- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

"DiMaggio up, holding that club down at the end. So the Dodgers are ahead 8-5, and the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat, this fellow is capable of making it a brand-new game again. Joe leans in. … Swung on, belted! It's a long one deep into left-center. Back goes Gionfriddo. Back, back, back, back, back, back! He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! O-ho, doctor!"
Baseball's most renowned broadcaster, Red Barber, and perhaps its most obscure major leaguer, Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Al Gionfriddo, enjoyed five seconds of fame together at hallowed Yankee Stadium on Oct.5, 1947, in the 44th World Series. For older fans, it remains one of the game's signature moments.
And when Gionfriddo, 81, died of a heart attack on a California golf course nine days ago, the memories came rushing back for many. Every obituary mentioned "the catch," and no wonder. The rest of his four-season career produced nothing more memorable from the 5-foot-6 Pennsylvanian than a .266 batting average and two home runs in 228 games. But for one sunlit moment in the House That Ruth Built, he was all the Boys of Summer rolled into one.
Although ESPN's Chris Berman and many other sportscasters have revived Barber's "back, back, back" chant to describe home runs on highlight shows, it's safe to say that not all know where it originated. Barber's call has been preserved in so many albums and documentaries that it ranks behind only Russ Hodges' multiple 1951 cries that "the Giants win the pennant" as the best-known in 80 years of baseball on radio.
With journeyman Joe Hatten pitching and two runners on, Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio smashed an apparent game-tying home run toward the Dodgers' bullpen, just to the left of the 415-foot marker and just above the waist-high fence. Gionfriddo turned and galloped backward desperately, losing his cap. Just as reserve catcher Bobby Bragan was about to catch the ball in the bullpen, Gionfriddo reached over the fence and snatched it.
When such a key moment occurs today, we see instant and not-so-instant replays from every imaginable angle. But even though the '47 Series was the first televised (to a few cities in the East), the voices of Barber and Yankees counterpart Mel Allen delivered the news to most fans via radio.
How important was Gionfriddo's unlikely grab? It momentarily saved the Dodgers, who trailed 3-2 in games. The Yankees wrapped up their 11th Series title with a 5-2 victory the next day, but that didn't detract from Little Al's feat (or his feet).
Barber, who wrote as well as he spoke, described the play's effect in his book, "1947": "The crack of DiMaggio's bat was the sound of doom for the Dodgers. Gionfriddo's remarkable catch turned that dismal destiny squarely around. Had the ball landed in the bullpen, I doubt the Dodgers could have survived so savage a stroke."
For the only time in his career, the stoic DiMaggio lost his cool on a ballfield; newsreels showed him kicking the dirt in disgust as he neared second base and Gionfriddo bounced off the wall with the ball in his grasp. There was a reason. Joe, a superb center fielder, was well aware that the catch was more dramatic than it should have been because Gionfriddo who had been inserted three innings earlier for defensive purposes was playing out of position.
In the Yankees' somber clubhouse after the Dodgers' 8-6 victory, a friend commiserated with DiMaggio for being victimized by "a great catch."
The Yankee Clipper scowled. "Great catch, my [hindquarters]. Where was he playing?"
DiMaggio was one of the game's most feared right-handed pull hitters. What in the name of Abner Doubleday was Gionfriddo doing playing him fairly shallow in left-center, necessitating the long run and last-second catch before he ran out of room at the bullpen gate?
Over the decades, however, that factor has been largely forgotten. As late as last year, Gionfriddo was signing autographs for senior citizens who said they had been at the Stadium that day. Everybody, it seems, wants to claim his own piece of history.
Gionfriddo provided the last thrill of a remarkable year for the Dodgers, who had tied for the National League pennant the previous season before losing a playoff series to Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals. Foremost was the arrival of Jackie Robinson as the major leagues' first black player in 84 years. Shortly before the start of the season, fiery manager Leo Durocher was suspended for one season by commissioner Happy Chandler for consorting with gamblers. Gentlemanly baseball veteran Burt ("Boit" in Brooklynese) Shotton took over, managing the club in street clothes, and guided Brooklyn to a 94-60 record and a five-game margin over the second-place Cardinals.
Ironically, the famed Robinson who had won the NL's Rookie of the Year Award while batting .297 and playing first base wasn't much of a factor in the World Series while three lesser players flirted with fame. In addition to Gionfriddo, Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens held the Dodgers hitless for 8⅔ innings in Game 4 before Cookie Lavagetto took away his no-hitter and victory by slamming a double off the right-field wall to drive in two Dodgers who had walked and beat Bevens 3-2. The first runner who scored, tying the game, was Gionfriddo.
Guess what? None of the three ever played another major league game, although Lavagetto re-emerged in 1957 as manager of the Washington Senators.
Can you imagine what the ball Gionfriddo caught would be worth on today's inflated memorabilia market? Al often wondered.
"I didn't even think to keep it," he told author Roger Kahn in 1991. "I made the catch, and [right fielder] Carl Furillo said something nice, and I'm runnin' in all excited, and I drop the ball at the pitcher's mound. I'm the first hitter next inning, and I foul the first pitch into the stands. That's the ball!"
That Series matchup was the start of another golden era for the Yankees and at least a silver one for the Dodgers. After missing the 1948 pennant, the Yankees won five straight World Series and a total of 10 pennants in 12 years under the gnarled hand of Casey Stengel.
Three of those Series victories (1949, '52, '53) were against Brooklyn teams that had everything except the Yankees' pitching depth. Finally, in 1955, the Bums climbed to the pinnacle by beating the Yankees behind Johnny Podres in Game 7, but it was a very short-lived reign. The Yankees rebounded to win a '56 Series highlighted by Don Larsen's perfect game, and a Brooklyn newspaper mourned, "Wait till last year."
One season later, following a third-place finish, the aging Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Now, after many barren decades, there is baseball again in Brooklyn: A Class A team called the Cyclones sells out its games in a cozy new ballpark next to Coney Island. But for many, warm and fuzzy memories remain of old Dodgers heroes.
Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Billy Cox, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe …
And, for five seconds, Al Gionfriddo.

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