Mays Catch Swept Tribe Out of World Series
Vince Guerrieri | On 27, Apr 2014
Just two seasons ago, American League Central Division foe Detroit Tigers were swept by the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series. The Indians knew about being swept by the Giants a couple generations ago.
The Tigers could have been swept by the Giants in the World Series after setting an American League record for wins – like the Indians in 1954.
The Indians had won no fewer than 89 games in the five years since winning the 1948 World Series – and they had nothing to show for it. The Yankees won the pennant in each of those years, and became the only team to win five consecutive World Series.
But in 1954, it all came together for the Tribe. Unlike this year’s Tigers, they didn’t have a Triple Crown winner, but Indians led the American League in each Triple Crown category – Bobby Avila hit .341 to lead the league, and Larry Doby hit 32 home runs and 126 RBI. Early Wynn and Bob Lemon each won 23 games, Mike Garcia won 19 and Bob Feller – coming to the end of his career but still having a little left in the tank – went 13-3.
The Indians clinched early and won 111 games, setting an American League record and gaining some measure of revenge from the fact that the Yankees sat at home with 103 wins, the highest in Casey Stengel’s 12-year tenure as manager – which included 10 pennants and seven World Championships.
The National League champions were the New York Giants, who won 97 games and finished five ahead of the previous year’s champions, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Tribe were nine-to-five betting favorites.
Game One was played at the Polo Grounds in New York City. The Indians have never had home field advantage in a World Series – and this was the most obvious time it haunted them. Manager Al Lopez believed the Indians would have won their second World Series in six years had it started in Cleveland.
Bob Lemon was pitching for the Indians. He had ended the season with an 11-game winning streak, and Lopez believed Lemon could pitch two of the first four games of the Series – guaranteeing at least one win.
Vic Wertz hit a two-run triple in the first to stake Lemon to a lead, but the Giants tied the game in the third. In the top of the eighth, Doby walked and Al Rosen singled. Giants manager Leo Durocher called in reliever Don Liddle to face Wertz, who crushed a ball to straightaway center field. Rosen took off the minute the ball came off the bat, thinking he could score.
Willie Mays, playing center field, took off running.
“I had this sinking feeling,” Rosen told Terry Pluto later on. “I could tell if the ball stayed in the park, Willie would catch it.”
The Polo Grounds got its name from the fact that in a previous incarnation, it hosted polo matches. The park was shoehorned into a city block in Harlem, with inviting foul lines of 279 feet in left and 258 feet in right, but the longest straightaway center field in the majors at 483 feet – “a $3 cab fare,” as Bob Feller called it.
The Say Hey Kid was sprinting, losing his cap, and caught the ball over his shoulder. Doby tagged up at second and advanced to third, but Rosen, who had already circled second base, got back to first just before Mays’ throw.
Durocher lifted Liddle, who then sat down triumphantly in the dugout and said, “Well, I got my man.”
The game stayed tied into the 10th, when Dusty Rhodes was called in to pinch hit against Lemon with two on. Rhodes hit what appeared to be a pop fly to right field. To an inviting 258-foot fence in right field. To an overhang onto the field.
The ball dropped into the stands for a game-winning three-run home run. Vic Wertz had hit a long flyout that would have been a home run in any other ballpark in the majors, and Dusty Rhodes hit what would have been a pop fly in any other ballpark, and it turned into a “Chinese homer,” in those less enlightened times. The Indians were doomed.
Rhodes accounted for two of the Giants’ three runs in the second game as well, with a single and homer off Early Wynn, and the Giants won 3-1. Garcia got chased in the third game, at Cleveland Stadium, a 6-2 Giants win, with 2 RBI by Rhodes.
Lopez pondered starting Bob Feller in Game 4. Feller was the victim of some bad luck, taking the only two Tribe losses in the 1948 World Series, and wanted to pitch again, but Lopez went back to Lemon, who took the loss. The Indians had been swept on their home field in front of 78,102 fans who were stunned to silence.
“It was so quiet, you could almost hear a heart break,” said Arthur Daley in the New York Times. “The Indians died friendless and alone.”
It was the last World Series played in and won by the New York Giants. Three years later, the team abandoned the Polo Grounds for San Francisco, and went more than 50 years without a World Series win until 2010. They got their second two years later.
The Indians are still waiting for their next one.
“They say anything can happen in a short series,” Lopez said. “I just didn’t expect it to be THAT short.”