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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Men of Autumn
Book Review by Robert A. Moss

Thomas Oliphant. Praying for Gil Hodges. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005, 288 pp., $24.95, cloth.

 

"There was no rustling of old crowds as my long, wrenching, joyous voyage ended, only the question, 'Who will remember?' and a small sign in the renting office at New Ebbets Field Apartments saying, as if about the past, 'NO VACANCY. Files closed.'" Thus reads the plaintive finale of Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, still the gold standard of memoirs that compound autobiography and recollections of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn's classic was written in 1971 and, in one sense, he needn't have worried. The short answer to his cri de coeur "Who will remember?" is "Many thousands." There have been quite a few subsequent books about Brooklyn and the Dodgers, their fortunes and exploits, and how they permanently affected the lives of their fans.

October 2005 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Dodgers' 1955 seven-game World Series victory over the Yankees, the first and (as it lamentably turned out) the only World Championship won by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. As a study in frustration, there are few equals to the Dodgers' serial losses to the Yankees in Fall Classics: 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. Add to this heartache the 1946 loss of the NL pennant to the Cardinals in the first-ever playoffs, a last-day loss to the Whiz Kid Phillies in 1950 (which kept the Dodgers from tying the Phils and forcing another playoff), and, most traumatic of all, the Bobby Thomson walk-off home run in the ninth inning of the third game of the 1951 playoffs that erased a 4–2 Dodger lead and gave the Giants a 5–4 victory and the pennant. No wonder the Dodgers' 1955 World Series victory was greeted with such frenzied celebration in Brooklyn, while the newspapers headlined "This Is Next Year." That season shines on in the memories of those now-senior citizens whose most cherished youthful dream was fulfilled in that long-ago autumn.

Thomas Oliphant, a correspondent for the Boston Globe who grew up in New York, was nine years old in 1955, and the son of Dodger-fanatic parents. In Praying for Gil Hodges, he has given us "a memoir of the 1955 World Series and one family's love of the Brooklyn Dodgers." In conception, Oliphant's book most closely resembles Doris Kearns Goodwin's deeply felt 1997 volume Wait Till Next Year. Goodwin is the better writer, and her lyrical ode to her family and the Dodgers has the feel of a bildungsroman. Still, in his timing and focus on the great 1955 World Series and the unsurpassed drama of its climactic seventh game, Oliphant provides a valuable glimpse of a time when New York City was truly the "capital of baseball" and the lives of many families revolved around the doings of the Dodgers, Giants, or Yankees.

Crossing the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge near Princeton, Indiana, was Oliphant's madeleine, his reentry to times past: Hodges was born in Princeton, and Oliphant's father also hailed from southern Indiana. Oliphant's memories and associations took on a life of their own, and Praying for Gil Hodges was the result. The title refers to a "sermon" not delivered by Rev. Herbert Redmond on a hot Sunday in May, 1953. Hodges had recently gone oh for twenty-one against the Yankees in the 1952 World Series (a seven-game Dodgers loss), and was still slumping at the beginning of the 1953 season. Rev. Redmond told his flock, "It's far too hot for a sermon. Keep the commandments and say a prayer for Gil Hodges."

The Dodgers were central to the lives of Brooklynites. They were the glue that united multiple ethnicities in a borough of immigrants, and, as the first and (for a number of years) the most thoroughly integrated major league team, they also united races. Oliphant recalls the Jewish fans at Ebbets Field cheering for "Yonkel"—Yiddish for "Jackie"—while black fans all across the country rooted for the Dodgers. In 1947, Jackie Robinson made the Dodgers more than Brooklyn's team; he made them America's team. The Dodgers were the champions of the blue collar and middle classes; rooting for the Yankees was, to quote the oft-cited phase, "like rooting for U.S. Steel."

Oliphant, through his parents, was captivated early by Dodger mania. In those long-gone days before free agency, teams often changed little over a decade; one could grow up mainly following the same players. An excellent rookie might make the team, an old veteran might retire, a few mid-ranked players could be traded, but the team's core remained intact and riveted one's loyalty and love. The 1950s Dodgers, memorably named "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn, fielded four Hall of Famers: Roy Campanella catching, Jackie Robinson at second (later third), Pee Wee Reese at short, and Duke Snider in center. Hodges at first and Carl Furillo in right were also of Hall-of-Fame caliber. Furillo, a lifetime .299 hitter, was deadly in the clutch and possessed an extraordinary arm—no one took an extra base on him. Hodges has been the leading Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee vote-getter in the last two elections, falling just short of earning induction. He was arguably the best fielding first baseman of his generation as well as a powerful RBI specialist—more than one hundred in seven seasons, including fourteen grand slams and four homers in one game. How could such a team lose to the Yankees time after time? It was enough to break a kid's heart (and many an adult heart, too).

Oliphant represents thousands of Brooklyn fans whose love for the old Dodgers has neither died nor diminished. To him, October 4, 1955, date of the seventh game of the World Series, is still the "happiest day" of his life. In Praying, that game is his prism to the past, a past which includes sensitive sketches of his father, a writer whose health was permanently shattered in the island battles of the Pacific; of his mother, who carried the family financial burdens; of the east side New York milieu where Oliphant grew up; and of the fortunes of the Dodgers, a constant focus of his family's attention.

Truth be told, Oliphant's personal

story, while pleasantly related and resonant of the times, is not extraordinarily compelling; Praying is strongest when it focuses on baseball. And here discerning readers will find several annoying errors: Clem Labine did not beat the Giants 10–1 in the second game of the 1951 playoff series; it was a 10–0 shutout. Carl Erskine's 6–5 eleven-inning defeat of the Yankees (in which Erskine retired the last nineteen batters in a row) did not occur in the 1953 Series; it was 1952. Don Larsen's perfecto came in the fifth, not the sixth, game of the 1956 Series. Gil Hodges did not catch in Robinson's debut game (April 15, 1947); Bruce Edwards was behind the plate. There are other errors, and also misspelled names. Praying clearly could have benefitted from better editing, fact checking, and proofreading. But I don't want to detract from what Praying does well: its best pages take us back fifty years and summon up a vanished time.

Oliphant contrasts the fifties antagonists: "Yankees-Dodgers had become a central element in a boisterous decade, with its racial undercurrent in a battle between an integrated team and a nearly all-white one [rookie Elston Howard was the only African-American on the '55 Yankees], the contrast between power and heart, grand success and hard luck, optimism and reality." Indeed, so often had the Yankees defeated the Dodgers that the typical Brooklyn fan's view of the rivalry was informed by a sense of dread and the certainty that the Yankees always had the edge in quality starting pitchers—the key to success in a short series. Oliphant reprises Dodger history from the Daffiness Boys of the thirties through the resurrection of 1939-41 under Larry McPhail and Leo Durocher, to the grand flowering under Branch Rickey and Burt Shotton in the latter part of the decade. He provides admiring sketches of the legendary members of the team: Robinson, Reese, Campanella, Snider, and Hodges.

In an interesting discussion of baseball integration, Oliphant shows that even the Dodgers were careful not to have "too many" black players, and that for this and other reasons they missed out on Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, and, most painfully, Roberto Clemente. Jethroe and Clemente were actually on the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' Triple A farm team, but were never promoted to the parent club. Race was part of the reason, although promoting Clemente would have cost the Dodgers a roster spot occupied by George Shuba, a team favorite, and was opposed by (of all people) Jackie Robinson.

The centerpiece of Praying is the '55 World Series, which makes compelling reading even at a distance of fifty years. Oliphant tells the tale well and it bears a brief recounting here. The Yankees won the first two games at Yankee Stadium 6–5 and 4–2, with the most notable play being Jackie Robinson's steal of home in Game 1. Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher, maintains to this day that Robbie was out (and grainy old films attest that Berra was literally hopping mad, jumping up and down to emphasize his protest). After the Dodgers had dropped the first two games, their fans dismally recalled that no team had ever recovered from an 0–2 start to win a World Series.

At Ebbets Field, however, the Dodgers rallied. They took the third game 8–3 behind the pitching of Johnny Podres (who turned twenty-three years old that day), and then won the fourth game 8–5, helped by home runs from Campanella, Snider, and Hodges, and sterling relief pitching from Clem Labine. The fifth game, a 5–3 Dodger victory, featured two more homers by Snider (who hit four in a World Series for the second time), a home run by Sandy Amoros, steady pitching by rookie Roger Craig, and another save by Labine.

The Series returned to Yankee Stadium for Game 6, which effectively ended in the first inning when the Yankees scored five runs off Dodger rookie Karl Spooner, more than enough for Whitey Ford, who coasted to a 5-1 win. The series was then tied three games each, setting up the decisive seventh game, the game that Sandy Koufax later wrote "will live forever in the halls of Flatbush and on the shores of Brighton Beach."

Oliphant relates that his father encouraged him to be "sick" that day, skipping school so that they could watch the game together on television. For Game 7, Dodgers manager Walter Alston turned again to Podres, who had been so masterful in Game 3, while Yankees manager Casey Stengel selected Tommy Byrne, who had won Game 2. A taut pitching duel ensued, which turned on several memorable plays.

In the Yankee third, with no score, there were two on and two out when Gil McDougald hit a chopper down the third base line. There was little chance that Don Hoak (playing third for the injured Robinson) could have fielded the ball in time to record an out, but the ball hit Phil Rizzuto sliding into third, and thus the third out was made with no Dodger fielder touching the ball.

In the Dodger fourth, Campanella doubled, moved to third on Furillo's infield out, and scored the first run on Hodges's single to left. After five innings, the Dodgers led 1–0 but, as Oliphant notes, twenty years of experience with the Dodgers had taught his father that "a 1–0 lead was not only inconsequential but also most likely a cruel hoax." Yet in their constant return from defeat, the Dodger rallying cry of "Wait till next year" was "not a cheery, uplifting chant; it was a fist waved with cockeyed optimism and defiance at adversity itself. The Dodgers themselves kept coming back; so did my parents and the millions of people who didn't have to study metaphors to know in their bones what the team represented."

In the Dodger sixth, Reese led off with a single and Alston ordered Snider, his four-homer man, to sacrifice. Duke did so, and was safe when Skowron could not make a clean tag at first base. Now Alston ordered his cleanup batter Campanella to sacrifice as well. The successful bunt put Reese at third and Snider at second. (Can one imagine power hitters like Snider and Campanella being asked to sacrifice in our present steroid era? Can one imagine them even knowing how to bunt?) After an intentional walk to Furillo loaded the bases, Hodges delivered a long sacrifice fly, driving in Reese and making the score 2–0. Here was true recompense: Hodges, the oh for twenty-one goat of the 1952 Series, driving in both Dodger runs in the decisive game of the '55 classic.

Now came the hinge of fate. A wild pitch moved Snider and Furillo to second and third, respectively. Hoak was intentionally walked to bring up Don Zimmer. Alston pulled Zimmer in favor of pinch hitter George Shuba, but Shuba grounded out to Skowron at first. Thus, for the Yankee sixth, Alston had to shuffle his defense. He moved Gilliam from left field to second base to replace Zimmer, and inserted Sandy Amoros in left. Inadvertently, Alston had set the stage for the most memorable catch in Dodger history. A walk to Billy Martin and a bunt by McDougald, badly played by Podres, gave the Yankees two men on with no one out and Yogi Berra coming to the plate. Berra, a lefty batter, lofted an opposite field fly deep down the left field line. Amoros, who had been shading Berra toward center, made a long, full-speed sprint to the line, gloved the ball with his extended right hand, and fired a perfect peg to Reese behind third base. Reese then delivered a great relay to Hodges, doubling up McDougald, who had actually passed second base thinking that Berra had a sure hit. The double play killed the Yankee rally; Bauer grounded out to Reese for the third out.

The point has been repeatedly made that the left-handed Amoros could catch Berra's fly naturally in his extended, gloved right hand. Had the right-handed Gilliam still been playing left field, he would have had to make a backhand catch across his body with his gloved left hand while running full tilt toward the ball, a play he probably could not have made. After all those years of torture, the Dodgers had finally caught a break: Alston's strategy of pinch-hitting for Zimmer, which initially appeared futile, precipitated a defensive realignment which led to the right man in the right place at just the right moment.

The Yankees put two men on with only one out in the eighth inning when Berra came up again. This time Podres got him on an easy fly to Furillo, and then struck out Hank Bauer to end the threat. In the ninth, Podres threw fastball after fastball retiring Skowron and Bob Cerv. Elston Howard, the last Yankee batter, rode the count to two and two, then fouled off five successive heaters until Podres, shaking off Campanella's call for yet another fastball, threw a change which Howard grounded to Reese. To the Dodgers' captain went the honor of the final assist. Oliphant notes that Reese "to that point had the questionable distinction of being the only person in baseball history to have played through five (previous) World Series and been on the same, losing side each and every time through each and every inning—each and every time to the same team." At last, the celebration could begin, and it began with announcer Vin Scully, still the voice of the Dodgers today, intoning, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world." Scully has often remarked that he could not then have said another word without his voice breaking.

Like Doris Kearns's family, Oliphant and his parents went to Brooklyn to witness the euphoria. Years of frustration and disappointment dissolved as strangers hugged each other, confetti rained from windows, cars trailed ashcan covers through the streets, and restaurants dispensed free food and drink to revelers. Johnny Podres recalls that an old man at the victory party kept telling him that he had waited for this day since 1916 (when the Dodgers lost the World Series to a Red Sox team led by pitcher Babe Ruth). Jackie Robinson emerged from the celebratory dinner to tell the crowds outside that the team owed it all to the support of the fans. It was a day to remember all one's life, as Oliphant, Doris Goodwin, and thousands of other Brooklyn fans have done.

Roger Kahn has succinctly summarized the Dodgers' legacy: "A whole country was stirred by [their] high deeds and thwarted longings . . . The team was awesomely good and yet defeated. Their skills lifted everyman's spirit and their defeat joined them with everyman's existence." Podres tells Oliphant, "One thing you have to keep in mind is what happened that day can never happen again. There will be other great seventh games, already have been. Someday someone will pitch another perfect game in the Series, someone will make another unassisted triple play, someone will hit another home run to win it all in extra innings. But the Brooklyn Dodgers will never win another championship. They are gone. The events of that day are frozen forever."

Oliphant concludes Praying with an ill-advised attempt to alibi Walter O'Malley for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957. There are some sins that are simply beyond redemption—at least on this earth. I'd rather recall great men and undying deeds. Roger Kahn discovered a perfect name for the last and greatest of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Dylan Thomas's poem, "Fern Hill." But it is another poem, a courageous hymn of praise in defiance of encroaching age, that shall serve as our own farewell to the Men of Autumn and their immortal memory:

That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
With more triumphant faith
Than ever was since the world was said,
Spins its morning of praise. . . .

—Dylan Thomas, "Poem on His Birthday"

—EFQ

Author's note: I would like to thank professors Elliott Abramson, Patrick Henry, and Richard Zamoff for drawing my attention to errors in Praying for Gil Hodges.

ROBERT A. MOSS is the Louis P. Hammett Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. On October 4, 2005, he (and many others) drank to the health of the surviving Boys of Summer, and to the imperishable memory of their teammates who have passed on.

© 2005 Robert A. Moss

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