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Why Bobby Thomson Day Will Always Be Special To Men Of A Certain Age + Thoughts on Upcoming "Final Fours" in Both Leagues (updated version)

Way back in the way back of the mid-twentieth century, on Wednesday afternoon October 3, 1951 at 3:58p, New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson waited for an 0-1 pitch from Brooklyn Dodger reliever Ralph Branca.

 
"There's a long drive, I think it's gonna be," shouted Russ Hodges on WMCA Radio 570 AM.  And micro-seconds later, Hodges shouted not once but four times: "The Giants win the pennant!"  Over in the WMGM 1050 AM radio booth, Red Barber quietly said, "It's in there for the pennant." 

 
I was only nine years old, but I was listening on my parents' old floor model Crosley radio. It might have been to Barber and not Hodges, but Your Honor, I just don't remember.  

But I do vividly remember telephoning my father at his office with the good news because he was a Giant fan from the days of John McGraw. 

 
My boys had been down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth and the odds didn't look good for the Polo Grounds nine. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had retreated to the center field clubhouse to greet the lads on a good try after the game.

 

But once Alvin Dark singled to lead off the inning against previously dominant Don Newcombe, ears perked up and hearts began to leap. When my favorite Don "Mandrake the Magician" Mueller singled Dark to third, we had tying run at the plate! True rally in making.

 

Monte Irvin popped out but Whitey Lockman doubled home Dark to cut lead to 4-2.  

 

There is nothing like baseball drama in October.  Don Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third so there was a pause as he was helped off the field.  Clint Hartung, who never lived up to the ballyhoo as The Hondo Hurricane, came in to pinch-run. 

 

Don Newcombe was out and Ralph Branca made the long walk in from the bullpen far away in left field. Coach Clyde Sukeforth is said to have advised manager Chuck Dressen that Carl Erskine had just thrown his vaunted curveball in the dirt and Branca was safer pick. (Though Thomson had homered a few times in the past against Branca.)

 

And on the 0-1 pitch Thomson swung and soon Russ Hodges was shouting, "They're going crazy, they're going crazy."  I've never believed that Thomson knew what pitch was coming.  I heard from a reliable source that a few days before Whitey Lockman died, he made a definitive comment:  "He still had to hit the ball, didn't he?" 

 
It was 69 years old today - the birthday of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield who was born in 1951.  It remains a special moment (with apologies to Brooklyn Dodger fans who were heart- broken but hey you guys won enough pennants - and we were both rooked six years later when the teams left for California.)

 

Once the expanded playoffs came into baseball with wild cards were added for best record without winning a division title, Russ Hodges' dramatic call would have lost a little flair.  It would have gone:  "The Giants Win The Pennant! . . . And The Dodgers Win The Wild Card."

 
Which brings us to October baseball in 2020.  The "final fours" in each league could be very dramatic best of five series.  All will be played in "bubbles" in warm weather sites in Texas or southern California.

 

The pandemic has caused this adjustment, but for decades "warm weather" sites has been a dream of many high-rollers in baseball and television circles. After all, their argument goes, who can afford World Series prices anyway? 

 

Three of the four divisional series could be called grudge matches, especially Yankees versus Tampa Bay Rays who won season series 8-2. With a no-name lineup of seemingly interchangeable pitching and batting parts, the Rays are defiant in their disregard for Yankee "aura and mystique" (to use the phrase of the politically righter-than-right Curt Schllling). 

 

That series will be played in San Diego. If the Dodgers won enough in their last years in Brooklyn, what can be said about the Yankees and their entitlement?  So let's bring those games on, starting Monday night Oct 5 on Fox channels for five consecutive nights if necessary.

 

I must say though I cannot root for Yankees, third baseman Gio Urschela's defensive and offensive performance against his former team Cleveland was truly awesome. It's an overused word these days but certainly true.  He has to have made the people of Colombia very proud.

 

In Los Angeles, the Oakland Athletics hope to get revenge on the Houston Astros who won the World Series in 2017 but were admonished for their high-tech and low-tech sign-stealing escapades. 

 
Dusty Baker has done a helluva job in his first year managing the Astros who everyone likes to hate. Houston players have hardly been repentant for their role in the scandal. 

 

But I can never root against a Baker-led team and so I'll say, "Let the best team win . . . without excess chicanery." 

 
In the NL "final four", the Southern California freeway battle between the Padres and the Dodgers will be played in Arlington, Texas, where the World Series will also be held in the Rangers' brand-new billion-dollar Globe Life Stadium.

 

If San Diego can get back its two starters Clevinger and Lamet that missed the triumph over the Cardinals, it says here that the Padres may have enough hitting to give the Dodgers a run for their money. And their left side of the infield, Manny Machado at third and Fernando Tatis Jr at shortstop, can be spectacular.

 
The Dodgers look exceptionally well-balanced and certainly have a lot to prove after winning 7 NL West titles in a row - now 8 - without a World Series title to show for it. 


The other NL matchup is not exactly chopped liver.  A well-balanced Atlanta Braves team that shut out the Reds twice in the first round faces the 2020 Cinderellas, the Miami Marlins, the "Bottom Feeders" derided by a Phillies broadcaster early in season, now have the last laugh. Philadelphia didn't even make playoffs. They will play in Houston.

 
With the NHL Stanley Cup now in the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the NBA title likely going to LeBron James' LA Lakers, MLB will have the stage to itself n October as it should be.  (I omit from this discussion the NFL and its bowdlerized season.)  

 

In closing, let's clink glasses to three Baseball Hall of Famers who left us in rapid fashion recently:  Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson.  

 

And to three lesser lights who etched their names in the Baseball Book of Achievement:  Lou Johnson, Jay Johnstone, and Ron Perranoski.   "There is no wealth but life."

 

That's all for now.  Be well and stay well and as always, take it easy but take it.

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Memories of John Paul Stevens, Jurist and Cubs Fan

I never met the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died July 16 at the age of 99.  But he was kind enough to respond to a letter I wrote in the late stages of my research for my Branch Rickey biography. 

 

Stevens had been a law clerk for Wiley Rutledge, Jr., the last Supreme Court Justice appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since Rutledge and Branch Rickey had both been members of the Public Question Club, a discussion group of St. Louis leaders in the inter-world war years, I had wondered whether the name of Rickey had ever come up in chats with the Justice.

 
Stevens wrote me that Rutledge had never mentioned Rickey. But Stevens had met the baseball executive in 1951 when Stevens served as the minority Republican counsel to the House Judiciary sub-committee. Chaired by Brooklyn Democratic Congressman Emanuel Celler, the legislators were investigating possible anti-trust violations in the baseball business. 

 
Stevens shared his remembrance of an informal conversation before Rickey's testimony.  "The key to a successful baseball team is to 'keep 'em hungry'," Stevens recalled Rickey saying.  The executive truly believed players "will have the maximum incentive to strive for excellence on the field in order to justify a better paycheck for next season." (Quoted with Justice Stevens' permission in PB edition of my BRANCH RICKEY: BASEBALL'S FEROCIOUS GENTLEMAN, p. vi.) Stevens was not endorsing that position but just remembering Rickey's firm viewpoint. 

 

The plaudits for Stevens are pouring in, deservedly so. He became over time a voice on the high court for old-fashioned liberalism and minority rights.

 
He came from a wealthy Chicago-area family that owned among other properties the downtown Stevens Hotel.  It was at that hotel in late August 1945 where Branch Rickey's trusted scout Clyde Sukeforth slipped the elevator man some cash enabling Jackie Robinson to come up to his room via the front elevator not the service elevator.

 

It was the beginning of the saga that shortly led Robinson to Brooklyn and his historic first meeting with Branch Rickey.  (see my book, pp. 371-372).

 
Stevens was an unabashed Chicago Cubs fan who I'm glad to say lived to see them finally win a World Series in 2016 after a 108-year drought.  In the July 19 Washington Post. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote a lovely reminiscence of Stevens' as both jurist and Cubs fan. 

 

As a young teenager Stevens attended the famous Babe Ruth "called home run" game at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series. Stevens strongly dismissed the legend that the Babe called the home run against pitcher Charlie Root.  He was just pointing out to the pitcher, Stevens insisted, there was one more strike in his at-bat. 

 

The 2019 Cubs are in the hunt for the playoffs again this season. But like the entire NL Central division, they have been inconsistent.  They needed a rare 8-1 force out at second base to help them secure a one-run victory over the Padres this past Saturday July 20.

 
On a swirling windy day at Wrigley, erratic second baseman Addison Russell gave up on a pop fly to short center. Shortstop Javier Baez also tried for the ball leaving second base uncovered.  But relief pitcher Brandon Kintzler alertly covered second base to register the putout on a throw from center fielder Albert Almora.

 
Once again, if you are watching the game carefully (and not obsessed over incessant new statistics), you see something new in every baseball game. I don't think I ever saw an 8-1 putout at second base (and 8-1 putouts at first base are pretty rare, too.)    

 
That's all for this installment.  Congrats to the recent inductees into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I didn't watch all the ceremonies but was taken by the warm gratitude expressed by Edgar Martinez and Lee Smith for those who helped them on their way to immortality.  

 

I for one, however,  welcome an end to the 24/7 coverage of Mariano Rivera's unanimous induction.  I salute his honor but I think baseball in the future would be better if closers worked more than one inning. Like Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter.  A subject for further discussion. 

 
For now, Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

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