Tuesday, June 14, 2011

1946 World Series

I have a distinct memory of a classic baseball World Series that was played nearly 64 years ago, when I was only six years old!
by Charlie Leck

I have no business remembering anything about the 1946 World Series, but I do (well, sort of). I had just turned 6 years old – a month before the World Series began – and six year olds shouldn’t be baseball savvy. However, I was. I had a father who was a baseball nut and the radio in the store was always tuned in to the New York Giant baseball games – nearly every day during the summer. My grandfather (my mother’s father) was also baseball crazy and he was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. And, I had a brother, John, who was six years older than I and he was a St. Louis Cardinal fan and also baseball crazy. I used to sit with my dad or my grandpa and listen to baseball games on the big radios that each kept nearby during baseball season. I was an early reader and could read bits of stories in the sports section of the New York Herald Tribune – and I loved the constant baseball photographs the paper ran during the summer.

And 1946 was an absolutely crazy baseball season. It began less than a year after the war ended. Many of the great, professional players of the game had been in one branch of the military or another. A number of them came home with serious injuries that ended their careers. Others came home great heroes – none greater than Ted Williams, the remarkable Boston Red Sox slugger who distinguished himself as a pilot during the war.

Ted Williams signed up with a naval reserve unit in Massachusetts and missed three years of an extraordinary baseball career. Williams was a natural athlete and quickly mastered the skills of flying and became a pilot instructor. This player, who has often been called the greatest hitter in the history of the game, also became a national war hero.

So, William’s team, the Red Sox, won the American League championship in 1946 and the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League championship as they had been making a habit of doing. They would meet in the World Series that has often been called the greatest in the history of baseball. What would I as a six year old ever know about that?

The St. Louis Cardinals, my brother’s team, managed to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers, my grandpa’s team, on the final day of the 1946 season to tie them for the National League championship. The tie called for the first best-of-three-game playoff of the century. The first game was played in St. Louis and the Cardinals won, 4-2. Both teams boarded trains and headed to New York, where the playoff series would continue.

I remember my brother and father jumping for joy on the day of that game at Ebbet’s Field. Though a Giant fan, my father hated the Dodgers and he was pulling mightily for the Cardinals. Harry “the Cat’ Brecheen pitched for the Cardinals in that game and beat the Bums 6-4. The Cardinals boarded a train to return to St. Louis and the first game of the World Series.

The games of the Fall Classic in those days were played during the day – under beautiful, natural sunlight and great big, blue skies. The first game was played on a Sunday. In the afternoon, my father and brother huddled near a radio to hear the play by play call of every pitch. I sat nearby, listening to the radio and to the comments of my dad and brother. The Red Sox won the first game in extra innings before 36,000 fans in old Sportsman Park. My brother was depressed and so was my father and, therefore, so was I; however, the Cardinals won the next day (Monday) 3-0. I can remember rushing home from school and listening to the last innings of the game in our little living room in front of a radio that was bigger than our TVs of today. Harry Brecheen pitched magnificently and shut the Red Sox out completely. My father was extremely happy and my brother, who had dashed home from school to listen with me, was beaming with happiness also.

The series would take a day off as the players climbed on trains and headed for Boston. The next game would be played on Wednesday, October 9. Again, I rushed down the hill from our elementary school to join my father as he listened to the broadcast of the game. My father, brother and I were all very depressed when the Red Sox won the game 4-0. But, the next day, I scampered home from the school to listen to the radio, the Cardinals were way ahead in the game when I got home and it ended with the Cards ahead 12-3. They’d collected 20 hits – 4 of them by my brother’s favorite player, Enos (Country Boy) Slaughter.

Boston struck back on the next day and won the game 6-3. Slaughter got hit on the elbow by a Joe Dobson pitch. The Cardinal doctor felt that Slaughter couldn’t play again in the series; however, he had a travel day as the teams headed back to St. Louis. Slaughter iced and nursed the elbow as the train traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

On Sunday, October 13, in the sixth game of the series in St. Louis, Slaughter was in the line-up and the Cardinals evened up the series 3-3. Again, it was Harry Brecheen on the pitcher’s mound for the Cardinals and he gave up only a single run in the 8th inning.

“If I’m alive, I can play,” Slaughter had said before the game.

The final game of the World Series was played on a Tuesday afternoon. My father was working his luncheonette and general store, but the radio was booming and every customer spent some moments listening to the action. My father listened to it all as he rushed around in his store giving attention to customers, but my brother and I sat in our little living room, glued to the action. My mother made big roast beef sandwiches on buns for us.

If it wasn’t the greatest World Series in the history of baseball, it was certainly one of the top ones for excitement and drama; and that may be why I, as a six year old, can remember the action and detail. And it was the excitement and drama of game seven that makes the Series stand out in the history of baseball.

The Red Sox had an awesome team, loaded with stars: In addition to Williams, the Sox had Dom DiMaggio in center field, Johnny Pesky at shortstop and Bobby Doerr at second base. Rudy York played first base. That Boston team had six regulars hitting better than 300 for the season. Williams led them all at 342. However, newspaper reporters, guys Ted Williams liked to call “the Knights of the Keyboard,” reminded everyone that the American League was loaded with weak pitching.

The Cardinals were loaded, too. They had Musial at first, Red Schoendienst (another hall of famer) at second base. Marty Marion played next to Red at shortstop. They had only three regulars hitting in the 300 or more range, but Schoendienst (281), Marion (233) and Terry Moore (263) were all hitting well at the end of the season.

Of course, the two great stars going into the series were Ted Williams and Stan Musial. How different they were. Williams was curt, brash and sarcastic with nearly everyone and certainly with the reporters. He didn’t want to be bothered by other players, the press or the fans. Musial, who had a fantastic year and hit 365 for the season, with 228 hits in 624 at bat, was the direct opposite of Williams. He was friendly with everyone, including the press. He happily gave out all the autographs that he possibly could and was constantly smiling and laughing.

For the aficionados of baseball, one of the memorable strategies discussed for years was the Cardinals’ decision to shift their infield to the right field side whenever Williams came to bat. Leaving only one infielder (third baseman, Whitey Kurowski) on the left field side, they dared Williams to stroke the ball rather than swinging with power. Of course, the stubborn Williams refused to alter his swing and batted only 200 for the Series. Some years later, Musial was impetuous enough to say that he would have “hit a ton” in a situation like that.

What I remember more than the games about that series was the closeness of my father and my brother and I – as we – huddled near the radio. We were all so close together that our nervousness and excitement was shared intimately. Every moment was tense and thrilling. The play-by-play announcers were extraordinary and maybe somewhat hyperbolic and dramatic. There is something very special about listening to a game rather than watching it. A good radio play-by-play guy paints pictures for the listeners so that the game actually becomes auditory or audile (images in the mind) for the careful listener.

Ted Williams, still facing the challenging infield shift, was trying to pull the ball hard and over the right field fence, but he had no success. The Cardinal pitcher, Murray Dickson, retired eighteen of nineteen batters from the second to the seventh inning. In the eighth inning the Cardinals brought in Harry Brecheen to relieve Dickson. Brecheen had pitched the entire nine innings of the game two days previously (something that modern teams would never do). The Cardinals were ahead by two runs at the time and Brecheen entered, with two men on, to face Dom DiMaggio. Joe’s brother slashed a double into the corner and both runners scored to tie the game. Running to second base, however, Dimaggio pulled a hamstring muscle and had to leave the game. It would prove to be a disastrous injury for the Boston team.

Williams stepped into the batter’s box to face Brecheen and the Cardinal’s infield shift. He popped up to the second baseman to end the inning.

Enos Slaughter, with the sore elbow, was the first batter in the bottom of the eighth and he lined a single to center field. Two outs later, however, he was still on first base. Harry Walker, a 237 hitter during the regular season, came up to the plate. Walker had been swinging well during the World Series and was filled with confidence. He was about to be involved in one of the most thrilling moments in the history of baseball.

With two balls and one strike on him, Walker stroked the next pitch smoothly and lined it into left center field. Slaughter, who had been running on the pitch, easily rounded second and headed for third base. Dom DiMaggio’s replacement in center field, Leon Culberson, was out of position and playing too far toward right field. Culberson raced over to the ball and bobbled it slightly and then threw it casually to shortstop Johnny Pesky, the cutoff man in the infield.

Slaughter had become known in baseball at the greatest hustler in the history of the game. He was loaded with guts and daring. Without stopping and without looking back, from pure baseball instinct he knew that Pesky would never expect him to keep running. Slaughter slowed for just an instant, to decoy Pesky, and then took off at full speed toward home plate. Pesky hesitated for just an instant, but it was the split second that Slaughter needed. Pesky’s throw was hurried and up the line. Slaughter slid home a hero. Pesky hung his head, unfairly, as the game’s goat.

Through the wonder of You Tube, you can see the dash Slaughter made from first base on the very ordinary single and how the throw from Pesky was off target.

Harry the Cat gave up two hits in the ninth inning but then retired the next three batters and the Cardinals were the World Series champions. And I became an ardent Cardinal fan and Stan Musial became my lifelong idol (“blind admiration, adoration or devotion,” the dictionary says). He had played in four World Series in his first five years in baseball. After 1946, he would not play in another.

Now, to defend my assertion that I can remember all of this 64 years later, while only a six year old at the time, I must tell you that I have read dozens and dozens of baseball books over the years, and I’ve heard the story of Enos Slaughter’s famous dash from first base to home plate many times. I recognize that my memory, therefore, is likely adulterated by the attention I’ve given to this historic baseball moment throughout my life. Nevertheless, I defend to my last breath the paragraph about the closeness and nervousness I felt with my brother and my father as we listened to those ballgames together.

You can watch another You Tube video that presents nearly three minutes of highlights from the ’46 World Series.


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1 comment:

  1. I like your emphasizing the experience of listening to a baseball game on the radio. I still have memories of my father sitting on the front porch listening to a Yankees game. I still listen to an Indians game on the radio.= Tony Rugare