Hopelessly hooked – on baseball, and the Whiz Kids

As I dimly recall, 1950 was a very good year. From the lofty perspective of Arlington Heights the world unfolded vast and wonderful. The possibilities were infinite for an 11-year-old hopelessly hooked on the game of baseball.

Back in those days in the towns lucky enough to have two teams, you were either “an American Leaguer” or “a National Leaguer” and there was passion in the distinction. The Braves were my team probably because of the glorious events of 1948 when the Braves came through and the Red Sox didn’t. But the fact that the Braves were perceived as more friendly and were generous in dispensing free tickets to kids who haunted Greater Boston’s playgrounds was doubtless a factor.

No such charitable impulses moved the other team in town. Red Sox pretensions were easy for the tabloids to mock. They were called “the Gold Sox” and when invariably one of their latest high-priced acquisitions failed miserably there was a certain glee that carried through the streets. The ruling class may have been forgiving but not the common folk.

In 1950, the Red Sox came up just short once again, their specialty then.  A miserable start ended the Joe McCarthy Era amidst dark rumors of drunken rages and rebellion in the clubhouse. Then Steve O’Neil took over and Ted Williams got hurt and the team took off in a furious late-season drive that would leave them only four games astern of the inevitable Yankees. The fact that much of it was accomplished without the help of Williams was especially pleasing to Ted’s critics, whose ranks were swelling in those acrimonious days. He was often on the griddle mainly because he always took the bait.

Up town, the relatively harmless Braves still featured the remnants of the widely beloved 1948 pennant winners. Tommy Holmes, Earl Torgeson, and Bob “Mr. Team” Elliott were still around and the fabulous pitching rotation of Spahn, Sain, and Bickford won 60 games. It was the year the Braves boldly introduced speedy Sam Jethroe, the first black man to play for any professional team representing Boston.

Still grieving the loss of his son in the late war, Billy Southworth had them over-achieving as usual. From a distance he seemed a nice old man, although we were left to wonder why he always looked so sad. Personal problems, like the tortured McCarthy’s battles with booze or the melancholy Southworth’s terrible loss, didn’t make it into the public prints. There was a line there and the media – simplistic and vulgar as they may have been – didn’t cross it back then.

In the tough N.L wars of 1950 the Braves finished fourth, eight games out.  Ahead of them were Leo Durocher’s Giants, the looming Dodger dynasty bedrocked by Messrs. Robinson, Campanella, Reese, Hodges, Furillo, and Snider, and an amazing band of rollicking youth in Philadelphia who called themselves “the Whiz Kids.”

The Braves were fast fading, veering onto the perilous slope that would slide them to Milwaukee in three years. Their ballpark was crumbling, their manager was slipping, and their owners were bleeding money. The fire sale was underway. In but months, the incomparable Sain would be shipped to the Yankees, of all people. A measure of the Braves’ disdain for their haughty rivals down in Kenmore Square is the fact they never even let Clan Yawkey know Big John was available, although the Red Sox being the Red Sox they probably had no interest. In New York, Sain became a substantial factor in the winning of three more Yankee championships.

If the escape to Milwaukee was inconceivable in the summer of ’50, the Braves’ imminent decline was nonetheless strongly sensed. Into that gathering void wandered the Whiz Kids of Philadelphia. The 11-year-old kid from Arlington Heights fell for them hard.

And why not! The Phillies, perennial doormats throughout their history, had risen overnight. It was an immensely likeable team of truly just “kids.” The nucleus was composed of Richie Ashburn, Granny Hamner, Willie “Puddin Head” Jones, and Del Ennis ( average age 24) along with the fabulously precocious pitching tandem of Curt Simmons, 21, and Maestro Robin Roberts, 23. Eddie Sawyer, a scholarly sort and a baseball unknown, was the manager. A handful of choice veterans, including Dick Sisler, son of George, and Jim Konstanty, arguably the first of the great modern relief pitchers, played huge roles.

Hereabouts, however, the favorite was Eddie Waitkus.  A war hero who had rebounded brilliantly from being gunned down by a deranged teenybopper the year before, Eddie was born and raised in Cambridge, just a skip down Mass Ave. The Whiz Kids were quite a crew.
  
But so young.  After running wild all summer, they almost blew it. Their first pennant in 35 years was spared in an epic showdown in Brooklyn the last Sunday of the season. Ashburn saved it by cutting down the Dodgers’ potential winning run with a great throw in the ninth and Sisler won it with a three-run homer in the tenth.  Going all the way, with a valor and class that would be routine for him his entire career, was Mr. Roberts. He was magnificent, pitching three games in the last five days to stem the collapse that began when the Army drafted the stylish Simmons in early September. Korea was ablaze at the time, you may recall.

Otherwise they might have made an even fiercer tussle of their meeting with the mighty Yankees in the World Series. But with a thoroughly gassed pitching staff that had only one bona-fide starter, there was little loss of honor in losing to the merry juggernaut out of the Bronx by scores of 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 5-2. Those Yanks were superb. They had five quality starters: Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, Tommy Byrne, and a brash but scrawny 22-year old off the streets of New York, Whitey Ford.  In about his last heroic act in pinstripes, Joe DiMaggio beat Roberts with a dramatic homer in the tenth inning of Game 2 and the Series was effectively over.
So full of promise, the Phils held together for years yet never managed to repeat. It’s odd because many of them had worthy careers. Roberts and Ashburn, an illustrious pair, now distinguish the Hall Fame while Simmons, Ennis, and Hamner were stars for years. But the magic of the Whiz Kid phenomenon was fleeting. It is always “the magic” that seals these things and it is an elusive quality. As for the Yankees, who know all about that stuff, the 1950 prance was but the early utterance of a reign of baseball terror that would last into the mid-60s.

Now, they are back. Some six decades later, the Yankees and Phillies are thrashing again at the pinnacle; different teams in a very different age in a very, very different world. And there is nothing else the two occasions have in common except, in a way, everything. In baseball, the threads of history, tradition, and memory intertwine, giving the game its poignancy and mystique.  Is the distant echo of 1950 relevant to the current rematch 59 years later? You had better believe it.
The outcome could be different. They are more evenly matched this time, more alike, too. Both are slugging teams who play similar styles. Both have strong personalities and are high strung. Both are colorful and major box office attractions. The Phillies, seeking to win back-to-back championships for the first time in their history, may have more to prove. But the Yankees may need to win even more desperately. They burn with incentive this year. But then yearnings always run deep and in the end they have little to do with it.

As the thing is about to begin, one likes the Yankees. They have the look of being undeniable. But it won’t be another cakewalk. Anyway, that’s how it looks to that kid from Arlington Heights who was 11 when last they met and is now 70, but still hopelessly hooked on baseball.