The 1980 World Series is turning the spotlight on Philadelphia's long history of failure in post-season play, but exactly 25 years ago another team -- the old Brooklyn Dodgers -- entered the fall classic with an even worse litany of futility.
In some ways it all seems so long ago now -- October, 1955. Ike was still in his first term. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer a couple of years out of the Navy. Ronald Reagan was actor. Ted Kennedy was an undergraduate at Harvard. And major league baseball was played strictly east of the Mississippi -- mostly in places that have since become parking lots or housing developments.
One thing was the same, though: The New York Yankees were kingpins of the game then, as they have been so often both before and since. The Bronx Bombers had won the World Series six times in the previous eight years, and there was little reason to believe they wouldn't add to their laurels in the current battle against the Dodgers.
Ah, yes, the Dodgers. The very name conjured up images of futility -- a team that had been nicknamed "The Bums," and whose biggest claim to fame was a baserunning boo-boo in which three men wound up on third at the same time.
These Dodgers, of course, were a far cry from those blunderers of the past. These were "The Boys of Summer," as later christened in Roger Kahn's book of that title -- the Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese powerhouse that had dominated the National League in almost the same fashion as the Yankees had the American. They won a lot of games, and they even won quite a few pennants, but when it came to postseason play they had a record of frustration which even the current Philadelphia team cannot match.
Much has been made this year of the Phillies' long succession of failures -- losses in both previous World Series appearances, 1915 and 1950, and in all three earlier playoff bids. But even this record pales beside that oldtime Dodger litany of disappointment. In the 1916 series they had bowed to Boston in five games, then after a long period of poor teams, they rose to a contending position once again in the early 1940s. In the next 15 years they were easily the best team in the National League -- if not in all baseball -- except that they just never seemed able to prove it when the chips were down.
In 1941 they won the pennant but lost a famous World Series to the Yankees, partly through a missed third strike by catcher Mickey Owen at a crucial juncture. In 1942 they won 104 games but were beaten out by St. Louis for the pennant. In 1946 they tied for first place with the same Cardinals only to lose a best-of-three playoff. In '47 and again in '49 they won the pennant, but lost both World Series to the Yankees. In '50 they were beaten on the last day of the season by Philadelphia's "Whiz Kid" Phillies.In '51 they blew a huge lead, then lost the playoff to the New York Giants on Bobby Thomson's famous home run. In '52 and '53 the team, at what was probably its very peak, rolled to successive pennants. But, as always seemed to be the case when they won, they found the Yankees waiting for them in the Series -- and lost. The whole thing got so monotonous that their very cause became identified by that perennial loser's motto: "Wait 'til next year!"
And so when these two teams squared off once again in 1955, it looked like the same old story -- especially when New York won the first two games behind its ace left- handers Whitey Ford and Tommy Byrne. At that point in baseball history, no team had ever come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven World Series, and certainly there was no reason to believe this Dodger crew would be the first.
The Dodgers still had faith in themselves, though, as noted by Don Zimmer, an infielder on that team who has gone on to a managerial career and is one of several players from both clubs still associated with the game.
"Any team good enough to be in the World Series is good enough to come back from two or even three down," Zimmer recalled recently. "And that Dodger team was something special. We won our first 10 games, we were something like 19-1 at one point, and we just ran away with the pennant. Any time you have that good a club, you don't think you're out of it just because you lose two games."
Back home at Ebbets Field for Game 3, the Dodgers went with a young left-hander named Johnny Podres.
"That game was on Sept. 30 -- my 23rd birthday," recalled Podres, who served as Zimmer's pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox last season. "We had our backs to the wall all right, but I didn't feel any extra pressure. I always had some butterflies before a game, but they went away as soon as I started to pitch."
Statistically, Podres seemed an unlikely hero, but Manager Walt Alston knew his 9-10 regular season record was misleading, and that the young southpaw was back at his top form now after being bothered by injuries through most of July and August. And Johnny came through, though the big Dodger bats helped him coast to an 8-3 victory.
Brooklyn won the next two games in its two park too, taking a 3-2 lead, but when the Series moved back to Yankee Stadium New York Manager Casey Stengel had his two left-handers ready again, and when Ford mowed the Dodgers dowm 5-1 in Game 6 it looked as though the hand-writing was on the wall.
New York came back with Byrne for the decisive seventh game, while Alston played the Yankee Stadium percentages by passing over his 20-game winning ace, Don Newcombe, in favor of the left-handed Podres.
"I didn't have any pressure on me," Johnny recalls now. "We weren't supposed to beat 'em anyway. And I had confidence in myself any time I went out to that mound."
The confidence was well placed on this day. Podres pitched an outstanding game and was ahead 2-0 in the sixth. Then came the play that saved the game.With two on and none out Yogi Berra sliced a drive down the left field line. It looked like extra bases for sure, but Sandy Amoros raced over to make a spectacular catch, then fired back to first for a rally-killing double play.
The irony was that Amoros had just entered the game, which made Manager Alston look like quite a genius, but actually it was just a standard platooning move the Dodger pilot had been making all season. His practice was to play the switch-hitting Jim Gilliam against all kinds of pitching, but to used the right-handed hitting Zimmer at second base against left-handers and a left-handed hitting outfielder like Amoros against right-handers, meaning, of course, that the versatile Gilliam alternated between the two positions. Since the Yankees switched from Byrne to right-hander Bob Grimm during Brooklyn's six-inning rally, Alston used a pinch-hitter for Zimmer, then just made his usual switch.
All by the book -- and how it worked! For if Amoros was just able to reach the ball with his gloved right hand, it seemed obvious that Gilliam, with less speed and with his glove on the left hand, would never have made the catch.
That was the last major Yankee threat, and the game ended, fittingly enough, with a grounder to the Dodger captain and long-time sufferer of so many earlier frustrations, Pee Wee Reese. The picture that sticks inthe minds of those who saw that game, in fact, is of Reese in jubilation as he fielded the ball, threw to first, and knew that he and his team had finally won the big prize.
"I had a lot of big moments in my career," says Pee Wee, who now represents a bat company, "but that was the biggest by far. We'd played the Yankees all those point where I was beginning to think I might not get another chance.
"I know a lot of players never get in a series at all, so I'd been lucky. But when you play in that many, you get kind of anxious to win one too. I wanted it read bad."
And so he got it, as Podres, Amoros, and Alston combined their pitching, fielding, and managing skills to prove that "Next Year" had finally arrived.