The World Serious, then
I've been to two World Series games - one in 1954, the other in 1986 - both thanks to the president of Yale University. I was 10 years old in 1954, and my dad ran Yale, at the direction of a board of power brokers, all male and mostly based in New York. Among them was John Hay "Jock" Whitney, a fabulously successful financier who was ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time and whose sister, Joan Payson, was a minority owner of the New York Giants, and later became co-founder and majority owner of the Mets. So that's probably how my dad and I ended up sitting a few rows back just inside of the third base dugout - looking out over the on-deck circle to the emerald expanse of the Polo Grounds on a sunny early fall afternoon.
In 1986, I was the guest of Bart Giamatti, who had just become president of the National League after running Yale for eight years.
Even after 55 years, I have one indelible impression of the game in 1954, when baseball was still very much the national pastime, still a huge part of the fabric of the country, and a very large part of the fabric of a small boy from New Haven who skipped school on Wednesday, the next to last day of September, to go with his dad to the most exciting game of the year in the most exciting sport, really the only sport, there was - the opening game of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants.
But first, I have to say, I was a Dodgers fan. How I caught the bug for "dem Bums," I can't recall, but I fell hard, proud to show my colors as a Yankee hater as soon as I could spell Campanella, the last name of the Dodgers stalwart catcher. By extension, I hated the American League, even though I was thrilled that the Indians topped the Yanks in 1954, the only year between 1949 and 1958 that the pin-striped pinheads weren't in the Series.
The Indians won 111 games during the 1954 season, in large part because of the arms of Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73 ERA), Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72 ERA), and Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64). Bob Feller (13-3, 3.09 ERA) was in the twilight of his magnificent career and didn't get a start in the series.
The Giants countered with Johnny Antonelli (21-7, 2.30 ERA), Ruben Gomez (17-9, 2.88 ERA), and Sal "The Barber" Maglie (14-6, 3.26 ERA).
The Indians offense was led by Larry Doby, Al Rosen, and Bobby Avila; the Giants by Don Mueller, Alvin Dark, and the incomparable Willie Mays, just 23 years old at the time, who batted .345, with 41 home runs, and 100 RBI.
It's around Willie Mays that my memories of the 1954 World Series spin, because of The Catch, an extraordinary defensive play that even today some baseball nuts still rank as the most dramatic, acrobatic play in World Series history.
The score was tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth. There were no outs and Indians on first and second when Vic Wertz launched a long drive to deep center. At the crack of the bat, Mays turned his back to the plate and sprinted head down straight for the wall, 483 feet from home plate. About 40 feet short of the wall, he looked back over his head, not over a shoulder, reached out with two hands and....
In the still photo that made its way all over the known sports world at the time, you see the 24 on Mays's back, his head tilted back as far as it would go, both arms extended, both knees bent deeply so he could bend his torso back further, even while he's in full stride. The ball is suspended less than a foot above his glove....
He's got it!
Before the crowd could grasp what they'd just witnessed, Mays spun around and gunned the ball back to the cut-off man, either Alvin Dark or Davey Williams. By this time no one in the park was still seated, although I might as well have been. I was maybe four foot, six inches on tiptoe, which meant that I couldn't see a thing, except a wall of suited shoulders, necks and homburg-hatted heads of the movers and shakers I was surrounded by, my dad among them. This was decades before half the people at any given baseball game wore at least their team's cap - brim forward, backward, or inverted - and probably much more team gear. It was decades before Jumbotrons and Sportscenter.
But I might have seen the actual catch, since the ball was hit by an Indian, so Giants fans would have stayed down at first, perhaps even slumped, sensing the tie-breaker, and the likely outcome: at least two runs in, the tie evaporated, and only two innings to make up a deficit of at least two runs - three if the ball rolled around a bit allowing Wertz to chug all the way around. Almost certainly the game wouldn't have lasted until the bottom of the 10th when Dusty Rhodes homered for a walk-off victory that ignited the Giants who went on to sweep the heavily favored Indians.
If they had slumped, I might have seen the catch better than most around me, thanks to my 10-year-old eyesight.
Might have, I say, because, well.... I might not even have been there. I know for sure I was at one of the two games played at the Polo Grounds during the 1954 Series, but somewhere along the line, well...the mind can mess with memories, and vice versa.
After some 20 years had gone by, I found myself wondering if I had actually seen the catch or just read and heard so much about it that I assumed I was there. Had I actually been there, or was I one of the hundreds of thousands of fans who claimed to have been there that day in a ballpark that held 54,500 people? Big difference, and I'll never know. My dad died 46 years ago, just nine years after Willie's catch. He'd be 103 now, and his memory might have lost a step or two.
My wife, an inveterate researcher, suggested that I call my grade school in New Haven to see if they still had attendance records from 55 years ago. Or perhaps I could track down Jock Whitney's daily log in some dusty library cellar, but what if he'd gone to both games at the Polo Grounds or he didn't record who his guests were? The search for the truth would be fun, but it also might feel too much like work. Baseball, playing it or following it, is supposed to be fun. But it also instructs us, and reflects us, as Bart Giamatti reminded us when he wrote, "It has long been my conviction that we can learn far more about the conditions, and values, of a society by contemplating how it chooses to play, to use its free time, to take its leisure, than by examining how it goes about its work." ("Take Time for Paradise," 1989)
My kind of paradise is a place where I can remember things the way I want to, and don't confuse me with the facts.
So let's just say I was there - at the first game of the 1954 World Series - and I saw The Catch.