New York City in the Golden Age Of Baseball

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New York City in the Golden Age Of Baseball

From 1947 through 1957, New York City was the most exciting city in the World.

 

The United States had come home from war and it was a boom time for the country.

 

It was also the Golden Age of Baseball, and without question, New York City was the capital.

 

The city featured three major league teams and they were all among the best of the sixteen teams that made up the American and National Leagues at that time.

 

The imperial Yankees of that era were truly beyond compare. During the period from 1947-57, the Yankees were in the World Series every year but two. In 1948 and 1954 the Cleveland Indians managed to keep the Bombers at home as fall came to Central Park.

 

But the Yankees played when the leaves turned golden every other year during that time. And in seven years, the Yanks won the ultimate baseball crown.

 

They played in the New York borough of the Bronx, at 161st Street and River Avenue in the magnificent cathedral to baseball that Jacob Ruppert had built in 1922. Called the House that Ruth Built, Yankee Stadium by the late 1940s had become the mecca of all sports.

 

Beginning with Babe Ruth in 1920, the Yankees had been the team with an endless stream of great players who became household names.

 

Joining Ruth was Lou Gehrig, who continued when the Babe was done. Gehrig became an icon, not only in baseball but in the hearts of all Americans as he would be stricken by a disease no one understood that would shorten his life and be given his name.

 

As Gehrig was just beginning to come out of Babe Ruth’s shadow another star would arrive in the city to eclipse Lou again. This time it was Joe DiMaggio.

 

Joe D became the symbol of the perfect Yankees, the player who never made a mistake on teams that would capture seven World Series titles in the 30s and 40s.

 

Joining Gehrig and DiMaggio were Bill Dickey and later Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra.

 

The Brooklyn Dodgers were the antithesis of the Yankees.

 

They were the neighborhood team, playing in the borough of Brooklyn, which had been its own city until the late 1800s.

 

Even in the 1940s Brooklyn, by itself, would have been one of the largest cities in the U.S. But it was more like a family, more close-knit and filled with neighborhoods, each with its own personality.

 

And its ballpark fit the neighborhood.

 

Ebbetts Field had been built on the site of a former garbage dump in an area called Pigtown.  It opened in 1913 and was small; fans sat almost on top of the field and developed a personal relationship with the players.

 

Ebbets Field became the heartbeat of most Brooklynites and the scene of some of the worst baseball and some of the best baseball in the history of the game.

 

The team changed its name. They were first the Trolley Dodgers, then just the Dodgers. Then they became the Robins, in honor of their manager, Wilbert Robinson. As the Robins, they made their way to the World Series twice by 1920, but could not win.

 

Eventually they became the Dodgers again, but they would make the Series only in 1941.  For the most part they were merely hapless.

 

The Dodgers were better known as “Dem Bums” by Brooklyn fans. It started as a critical term, but eventually became a moniker of pride for the fans.

 

In a stadium that featured The Dodger Sym-Phony (with the emphasis on “phony” as Vin Scully has said) and Hilda Chester who rang her cowbell and sent messages to Leo Durocher on game strategy, the Dodgers simply could not win and left their fans with the constant cry of “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

 

The New York Giants had been the great power house of the early years of modern baseball.

 

Playing at the Polo Grounds (where polo was never played), the Giants went through several evolutions that saw them achieve World Series glory. Their hey day was the 1920s when they were led by the hard driven John McGraw.

 

The Polo Grounds was a huge sports venue set hard against Coogan's Bluff at 155th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

 

It was one of the strangest baseball fields every conceived. The right field foul pole was only 258 feet from home plate. The left field foul pole was only 22 feet further from home.

 

But from the corners the fences feel away to almost immeasurable depths until finally you arrived at straight away center field which measured from time to time anywhere from 483 feet to 505 feet.

 

The Giants had great players like Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott and Bill Terry.

 

When the war ended and the country could turn its attention to leisurely pastimes again, New York City became the focal point of fans' attention.

 

That time period saw Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in baseball as the Great Innovator, Branch Rickey, brought Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

 

Rickey had already changed the game once when he had started the farm system when he was general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals .

 

But his courageous move of signing Jack Roosevelt Robinson finally gave an entire race a chance to prove that they could play at a level equal to or greater than whites.

 

Robinson was followed in 1947 by other black players, including Don Newcombe with the Dodgers. Soon the Giants were also signing great stars from the Negro Leagues, including Monte Irvin.

 

The Yankees would be very slow to integrate. Elston Howard would be the first black man to play for the Yankees and he would not come until 1955. Without much doubt the Yankee owners, Del Webb and Dan Topping did not want to integrate the team and were forced to do so against their will.

 

But as the late '40s unfolded and the '50s rolled on, the Yankees had more talent on the conveyor belt than any other team could possible amass.

 

With the likes of DiMaggio, Berra, Rizzuto, Johnny Lindell, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, the ’47 Yankees beat the Dodgers 4 games to 3 in the Series. It was the first time the Dodgers had been to the Series since 1941 and only the second time since 1920, when they had still been the Robins.

 

Over the next seven years, the Yanks and Dodgers would meet in the Fall Classic another five times. The Yankees would prevail in every contest but one. In 1955, the Dodgers would finally win a World Championship by beating the corporate Yankees.

 

During this era the Giants would be in the Series twice themselves, losing to the Yankee Dynasty in 1951, but winning it all over the Cleveland Indians in 1954.

 

So, from 1947 through 1957, at least one New York team was in the Series every year but one. And in seven of those years both the National and American League teams would come from the city of New York.

 

The era would see the advent of some of the greatest players who have ever graced a baseball field.

 

Willie Mays came to the Giants early in 1951 as a shy, unsure 20-year-old rookie, who barely a year before had been a high school student while playing professionally in the Negro Leagues.

 

Mays would patrol the cavernous centerfield in the Polo Grounds through 1957.  He would miss almost two full years to army duty. But he would become a great hitter and awed fans and other players with some of the most incredible defensive plays anyone had ever seen.

 

The same year Mays was a rookie saw a 19-year-old kid from rural Oklahoma join the Yankees. Mickey Mantle became the greatest switch hitter who ever played the game. And in his rookie year, before repetitive leg injuries, Mantle was the fastest man who had ever played. Mantle would patrol centerfield in Yankee Stadium for 18 seasons.

 

The Dodgers had their own Hall of Famer in centerfield in Duke Snider.  The Duke of Flatbush would never get the press of Willie or Mickey. He did, however, hit at least 40 home runs five years in a row and this led to great debates over who was the best of the three great New York outfielders of the '50s.

 

Snider had teammates including Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Roy Campenella, Ralph Branca and Don Newcombe who would unite Dodger fans in their unwavering devotion to their team.

 

The teams were so laden in talent that from 1947 through 1957 the Yankees had seven MVP recipients. During that same period Dodgers won five MVPs and Mays won for the Giants in 1954.

 

In addition to the great players of the era, the teams would have great personalities as managers.

 

No one could beat the Yankee manager of this era. Casey Stengel was one of a kind. He would lead the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series titles in his 12 years in the Bronx.

 

But almost as big a character would manage the Giants of this time. Leo “The Lip” Durocher was a great baseball mind and one of the most antagonistic personalities the game had seen since John McGraw. His antipathy for the rival Dodgers came in great part because he had managed the Brooklyn team before being fired.

 

The era also saw some of the most historic events in the history of baseball.

 

Robinson’s becoming the first black player has already been mentioned.

 

The 1951 season saw the greatest comeback in the history of the game. In August, the Brooklyn Dodgers led the New York Giants by 13 ½ games.

 

The Giants would rally to tie the Dodgers on the final day of the season, leading to a three- game playoff.

 

In the final playoff game, Bobby Thomson hit arguably the most famous home run in the annals of the game as he gave the Giants the most improbable victory.

 

The game is immortalized by the radio call of Giants’s announcer, Russ Hodges, who screamed into the microphone, “The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!”

 

The Yankees beat the Giants in the Series but no one will ever forget the comeback or Thomson’s home run.

 

And of course, the 1954 World Series saw what is still simply called “The Catch.” At the Polo Grounds, Vic Wertz of the Indians hit a ball where no one could possibly catch it.

 

But that determination did not take into account that Willie Mays was in centerfield for the Giants. Mays turned his back to the plate and defied logic when he ran the ball down and then whirled in one motion and threw the ball back to the infield in time to keep the Indians' Larry Doby from scoring from second after he had tagged.

 

History was made once again in 1956 when Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown. Mantle not only led the AL in homers, RBI and average. He led both leagues in all three categories. At the time, he was only 24 years old.

 

And the ’56 season culminated with the Yankees and the Dodgers in the Series for the sixth time in ten years.

 

But it would be the fifth game of the 1956 World Series that would make history.

 

On October 8, 1956 the Yankees would win the game 2-0. Mickey Mantle hit a home run and made a great play snagging a long drive to deep left center field to keep the Dodgers off the scoreboard.

 

Sal Maglie pitched a good game for Brooklyn. But he couldn’t quite match the Yankee starter that day.

 

The starting pitcher for New York that day was a mediocre right hander who had recently changed his delivery to pitch without a wind up.

 

That day, Don Larsen would face 27 hitters and not a single Dodger reached base safely.

 

Larsen remains today the only pitcher to hurl a perfect game in the World Series.

 

There has never been an era in the history of baseball to match the period from 1947 to 1957 in terms of what the teams from one city accomplished.

 

But it all came to an end for the fans of two of these great teams when the curtain was drawn on the 1957 campaign.

 

The World Series in 1957 saw the Yankees lose to the Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn.

 

And that was only the beginning of the heartbreak for baseball fans in the Big Apple.

 

When the last game of the ’57 season was played in the Polo Grounds, it was the last game ever to be played by the New York Giants. Owner Horace Stoneham had made a deal to move his team to San Francisco and no more baseball would be played below Coogans Bluff in Upper Manhattan.

 

But even that was not all. Walter O’Malley owned the Dodgers and he had already announced that he was also taking the beloved Dodgers west to Los Angeles.

 

For the people of Brooklyn they had fought long and hard to keep their home town heroes where they belonged. O’Malley had demanded a new stadium and fans demanded that the City build it.

 

It would not be built, the team would leave and the fans would be stricken with grief. Before long, a wrecking ball would be taken to the wonderful old Ebbets Field and major league baseball in Brooklyn would be no more.

 

Of course, the Yankees would continue in their glory and would go to six more World Series in the next seven years.

 

But with the death of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957, the greatest era in the history of baseball in the greatest city in the world would be over.

 

 

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