Monday, October 26, 2015

Underdog Stories: The 1954 Giants

The Cleveland Indians dominated the American League in 1954, posting a 111-43 record--best ever for a junior circuit team. Their pitching staff featured four eventual Hall of Famers-- Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Hal Newhouser. The offense was propelled by batting champion Bobby Avila and Cooperstown-bound outfielder Larry Doby, who had his most productive major league season with 32 homers and 126 RBIs. Collectively, the Indians belted more home runs than any team in the AL--even more than the powerful Yankees, who ended a string of five consecutive World Series championships when they finished eight gamed behind Cleveland in the standings. 

Over in the National League, the Dodgers were expected to claim their third straight pennant, but an unfortunate injury to superstar Roy Campanella left them scrambling for a competent replacement behind the plate. "Campy" sat out more than 40 games as the Dodgers finished second behind their oldest rivals. Managed by the fiery Leo Durocher, the Giants welcomed back All-Star center fielder Willie Mays, who had missed the previous two seasons to Army duty. The layoff didn't effect his abilities a bit as he hit .345 with 41 homers and 110 ribbies. Third baseman Hank Thompson chipped in with 26 homers of his own and corner outfielder Don Mueller, known as "Mandrake the Magician" on account of his knack for finding holes in the defense, posted a stellar .342 batting average. The New York bullpen was anchored by Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, who baffled opponents with his elusive knuckleball all season. Southpaw Johnny Antonelli, acquired from the Braves in the offseason, became the ace of the starting rotation with 21 victories.

The Giants entered the Series as 8-5 underdogs. While many sportswriters predicted that the New Yorkers would lose in six games, other sources believed that the Indians would sweep. In the end, it was the Giants who made quick work of their AL opponents. The Indians squandered leads in Games 1 and 2 then played catch-up for the rest of the Series as the Giants outscored them by a 21-9 margin. It was the first sweep by an NL club in forty years. A Chicago Sun Times correspondent remarked cheekily that "Custer has been avenged. The Indians could not have done a more thorough job on the unfortunate general and his minions than the Giants did on the Tribesmen of this trading post."

The Series is best remembered for one of the greatest defensive plays in history. With the score knotted at 2 in the eighth inning of Game 1, Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz smashed a 450 foot drive to deep center field. Infinitely familiar with the recesses of the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays sprinted after Wertz's drive with his back to the plate and made an over the shoulder catch. Completing one of the most astonishing sequences ever, he wheeled around and threw accurately to second, preventing the runners from scoring. The play would forever after be known as "The Catch." The Giants won on a tenth inning walk-off homer by seldom used outfielder Dusty Rhodes, who had compiled a healthy .341 average in 82 regular season games. Rhodes was the hero again in Game 2, tying it with a pinch-hit single then winning it with a 2-run homer in the seventh. In the third contest, Rhodes was at it again, delivering a bases loaded pinch-hit single. In all, he went 4-for-6 with a pair of homers and 7 RBIs. Rhodes never matched the success of his '54 season. A one-dimensional player, manager Leo Durocher once joked: "Any time you see a fielder get under the ball and pound his glove--even in Little League--you know he's going to catch it. I have seen Rhodes pound his glove and have the ball land twenty feet behind him."

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