On December 7, Col. Sherman T. Potter, U.S. Army (Ret.), passed away after a bout of pneumonia.
Given that perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history—Bobby Thomson’s October 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”—occurred at the height of the Korean War, baseball and M*A*S*H were bound to collide, which they did in Episode 200, “A War for All Seasons.”
This episode opens with Col. Potter, dressed as Father Time, ringing in 1951, and tracks the 4077th personnel’s lives across the changing of the seasons, until bidding 1951 farewell in the same manner at episode’s end.
One of the subplots involves Potter betting Klinger before the start of the soon-to-be-historic baseball season which team will win the National League pennant. Not surprisingly, Klinger chooses the talent-heavy Brooklyn Dodgers, who have won two of the last four NL championships.
However, Potter lays his money on the St. Louis Cardinals—in fact, calling them a “lead-pipe cinch” to conquer the Senior Circuit.
Why in the world would a man with the purported wisdom and leadership qualities of Potter ever take St. Louis to come out on top that season? The Redbirds had stumbled badly the previous year, finishing a distant fifth and giving no reason to think that they would seriously contend in ’51.
Over the winter, management had done virtually nothing to improve the pitching staff, and St. Louis headed into the 1951 season with a 35-year-old (Max Lanier) who hadn’t won more than 11 games since 1944, another coming off his worst season (Harry Brecheen), a third starter who had never pitched better than .500 ball (Gerry Staley) and two rookies.
Okay, St. Louis had ace Howie Pollet, twice a 20-game winner for the Cardinals since 1946. But the Redbirds’ rotation going into the '51 season couldn’t hope to keep pace with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Erv Palica and up-and-coming Carl Erskine (not to mention the Bums’ explosive offense).
In fact, General Manager William Walsingham Jr. would swap Pollet to Pittsburgh in early June 1951. Cliff Chambers, who would replace Pollet in the rotation, owned a 30-37 career record when he would first slip on a Cardinals jersey and, although he would have a decent season, would be out of the Majors within two years.
(Walsingham probably made the deal more for the other half of St. Louis’s acquisition, slugger Wally Westlake, who quickly fizzled in Sportsman’s Park.)
True, Staley emerged as a 19-game winner in 1951, but with a meager 28-27 career record going into the season, Potter could never have anticipated such a breakout.
I understand that Potter, who hailed from Hannibal, Mo. (only about 100 miles from St. Louis), might be inclined to back the hometown team, but no one possessing Potter’s reputed horse-sense would risk his pay based on blind loyalty when there clearly were better horses on which to bet.
And it was Potter, himself, who insisted on the wager—which, when taking the mediocre Cardinals, not only is unhinged in its bravado, but, even more tellingly, in his statement that the winner will be declared on July 4 because, as Potter opined, “There’s no way we’ll be in Korea when the baseball season crosses the finish line.”
Potter’s reasoning is disturbingly unsound because his pre–Opening Day assurance of war’s end thus comes either shortly before or shortly after Gen. MacArthur’s firing by President Truman (on April 11)—a colossal disruption in the chain of command that surely wouldn’t lead to victory and home in a mere six months.
Even more alarmingly, 27 divisions of Chinese troops already were massing for attack and would soon transform the war into a long, bloody stalemate that would drag on not only past the end of the 1951 baseball season, but into the summer of 1953.
How did Potter ever make colonel?
For all intents and purposes, the first definitive date mentioned in the episode is June 4 (“It’s still a month till July 4”), when, according to an undeterred Potter, the Dodgers were nine games in front of the rest of the National League.
However, Potter's allusion is flatly false. On June 4, Brooklyn led the NL by four games (with the Cardinals in second place, at 24-20). Even so, Redbirds’ ace Pollet was 0-2 and would be traded the very next day. And within a week, St. Louis would be overtaken permanently by the Giants, never to see second place again.
When July 4 arrives, Potter forks over $20 to Klinger, as St. Louis languishes “eight-and-a-half games” out of first place and now trails both New York teams. (This is another inaccuracy—the Bums actually stand eight games in front of the Cardinals, and six games ahead of the Giants, on Independence Day.)
Looking for more action, Klinger attempts to coax another bet out of Potter by offering him two-to-one odds on the rest of the National League against the Dodgers. With only a six-game lead and more than half the schedule still to play, this seems like a cocky offer ripe for backfire.
But in truth, the NL has already devolved to a three-team race between Brooklyn, New York and the rapidly fading Cardinals; the other five clubs have already fallen double-digits behind the Bums, and no one in his right mind could count on any of them to climb back into the race.
Still, both Hawkeye and B.J. jump on Klinger’s offer, and although Klinger dismisses Hunnicutt’s prophetic warning to “watch out for those Giants” because “that new kid Mays is on fire” (Klinger calling the rookie a “flash in the pan”), he ultimately balks at Potter’s absurd $50 wager as too rich for his purse.
Enter Maj. Winchester, the Boston blueblood who likely couldn’t name either of the teams that call Beantown home if you held a loaded howitzer to his head. Banking that Potter is one of the many suckers born every minute, Winchester covers the colonel’s bet.
As summer swelters on, Klinger and Winchester delight at the Stars and Stripes sports section. Brooklyn has opened an impregnable 13½-game lead on the Giants, which would make the date August 11 (although more inaccuracy: the Dodgers’ lead reached zenith not by “plucking the Redbirds,” as Winchester reads, but with a victory over the Boston Braves; and although Klinger boasts that Erskine pitched a three-hitter in the victory, “Good ol’ Ersk” actually hurled his only three-hitter of the season on August 17).
Intent on milking every rube in the camp, the suddenly baseball-crazed Winchester offers all takers dizzying six-to-one odds on the NL versus Brooklyn—against Klinger’s pleas to let sleeping dogs lie. Potter immediately goes in for a hundred (more than $875 in today’s money!).
This is pure, unadulterated insanity on Potter’s part. Regardless of our hindsight, taking even seven others teams to overcome a 13½-game lead with only 47 games to play is the act of a crazy person.
And yet only one other club beside the Giants could even be considered still in the race—the Philadelphia Phillies having clawed into third place, 14 games behind. The remaining five teams, including St. Louis, were, by then, trying just to keep their heads above the second division.
What’s worse, New York had dropped seven of its first 10 in August. Regardless that, the very next day, Leo Durocher’s crew would begin a 16-game winning streak that would vault the Giants onto their improbable comeback, the New Yorkers were dead in the water as far as Potter knew. Dropping a C-note on what was effectively a Dodgers-Giants race on August 11—and hardly a race at all—suggests that Potter should have been granted the Section 8 that Klinger pursued for so long.
Fast-forward several weeks, and Brooklyn’s unassailable lead is crumbling. Down to eight games, an agitated Winchester chastises Klinger for risking his money on “a bunch of grown men named ‘Newk,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Pee Wee’!” (although, again, the time line is incorrect—Klinger reassures Winchester that the Dodgers “can’t blow that in a month,” whereas the Bums’ actual lead in the last few days of August had shrunk to between five and seven games).
And with two weeks remaining in the season, Brooklyn’s margin down to a scant four games, Winchester, having ostensibly given six-to-one odds to numerous campmates (including Father Mulcahy), is fearing for his wallet—making Klinger fear for his life.
(Yet more fictitious “facts”: Before learning from a radio report that the Giants have closed the gap to four games, Winchester hears that the “Yankees pounded the A’s, 9-3,” in Philadelphia [“My mother’s bridge club could pound the A’s!” an impatient Winchester yells at the radio while awaiting the NL scores]; the Yankees and A’s actually faced off but once after September 3—which comprised almost the last four weeks of the season—and it took place in New York, not Philadelphia. And the A’s won.)
Finally, after the Giants have caught Brooklyn and split the first two of the three-game playoff, virtually the entire 4077th listens to the pennant-deciding game piping over the camp’s PA system.
Winchester, donning a Dodgers cap and making some great baseball chatter, paces tensely by himself, beneath the outdoor speaker.
A poor simulation of Giants announcer Russ Hodges reports that it’s the bottom of the ninth as Alvin Dark stands on second and Don Mueller waits on first (Dark actually took third on Mueller’s single, so, at the real Polo Grounds, the Giants have runners at the corners). Whitey Lockman is coming to bat (Monte Irvin had popped out to Gil Hodges for the first out, after Mueller’s single).
Lockman promptly doubles, scoring Dark and moving Mueller to third (who, in actuality, is lifted for pinch-runner Clint Hartung after breaking his ankle while sliding into the bag).
Brooklyn’s lead now halved to 4-2, Winchester enthusiastically supports the decision to pull starter Don Newcombe in favor of Ralph Branca (“Branca, thank heaven! Game’s in the bag!” Winchester nervously reassures himself).
Up steps Bobby Thomson into immortality, and as the camp erupts in wild celebration at the now-literal Shot Heard ‘Round the World, poor Winchester—soon to be poorer after paying off the winners—lies unconscious in the October air.
So, in the end, Col. Potter, and all of the other members of the campwho took the bet, won big. But it was a fluke of history, something that wouldn’t happen again if the 4077th were transferred to Southeast Asia and broadcasted for the duration of the Vietnam War as well.
Klinger and Winchester were the only smart money—they simply got burned by bad luck and Ralph Branca. The rest of the camp constituted a ship of fools, its commander the biggest of all.
Taking the Cardinals even-up against Brooklyn, then taking the rest of the league when the Dodgers were running so far away with the NL that five clubs plainly never had a snowball’s chance, demonstrated that Col. Potter was clearly unfit for command. No wonder a three-year war lasted 11 years. Frankly, if I were a wounded soldier, I'd crawl to another operating table rather than let that crackpot take a scalpel to me.
This being said, rest in peace, Sherman.