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Mudville: May 22, 2024 1:43 am PDT

The Other Side of History

It is game one of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. With the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning, Larry Doby and Al Rosen on base and Giants left handed pitcher Don Liddle on the mound, Vic Wertz stepped up to the plate with no outs. The Indians’ first baseman crushes a 2-1 pitch. Willie Mays rushes to the ends of the Earth, actually the deepest part of the Polo Grounds’ cavernous outfield, makes “The Catch” and whirls around to throw the ball back to the infield.

Vic Wertz collected 1,692 hits in his major league career, but he’s best known for making one of the most famous outs in baseball history.

Giants right-hander Marv Grissom relieved Liddle, who supposedly said to coach Freddie Fitzsimmons, “Well, I got my man.” Grissom surrendered a walk to load the bases before striking out the next batter and getting Indians’ catcher Jim Hegan to fly out to end the inning. The Giants, who were underdogs in the series, went on to win the game 5-2, and swept Cleveland for the championship.

The play is etched into the collective memory of baseball fans. Mention “The Catch” and most people will know what you’re discussing. That Mays personally made the play has added to its mythical quality.

However “The Catch” made Wertz a footnote, despite a fine career in which he was a leading RBI man and power hitter. He hit .500 in the ’54 Series.

Wertz would have to incredibly fight off a crippling illness to improbably come as back one of the better run producers in the game.

SEPTEMBER 29, 1954 - Alas, it was NOT a hit, it was ``The Catch``. Willie Mays makes an infamous play on Vic Wertz's scorching liner to dead centerfield at the Polo Grounds in New York.

After breaking in with the Tigers in 1947, Wertz had several good years, and was sent to one of the worst teams in baseball, the St. Louis Browns. In 1954, he moved east with the team when it became the Baltimore Orioles, but then on June 1 he was traded to the Indians for pitcher Bob Chakales.

“He solidified the club,” says Al Rosen, the team’s third baseman. “He started out as a right fielder and moved to first base and did a terrific job. And that allowed me to go back to third. He was a great clutch hitter. If you were trailing in the ninth inning with runners on third, he was the guy you wanted to see at bat.”

The Indians won a then-record 111 games that year, but the Yankees didn’t make it easy for them. New York won 103 games, the most in Casey Stengel’s career, and the Indians didn’t clinch the pennant until September 18.

In 275 at-bats with Cleveland, Wertz hit .275-14-48.

George Strickland, the club’s shortstop says when Wertz arrived, he was given the nickname “Snertzy” He thinks pitcher Bob Lemon gave it to him. “That sounds about right,” Lemon said years later.

After “The Catch,” Wertz started out fine in 1955, but then contracted polio.

“They never knew how he caught it, and they were careful with the team,” said his son, Terry Wertz. “It hit him hard. He was unconscious for a (time), and he lost feeling in one leg. It was paralyzed for a while.”

“When you’re a young athlete, you think you’re inviolate,” says Rosen, who was a neighbor of Wertz. “Here he was, a big, strong guy whom we relied on in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. And for him to get sick with polio, it was a tragedy.”

Wertz recovered, though, and rebounded in 1956. While Mickey Mantle won a triple crown that year, Wertz finished second to him in home runs with 32, and placed third in the American League for RBIs with 106. He batted .264 and was named comeback player of the year.

“Polio had just taken hold back then, with the vaccine and everything,” Lemon recalled. “But we were just flabbergasted that he came back and played as quickly as he did.”

“He became bigger than life,” Rosen said. “He overcame that illness and did a terrific job. He was an inspiration.”

Wertz died in 1983. Terry Wertz remembers his father as a fierce competitor, the type who wouldn’t let a setback stop him. In an Old-Timers game at Yankee Stadium, Wertz hit a ball in the gap and pulled a muscle running the bases.

SEPTEMBER 18, 1954 - Cleveland Indians manager Al Lopez and general manager Hank Greenberg celebrate winning the American League pennant by writing on first baseman Vic Wertz's bald spot.(Associated Press)

“We laughed about it, but that was competitiveness,” Strickland says. “He was trying to stretch a double into a triple. When you get old you can’t be doing those things, but if you knew him, he was going all out.

But Wertz left his drive to win on the field. “He was a very enjoyable guy, a lighthearted guy who enjoyed laughs,” Stickland said. “I liked being around him. He fit in with everyone… he was very sociable.”

Wertz had another solid year in 1957, finishing second in RBIs with 105, and fourth in home runs with 28. After the 1958 season he was traded to the Red Sox for outfielder Jim Piersall.

He played sparingly in 1959, getting only 247 at-bats, but became the Red Sox’ regular first baseman in 1960 at age 35. He hit 19 homers and was third in the league with 103 RBIs.

In the final years of his career, he went from Boston back to Detroit, and then to the Minnesota Twins. He finished in 1963, with a lifetime average of .277 and 1,178 runs batted in. He settled in Detroit.

“What he did after baseball was even more important,” said Rosen. “He became a successful businessman and a leader in the community. He was that type of guy that, as you go through life, makes an impression, one that you remember. Your life was better by knowing him.

As for that out in the ’54 series, Wertz told his son he thought it was a home run off the bat. “It hurt us both,” Lemon said. “If he had pulled it just a little bit either way, it would have been a home run.”

“But in retrospect,” said Terry Wertz, “he said had it been a home run or even a hit, nobody would ever remember it. It would have been one minuscule statistic, and it turned out to be “The Catch”.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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