It’s not every game or recording of a sixty-two-year-old broadcast that comes with its own classic of baseball journalism. But the first game of the 1954 World Series—famous in its own right for reasons hopefully well-familiar to any even casual historian of the sport—was rather miraculously chronicled in a tome renowned more for its insightful, literary worth than its slender girth: Arnold Hano’s masterpiece in miniature, A Day In The Bleachers.
Hano, at 94 still alive at the present time to paraphrase Casey Stengel, is among the most prolific scribes of American sports and letters of the past century having penned dozens of books and countless articles on a variety of topics with a focus on the younger set with titles like Sandy Koufax: Strikeout King, Roberto Clemente: Batting King, and Muhammad Ali: The Champion. And he seems to have a taste for the Western genre as titles like Bandolero attest. But with A Day in the Bleachers he essentially invented a little visited or attempted micro-genre that defies label but essentially devotes itself to the documentation of a single game. Daniel Okrent’s 9 Innings deconstructs a long-forgotten 1982 Brewers-Orioles game and Ron Darling’s hot-off-the-presses Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life are a couple that quickly spring to mind.
But these books, fine as they are, are devoid of the special man-on-the-street charm Hano serves up in his peculiar fan’s notes. Where the latter efforts emphasize the the designated game’s strategic nuances—the thousands of them—that compromise any given sporting contest, Hano plunges us into the maw of the left field bleachers in Upper Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, that mystical ball yard of yore and provides the intrepid reader with the very scent and beating heart of the moment. From his spur-of-the-moment decision to venture to the game on its dawn to its last, fateful pitch in the late afternoon of an early autumn in New York, we feel the arc of the day and the author’s companionship.
Reading along with Hano’s book while listening to the surviving, gnarly recording (Selections 177-182 @ https://archive.org/details/OTRBaseballBroadcasts) provides something of a revelation. The writer’s attention to detail and power of recall (and, no doubt, a well-annotated scorecard) are acute. I imagine that scorecard filled with tiny, exquisite notations marking both specific ABs and the colorful characters (complete with their quirky quips and salty barbs) of those seated on the splintery green Polo Grounds’ bleacher planks around him.
The longer form medium of a book affords it’s writer a relaxed view and ex post facto consideration of the day’s events (and advents!) that unfolded before him. Observer, participant and celebrant, Hano makes no bones as to his allegiance to the Giants, the team he professes to have and no doubt adored since his youth. Throughout this memoir of a day, he intermittently peppers his reportage with Proustian remembrances of games past recalling the exploits of the sport’s late 1920-‘40s superstars, flashes-in-the-pan and thudding busts. A recollection of the bizarrely and prosodically named Van Lingle Mungo, a temperamental Brooklyn fireballer later immortalized Dave Frishberg’s autumnal novelty song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKzobTlF8fM), is one of a passel of such quick studies Hano offers up throughout his book like so many easy warm-up tosses. Nearly every aspect of the reading experience acts like one of Marcel’s sweet madeleines, setting off torrents of recall as games of old and their players come to life once more. Particularly poignant is Hano’s mini-profile of Bob Feller, the Tribe’s then-aging hurler entering the twilight of his career and his best, great days—when his fastball was a marvel that enthralled a nation—rapidly becoming an afterthought.
Up in the broadcast booth Al Helfer (a Dodger broadcaster previously encountered on this blog: http://paintingthewordpicture.blogspot.com/2011/01/there-once-was-ballpark-here.html) and the new to me Jimmy Dudley provide solid coverage of the action. Dudley, in particular, is something of a revelation. With his genteel Virginia drawl and easy-going “aw shucks” on-air persona, he comes off as something more than a poor man’s Red Barber who, I suppose due to his national popularity, often (perhaps too often) got the nod from the networks to handle the big, high-profile games. Dudley’s observations scan to the ear quite similarly to Hano’s breezy text causing one to wonder if a bleacher denizen sitting nearby brought his own transistor radio to game within earshot of the writer whose prose coincidentally mimics some of Dudley’s vocabulary—common as it might sometimes be—if not his cadence. For his part, Hano, at one point in his book, raises an eyebrow at those who deign to bring their radios to games as if scolding them for not relying on their own eyes and ears in absorbing the experience of the game in and of itself.
Like a fine short story writer, Hano subtly builds the dramatic conflict that suffuses this game’s edgy narrative which Helfer and Dudley only nominally recognize: the brawny thick lumber-wielding and truly terrifying Indian batsman Vic Wertz and the mercurial artist of the game, Willie Mays. Though Mays had made his major league debut in 1951, a stint in the service had him mostly sidelined until ’54 which came to be his real coming out soiree and of which he made the most of in leading the Senior Circuit in hitting while dazzling the country with his myriad, exemplary tools. The “Say Hey Kid” could, seemingly do it all, be it at the dish, on the base paths and, perhaps most theatrically, in centerfield where he flashed leather like very, very few, if any, had before of have since, tracking down loops, bloops, blasts and drives usually with his black cap twirling off his round head as if snatched by Zephyr himself.
Wertz—he of the big bat and plodding feet—embodied much of what characterized the Tribe’s record-setting 111-win rampage to the AL flag. Hano, however, parses the illusion of Cleveland’s dominance with the tutored eye of a future SABR-stician worthy of a gig with Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com by pointing out how the team was a kind of mistake by the lake in grabbing the pennant the old-fashioned way: beating up on the second division teams (the Philly A’s, newly-minted Baltimore Orioles, Senators, Tigers, etc.) who, on a clear day, could glimpse fourth place while essentially playing to a draw with the Yanks and Chisox. The Bronx Bombers, for instance, won a more than very impressive 103 games that year but were still eight games off the pace when the curtain fell on the regular season. Thus, in drawing the Giants, who stormed into the Series as a scalding squad, they were set to meet their match and, as it transpired, looming doom and Maker.
For those unfamiliar with the legend of “The Catch,” allow me the briefest of dissertations. In the top of the eighth inning with the teams knotted at two, the Indians mounted a rally. And, with one out and two men aboard, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz walloped a drive into the depths of the Polo Grounds’ immense centerfield. Taking off with he crack of the bat, Mays turned his back to the field, raced to the wall and pulled down the drive over is shoulder. What is often lost in the play’s recounting is the throw Mays executed on the cusp of his catch, twirling and hurling the ball back to the infield and blunting any possibility of the runners advancing. Surviving footage and photos of the play only hint at it and the surviving broadcast, ironically, seems to have lost the play to its technical flaws. Only Hano’s reportage has preserved the scene in its entirety.
As a boy and even then a budding student of the game and its associated lore, I was always fascinated by just how handily the Jints disposed of the Indians in their fabled and ferocious four-game sweep. But Hano’s breakdown provides a nice, cursory study of the truth of the aphorism “there are lies, damn lies and statistics” underlying the fallacy of the Indians’ underwhelming—when you look it at closely with a jaundiced, scrutinizing eye—win total.
And, natch, I was also always fascinated, nay, enthralled by Willie Mays, second only in my youthful idolatry to Mickey Mantle. This was due, in no small part to the mythos and images connected with “The Catch,” but also because, quite simply, he was baseball’s most dynamic (and probably still its best-ever) player as I came to baseball consciousness. Even merely saying the words “Willie Mays” continue to bring a certain excitement and magic. After the Yankees and Mets, the San Francisco Giants were and remain my favorite baseball team outside the five boroughs, inspired no doubt from my readings of “The Catch,” seeing the old newsreel clip Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” complete with Russ Hodges’ frothy call and, I like to think, an intuitive knowledge that San Francisco was then, anyway, a cool place. Plus, I liked the mythological ring to the name “Giants” and uniform aesthetics. Something about that orange and black…
Central to my worship of Mays was the iconic image of Willie—his back to the camera, arms and mitt outstretched to the the Polo Grounds deep centerfield limits, the ball a nanosecond away from striking it… and eternity…
The photo—rather a cropped version of it—quite appropriately adorns my later edition of A Day in the Bleachers. I have gazed at the photo and other versions of it literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times yet have been often struck by its oddness. One’s eye is immediately drawn to Mays but the large “batter’s eye” tarp that blocked off the edge of the right field bleachers and a staple in ballparks so as to give the hitter a neutral (and safe) backdrop on which to better see the ball being served up by a pitcher, looms behind and over Mays as if it were a barrier separating mortal life from a void of non-moving things.
What makes the complete image on the cropped version splayed on the book’s cover so strange are the fans who, in some fashion, resemble those Hano describes seated around him in left field. Because of the batter’s eye and the warning track depth at which Mays made or was about to make his snare, these spectators rising from the top of the tarp, appear blocked or momentarily blinded from the miraculous unfolding below them due to a steep and impossible angle. There are five or six rows of men—all, it appears, men—white and black in the photo. Some are youngish in their later teens and twenties, some older and some quite a bit older. A number—mostly the African-Americans—wear Fedoras and like chapeaus favored at the time. Except the fellows in the front row above the tarp, nearly all stand as if searching for something, for Mays. But their eyes appear not to be fixed below them but rather out toward space or some sort of unnameable vacuum.
Gazes seemingly set someplace else, these men—now all or nearly gone from our jumping blue/green sphere—juxtaposed with Mays’ immaculate reception, this cropped version of “The Catch” somehow and for whatever reason for me invoke the monumental mid-16th century oil painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” attributed to Pieter Bruegel, The Elder. This masterwork of the late Western European Renaissance displays a landscape where ordinary folk go about their daily toils at once humdrum yet vital to sustaining life in many socio-economic forms. In the foreground, a plough man drives his horse churning up soil in oblong rows. A shepherd behind him roams with his wayward flock by the shore’s edge. Ships both near and distant are anchored or sail through a kind of mist to a lively port of a jewel of a city rising in the distance, nestled amidst a craggy shoreline around a murky, turquoise Aegean. Behind it stark mountains rise to some sort of luminous heaven. Barely noticeable amidst the action are two legs, a hand and what may be the wispy remnant of melted wax wings making barely a splash into the dusky waters in the painting’s bottom right corner. An angler, just feet from the incident, seems to have any chance of glimpsing Icarus but even he seems to have missed it—his head tilted too far downward. And a sailor climbing the rigging of the merchant ship nearby seems too involved with his dangerous task to take notice. Only the pheasant above a tree near the angler seems to have any chance of seeing, if not perceiving, the mythic moment. Even if any of them might have seen the tragic fall as Icarus’ faux wings ignited and he plummeted back to Earth, none of them could have saved him. But here they don’t even have a tale to tell.
But that, as any Art History 101 student knows, is not the point of the painting at least in the eyes of scholars who obsess on such matters. No, they suggest (as do W.C. Williams and W.H. Auden both of whom penned poems in homage of the oil) that the meaning to be derived is that while tremendous feats—be they brave or foolhardy—are attempted all around us all the time, few, if any of us, take or appear to take notice. Whether it is Man’s indifference to human suffering, the species’ distraction with itself or an inability to grasp and appreciate the miraculous even when it is served up right before them, we just go on plodding along, tilling that land as the planet makes yet another meaningless spin.
Mays soars like Icarus to touch the sun. But unlike that Greek freak who wound up just a mass mess on the bright, blue Aegean, he breaks through to the Heavens, far beyond the center of the solar system to a sacred space wear angels never fear to tread.
The image of Mays on the cover of Hano’s book is, itself, an illusion or white lie as it is, in fact and as previously alluded, a cropped version of a much wider shot that clearly show that the balance of those 50K-plus packed into the Polo Grounds, saw the play unfold in real time apparently just luckier to have secured a ducat that afforded them an unobstructed vista.
This wider shot portraying its own landscape in its fuller glory, with dozens more fans and, by extension, the entire ballpark (and, to me, implicitly, the very breadth of humanity), recalls an even more revered Renaissance masterpiece, perhaps Western Civilization’s most awe-inspiring artwork: the hand of God reaching out to bring life to Adam in Michelangelo’s centerpiece fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the wider, unedited shot of Mays and in Michelangelo’s fresco, others are witness to the act (or, at least, an act) of Creation.
The captured moment is a kind of visual anointment much like Michelangelo’s holy vision—the ball guided into Mays’ mitt as if, itself, was touched by the hand of God. And if not God, then Michelangelo could have carved out Mays’ very features as he, in his fleeting prime, remains the very physical embodiment of the classic baseball player. Hano, himself, describes Mays as a objet d’art or , at least, an artist into and of himself in the early pages of A Day in the Bleachers when describing the centerfielder take fielding practice, and lacing throws from the depths of the outfield on a dime to third base hundreds of feet away: “On this early afternoon, Mays did not seem to be Mays either. He appeared superhuman…only a man like Mays makes it a work of art.”
I saw Willie Mays play baseball primarily on the tube when the Giants played the Mets but also with these two eyes surprisingly precious few times live and in person at Shea. I think the only time I saw him in his late prime would have been on a weekend afternoon in the summer of 1965 or thereabouts, a game I have virtually no recollection save the crisp $5 bill I found blowing around my feet as I sat with my father and a friend along the third base line. Memories of the game aside, the Mays I witnessed in the mid-1960s was still a phenom, a veritable force of nature. Even more than Mantle, who by then had eroded considerably, the skills and accompanying charisma of Willie Mays was a near intoxicant. Every gesture, step, swing, throw or catch carried with it a keen sense of rhythm, expectation and execution. I wore a San Francisco Giant cap to the game that day and if I had a corresponding jersey, you can bet that it would have had a #24 on its back.
By the time he came back to New York to play for the Mets in ’72, Willie was on his last legs. Sure, his game-winning blast to beat the Giants in his first game as a Metropolitan was pure poetry and irony rolled into one. But his whole visage during those last two seasons was as of a hollow man or maybe, to invoke Hemingway’s ghost, an “Old Man of the Sea,” that luckless Cuban fisherman who mused upon the great DiMaggio as an ocean’s monster, hook firmly entrapped in its mouth, dragged the dying man’s dingy ‘cross the choppy Caribbean… an old soul fading into wispy ash…
My final, lasting memories of Mays the ballplayer unfold like a triptych over the course of his last season a year hence.
On Bloomsday 1973 and on the same afternoon Secretariat stormed to thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, I was at Shea with a couple of high school friends to see Mays hit one of his last home runs, #656 off San Diego Padre Randy Jones making his Big League debut in relief (“Welcome to the majors, kid”). As he pigeon-toed his way around the bases, shoulders hunched, arms close to his chest, my friends and I rejoiced amidst the Flushing throng, well-knowing that this was, indeed, a moment to cherish. Willie Mays—mortal man or immortal deity, who could say?
Some months later, after one of the more wild-and-wooly division races in the modern era, I was sitting in the left field upper deck of the third game of the ’73 NLCS series when, after Pete Rose assaulted Buddy Harrelson in their infamous dust-up at second base, the partisans in the stands around me grew way more than a little rabid, hurling objects—half-filled beer cans and the like—down on Rose (already a known asshole at that point) who had taken his position below us. It was, legitimately, frightening to the sixteen-year-old version of myself what with passions percolating to near-riot proportions. Truly, I have never been in a crowd that was so close to crossing the line from unruly civility to mayhem and that includes any one of a number of protests from Viet Nam to Occupy. The expression of vitriol prompted Reds’ skipper Sparky Anderson to pull his entire squad off the field until emotions quelled lest the Mets—gulp!—forfeit the game. And as those half-consumed cans of Rheingold whizzed past my skull, I could feel the stirrings of panic.
But, as if on cue, Mays, Tom Seaver, manager Yogi Berra, and (bat in-hand) Rusty Staub trepidatiously stepped towards the lion’s den motioning with their hands as a teacher might to a chaotic classroom for everyone to cool it. The fans eventually did and the Mets went on to romp.
A few days later in the second game of the ’73 World Series against the formidable Oakland A’s, there was Mays on his knees, arms raised, his face contorted as he argued an extra innings out at home call with the fantastically named umpire Augie Donatelli. Here is Mays as a man—just a man—karma and luck and skills faded, beseeching a dark specter for a sign of life nowhere in sight. Earlier in that game, Mays (now nineteen years removed from the state of grace that enveloped him on the Polo Grounds’ sylvan plains in ‘54) had flubbed two very catchable fly balls under a blinding Bay Area sun that appeared to melt his mortal wings. Mays was forty-two years old that day—an age my son and I are nearly equidistance to but Willie looked older than the two of us put together. Sluggish and in a sort of demented haze, here was the very image and definition of a man who had continued to play a boy’s game for too long even if he did Baltimore Chop the game’s winning hit. Mays announced his retirement after that game effective after the Series finale.
Mays is, of course, mortal. And like The Mick, now twenty years gone, and my own mom, still extending her AB, all of whom were born within days of one another in 1931’s mid-spring, he, too, will be remembered only for as long as memory, in its fickleness, might allow.
We are all living myths. We all wear at least a few of God’s thousand masks and all possess a bit of Icarus within us. And Mays, who danced among the deities longer than any of us could ever wish or hope for ourselves, endured a final Icarusian flight and fall of a sort. Nearly thirty years after his final game, there he sat on the Giants’ bench in the 7th inning of Game Six, wearing civvies, sporting a black Giants cap with its interlocking S &F, sipping champagne in Anaheim, comfortable (too comfortable) with San Francisco’s seeming insurmountable five-zip lead as the visitors poised to win their first crown since the hallowed October of ’54. This optic had bad juju written all over it and, sure enough and fast as you can say “Barry Bonds did steroids,” the Baseball Gods took notice, the Angels’ rally monkeys did their voodoo, the hometown mounted a stirring comeback, and surged to win the game and next one as the jinxed Jints let another season crumble in ignominy. Never S on or, especially, F with the Baseball Gods…
Hano's book is better than nearly any baseball film and, here, it tops the word pictures stroked in the squeally, extant audio of the broadcast. But the photo of “The Catch”—an actual picture that has spawned thousands of words—might top them both.
Mays’ exploits on that mid-afternoon under Coogan’s Bluff in ’54 marked a kind of baptism for the burgeoning superstar Hall-of-Famer. And if momentum in baseball is real, “The Catch” and less-heralded “Throw” that kept the baserunners moored to their stations, were a turning point in the game and, probably, the series. The game’s final swing was off the bat of pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes—no colossus he if but for these autumn days in ’54—whose cheapo Polo Grounds special and big blasts and bloops in the coming days wold herald him as one of those fleeting heroes of October.
Rhodes’ walk-off, really a pop-fly that landed in the first row of the Polo Grounds right field seats, might have been caught in a ball yard with more forgiving real estate. And how fitting that Cleveland's right fielder, a late game defensive sub, carried a surname with one that matched that of the only one could commission a fresco on a Vatican chapel ceiling so long ago: Dave Pope.
Be it true or apocryphal, there is a wonderful, quite humorous anecdote accompanying the aftermath of Mays’ fielding epiphany. Tracking the game through the recording, book and box score, one can see the gears inside Giants’ manager Leo Durocher’s head awhirl. Before Wertz took his fateful swing, Leo summoned lefty reliever Don Liddle to spell Sal Maglie who had pitched a gutty game but now left men on first and second with just one out. Liddle tossed but one pitch and though Wertz’s drive, Mays catch and subsequent throw are the stuff of legend, it appears as a mere out in the box score. Durocher, either having seen enough or just wanting to play the righty-lefty match-up game, sent his pitching coach, Freddie Fitzsimmons, to give Liddle the hook. Upon arriving on top of the hill, the reliever is said to have looked the coach in the eye and, handing him the ball, said, “I got my guy.”
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
By W.C. Williams
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed