"I had the best seat in the whole stadium."
On May 28, 1957, exactly 64 years to the date of publication for this article, Major League Baseball voted to break the hearts of New York baseball fans. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were approved to move to California as baseball expanded to the West Coast.
In mid-September as the Giants closed their final season in New York, they embarked on one final road trip around the National League. The 11-game jaunt preceded the final two home games at the Polo Grounds before they left the city they called home since their inception.
The Giants went 2-9 on that road trip with the final game being a shutout loss to Curt Simmons and the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the final road game in New York Giants history.
The man who threw the last pitch in the last New York Giants road game, Al Worthington, joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Worthington may not have had the typical path to the Majors, but when he got there, he certainly made an immediate impact.
Growing up in Alabama, baseball wasn’t prevalent in Worthington’s life as the closest Major League team was hundreds of miles away in St. Louis. They didn’t exactly have ESPN around in the 1930s to keep out-of-region fans engaged.
Instead, Worthington, was a standout football player who landed at the University of Alabama playing for Red Drew, years before Bear Bryant took over the Crimson Tide.
Eventually, Worthington transitioned to professional baseball and did well enough to get called up after just two seasons in the minors.
Worthington debuted the way no other National League pitcher did to that point. He became the first NL pitcher to hurl shutouts in his first two starts, doing so against the Phillies and Dodgers. Mind you, these were lineups that featured guys like Richie Ashburn, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and other legends of the game.
“The World Series is the World Series though. It was scary to go in there the first time until I got used to it. Even though you pitch the whole year, the World Series is different. It was great.”
The 92-year-old Worthington has an incredible story and is an absolute baseball treasure. He’s a one of the few links back to baseball’s Golden Era and we’re lucky and grateful that he is here to share his stories.
The BallNine Time Machine is set for the 1950s, so let’s go Spitballin’ with the great Al Worthington.
Thank you for joining us, Mr. Worthington, it’s a real honor to talk with you. Our readers always love first-hand stories from your era. Let’s start back in the 1930s. Growing up, did you have any favorite baseball teams or players?
Not really. I grew up poor in Inglenook, Alabama and we didn’t know anything about any baseball. We grew up in a poor neighborhood, but we played outside a lot.
How did you get involved with playing baseball?
Growing up in Inglenook, we had five baseball teams in the city with all different ages. At an early age, we played baseball there. I didn’t like it much in high school though, so I played football instead. I played football for the University of Alabama, but I hurt my arm and had to quit. That sent me back to baseball. I had to get used to playing baseball again. I played for Red Drew at Alabama, just before Bear Bryant.
Wow, you must have been some athlete! How did you get into professional baseball?
Dickey Martin was an older man around Alabama who loved baseball. He had team after team after team and he got me signed up.
You started in AA and got called up in just your third year in the minor. Your first two starts you set a record by being the first National League pitcher to throw shutouts in your first two games. What do you remember about that?
Well, I wasn’t that good, and I was scared to death when I walked out there to pitch that first game against Philadelphia. I might have been scared to death, but I pitched a shutout. It was a surprise to me. Then it was the same the next start against the Dodgers. That was good. It was fun, but it was scary.
I can understand it being scary considering some of the guys you had to pitch against. I wanted to ask you about some of them. Let’s start with Jackie Robinson. You faced him 21 times in your career. What are your thoughts about him?
He was a real hero. He was an outstanding player, and it was an honor to pitch against him and play against him. I got to meet him up in New York. We were on a radio show at the same time. That was outstanding to meet with him and talk with him, the great player that he was.
You pitched against so many legends, I want to ask about them all, but we’d be here all day! What was it like pitching against Stan Musial?
Scary. It was scary any time he came up there. He was a great hitter. It was an honor to pitch against him too. He was good; he was a lot better than I was. That was something else to pitch against Stan Musial.
You had a lot of success pitching against Roberto Clemente. You faced him 29 times and gave up just seven hits. He didn’t hit a homer or drive in a run against you either. What are your thoughts about Clemente?
Well of course he was another great one. Great at everything. He was very fast. He could run and was just an outstanding player. He was a tough man to get out and when he got on the bases, he really knew how to run. He was another great player; there’s just no other way to say it.
Those are some incredible players that you played against. Now how about someone you played with. What was it like playing with Willie Mays in his prime?
Anytime someone asks me that I say he’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He was a great hitter, a great player and a great teammate. He is such a nice guy. He could play the game of baseball, alright.
In just your second season the Giants made it to the World Series and swept the Indians. You didn’t get to pitch in the short series, but what was it like to make it to the World Series as a young player?
That’s always exciting to be in the World Series. All the guys, all the excitement, all the people who came around, all the sportswriters. It was a great time to be in the World Series and I really enjoyed it.
That World Series is famous for The Catch. Where were you when Willie Mays made that catch and what was it like watching such an iconic play happen right in front of you?
I had the best seat in the whole stadium. I was on the bench and it was straight in front of me in centerfield. I got to see it all. It was a great catch. The best catch I have ever seen.
1960 Topps #268 Al Worthington
That’s awesome. There are only three guys who were in a Giants uniform that day who are still around besides Willie, so it’s amazing to ask one of them what that was like. I also wanted to ask you what you thought about playing in such a historical stadium like the Polo Grounds.
I’m from Alabama, so we had never seen any Big League stadiums. To go up there to the Polo Grounds brought a lot of excitement. It was a great privilege and honor to play in the Polo Grounds. It was lovely. The field was different. The right and left field lines were about 250’ each. It was a wonderful park to pitch in. I’m glad I was there.
New Yorkers loved the Polo Grounds and the Giants too. You were on the team when they left to move to San Francisco though. What was it like to be around for that?
That wasn’t very easy to do since we were used to the Polo Grounds. We hated to move, but we had to move so we did. We made the best of it. After a while, San Francisco became a nice place to play too though.
You made it back to the postseason two more times later in your career pitching for the Twins, including the 1965 World Series. You pitched in two games that World Series and didn’t give up any earned runs. Even though the Dodgers beat your Twins that year, what was it like to pitch in the World Series? Were you nervous?
It was exciting to go into the World Series, but kind of scary too. But the Lord calmed me. The World Series is the World Series though. It was scary to go in there the first time until I got used to it. Even though you pitch the whole year, the World Series is different. It was great.
You were a very good pitcher, but I have a question about your batting. You had one career home run and it came against Hall of Famer Robin Roberts in 1956. Do you remember hitting that?
Well, I’m 92 years old, so not quite! Robin Roberts was a great pitcher, but he gave up a lot of home runs. I just happened to be swinging at the right time. I enjoyed it. Even though I only had one, I’m glad I did it.
Jim Kaat, followed by manager Sam Mele, leaves after giving up two runs in Game 7. Catcher Earl Battey (left), first baseman Harmon Killebrew and pitcher Al Worthington remained on the mound. 1965 World Series(Photo By JOHN CROFT/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
You played for some great managers too. Guys like Leo Durocher and Al Lopez among others. Did you have a favorite manager you played for?
I don’t believe so. They were all great. Leo Durocher, Bill Rigney, Cal Ermer. I played for Sam Mele too. I think I’d pick Leo Durocher as the best, but they were all really good.
They were for sure! Aside from some of the guys we talked about, who were some of the best friends you made around Major League Baseball during your career?
Jerry Kindall was a very good friend of mine. Bob Speake and Daryl Spencer in San Francisco. The fella who pitched 25 years in the Majors, Jim Kaat. He was a good friend of mine. Jim Perry was another good friend of mine. Dick Stigman too. He still comes to see me.
After your playing career, you had an incredible college coaching career. You established the baseball program at Liberty University for the Reverend Jerry Falwell. You were also the Athletic Director there too. How did that come about?
I wanted to be the coach there, so I wrote a letter to Dr. Falwell and told him I wanted to be the coach, so he hired me. I went over there and talked to him about it. I asked where the baseball field was and he said, “We don’t have one!” That was kind of a shock. We didn’t have one for a while, but we played. I was glad to be there, and I enjoyed coaching at Liberty and all the boys who came through.
I understand that you had a little reunion with some of your former players recently. What was it like to see the guys again?
They came through here last week. Many players that I coached from all over got together and came over here last weekend. There was about 35 in all. It sure was nice to see them all. Really great.
You had such a great career in sports and in 2011 you were elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. What is it like to be in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame alongside guys like Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, Satchel Paige, Jesse Owens and so many others? Your old teammate Willie Mays is in there too.
I’m real thankful. I was really happy with that. It’s a great thing and I was happy to have that happen to me. It was wonderful to happen to me and I appreciate it. I was honored.
I really have to thank your daughter and wife for helping set this all up and joining us too. I wanted to ask if they have any stories they would like to share too?
Mrs. Worthington: My husband was in Kansas City and one game the temperature was about 111 degrees. Al pitched the whole game. He was sopping wet after the game. His brother was there to watch the game. They went out afterwards and at 11 o’clock that night, he finally decided that he wasn’t going to die. It was very serious.
Michelle Adkins: I remember there was a game [against the Dodgers in 1957]. He came in in the ninth inning and my mother and I were in the house listening. He came in the ninth and usually that would have been it, but we were tied. Daddy kept coming out to the mound and the game lasted so long! Daddy pitched about ten innings before we finally won. That was really fun for my mother and I to listen to that ballgame.
This has all been incredible, Mr. Worthington. I just love hearing about 1950s baseball. What are your final thoughts about your career and playing during the time that you did?
It was exciting. You start in the minor leagues and when you get the chance to move up to the Big Leagues, it’s different. You really have to put on the speed and intensity. You gotta be ready to play and put out a little more than normal. The Big Leagues was a great place, especially with all the good players were there. They had the same attitude. They played hard and were good and it’s a great game. I enjoyed playing against all of them. It was an honor for me to be in the Big Leagues.