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Derring-Do That Derring-Don't Show Up in The Box Score

June 2, 2020

I heard a story last night that I’m going to pass along, while I still remember it.

I was paying a rare visit to my friend Joe Stern, who continues living across the lake from me in Florida, a three-minute walk away (and a two-minute swim, assuming you don't mind the alligators). You may remember Joe from a piece I wrote about his serving as an Army pilot during World War II, and one day in 1943 getting to see his fellow pilot Ted Williams play an exhibition game and eat a meal in the officers’ mess hall with Joe after the game.

I wrote that piece in late May of 2016, commemorating Memorial Day and Joe’s 94th birthday, and we’ve continued our friendship since then, undeterred by recent developments. Well, "undeterred" isn’t quite right. The reason my visit to Joe’s home last night was a rare one was, of course, Covid-19. Joe’s been sequestered inside his apartment, out of a reasonable but high degree of caution, and doesn’t get around much anymore, and I’ve been doing pretty much the same.  I haven’t made a social call on anyone for three months now, nor hosted any guests inside my own place, except for the two visits I’ve paid to Joe. We sit on his veranda six feet apart and we chat on these occasions for an hour or two. This is among the riskier behaviors I indulge in these days—it’s pretty safe (both of us have been so resolutely self-quarantined for months that it’s hard to imagine how either of us could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, nor that we’re doing anything during my visits that’s remotely dangerous) but still we’re limiting our contact to a fraction of what it had been before this pandemic struck. Neither of us is very chatty over the phone.

Mostly we discuss current events, with some diversions onto subjects such as how Joe celebrated his 98th birthday last week (a Zoom session with family members in Maine) and one question I wanted to ask Joe about his memories of baseball before I was born.

I’ve been writing a lot here recently about Jackie Robinson’s daring baserunning, his extraordinary ability to dominate a game as almost no one ever has (Ty Cobb, maybe? Willie Mays?) by forcing the other team to make errors when he was on the basepaths. Since Robinson played his last game the summer that I turned three years old, I obviously have no memory at all of seeing him play ball. (I do remember asking my dad to take me to an Ebbets Field game the summer I turned four, and being told that I was too young to go to a baseball game yet—"Wait til next year," I was told, famous sad words in Brooklyn generally, and ironic words in my particular case, since by the next summer, they had uprooted themselves 3,000 miles away.)  Joe also grew up in Brooklyn, and got several chances to watch his favorite team, the New York Giants, play in Ebbets Field, so I was sure he’d seen Robinson play there several times. Last night, I asked about Jackie’s baserunning, and here is what Joe said:

There was a game I saw at Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers were down by five runs, I think the score was 8-3, something like that, and they had the bases loaded. Robinson was on third base, and Sid Gordon was the Giants’ third baseman.  The pitcher wasn’t holding Robinson on third base—why would Robinson want to steal home, with his team down by five runs and bases loaded?  So Gordon was playing way off the bag, and Robinson kept taking big leads.  Finally, he broke for home, and he caught the Giants so off-guard that he stole home easily.


But that wasn’t the end, or even the point, of Joe’s memory of Robinson’s baserunning derring-do (and derring-don’t—I mean, how dumb a move is it to try to steal home when your team is down by five? Total bonehead move—except if you’re Jackie Robinson, I suppose, and it seems a sure thing to you.)  No, Joe’s point was what followed the steal of home:

Naturally, the other baserunners saw Jackie taking off for home, and they all decided to move up a base, too. The Giants’ catcher caught the ball, saw Robinson sliding across the plate, and threw to third base to get the runner on second base trying to steal third. But Sid Gordon never got to the third base bag at all, just stood there like a spectator as the ball went into left field. By the time the Giants got their hands on the ball, both of the Dodgers’ other runners had scored. The score was 8-6 now, and the Dodgers ended up winning that game 10-8.  I never saw anyone like Robinson intimidate his opponents on the bases like that, never in my life. The guy scared me, as a Giants’ fan, like no one before or since. He could do things no one else would even think of doing.

I wasn’t taking notes, just chatting with a friend, so my verbatim transcription of Joe’s story is probably off here or there, but the essence—the Dodgers being down by five runs, with the bases loaded and Robinson on third, and Sid Gordon being the Giants’ third baseman in Ebbets Field---is all precisely as Joe told it.

I’ve kidded Joe before about small details in his capacious memory being off –I’ve related a few instances here, of Joe remembering DiMaggio being picked off in a World Series game he attended in 1942, when actually it was Joe Gordon, and other incidents—to illustrate how frail human memory is in general, but it’s only the details that were off. The main point to all of Joe’s baseball memories, those that I’ve been able to track down, have been essentially correct, so I didn’t doubt that something like the tale he told me last night actually occurred and, much more important, the terror that Robinson‘s baserunning instilled in Dodger opponents’ fans and players was very real.

I’ll tell you what I researched this morning, and what I did not: my big assumption was that Sid Gordon was the Giants’ third baseman. Joe mentioned Gordon’s name specifically several times in the telling of this tale (though Joe’s memory with players named Gordon is not, admittedly, very good) and Gordon played third base for the Giants for only three seasons during Robinson’s career, from 1947 through 1949, when he was traded to the Boston Braves. Further narrowing my search, Gordon played left field exclusively against the Dodgers in Robinson’s rookie season, so that leaves only 1948 and 1949. The Dodgers and the Giants played each other 44 times in those two years, half of them in Ebbets Field, going 11-11 in Brooklyn. Of those eleven losses, I looked for games which the Dodgers won by scoring more than 5 runs and which the Giants lost though scoring at least two runs. (Joe was very specific about the Dodgers winning a game they had been losing by five runs, so this was widening the parameters considerably.) I then shifted my focus. I looked for high-scoring Giants’ losses in Ebbets Field in 1948 and 1949 in which Jackie Robinson stole a base and –"It’s a Bingo!" as Colonel Hans Landa liked to say.

On July 4th, 1948, the Dodgers and the Giants played a game that fulfilled nearly all of Joe’s memories, all of them, in fact, except the one that I found least plausible, that the bases were loaded and the runner on first base scored on a wild overthrow into left field.

Except for that, Joe was completely on the money.

It would require a complicated and improbable set of circumstances, after all, for a runner on first to come all the way around the bases on a throwing error. That runner would only be as far as second base when the throw overshot third, and normally a major-league team has little problem keeping a man on second base from running 180 feet before the left fielder can throw the ball some 120 feet home for the tag. As it turned out, there was no runner on first base.

Robinson was on third base, and Gene Hermanski, who had just hit a double, was on second base. The bottom of the 7th inning had begun, precisely as Joe recalled, with the Giants leading by a score of 8 to 3. Hermanski’s double had driven in a run, so it was 8-4 when Robinson took off for home, and exactly as Joe said, Walker Cooper’s throw to nail Hermanski at third base eluded Sid Gordon’s glove (score it E-5), and Hermanski trotted home to make it 8-6.

Joe’s Giants still led, though, 12-9, going into the bottom of the ninth despite Robinson’s daring steal of home and the chaos that it caused. But a three-run lead proved insufficient to send Joe home with a smile.

Gil Hodges led off the inning with a single to left and Roy Campanella blasted the ball over the Van Heusen shirts sign in center to put the Dodgers only one run behind. They proceeded to load up the bases, one base at a time, with a single, a walk, and then Jackie Robinson, again, tried to push up both runners into scoring (and winning) position with a bunt that proved so good that he made it to first base safely himself. With the bases loaded, pinch-hitter Pete Reiser on a 1-2 count placed a single into right field, driving in the two Dodgers ahead of Robinson on the bases. Dodgers win, 13-12!  They send the crowd of 28,770 home deliriously happy and amazed—28,770, that is, less those few who had been rooting for a Giants victory. Those poor devils left Ebbets Field shaking their heads, and asking each other "Can you believe what we just saw? I don’t believe what I just saw. Can you believe it?" for at least a few hours, or in the case of the one spectator I spoke to yesterday, for the next 72 years.

It was an incredible exhibition of daring baserunning. I got all excited just reading the play-by-play account of the game, which you can do as well:  .  As ever, when I got into the play-by-play and the boxscore, I learned some other things I hadn’t known or understood from my more general understanding of baseball in 1948. Ten of them, at least:

1)      Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella batted 6th, 7th, and 8th for the Dodgers on this day, and the meat of the order was Gene Hermanski third, George Shuba cleanup, and slugging Bruce Edwards fifth—hardly what you would expect from the way these two pairs of three batters’ careers turned out, is it? Furillo, Hodges, and Campanella were all virtual rookies at this point, and none of them had chipped as much as a marble sliver off their eventual statues as batting champs, annual 100+ RBI guys, or MVPs as of this date, while the lesser three had carved out more impressive big-league stats so far.


2)      Going through some other 1948 games looking for "the one," I also found some with Duke Snider starting in the #8 hole.  Plainly, Leo Durocher did not quite understand what he had with some of the younger players on this team.


3)      Durocher was fired a week later, around what seems to be the All-Star break (no games from Sunday, July 11, through Thursday, July 15, 1948). Somewhat surprisingly, the Dodgers had won 9 games of 10, including this "one" just before they decided to let him go. I should unearth a biography to find out the facts behind this peculiar set of circumstances—I only remember that Leo’s relations with GM Branch Rickey were volatile, to say the least.


4)      The Dodger who started their final rally, with a single following Campy’s ninth-inning HR, unnamed in my account above, was an unmemorable outfielder named "Dick Whitman." This is of interest to fans of MAD MEN, and not to anybody else.  This Dick Whitman , oddly, was actually named "Dick," not "Richard," exactly as the MAD MEN character had been, though probably not for the same reason that the fictional character was given the name of "Dick" by his fictional mother just before she died.


5)      Despite the slugfest final score of this game, 13-12, and its often lopsided nature, Robinson bunted in three of his at-bats, sac-bunting Pee Wee Reese from second to third in the third inning, and bunting for hits in the eighth and ninth innings.


6)      Good as Robinson’s day looks, Campanella had a day that was just as good: in addition to his ninth-inning heroics, he had hit another two-run homer earlier in the game, in the fourth inning.


7)      This may have been Ralph Branca’s worst ninth-inning relief job against the Giants in his career, though obviously not his most famous worst ninth inning. Leading 9-8 going into the ninth, the Dodgers (Durocher) opted to send Branca out in relief to get the final three outs and spare the Dodgers from batting in the home ninth. (Branca was a regular starter, probably their best starter at the time, having won 21 games in 1947.) He promptly blew the lead by giving up a leadoff HR to Willard Marshall, and then a few batters later, following a pinch-hit single by Bobby Thomson (!), gave up a three-run blast to Bill Rigney, to give the Giants their 12-9 lead. Durocher then removed Branca from the game. I have a feeling he did not tell him, "Good job, Ralph" as he took the ball from him.


8)      Not a good day for any reliever, really. There were three blown saves (Branca, Dave Koslo, and Sheldon Jones, who also took the loss) and both teams combined for 17 runs over the last four innings. Overall, a team gave up the lead four times in this game.


9)      The two runs that Pete Reiser drove in to end the game were among his last heroics as a Dodger. He would drive in only seven more runs in his Dodger career, mainly as a pinch-hitter, despite having been a three-time All-Star and a three-time MVP candidate in his first three full-time years with the Dodgers.


10)   This was also the end of the line for Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan, who also got a pinch-hit, a double in the Dodgers’ three-run eighth inning, scoring the tying run. He would get seven more hits in 1948 and then retire from the game. Pretty strong bench, I’d say. Vaughan, Reiser, Snider, and Billy Cox. Wow.


COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Interesting and enjoyable!
2:46 PM Jun 5th
Wow, what a game. I think if I could go back and watch one game this game might be it.
3:34 PM Jun 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
Joe is a remarkable person, steve161, inspiring young guys like you and me with hope for our eventual old age.
7:15 AM Jun 3rd
Ol' Joe's memory is remarkable. I can't remember what I had for dinner three days ago.
6:47 AM Jun 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
Good catch, Maris. Thanks. At the risk of making your comment look incorrect, I've fixed it now.
5:05 AM Jun 3rd
No complaints this time! :-)
As I was reading down, I was thinking, when I'm done with the article I'll try to "tracer" this thing -- but quickly realized, that's probably what you were leading up to, and I was thrilled that you did.
I figured that your friend did get some of it right, but wasn't expecting nearly that much to be right.

Minor note: You did a little slip of the pen on it: When you said Hermanski's run made it 8-5, you meant 8-6.
Nothing big -- just for the record. :-)

(BTW, it's not like I had to look up anything to find that out -- it's actually implicit in what you wrote.)
2:35 AM Jun 3rd
Thank you, Steven. I love tracers.
10:32 PM Jun 2nd
I really enjoyed this. I always found it disconcerting how unreliable (as Rob Neyer discovered) tracers turned out to be and it's refreshing to see memory finally win one!
6:05 PM Jun 2nd
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