Johnny on the Spot

He doesn't remember much from that night at the Bossert Hotel, except that someone kept refilling his glass with champagne, and he could see from the windows that the whole length of Montague Street was clogged with delirious people. "We had to take turns going outside and waving to them," he remembers. "People were clapping us on the back and shouting. There was one old guy there who kept telling me over and over that he had been waiting for this since 1916. But a lot of it was a blur."

Two or three weeks later, when the blur was starting to pass, it dawned on him what had really happened. "I was deer hunting in the Adirondacks, walking in the woods by myself, when it was like a light came on. It was real quiet. I suddenly stopped, right there in the rustling leaves, and I said to myself: 'Podres, you beat the Yankees in the World Series.'"

That was 41 years ago. On the afternoon of October 4, 1955, John Joseph Podres, the son of an upstate New York iron miner, pitched a complete-game, 2-0 shutout against the mighty New York Yankees that gave the beleaguered Brooklyn Dodgers their first and only world championship. It was a seventh game remembered years afterward, in the saloons of Brooklyn and on the back porches of the Bronx, for Sandy Amoros's spectacular sixth-inning catch of a slicing Yogi Berra liner down the left field line that saved the day and the Series for the Dodgers.

Podres says he can still see the ball dropping miraculously into Amoros's glove ("Junior Gilliam probably wouldn't have caught it, because he was a righty, and he'd have had to backhand it"), can see Amoros's relay peg to the infield and shortstop Pee Wee Reese's throw to first base, doubling off Gil McDougald. But Podres has another memory, just as vivid. In that one, as late-afternoon shadows spread over the infield at Yankee Stadium, Elston Howard swings at Podres's tantalizing change-up and grounds the ball to Reese. Pee Wee scoops it, zips the ball over to Gil Hodges at first base, and the game is over. A change-up. It is the only time in nine innings that Podres has shaken off a sign from catcher Roy Campanella.

Four days after his 23rd birthday, Johnny Podres had finally fulfilled Brooklyn's long-held dream. Because he also prevailed 8-3 in game three and had given up just one earned run into two complete-game wins against the Yanks, he won the Series MVP award and the new Corvette. His father hugged him and cried in the Dodgers clubhouse. "That wasn't an easy thing for a man like him to do," Podres remembers. October 4, 1955. The young left-hander was immediately summoned to be a guest on the Steve Allen Show. Then he joined his teammates amid the happy throngs at the Bossert Hotel, his named emblazoned in legend.

John Podres is 64 now. The famous blue eyes still sparkle, and at 190 pounds, he's barely an ounce over his playing weight in the later stages of his fifteen-year big-league career. "I don't have any double chins," he calls out to a fan. "You have the double chin?"

Podres spent last Saturday afternoon in the stuffy upper room of a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on West Colfax Avenue, signing baseballs and old eight-by-ten glossies and caps and shirts. The occasion was something called Superstar Collectors Show No. 28, presented by an outfit called Joy Enterprises--and between 1 and 4 p.m., the old lefty put his signature to maybe 200 items ("Johnny Podres, '55 WS MVP"--in bright-blue ink) and made small talk with fans and collectors.

"I don't do this very often," he explained later, "but it's amazing what some of the people remember, what they make you remember. And once in a while somebody will bring up a picture you haven't seen before."

In one of those, the young Johnny Podres has just thrown a pitch. Twenty-one years old, five-foot-eleven, 170 pounds, he is a rather startling addition to a 1953 Brooklyn pitching staff that already includes Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine and Billy Loes. In the picture, he stands splay-legged in billowing white flannels, left hand crossed over his body in the direction of his right knee, with his leather-gloved right hand laid palm outward across the small of his back. Beneath the big white "B" on his cap, we see a raw, intense, big-eyed face bisected by a broad, powerful nose. There isn't a crease of age or apparent worry around the eyes, or a line of worry in the brow.

On Saturday afternoon Johnny Podres stared at the old photo for a startled moment, as if it were the image of an old friend he'd half forgotten, someone he once knew long ago. He autographed it with a flourish of blue ink and started to hand it back to its silver-haired owner. Before the photo was gone forever, though, Podres stole once last glance at the face.

"I was a Dodger fan all my life," he said later. "I listened to games on the radio in upstate New York. Place called Witherbee, although people called it Mineville. I used to hear Red Barber and Connie Desmond and those guys. I remember when Dolph Camilli used to play first base and he used to get those two-out hits. I loved it. I loved it. A two-out hit to win a game for the Dodgers. He was my idol. Like most boys up there, I might have wound up working in the mines, like my father. Almost everybody did, right out of school. But I could pitch, and I worked out with the Phillies when I was in high school. They said I was too small. So then I went to Brooklyn and worked out there. I threw for about fifteen minutes on the side, and they brought me up to see Mr. Rickey."

That would be Branch Rickey, the baseball visionary who assembled Brooklyn's grandest teams. "The one thing I remember about Mr. Rickey," Podres went on, "was when I was leaving that room, the office, I heard him tell the scout: 'Don't let that boy get away.'"

He didn't. Instead, he fulfilled his dream of pitching for the Dodgers. After tearing up class D ball down in Kentucky at age nineteen and putting in a great 1952 season in then-minor-league Montreal, Podres was catapulted onto the Brooklyn pitching staff in 1953. That year he went 9-4 for the Dodgers, with a 4.23 earned run average. But when the 21-year-old was thrown into the heat of his first World Series game, against the hated Yankees, he came apart. The first batter he faced, Gene Woodling, hit a home run off him. His last batter, two innings later, hit a shot back to the box that ripped the Rawlings clean off his right hand. Instead of picking up the ball, rattled young Johnny first went for his glove. The runner was safe, and Podres's first World Series appearance was history.

Two seasons later, he almost didn't pitch at all in the Series.
"I didn't have a good year in 1955," he said. "I was 9-10 that year, because I had a lot of injuries. Then I hurt myself in September when the ground crew ran the batting cage into my ribs. For a while there, I couldn't even breathe. I was out for three more weeks before [manager Walt] Alston pitched me in Pittsburgh. I threw four innings and struck out about six guys, so they decided to keep me on the roster instead of bringing Kenny Lehman up from Montreal."

The rest, of course, is Brooklyn Dodger ecstasy. A player who came within a bruised rib or two of watching the 1955 World Series on a seventeen-inch black-and-white Philco instead pitched two complete game victories over the Yankees. The first one, game three at Ebbets Field, lifted the Dodgers out of an 0-2 Series hole. The seventh-game win gave them the title.

Was Johnny Podres nervous in the late innings of the historic game?
"Well, between innings, in the seventh, eighth and ninth, I was going downstairs to have a puff on a cigarette," he remembered. "I asked somebody to let me know when there were two outs so I could get ready to go back in. I remember coming out in the eighth inning and striking out Hank Bauer. I was in a jam there. And I remember Yankee Stadium. It seemed like everybody was standing on their feet, and I said to myself: 'I can't let this one get away from me now.' Just think of Brooklyn. All those years. All those Series. They'd never beaten the Yankees. Now we did it. The best thing was that Pee Wee got the last out."

Podres got the win.
"That was supposed to be, right?" Podres asks himself now. "I mean, with the year I'd had, I guess somebody must've been looking out for me--what do you think?"

Absolutely, John. Somebody besides the intense young man staring out of an old baseball photograph. Somebody who just knew when to change up and when to throw heat. Somebody who got Sandy Amoros to the left field line in time and saw to it that the champagne glasses remained full and who got the Brooklyn Dodgers, every last man, home safe from the Bossert Hotel, more than four decades past.

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