A Podres Ode
I had a great idea for a column. How do I know it was a great idea? Someone beat me to it.
Half a century after the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series, Thomas Oliphant, a national political reporter, penned a memoir with the subtitle: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In the book, Oliphant alternates between life in post-war Brooklyn, with an inning-by-inning account of the Dodgers’ game 7 win over the New York Yankees to take the series, which he watched with his father on TV. One of the connections to the series he wrote about is something I wanted to write about: how that game, and the winning pitcher, Johnny Podres, have achieved a mythic status, a game that has been embraced by baseball fans perhaps more than any other series game seven (with apologies to Bill Mazeroski and his walk-off homerun to win the 1960 series, also against the Yankees).
“The peculiar resonance with this one, it surprised me when I did the project, and it still surprises me,” said Oliphant. “It’s not like the Yankees winning five world series in a row or Babe Ruth calling his shot, pick your poison. This was a team that was gone in four years, but whether you think it’s (the) unique magic of the Dodgers, it just keeps resonating.”
When Oliphant met Podres for the book, the pitcher told him something profound about that World Series:
“It will never happen again,” said Podres, who grew up in New York state listening to the Dodgers. “It’s just frozen forever,” Oliphant noted. “And the more I thought about it, that seemed an apt point.”
Brooklyn won only one World Series, and with the team gone, it will remain their only championship.
Beginning in 1947, the Dodgers played the New York Yankees four times in the World Series and lost all four. In 1950 and 1951, they lost the pennant on the final day of the season, the second one on Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World.”
While the Dodgers would eke out one more pennant in 1956, before succumbing again to the Yankees, fans thought the ’55 series might be the Dodgers’ last chance with its “Boys of Summer” lineup. The series did not start well for Brooklyn, who lost the first two games at Yankee Stadium.
(Mickey Mantle was hobbled by a leg injury. started games two and three and hit a homerun, but he wasn’t able to play the field for the rest of the series. He pinch-hit in the seventh inning of game seven, but Podres got him to pop out to shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Outfielder Hank Bauer was also suffering with a leg injury. The Dodgers were without Robinson for game seven, as he had injured his ankle.)
Back in Brooklyn, the Dodgers took three straight, including Podres’ complete game victory in the third contest, which he accomplished on his 23rd birthday. Afterwards, Manager Walter Alston told Podres he would start game seven if the series went that long.
On October 4, Podres took the mound and held the Yankees to eight hits, winning 2-0 and putting the phrase, “Wait til Next Year” on mothballs. The Dodgers were the first team to win a World Series after losing the first two in a seven-game championship.
The deciding game speaks to American folklore: an underdog team FINALLY winning the big one; a young man overcoming the odds with all the pressure of the world on him; a team that broke down barriers to give everyone a chance to participate.
“I was talking about the decision, pretty sure it was (Brooklyn Dodger General Manager) Buzzie Bavasi, he told me that the judgment of Podres was what he called a money pitcher, with a big game kind of pitcher,” said Oliphant.
Podres wasn’t sure he would be on the World Series roster as September began, but there he was, taking on the Yankees with the soul of Brooklyn on his shoulders.
“On the bus, going to Yankee Stadium from Brooklyn before game, Podres was totally hyper, going up and down the aisle of the bus, and he kept saying just give me one run, and it got so, he said it so many times, a couple of the wiseguys would call out from their seats, ‘How many runs do you think you need, Johnny?’”
With two outs in the ninth, Elston Howard batted for the Yankees.
After throwing several fastballs, Roy Campanella called for another one, but Podres, for the only time in the game, shook off his receiver. Podres thought Howard was timing his pitches, and he wanted to throw him a changeup, which was his out pitch. Howard hit a ground ball to Reese, who threw to Hodges at first base for the final out.
(Original Caption) Podres Reclassified. Brooklyn, New York. Lefty Johnny Podres, world Series pitching ace of Brooklyn Dodgers, adives the Dodger management December 27th, that the Surgeon General's office in Washington had reclassified his status to I-A, and that he probably would be called into military servoce soon. Podres is shown when he reported November 14th to the Amry Recruiting station in a Albany to unergo a new physical exam shortly after his excellent pitching in the World Series. He had been previously classified 4FF because of a chronic back ailment. The Dodgers express little hope of his being available for any part of the 1956 campaign.
The reason it was such an easy ground ball was because Howard was five miles out in front, said Oliphant.
Watching a video of the game’s final out, Oliphant noticed something.
“Elston Howard hits a grounder, the put out by Hodges, the first two people who got to the mound from the dugout, sprinting, were Newcombe and Jackie Robinson by a couple of lengths. Newcombe is an odd case, because he knocked on the door so many times (he never won a World Series game), but he had this problem of fading in the fall. There’s a personal story there, he did drink pretty heavily; the toll by (when) September ended was usually substantial. He pitched extremely well in the game that Bobby Thompson ruined in ’51, but there was no question, his emotional investment in this thing. And people told me, the few survivors still around when I was working on my project, Jackie Robinson was like a chained-up madman in the dugout the entire game, pacing, kibitzing for some reason. I don’t understand it superficially, but he really wanted this. He couldn’t play that day, he’d hurt (his) achilles heel in game six, so that accounted for it. “You can not understate the Jackie Robinson factor… that’s part of the Dodger mystique,” said Oliphant. “And when I was slowing the film after the last play, I said, ‘My God, there’s Newcombe and Robinson well ahead of the rest of the team.’”
The idea for the book came out of a brief conversation.
Around 2001, “I was talking with the agent one day, the only story that ever mattered to me was how the hell the Dodgers won that game, and she said, ‘Well, do it,’” recalled Oliphant.
“There really are some stories that write themselves,” he said. “I guess memoirs are sort of chic these days, but the opportunity to relive not just that game, but the Dodgers, is something I thought I’d never have. My wife and a couple of other people all browbeat me into understanding that you just can’t do the 1955 series, you have to put yourself in it. That was the hard part. In national politics you don’t write a hell of a lot about yourself, or at least you shouldn’t, and trying to understand the bittersweet nature of the memory, that’s where the work came.”
The book’s subtitle has the word family in it. An only child, Oliphant’s parents were rabid Dodger fans. Both had personal stories aside from their fandom, which is something the author was encouraged to include.
Thomas Oliphant and John Burke part of Boston Globe team preparing special section on Nixon resignation. (Photo by Donald Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
“My mother was a secretary, as it turned out, an extremely good one, and her boss was a partner in a white shoe Wall Street law firm. He was US attorney for the Southern District of New York during the war, and that office did the lion’s share of legal business,” he said, which included “prosecuting saboteurs.”
A group of Nazi saboteurs entered the country with the intention of destroying bridges and other infrastructure. They were caught and prosecuted.
“My mother took two of the confessions,” said Oliphant, and four of the men were electrocuted. “For a woman it was like a white collar Rosie the Riveter, seven days a week for four years until her boss went back to Wall Street.”
Several women in the office found an outlet in baseball, and Oliphant’s mother became a Dodgers fan.
“My father was overseas almost from Pearl Harbor. They would go to Ebbets Field, that was their outlet. Three or four of them got on the subway, went across the river to a baseball game, and she got caught up in it and it never stopped,” said Oliphant.
His father, said Oliphant, “was a true believing quasi lefty, he was one of those people that Pearl Harbor hit right in the gut, and she showed up that Monday, the next day (to enlist). A few of his buddies, after basic training, had the idea to start a weekly for non-officers. Stars and Stripes had a bit more gloss to it, but Yank magazine (was for enlisted men). Three or four of those got the approval from the War Department and got it going, and off to the Pacific (my father) went. He didn’t want to sit in the office in New York, and he could have…(but) off he went.”
Oliphant’s father contracted several diseases while overseas that American doctors could not understand. He suffered terribly, and his free-lance writing career effectively ended because of his health.
While many soldiers are reluctant to share their experiences, Oliphant said his father was the opposite.
“His notion in his head was there’s no glory, no matter how righteous the cause,” said Oliphant. He said his father told him, “’You better not have any thoughts of this of your own or I’ll disown you. He spared me no details… that war was horrible.”
Oliphant – like much of Brooklyn – was broken hearted when the Dodgers moved west; he got a second chance to root for his team when his family moved to La Jolla, CA.
“This is the irony and after all the heartache, within a year and half there we were. All through high school I’m a Dodgers fan again,” he said.
Bubblegum card (from the Bowman Gum Company) features baseball player Johnny Podres, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1955. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
There is a reason why his memoir isn’t titled, Praying for Johnny Podres; it’s called, Praying for Gil Hodges.
“Gil Hodges was my father’s hero and he became my hero. At first, I assumed it was because he and my father were both from rural Indiana. Only later did I understand that my father – and eventually I – looked up to his enormous character; his abiding concern for others, his stoic response to adversity. It was very personal,” wrote Oliphant in the book.
“Hodges was one of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball team that after World War II personified the hard-luck struggler’s lot; blazed amazing trails in race relations long before the rest of the country caught up; it represented a huge chunk of New York with deep ties to the entire country, and then migrated west.”
The big first baseman also drove in both Dodgers runs in game seven, which raised his iconic status with fans through the years. (And let’s not forget he was the skipper of the Amazing Mets of ’69.)
This past summer, Oliphant was at the Hall of Fame for induction ceremonies for Hodges (he had written the nomination that was presented to the hall’s veterans committee, which voted him in).
“I went because of Gil Hodges, and there were eight zillion Dominicans for David Ortiz, of course, there was a hearty, kind of sizable group of greying Dodgers believers, and the Dodgers and Mets put on a very nice reception. The Hodges family was there, and again it was another opportunity to experience the way this thing resonates down through the years – still.”
Podres will never be in the hall, but he is outside of it.
There’s a statue of him throwing a pitch to Campanella – that is 60-feet, six inches away. The statue was donated to the hall by a Brooklyn restaurateur, along with a statue of Satchel Paige.
Podres started and won game two of the 1959 series against the Chicago White Sox (he didn’t pitch as well in game six). In the 1963 World Series, he pitched a brilliant game against the Yankees in New York City. He took a shutout into the bottom of the ninth, and after getting the first out he gave up a double, and was relieved by Ron Perranoski, who got the save. The Dodgers won 4-1, with Podres allowing only six hits. . All told, he was 4-0 in World Series games (and even batted .313 in the Fall Classic).
Pitcher Curt Schilling #38 of the Philadelphia Phillies talks on the mound with (L-R) catcher Darren Daulton #10, pitching coach Johnny Podres and infielder Wally Backman #6 during an MLB game on May 24, 1992 against the Cincinnati Reds at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Hixon/Getty Images)
After retiring following the 1969 season, Podres served as the pitching coach for the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Philadelphia Phillies for 23 seasons between 1973 and 1996.
Tommy Greene was a former number one draft choice of the Atlanta Braves who didn’t meet the team’s expectations and was traded (along with Dale Murphy) to the Phillies. His pitching coach was Podres, who, Greene said, “had a way he got his point across that was infectious.” He said, “the big thing with me was (Podres) was a motivator.” Greene worked with such respected coaches as Bruce Dal Canton and Leo Mazzone in the minor leagues, and Podres had something in common with them: “He’d say, ‘we’re not here to change you, but enhance what you already do well.’”
Greene , who was 16-4 in 1993 for the pennant-winning Phillies, was working with Podres on developing a changeup.
“Johnny loved to change up. When I threw a good one, he was happy with it, but it was always something we kind of worked on a little bit, just a grip, trying to get the consistency the way I needed to throw it. He didn’t ever mess with me too much with it, or really force it on me,” said Greene. He said his changeup is better now when he pitches in fantasy camps, and he’s teaching it to his son.
Paul Hagen, a baseball writer in the Hall of Fame who covered the Phillies for many years, with the Philadelphia Daily News, said, “I did hear he was a man of few words when he visited a pitcher on the mound though. Apparently his speech was generally a variation of ‘Ooooh, you’ve got great stuff tonight. So get a ground ball and you’ll be out of this.’”
Hagen also said Podres was a great storyteller, and “really hilarious. And he certainly didn’t shy away from his Dodgers days. His license plate was either 55 MVP or MVP 55. I forget which. I can’t recall any specific conversations about Game seven. I do remember talking to him in 1993 about what it was like starting in the World Series for the first time as a young pitcher, since the Phillies had so many young guys making their postseason debuts that year.”
Podres died in January of 2008, and is buried near his hometown of Witherbee, NY.
In 2001, the inaugural season of the Brooklyn Cyclones, Podres appeared three or four times when the Phillies farm team, the Batavia Muckdogs, came to town, according to Gary Perone, then the team’s director of community relations and later assistant general manager. Perone asked Podres for advice on working in the baseball world. Podres replied: “Shut your mouth, listen and play dumb.”
There was another time Podres came to Brooklyn. In his office, Perone had a 1955 pennant. He asked Podres to sign it, and he did, but added, “don’t forget my advice.”
During games, people would come up to Podres and discuss the 1955 World Series. “It was the old time Dodgers fans reliving that game,” noted Perone.