Sunday, October 4, 2015

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

On October 4, 1955sixty years agoJohnny Podres retired the Yankees in order in the last of the 9th at Yankee Stadium to complete an eight-hit 2-0 shutout in Game 7 that finally, after seven previous Brooklyn visitations to the Fall Classic, ended the "wait till next year." Podres, who also won Game 3 to prevent the Yankees from taking a three games-to-none lead in the '55 Series, was the World Series MVP. But it was an exquisite defensive play by Sandy Amoros that saved the day for the Flatbush Faithful, which might not have happened if not for the decision to pinch hit for Don Zimmer.

Back Story to the Catch and Throw That Ended the "Wait Till Next Year"

When the late, great Yogi Berra, then managing the 1973 New York Mets, said in the midst of a pennant race in which his team was lagging in August, "It's not over 'til it's over," he most assuredly was not thinking about the 6th inning of Game 7 in the 1955 World Series. 

That’s when, with Yankee runners on first and second and nobody out, Sandy Amoros made a great catch at the left field fence after a long run to rob him of an extra-base hit that would have tied the score at 2-2. Savvy veteran Gil McDougald, the runner on first, was so certain Berra's drive would be a hit and so determined to score, that he failed to consider it might actually be caught. But catch it Amoros did. He immediately fired a strike to cut-off man Pee Wee Reese, whose throw to first doubled off McDougald before he could scramble back.

And thus was the game and the World Series over before it was over, regardless of any philosophical musings to the contrary by Mr. Berra.

A key part of the lore and majesty of that moment is that Amoros had just entered the game to play left field. This has usually been described as a prescient move by Dodgers manager Walt Alston. 

But Amoros was put into the game at that precise moment, just in time to make the most important defensive play of the World Series, less because Alston had an inclination to upgrade his defense than because he had just pinch hit for starting second baseman Don Zimmer with the bases loaded, two out, and the Dodgers ahead 2-0, in the top half of the inning in a bid to put the game away. Stengel had relieved left-handed starter Tommy Byrne with right-handed Bob Grim two batters earlier, and Alston judged the left-handed George Shuba as the better bet to break the game open than the weaker-hitting, right-handed Zimmer. 

Shuba, in his last at bat in a major league game, made out, after which Alston moved Jim Gilliam from left to replace Zimmer at second, and put Amoros in to play left. Gilliam was the Dodgers' Mr. Versatility. He had replaced Jackie Robinson at second base in 1953, with Jackie moving to play third and occasionally left field, and had started the '55 season playing second, but Alston used him increasingly in the outfield as the season drew to a close when Amoros, who had started the year in left field, was mostly sidelined because of his struggles at the plate.

These moves were consistent with the 1950s baseball renaissance in platooning and substituting for position players based on the game situation that was brought back into prominence by Alston's rival in the Yankee dugout—one Mr. Casey Stengel. (The heyday of both practices, particularly platooning, had been in the 1920s.) 

Alston, however, then in his second year as Dodgers manager, was not yet anywhere near Stengel’s zip code when it came to substituting for position players in his starting line-up. Stengel made 211 position-player substitutions during the regular season (much fewer than the record-setting 286 he made in 1954), while Alston made only 106, which was also below the National League average of 127. That might be because the Dodgers’ faced only 55 left-handed pitchers all season.

The Dodgers also faced only 11 southpaw starting pitchers in 154 National League games, so Alston had little opportunity to platoon even if that was something he was inclined to do. But two of the Yankees’ top starting pitchers, Whitey Ford and Byrne, were left-handed, causing Alston to bench the left-handed-batting Amoros, who was now being platooned, in favor of right-handed infielder Zimmer in the eighth spot of his batting order in three of the four games Stengel started his southpaws. Gilliam, the Dodgers' lead-off batter, was in the starting line-up for every game of the Fall Classic, in left field when Zimmer played and second base when Amoros played. 

Until Game 7, Alston had substituted for a position player just once in the Series, in the sixth game. But that was a move made necessary when Duke Snider twisted his ankle on a sprinkler head making a catch in center field in the third inning. Those darned Yankee Stadium outfield sprinklers . . . let us not forget Mickey Mantle was maimed by one during the 1951 World Series. Snider was back in the line-up for the Series finale, although the sprained ankle may have contributed to his 0-for-3 day.

Anyway, with Stengel starting Byrne in the finale, the right-handed-batting Zimmer was in Alston's Game 7 starting line-up, and the left-handed-batting Amoros not. And after Stengel changed pitchers, Alston pinch hit for Zimmer the first chance he had, necessitating a defensive replacement, which meant Gilliam moving to second and Amoros replacing Gilliam in left field.

That series of moves came just in time to save the game for the Dodgers, helping them to secure their first World Series triumph, which turned out to be their only World Series championship in Brooklyn.

Postscript: Neither Zimmer nor Amoros had the career they or the Dodgers envisioned. 

Sandy Amoros was a brilliant prospect who led the International League in batting with a .353 average in 1953, when he played for Brooklyn's top Triple-A team in Montreal. In the majors, however, Amoros had difficulty hitting lefties. Playing in only 517 major league games, mostly between 1954 and 1957, Amoros was almost exclusively a platoon-player against right-handed pitching, starting just six games against southpaws in his career—three of them, plus Game 6, in 1955—and had only 92 plate appearances against lefties. 

Zimmer had difficulty hitting anybody, perhaps because of a horrific beaning in 1953, when he was a hot prospect with the Dodgers' Triple-A team in St. Paul, that left him unconscious for 10 days with a fractured skull. Don Zimmer was never a star player, but went on to become a cherished baseball figure as a manager and, ultimately, as the wise confidant to Joe Torre when Torre was building his Hall of Fame managerial credentials in the Yankee dugout.

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