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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Wiz Kids, Part XII: October 1, 1950 

According to Bill James the Dodgers – Phillies game on October 1, 1950, is “one of the greatest baseball games ever played.” (The Bill James Historical Abstract at 734.) The Phillies were trying to get into the World Series for the first time since 1915. The Dodgers were trying to return for the second consecutive season, and third time in four years. They had been there. The Phillies had not. Playing at home with their best pitcher, Don Newcombe, on the mound, few doubted that the Dodgers would win. They were surging, having won thirteen of their last sixteen games and had 35,073 screaming fans packing Ebbets Field.

The Phillies elected to send Robin Roberts to the mound. Roberts was 19-11 going into the game. He hadn’t won since he led the Phillies to a 1-0 victory over St. Louis on September 12. He had taken no-decisions or losses in his previous five starts. He had actually just pitched for the Phillies just three days prior, starting the second-half of a double-header against the Giants on September 28th, and that was the day after he started the front end of another double-header against the Giants. Roberts was exhausted, but the pitching staff was spread thin by injuries, and he was all the Phillies had left.

The game was a 0-0 pitchers duel until the sixth inning, when Dick Sisler got a two-out single. Del Ennis followed with a single, moving Sisler over. The next batter, Willie Jones, hit the ball into left for another single, scoring Sisler. The inning ended with a flyout. The Phillies led 1-0.

After retiring Newcombe and Cal Abrams at the bottom of the sixth, Roberts faced Pee Wee Reese. Reese was a light-hitting shortstop (just eleven home runs in 1950, and a .120 ISO), but hit a fly ball to right-center, where it hit the wall and came to rest on the ledge. The umpires ruled the play a home run - a somewhat debatable decision - and the game was tied at 1-1.

Roberts and Newcombe continued to dominate the game. Going into the ninth inning the Dodgers had mustered just three hits and a walk off Roberts. With the score tied at 1-1, Cal Abrams, the Dodgers left fielder, led off with a walk. Reese singled, moving Abrams – the winning run – to second base. Duke Snider hit a single to center field, where it was fielded by Richie Ashburn. Ashburn saw the Dodgers wave Abrams home as Abrams rounded third base and fired a perfect throw to Phillies catcher Stan Lopata. Lopata moved up and tagged Abrams out fifteen feet away from home plate. The Dodgers couldn’t believe it. The Dodgers manager, Burt Shotton (who had coached the Phillies from 1928 to 1933), expressed amazement that Richie Ashburn had been playing so shallow in center and had been able to make the exceptional throw home.

The Dodgers still had the winning run ninety feet away on third base. Wisely, the Phillies walked Jackie Robinson and went after Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges, both of whom flied out. The game was still 1-1.

Newcombe pitched the tenth inning for the Dodgers. Roberts led off the tenth with a single, followed by first baseman Eddie Waitkus, who singled. With runners on first and third, Ashburn tried to bunt Roberts to third, but Newcombe grabbed the ball and forced Roberts out at third. Sliding into third Roberts got an eye full of lime, which stung his eyes. With one out and Ennis on deck, Dick Sisler walked to the plate. Injured, Sisler was three-for-four that day and had scored the Phillies only run to that point. Sisler stood in and fell behind Newcombe 1-2. Newcombe fired a fastball and Sisler jumped on it, launching a fly ball down the left field side.

It was a home run. Philles 4, Dodgers 1.

Roberts took to the mound again for the bottom on the tenth, having hurled nine innings already, having pitched three times in the last five days, and having his eyes reddened with lime. Exhausted, Roberts got Roy Campanella to line out to Jackie Mayo (a defensive replacement for Sisler) in left field. Next Roberts recorded just his second strikeout of the game, retiring Jim Russell. Finally, Roberts faced his thirty-eighth batter, Tommy Brown. Brown popped up in foul territory near first, where Ed Waitkus waited patiently to snare the ball. Game over.

It was a fitting end to a dramatic pennant race that would be little remembered thanks to the exceptional finish to the 1951 season. According to Bill James: “I have always suspected that had it not been for the unbelievable end to the 1951 National League race, this wonderful race, this classic game and this remarkable play might be even more famous than they are. Bobby Thomson, in a sense, blew Richie Ashburn out of the water before the 1950 race had time to settle into myth.” (The Bill James Historical Abstract at 734.) It was a remarkable moment, but it was lost to history thanks to the ’51 season.

To be sure Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is probably the most dramatic and exceptional moment in baseball history, but its historical significance is probably over-blown somewhat by the fact that these were two New York teams battling for the pennant. Having two New York teams, bitter rivals, battling in the media capital of the world for the pennant and having the dramatic end to the story has focused the eye of history squarely on 1951, and not 1950. Had the Phillies been the Giants, I wouldn’t doubt that Richie Ashburn would have waited until 1997 to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn’t doubt that the ’50 pennant race would be better remembered than it is. But Philadelphia isn’t Manhattan, and the Phillies weren't the Giants.

As the lily-white Wiz Kids mired themselves with .500 baseball in the 1950s, the Dodgers came to dominate the National League with their racially diverse team. After failing in 1951, the Dodgers captured the N.L. pennant in 1952 and 1953, and actually managed to win the World Series in 1955 before returning to capture another pennant in 1956. The Dodgers would be remembered as the dominant team in the National League during the 1950s. The Phillies as a footnote.

But the Wiz Kids celebrating their victory on October 1, 1950, had no clue that their place in history was to be usurped by someone else. All they knew was that they were the champions of the National League and would face off with the New York Yankees and Joe DiMaggio in days for the world championship. It was a great ending to a great season.

Previous Installments of the Wiz Kids:
Part XI: Richie Ashburn.
Part X: The Phillies Farm System.
Part IX: The second half of the 1950 season.
Part VIII: The Braves, Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs & Reds.
Part VII: The Giants and Dodgers.
Part VI: Curt Simmons.
Part V: Robin Roberts.
Part IV: The first half of the 1950 season.
Part III: Jim Konstanty.
Part II: Eddie Sawyer.
Part I: The Path to 1950.

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