Giants fans must deal with a bit of accidental history. The Dodgers left behind a fan named Fred Wilpon, who became the owner of the Mets.

Perry Barber, one of the few women in the society, hopes Citi Field’s green seats are meant to evoke the Polo Grounds. Not that she feels that’s equitable. “Will only true Giants aficionados like me know that this is the unspoken tribute to our hallowed ground of which the Mets have omitted any mention?” said Barber, an umpire at numerous levels.

But the society will not be picketing in Flushing.

“We’re a quiet protest group,” Kent said.

The group charges no dues, publishes no newsletter, has no Web site and lobbies no one. It meets to schmooze with comrades in history.

“I want to live in the past in baseball,” said Keith Danish, a former Manhattanite who wore a Giants cap and shirt to the meeting.

“My father was a fan of Matty’s and McGraw’s and was 67 when I was born. This puts me in touch with him.”

About 60 members of the society gathered in folding seats for their occasional get-together, in an Episcopal church in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. The author Frank Deford discussed his recent book, “The Old Ball Game,” about the influence of McGraw’s Giants on modern baseball.

“You all know more about the Giants than I do,” he confessed in his oration, which touched at one point on the team’s winning streak in 1916.

“You all know the Giants still hold the record for the most consecutive wins in a season,” Deford said. “Twenty-six.”

“That’s the New York Giants,” Rappaport reminded him.

The departure of the Giants left their fans with a sense of loss no less acute than that felt by Dodgers fans, but not as widely disseminated.

“I was stationed in Europe in 1957,” said Jerry Liebowitz, who grew up in Englewood, N.J. “I got all my information from Stars and Stripes, and from letters from my mother and father with articles and pictures from the New York papers. When I got back in ’58, they were gone. I felt so empty.”

Some still resent Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner, for following the Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to California. Others have accepted his motives.

“Stoneham was O’Malley’s willing lackey,” said Rappaport, who is firmly in the anti-Stoneham camp.

“He was a lackey, but he was forced,” Liebowitz said.

He saw a good business opportunity,” said George Sommerfeld, who grew up in Manhattan. “The Giants and Dodgers took over the West Coast.”

“Everything fell into Stoneham’s lap,” said Gary Brown, who was too young to remember the old Giants but has immersed himself in their history and is writing a book about the 1954 World Series-winning Giants.

“When I got older,” he said, “it became unconditional love.”

And they’re still talking about their first games at the Polo Grounds.

“I was 12, and Mays threw a guy out at home and stole home,” said Harvey Weinberg, originally from the Bronx.

“And on the seventh day, he rested,” Brown said.

George H. Gregor, who used to ride the crosstown bus from the Bronx to the Polo Grounds, honors the Giants of his youth, and McGraw, whose nicknames included Muggsy, in a 200-page baseball poem called “A Ride on the Mendoza Line.” One verse reads:

How is it, you ask, I on Giants teams dwell,
And stop this narration to pause and to tell
Of Muggsy’s exploits that were so long ago
When Coogan’s Bluff’s tenants were hits of the Show?


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Catch - Circa 1954


The last time the Giants, representing either New York or San Francisco, won the World Series was in 1954. In game one against the Cleveland Indians, slugger Vic Wertz hit what was surely a hit, that is until Willie Mays made an incredible catch. Here is an article celebrating the 50th anniversary of that catch.

Catching up with Vic Wertz's 1954 World Series Drive: Willie Mays' catch of Cleveland slugger's deep fly was outstanding regardless of how far the ball actually traveled

Baseball Digest, Oct, 2005 by Bill Deane

FIFTY YEARS AGO LAST FALL occurred the most famous defensive play in World Series history--one so ingrained in the game's history and lore, it is referred to simply as "The Catch." But time and hype have blurred some of the facts.

It happened on September 29, 1954, in Game 1 of that year's Fall Classic. Giants' budding superstar Willie Mays made the catch on a drive hit by Indians' slugger Vic Wertz. The ball was driven anywhere from 450 to 480 feet, depending on which source you believe.

Trust this source: the ball traveled about 415 feet.

The heavily-favored Cleveland Indians--whose .721 winning percentage (111-43) still stands as the American League record--were locked in a 2-2 tie with the New York Giants. The game was played at New York's Polo Grounds, where the wall in dead center field was listed at 483 feet from home plate (in other years, the distance was listed at anywhere from 475 to 505 feet, with no explanation for the changes). In the top of the eighth inning, Cleveland's first two batters, Larry Doby and Al Rosen, reached base, bringing up the hot-hitting Wertz. The Indians' first baseman would finish the day 4-for-5, including a double and a triple. The three-bagger had hit the right field wall and brought home both of Cleveland's runs in the first inning.

This time, Wertz blasted a ball toward deep center field, threatening to break the game wide open. But Mays, the 23-year-old phenom, was off with the crack of the bat. After a long run, Mays hauled the ball in with a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in front of the fence, then spun and threw the ball back to the infield. Doby tagged and advanced to third (a forgotten fact), but Rosen held at first, and they were stranded there. The Giants went on to win the game in extra innings, then complete a stunning upset by sweeping the demoralized Indians in four games.

Virtually every published source claimed Wertz's drive went at least 450 feet. "The ball had traveled 460 feet," according to The Sporting News, while New York's Newsday described it as "a 470-foot poke." As time has gone on, descriptions of the fly ball have gone as high as 480 feet, presumably based on the posted center field distance.

Mays caught the ball a little in front of the wall, but it was not the 483-foot wall at the deepest part of the park. Rather, it was the wall to the right of the center field enclosure, at the corner of the bleachers. According to Phil Lowry's Green Cathedrals, the bleacher corners measured 425 feet from home plate, though that distance--like all of the Polo Grounds' published dimensions--are subject to question (New York sportswriter Leonard Koppett told one researcher that the correct unmarked distance was 435 feet). Either way, the ball traveled less than 425 feet before settling in Mays' glove. We have to allow for the three braking steps he took before wheeling and throwing the ball from the warning track, which was about six feet wide.

Center fielder Willie Mays makes 'The Catch',
a spectacular over-the-shoulder grab, robbing
Vic Wertz of an extra hit. The Giants, thanks
to pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes' home run, beat the
Indians 5-2 in Game 1 of the World Series.

John Pastier, an architecture critic and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, has studied this issue for decades. His methodology has included studies of photographs and park diagrams, and application of architectural calculation methods. "I'm not yet positive about the correct distance," Pastier says, but "I've never seen a published estimate of the distance that wasn't wildly overstated. I'd give the range for the catch as 405' to 420'."

Ron Selter, another SABR member and a ballpark student, has also invested considerable time into this subject. Selter's research indicates the bleacher corners were actually about 432 feet from home, and he convinced Lowry to revise his book accordingly. Selter estimates the distance of Wertz's fly ball "in the range of 415-420 feet."

The ball would have been a home run in almost any other big league park. It would have been a triple against almost any other outfielder. The situation and the play itself warrant its label as the greatest World Series catch ever. We needn't hyperbolize it by adding 65 feet to the distance.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Century Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Heart of Los Angeles

Scully will come back next year
for his 62nd season as an announcer
for the Dodgers. (AP)
by Joe Posnanski

The evening sky does not darken in Los Angeles in late summer so much as it dulls into lighter and lighter shades of blue. In time, the blue goes cloudy white, then gray, then very slowly fades to black; you can almost hear a director shouting: “We’re losing our light.” It is the end of summer in the City of Angels. You know this because the Dodgers are out of the pennant race. Traffic stops and starts on The 101, violently at times, car horns and squealed tires and middle fingers. The names on the exit signs along the side of highway are startlingly familiar for a stranger. Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard. Vine Street. The Hollywood Bowl. Los Angeles is one of those few cities in the world where you can be lost and know exactly where you are at precisely the same time. And another car horn. Another tire squeal. Another middle finger.

And the voice begins to talk. The voice is talking about Charles Fuqua Manuel, Charlie for short. Yes, the voice says, Charlie comes from out of the hills of West Virginia. His father was a preacher. He was third-born in a family of 11… and not only that, he was born in the car on the way to his grandmother’s house.

“Charlie’s a wonderful story,” Vin Scully tells Los Angeles as traffic stalls on The 101, and the summer sky turns to fog. “He’s the sort of story that Mark Twain might have written.”

* * *

When Vincent Edward Scully first came to Los Angeles to broadcast Dodgers baseball games in 1958, he worried because he could not find the essence of the city. The center. The heart. He was 30 years old, and he had some clear ideas about what it took to call a baseball game. He thought it was important that the hometown baseball announcer know the hometown. So, he kept looking for this PLACE. That’s was how his mind worked then. There had to be a place. Back in New York, there was always a place.

Vin Scully heard life in New York City rhythms then — well, he had grown up in New York. He went to school in New York. He had worked with Red Barber in New York. And in New York there’s always a place, doesn’t matter if it’s Brooklyn or the Bronx, Harlem or Greenwich Village, Manhattan or Queens. There’s a place you go, where people gather, where decisions are made, where the energy pulses, where everything starts.

“In New York, for me, it was Toots Shor’s,” he says. That was the restaurant, of course, there on 51st street between 5th and 6th Avenues but closer to 6th. That was where things were always going on, where Vin could feel the city’s vibrations, its power. He might see Joe DiMaggio sitting with Marilyn Monroe. He might catch Frank Sinatra talking a little boxing. He might catch a glimpse or Ernest Hemingway or see Jackie Gleason hold court or see Judy Garland sitting in a corner. More than anything, though, he might hear what was happening in his town, what mattered, and Vin Scullly needed to know these things. He felt sure they made him a better baseball announcer.

So when Scully first came to Los Angeles with the Dodgers, he looked around town for the essence. And… he couldn’t find it. Oh there were famous places, of course, more than you could count. The Brown Derby. Musso and Frank’s. Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Places like that. And there were famous people, more of them here even than in New York. But it wasn’t the same. Los Angeles wasn’t the same. Los Angeles wasn’t built around a PLACE. New York, the city, was an eight-block walk from wherever you happened to be standing, Los Angeles was a ribbon of highways. New York’s jokes were about tourists looking up at skyscrapers and hotel rooms so small that when you put in your key you broke a window; Los Angeles’ jokes were about smog and Humphrey Bogart. It seemed to Vin Scully, at least at first, that New York was an open city, emotions always right on the surface. And Los Angeles was tougher to figure.

“I really had trouble with that for a while,” he says, and he is about to say something else, but he stops because people keep coming over to say hello. Here’s a Dodgers employee who has been gone for a while (“You look beautiful, my dear.”) There’s Tommy Lasorda (“Vinny, my boy!”). There’s the young woman who works in the press dining room bringing him coffee (“You are an angel.”)

“Like I was saying, I really had trouble with that for a while,” he says when things clear. “I didn’t quite know what the city was about. It took me a while to figure it out.”

“What did you finally figure out?”

As he is about to answer, two more people wander in to offer hugs. They apologize profusely for interrupting, but they cannot help it, they cannot let an opportunity like this go by. Vin Scully! He has been a Los Angeles icon now for more than 50 years. There are not many of the great baseball voices left, not from the old days. Ernie Harwell up in Detroit — Vin’s buddy for almost 60 years — died in May. Philadelphia’s Harry Kalas died a year ago April. Jack Buck’s gone, Mel Allen’s gone, Bob Murphy, Joe Nuxhall, Herb Carneal, Jack Brickhouse, Herb Score, all gone.

Vin Scully, who broadcast his first baseball game in 1950, is still going.

When they walk off, Scully smiles and says: “What were we talking about again?”

* * *

You probably did not know this… but more than 2,000 people have actual, official, Hollywood Stars in the Los Angeles pavement. It can be a dizzying experience, walking up and down Hollywood Blvd. and Vine Street, staring at the ground, and realizing that you haven’t heard of most of these people with stars on the sidewalk.

“You know, they keep stats of everything these days,” Vin Scully is saying on the radio. “But I wonder if you knew that they actually keep track of the number of bats each pitcher breaks over a season.”

I walk along, listen to Vin Scully, look down at the stars. I write down some names. Charles Vidor was a Hungarian director who directed more than a dozen pictures, including Frank Sinatra in The Joker Is Wild. Flora Finch was from England and she played in hundreds of silent films. Laraine Day played in many movies and served as a panelist on various TV shows like What’s My Line, but she may be best-remembered for being married to the Hall of Fame baseball manager and lovable (enough) rogue Leo Durocher. Robert Guillaume is a stage actor best known for his work on television as the character Benson Du Bois on the shows Soap and, later, Benson.

“Can you imagine them keeping a statistic like that?” Vin Scully says, and you can almost hear his eyes twinkling on the radio. “The number of broken bats! Well, I guess it does matter in today’s game. And it won’t surprise you to know that Roy Halladay is one of the best when it comes to breaking bats. But his opponent tonight, Hiroki Kuroda, is no slouch when it comes to splitting lumber…”

People wander all around me, and they, too, are looking down at the Hollywood Stars, you can see their faces brighten when they recognize a name. Some people have their photo taken by the Michael Jackson star. Parents point out Shrek’s star to their children. I write down more names. There are George Burns and Gracie Allen next to each other, as they should be…

Burns: “Say good night, Gracie.”

Allen: “Good night, Gracie.”

There’s the bandleader who gave Sinatra his big break, Tommy Dorsey, and there’s Hollywood tough man George Peppard, and there’s the Hollywood star for the Monkees.

“I guess what it tells you,” Vin Scully says on the radio, “is that we might expect to see a couple of broken bats in tonight’s game.”

And there is a son pulling his father’s hand so he can point out Vin Scully’s Hollywood Star.

* * *

Vin Scully begins his stories with apologies these days. He’s reached that plateau of fame. “I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself,” he says. “I know you’ve probably already heard this,” he says. “I’ve told this many times before,” he says. It is a mark of the man’s grace that he is the one apologizing repeatedly and not the reporter who asks him precisely the same questions people have been asking for 50 years. Scully genuinely — and generously — wants to help the writer tell a good story.

“I know you’ve probably heard about the radio,” he says, and indeed I have heard it, but I ask if he will tell it again.

“When I was a little boy in New York, we had this radio that stood on four legs,” he says. “It was huge, or at least it seemed that way to me at the time. We lived in a little fifth-floor walk-up apartment then, and the radio was just about the biggest thing in there. I remember — I couldn’t have been older than 4 or 5 — I used to crawl under that radio with my pillow. There was no baseball on the radio then, but there were football games, and I remember I used to love listening even then to the crowd.”

I wait for it. Vin, I think, knows that I’m waiting for it.

“That sound of the crowd would just engulf me,” he says, and then (I’m almost mouthing the words with him now), “it was like water out of a shower head.”

Like water out of a shower head. No announcer in the history of sports has used crowd noise more musically than Scully. Can it be a coincidence? Sinatra used to say that his musical instrument was not his voice, it was the microphone. Scully uses crowd noise as his orchestra. When Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run, Scully was there, and he called the home run, and then he took off his headset, walked to the back of the room, and let people listen to the crowd cheer. Like water out of a shower head. “What could I have said that would have told the story any better?” he asks. And he pauses: “You know what? I still love listening to the sound of a crowd cheering. Don’t you? Don’t you just love that sound?”

The sleeping-under-the-radio story makes it sound like Vin Scully was destined to live this sports broadcasting life, like it was inevitable, but of course it was not inevitable. Vin Scully grew up during the Depression. He was about to turn 2 when Wall Street crashed in 1929. There was no television. There was little sports on radio. Sports announcer was not exactly a JOB then. He wanted it to be a job, certainly. He does remember writing an essay in school about how he wanted to be a sports announcer, but it was fantastical stuff then in the 1930s, just as the world was about to go to war. He might as well have been saying he wanted to start an Internet social network.

Still, he never stopped thinking about it. He worked hard to lose any detectible accent. He practiced his cadences. When he graduated from Fordham, he sent out more than a hundred letters to radio stations and was not surprised when he was told there were no jobs. His break came at Fenway Park, though it hardly felt like a break at the time. The legendary announcer Red Barber was also sports director at CBS Radio, and he was desperate for someone, anyone, to be at the Boston University-Maryland game (he had moved Ernie Harwell to the Notre Dame-North Carolina game). Scully had introduced himself to Barber a few months before, and his fiery red hair had left enough of an impression that Barber called up someone he knew at Fordham and said, “Who is the red-haired kid who wants to be a sports announcer?” When Red Barber called the house, Scully wasn’t home, but his mother answered and took the message. “You got a call,” she told her son excitedly, “from Red Skelton!”

Scully went to the Boston University-Maryland game, and because of a mix-up found himself broadcasting outside on the roof of Fenway Park in the freezing cold. He did not say a word about it, on the air or off. (“I was so green, I thought that was just how they did things,” he says). Instead, he did his reports, stayed on time, and Barber was impressed enough that he intended to keep Scully on as an alternate. It was only the next day, when Barber got a call from someone at Boston University apologizing for sticking their announcer on the roof in the freezing cold, that Barber realized the kid had something special.think he was impressed that I didn’t complain,” Vin Scully says.

* * *

“And here’s an exciting moment,” Vin Scully says on the radio. “Rod Barajas is coming to the plate.”

The familiarity of the street names in Beverly Hills — like those of the signs on The 101 — is a bit jarring. How can you know the name and shape of every street when you’ve never lived in a place? But there’s Santa Monica Boulevard — where the sun comes up and over in that Sheryl Crow song. There’s Wilshire Boulevard, which leads right to the Miracle Mile. There’s Rodeo Drive, of course, pronounced “Row-DAY-oh,” and there’s MacArthur Park, where someone left the cake out in the rain, and there, closer, to West Hollywood, is Melrose Avenue. It’s strange to be so familiar and so unfamiliar at the same time. I even know the zip code here.

“Rod Barajas grew up in Ontario and he went to high school in Santa Fe Springs,” Vin Scully is saying. “And so this is a dream come true for him. He came over from the Mets last week, but this will be his first at-bat at Dodger Stadium in a Dodgers uniform.”

Everything, all around, is famous, or at least FEELS famous. As you drive here, it can feel like you’re on television. It can feel like there’s music playing in the background. These are the most-filmed palm trees in the world. These streets, those buildings, the hotels, the parks, the statues, they are ingrained in the mind of anyone who has spent a lot of time watching television.

“What a special moment for Rod Barajas,” Vin Scully says.

* * *

Walter O’Malley wanted Vin Scully to do just a little cheering when they got to Los Angeles. Scully loved O’Malley. When O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, there was a lot of pressure on him to hire local radio broadcasters, well-known Californians, voices that these new Dodgers fans could recognize. O’Malley said no. He would never even consider it. He was bringing Vin Scully with him from New York.

But… O’Malley did wonder if maybe Scully could punch up a little love for the Dodgers. That was impossible in New York. There were three teams in New York then — Yankees, Dodgers, Giants — and you wanted fans of all three teams to listen to the broadcast. But in Los Angeles, there was only the Dodgers — the first major sports team in California. And O’Malley thought it wouldn’t do any harm if Scully spent just a little more radio time cheering for the Boys in Blue.

Scully thought long and hard about this. He was not opposed to it on any ethical grounds — the Dodgers paid his salary. But he had learned his craft from Red Barber, who basically invented baseball on radio. “He was hard on me at times,” Scully says. “But he did it out of love. He really was like an older brother to me or a second father.

“And he said to me, and I’ll always remember it, he said: ‘You bring something to the broadcast that nobody else can bring.’ I thought, ‘Really? I bring something nobody else does? What?’ And he said, ‘You bring yourself.’ I really took that to heart.”

He told O’Malley that he thought that he should stay with the same style that he had in New York. O’Malley trusted Scully. And it turned out to be a brilliant business decision, as well as a brilliant artistic decision. It turned out that people in Los Angeles had already heard their share of minor league announcers, like the announcers for the Hollywood Stars, who cheered for the hometown team… and something about that felt minor league to them. When the Dodgers arrived, finally, Los Angeles was MAJOR LEAGUE. And when Scully arrived, when he told stories about players and managers on BOTH teams, when he expressed delight at a great play no matter which team made it… well, that felt MAJOR LEAGUE.

They loved him from the start. Scully instantly connected in a way that no radio announcer had ever connected with a city, not even Red Barber. Los Angeles was perfect for baseball on the radio. It was so spread out, so many neighborhoods, so many cars stuck in traffic, no place to go, nothing to do but listen to the ballgame. Old Memorial Coliseum, where the Dodgers played their first four years, was vast and had bad angles for baseball-watching, so people grew accustomed to bringing their transistor radios to games. When things on the field quieted, you could hear Vin Scully’s voice echoing and repeating throughout Memorial Coliseum, a radio wall of mirrors.

Scully had fun with it sometimes. One game, he noticed that it was umpire Frank Secory’s birthday and, on a whim, he decided to ask the fans at the game to shout “Happy Birthday, Frank,” on his count. Only later did he realize that this could have badly backfired, that it was possible that no one would shout and he would be left looking like a fool. But it wasn’t really possible. Not for Vin Scully. The “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANK!” was even louder than Scully had expected, and he found himself once again marveling at the good fortune of his life.

“I managed a game once, did you know that?” he asks me. I did know it, but I asked him to tell the story again. It was a Sunday day game, the last of the 1965 season. The Dodgers had clinched the pennant on Saturday, and there was, of course, a lot of partying on Saturday night, and things were loose for the Sunday game. Dodgers manager Walter Alston used a makeshift lineup and even put in Tommy Davis, who had not played for four months because of a fractured ankle. Davis hobbled his way out on an infield grounder.

Alston was in a grand mood, so at some point between innings he called up to the booth and told Scully, “OK, I know you’ve always wanted to be a manager…. (“I never wanted to be a manager,” Scully says in parentheses as he tells the story.) … Well, OK. You’re the manager. You decide what to do. But you have to say it fast.”

Well, Scully couldn’t pass up a chance like that. He told his radio audience that he was now the manager. And the way he remembers it, Ron Fairly came to the plate — Fairly was Scully’s mother’s favorite player (“He was left-handed and had red hair and that was enough for my mother,” he said). He got on base. Fairly, like the rest of the Dodgers, had some fun the night before and was probably not in the greatest condition for the game (though he drove in the Dodgers’ first run). “I hate to do this to Ron Fairly,” Scully remembered saying, “but this seems like a good time to steal a base.”

He asked the fans at the stadium to look at Fairly’s face when he saw the steal sign. And sure enough, in memory, the shock on his face was apparent. He ran on the pitch, and the ball was fouled off. He went back to first base.

“Oh boy,” Scully remembered, “Now, I really hate do to this. But I was always told if it was right the first time then you should stick with it. Sorry, Ron, but the steal sign is back on.”

Again, Fairly looked stunned. Again, the fans were thrilled beyond words. This time in memory, Fairly took off for second, the catcher could not handle the pitch, and Fairly was safe. Scully, realizing that it could not get any more perfect than that (and not wanting to embarrass the Braves) then said: “OK, Walter, I got you this far, you’re on your own now.”

It’s such a wonderful story. A review of the box score from that game, though, suggests that it isn’t exactly right. Fairly didn’t steal a base in that game. Newspaper reports from that game do mention that Walter Alston had turned over manager duties to Scully up in the radio booth, so that’s the right game. Maybe Scully is confusing Fairly with Willie Crawford, a 19-year-old rookie who did walk and steal a base. Or maybe Fairly did try to steal the base and maybe the batter hit the ball — Fairly WAS doubled off in that game on a line drive hit by Sweet Lou Johnson.

Not that the details matter too much. What matters is the joy — the joy of the moment and the joy of Vin Scully’s retelling. That’s what it is all about for Vin Scully. That’s what it has always been all about.

* * *

“How about Hiroki Kuroda?” Vin Scully is saying. His voice is on television now — he only does three innings of simulcast on television and radio these days, the rest is strictly television. Kuroda has thrown 7 1/3 no-hit innings against the Phillies. And Scully will talk about the goose bumps he feels. He will turn 83 years old in November. And he will come back next year for his 62nd season as an announcer for the Dodgers. Why? The goose bumps.

“They always come back,” he will say with wonder in his voice.

It’s funny that all those years ago, Vin Scully looked around Los Angeles for the essence. So many things have happened since then, for the city and for him. Happy things. Sad things, too. His first wife, Joan, died of an accidental overdose in 1972. His oldest son Michael died at 33 in a helicopter crash. He has found his faith tested. He has had many doubts in many lonely hotel rooms.

But those happy things — they have been there for him, too. So many moments. So many legendary calls. His final inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game was poetry (“On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, California”). His simple words, “It gets through Buckner,” would send half of New York into hysterics and all of New England into months of mourning. His call of Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series for the Dodgers — “She is… gone” — is perfect Scully, the way he used his voice, the way he used the crowd, the way he called a home run “she.” And then he followed it up with the classic: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” He will say, like he has often said before, that he still doesn’t know where that line came from. He thinks it was a gift from God.

With Scully, though, his greatness does not come from the legendary calls, the ones everyone remembers. No, they come from summer nights like tonight, under a dimming sky, when he kindly calls another baseball game. It is 9:46. p.m. in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, California, and traffic is stuck, and tourists mill around, and deals are being made, and deals are falling apart, and people are sleeping, and people are suffering, and actors are waiting tables, and, yes, after all this time Vin Scully did find the essence, the center, the heart of the city, even if he would never say it. The heart of Los Angeles is his voice.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Shot That Carried All the Way to the Pyrenees

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Thomson in 2001.
He died on Aug. 16 at age 86.
His home run became a historical
marker for many people and changed lives.
By Joshua Prager
New York Times, October 2, 2010

From his home run on Oct. 3, 1951, to his death on Aug. 16 at age 86, Bobby Thomson lived 21,502 days and, in that time, heard as many stories of where people were when he won the National League pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. He enjoyed them. He came to know through them that he had struck at just the right moment, that a confluence of technology, geography, history and the particulars of a game had made his homer historic. Though maddeningly diffident, he came to understand that like Neil Armstrong and Lee Harvey Oswald, he had provided a collective experience.

That experience is now a collective memory, a mosaic of opposing reactions to a ball that flew 59 years ago. Lived in one moment, they span the human experience — millions, as Goethe wrote, "exulting high as heaven, mournful even to death."

Neil and Mary Romano exulted in their bedroom on Dexter Avenue in Malden, Mass. Thomson had delivered a pennant, and 38 weeks later, she delivered a son, Chuck.

Philip Arbiter, 55, heard the blast that felled his Dodgers in the launderette he managed at 21-06 Cornaga Avenue in Queens. His heart stopped beating, he fell to the floor, and he died.

Milton Glassman, an ecstatic cabdriver in Forest Hills, Queens, tossed his son Marc high over a brick stoop on 99th Street. That flight, four days before his third birthday, remains Marc's first memory.

Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca picked up, then threw down, his rosin bag, slid his mitt into his hip pocket and, brown eyes downward, set off to the clubhouse on a slow walk he said he never remembered.

No matter that Muriel Gloster, 29, had taken off her clothing in a Greenwich Village dressing room. She darted out in her slip onto the sidewalk to cheer with the crowd.

In a tenement one flight over Eckert Avenue in Newark, Anne Prince, 42, shut off her television in despair, then closed her bedroom door. She did not emerge for dinner for the first time in 20 years of marriage, leaving her husband, Phillip, a plumbing parts salesman, to cook for their son and daughter.

Sing Sing Inmate 110-649, down the concrete hall from the electric chair that would end his life, put pen to paper. "Gloom of glooms," Julius Rosenberg wrote to his wife, Ethel. "The dear Dodgers lost the pennant."

Having come to symbolize, after five years in the big leagues, potential unmet, Giants pinch-runner Clint Hartung circled his large Texan arms backward, an impromptu dance of joy from third base toward home.
George Carlin, 14, sat in his bedroom three stories above West 121st Street in Manhattan holding his black kitten, Ezzard. The home run flew and so did the cat — out the window — the future comedian throwing Ezzard, who clawed a curtain and lived.

In the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals watched the young pianist Eugene Istomin jump from his seat in the wake of a broadcast and asked what had happened. "A most catastrophic and magnificent thing," Istomin answered. Then he fell silent, a Dodgers fan in search of a lesson. "I learned to weep for winners as well as losers after that game," Istomin later wrote.

Gordon Dean, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had worried for 10 days how to tell the American people that the Soviets had detonated a plutonium bomb. Thomson's blast was a heaven-sent distraction. Dean wrote in his journal, "Did not receive as large a headline in the evening paper as the playoff for the World Series games."

The mobster Willie Moretti, 57, had grown rich on bookmaking in northern New Jersey. But, The New York Times wrote, he might have failed to pay off bets after the Giants, 13-10 favorites, beat the Dodgers. Nineteen hours later, hitmen shot him dead at Joe's Elbow Room on Palisade Avenue in Cliffside Park, a bullet passing through his left ear and out his right cheek.

Years before, Thomson inherited the train set of Frank Bourgholtzer, a fellow Staten Islander. As an NBC reporter covering an urgent story about a Soviet atomic explosion, Bourgholtzer started screaming some 100 feet from the Oval Office: "That's my boy! That's my boy!"

A Giants coach, Herman Franks, left his station behind the fourth window in the center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, where he had spied the white fingers of Dodger catcher Rube Walker, and drank Scotch from a paper cup. Soon he was crying. "Maybe," he told a reporter from his hometown Salt Lake Tribune, "we caught the sign for the fastball."

The bank robber Willie Sutton was on the F.B.I.'s list of Most Wanted Fugitives when he saw his team lose from a bar on Flatbush Avenue, a block from a Brooklyn police precinct. Life lost its meaning. "I felt like going into headquarters," he later wrote, "and giving myself up."

Arthur Miller was rising in an elevator above Broadway at West 46th Street when he heard a scream. It belonged to his accountant, Kermit Bloomgarden, who had recently staged Miller's play "Death of a Salesman." Miller, 35, was no longer a baseball fan. But news of the home run seemed to him of great importance. He later wrote, "I felt the axis of the world had shifted slightly and we must all be happy for at least five minutes."

Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese screamed, "Drop!" at Thomson's line drive, and Rose Krobot, a devastated fan of 59, fainted, buckling in a brownstone onto a kitchen floor on Bergen Street in Brooklyn.
After Thomson loped around the bases, and jangled atop the shoulders of teammates, and hyperventilated and felt nauseous, and waved to throngs chanting his name, and answered reporters' questions in a voice high as helium, and played down his uppercut to Perry Como on CBS television, and sang a Chesterfield jingle on the air, and ferried unaccompanied across New York Bay to Staten Island, and taxied to Engine 154 on Hannah Street, his older brother Jim, a firefighter, asked if he realized what he had done. Thomson at first found the question silly. But then, hours after his home run, he began to comprehend.

Joshua Prager is the author of "The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World."

Friday, October 01, 2010

50 Years Later, a Slide Still Confounds

Barton Silverman/The New York Times
After watching Mantle’s slide, Keith
Hernandez, the Mets’ analyst on SNY,
said, “It was like the elephant
and the gazelle.”

New York Times
September 30, 2010

The play - a pivotal moment in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series - demanded expert analysis.

But when Mickey Mantle slid headfirst back into first base in the top of the ninth inning to avoid a game-ending double play and allow the tying run to score, there was no analyst working in the TV booth with Mel Allen at Forbes Field. There was no one to set up the situation beforehand nor to break down the play after it occurred. There was only one live camera angle and no instant replay.

It was a different world then, and a much simpler one. Allen and Bob Prince made up the World Series TV pairing - one play-by-play announcer from each team, each calling half the game. It was Allen's turn in Game 7 to call the second set of four and a half innings.

"The old way depended largely on the skill and panache of the local-team announcers" who knew the teams well, said Curt Smith, a sportscasting historian.

Today, that legendary ninth inning, which began with the Yankees tying the score at 9-9 and ended with Bill Mazeroski's home run winning the Series for Pittsburgh, would have been produced far differently on television.

In the top of the ninth, with the Yankees trailing by 9-8 and with one out, Mantle on first and Gil McDougald on third, today's cameras would have made clear whether the Pirates' infielders were at double-play depth or playing in for a play at the plate. The broadcasters would have debated which of the two was the right strategy. To enhance the end-of-game tension, there would have been rapid camera cuts to Mantle and McDougald, to Yogi Berra at bat and to Harvey Haddix on the mound.

And the dramatic, and confounding, play that followed - Berra's sharp grounder to first baseman Rocky Nelson for the second out; Mantle's subsequent elusiveness, moxie and perhaps outright recklessness in then diving safely under Nelson and back into first as the tying run scored - would be synchronized on a split screen and then examined and re-examined. Questions would be asked, answered and asked all over again, on the broadcast.

The 50-year-old kinescope of the game - which The New York Times reported last week was found in Bing Crosby's old wine cellar - does not do any of that. Why, for instance, didn't Nelson, upon fielding Berra's grounder, throw to second to start a double play that would have ended the game?

MLB Properties Inc. - The kinescope of
Game 7 of the 1960 World Series showed
Mickey Mantle’s inexplicable ninth-inning
slide beneath the tag of Rocky Nelson,
which allowed the Yankees to tie the game.

Why, after instead stepping on first for the second out, did Nelson try to tag Mantle for the third out instead of firing home to Hal Smith, the Pirates' catcher, for a tag play on McDougald? If he had thrown home, would McDougald have been safe or out? And what was Mantle doing so close to first base anyway? Why didn't he immediately take off for second when Berra hit the ball on the ground?

Providing that analysis 50 years later was an interesting challenge. Asked to watch and comment on the play, Keith Hernandez, the Mets' analyst on SNY and a former first baseman, was, more than anything, astonished by Mantle's evasive slide back into first.

"An amazing presence of mind to do what he did," Hernandez said while studying the sequence on his laptop at Citi Field. "What a play, huh?"

An e-mail response from Berra, through his spokesman, provided a bit of insight. "I hit the heck out of it," he said of the one-hop grounder that the left-handed Nelson backhanded before quickly stepping on first.

But in doing so, Nelson's momentum pulled his left foot into foul territory. "The ball ate him up," Hernandez said of Nelson.

The camera then shows Nelson turning back to the field, his left arm briefly cocked to throw. But to where? To shortstop Dick Groat, who was covering second? That might mean getting Mantle in a rundown play, but meanwhile the tying run would score easily. To Smith, at the plate? Smith said in a phone interview that he thought Nelson was going to throw home to him so he could tag McDougald and end the game.

"I thought we had a shot at McDougald," Smith said, adding that he asked Nelson years ago why he did not throw home and that Nelson told him, "To be truthful, I didn't see you.

"What Nelson did see was Mantle standing right near him, maybe eight feet away, temporarily frozen in a predatory crouch.

"I understand Rocky's position," Smith said. "He sees a runner right there and thinks he can get him. He thought he could get Mantle.

"Groat said in a phone interview that it was "easy to say in hindsight" that Nelson should have thrown home. Hernandez said that although Nelson probably had the time to throw home, he might have been thinking, "Oh, my God, there's Mickey!"

As Hernandez watched the final part of the play unfold in slow motion, he saw that Nelson, as he moved to tag Mantle, was too far from the bag, with his feet on the outfield side of first base. Still, Mantle must have looked to him like a certain out - except that Nelson was not a nimble match for the still-quick Yankee star, who was a week from turning 29.

"It was like the elephant and the gazelle," Hernandez said.

For a split second, Mantle and Nelson eyed each other. Mantle made an initial move toward first, then gave a head fake toward second. He quickly reversed himself, sliding and sprawling toward first on the inner side of the bag with his left hand reaching out.

Nelson lunged forward, angling himself toward Mantle instead of moving to the base.

"I would have caught him right in front of the bag and blocked him," Hernandez said of Mantle.

There were numerous New York newspapers in 1960, but their accounts of the play were not elaborate. However, Mantle, who died in 1995, did tell The Daily News that he started for second base when Berra hit the grounder but knew that Nelson "had me dead either way, so I ducked down and went underneath as he tried to tag me."

Of course, even if Mantle had been tagged as he dived back to first, is it possible McDougald would have already crossed home plate, which would have meant the run still counted? One more question that is not easy to answer.

Looking back 50 years, Hernandez said that he would have done what Nelson did - step on first immediately, then try to tag Mantle to end the game instead of throwing home. "I can't blame the guy," he said of Nelson, who died in 2006. "You have to make the play. It's right there in front of you."

"Kudos to Mantle," he added. "What a deke."