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The Art of Fiction is Dead

Red Smith is the most respected sports columnist we’ve ever had. In his prime, Jimmy Cannon, Smith’s friendly rival, was certainly as well-known. Cannon, the Voice of New York, was an emotional, colloquial writer whose reputation, unfortunately, has faded. But Smith endures. What is it about his writing that ages so well?

“It’s the same reason Shakespeare ages well,” Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist told me recently. “He wrote beautifully, it’s as simple as that.” 

The Library of America presents Smith’s finest work in the new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. It is available now and a must-read for all sports fans, young and old (and an ideal gift for Father’s Day). This week, with permission from Smith’s family, we’ll reprint a Red Smith column every day to offer you a sample of what he was all about. Today’s column is “Miracle Of Coogan’s Bluff,” which ran on October 4, 1951, the day after Bobby Thomson sent the New York Giants to the World Series with his historic Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

So, enjoy, and for more on Smith, check out this oral history from Jerome Holtzman’s classic, No Cheering in the Press Box; this excerpt from Stanley Woodward’s memoir, Paper Tiger; a nice tribute by his son, Terrance Smith; and this excerpt from Dan Okrent’s introduction to American PastimesCourse it goes without saying that if you want to know from Red Smith you need to go find a copy of Ira Berkow’s excellent biography, Red.  

“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff”

By Red Smith

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.

At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coattails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.

And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October. . . . Of the final day of the season, when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight. . . . Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost, and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when—Oh, why bother?

Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds. . . . Or perhaps this is better:

“Well!” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.

“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”

“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here!”

“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”

And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged Thomson out. Up in the press section, the voice of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.

It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe, and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendrous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.

The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending that such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.

Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up, with runners on first and third base, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.

He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ballgame.

Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie wild-pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.

So it was the Dodgers’ ballgame, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.

A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up, Lockman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz-stretcher-bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.

There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. Would Charley Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was a called strike.

The second pitch—well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

This One Goes to…

Check out this fine portrait of the 2011 Dodgers by Lee Jenkins in the current issue of Sports Illustrated.

Stow was in a coma. Half his skull had been removed to allow his brain to swell. He required seven forms of medication to limit his seizures. “He came as close to not making it as you can come,” says Dr. Gabriel Zada, Stow’s neurosurgeon at USC. His parents, Dave and Ann, and his sisters, Bonnie and Erin, spent seven hours a day at the hospital. At night they retreated to the downtown Marriott and toasted “the Great Hodge,” a nickname Stow gave himself as a boy. On April 6, a candlelight vigil was held outside the hospital. Hundreds attended, including Dodgers officials and a local talk-show host on KFI 640 AM named Bill Carroll. Ann invited Carroll to Stow’s room. Standing next to the bed, where Stow was covered in tubes and bandages, Carroll decided to make this story his own. He led his show with it most afternoons. He had Zada on as a regular guest. He sometimes took calls for three hours about the case, and when he went off the air, phone lines were still jammed. Everyone seemed to have survived a traumatic ordeal at Dodger Stadium, and they knew just who was responsible. “It was a convergence of two stories,” Carroll says. “People said, ‘I knew this would happen because McCourt let the team go downhill and security do the same.’”

Even after the Dodgers announced, on April 4, a $25,000 reward for information on Stow’s attackers, talk-radio host Tom Leykis pledged $50,000 of his own money in an attempt to embarrass McCourt. Leykis was also harassed at Dodger Stadium, by two fans during a game in 2009, and has not been back since. “I grew up in New York so I’m used to going to Yankee Stadium and seeing drunken louts threaten each other,” Leykis says. “Then I moved to L.A., and it was much different. Dodger Stadium was more like Disneyland. You have fun and feel safe and drift off into this dreamlike world. But now we’ve got this carpetbagger from Boston who never took the time to understand the deep connection of Dodger Stadium to Southern California. I’m not a dramatic person, but it hurts my heart. It kills me.”

Dodgers fans were not the only ones desperate to rid themselves of the carpetbagger. Commissioner Bud Selig told confidants that the Stow beating was “the final straw” for McCourt. By the time the Dodgers returned home from their first road trip, on April 14, Selig had dispatched a six-man task force to Los Angeles, led by MLB executive vice president John McHale Jr., to evaluate stadium security. McCourt’s hold on the franchise he had diminished was slipping.

Jenkins is an excellent reporter with a smooth prose style who has become one of SI’s top talents (he’s got two features this week). This is a long piece but worth reading.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver