- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

Fifty years after the fact, you wouldn’t think much remains to be said about the Brooklyn Dodgers’ seven-game World Series victory over the New York Yankees in 1955 — a glorious first for the Bums after they had lost five previous October jousts with the Bronx Bombers. Nonetheless, Boston Globe and TV political pundit Thomas Oliphant has turned out an engaging memoir describing his emotions as a 9-year-old Dodgers fan living in New York City.

“Praying For Gil Hodges” ($24.95, St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, illus.) isn’t a classic like Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” (1972), but it’s probably more evocative than any other examination of the Dodgers’ marvelous season. And it takes on added poignancy, of course, because a mere 2 years later the team moved to Los Angeles when city officials in Gotham failed to find land for a modern ballpark to replace antiquated Ebbets Field.

Actually, Oliphant’s title is a bit strange because 1955 was three years removed from the time when all Flatbush prayed for first baseman Hodges after he went 0-for-21 in a Series loss to the Yankees. But he was the author’s favorite Dodger, so perhaps it serves as a handy metaphor for the team’s past woes.

Why did the Dodgers’ triumph touch so many around the nation? As Oliphant puts it, “This unique team [had] a hold on Americans for whom the underdog is a very easy metaphor. … For more than three centuries, Brooklyn has been a destination as well as a gateway for tens of millions of Americans. The Dodgers made no sense without Brooklyn, and Brooklyn was their bridge to the rest of postwar America.”

The Dodgers became the object of national attention in 1947 after making Jackie Robinson the first black man to play major league baseball since 1884. The addition of Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, Joe Black and others in subsequent seasons further established the club as a symbol of racial equality in a time when most of American life remained sadly segregated.

Over the decade of 1947-56, the Dodgers won six National League pennants and missed two others only because of game-winning home runs on the final day by Dick Sisler of the Philadelphia Phillies (1950) and Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants (1951). Yet they lost World Series to the lordly Yankees — a mostly white example of baseball arrogance and racial conservatism — in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953 (following a first defeat in 1941).

How to reverse this trend? To steal a famous line from Ed McMahon, “Heeere’s Johnny” — meaning a 23-year-old left-hander named Johnny Podres, who blanked the Yankees 2-0 in Game 7 of the ‘55 Series and thus enabled the Borough of Churches to go out of its collective gourd.

To quote Podres, a former pitching coach now in his 70s, “The events of that day [Oct. 4, 1955] are frozen forever.”

Oliphant describes that memorable afternoon in minute detail, alternating descriptions of how he and his father watched the game at home in almost total silence because of the intensity involved with detailed accounts of the happenings at Yankee Stadium. Particularly arresting is his recollection of the key play when Dodgers left fielder Sandy Amoros made a long run to one-hand Yogi Berra’s sliced line drive with Yankees churning madly around the bases in the sixth inning and turned it into a double play.

And when Elston Howard grounded weakly to Dodgers captain and shortstop Pee Wee Reese for the final out … well, let Oliphant tell it:

“I had this feeling, very deep inside, that is like the welling up just before you burst into tears. I then remember hearing, and memorizing on the spot, the words from [announcer] Vin Scully that are a part of broadcasting lore as well as Dodger history: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are champions of the world.’”

Well, not quite, because there was no world champion in baseball then or now, but who can quibble with a bit of hyperbole at a time like that?

Though Oliphant’s book is a good read, he could have used a tougher editor. Annoyingly, he refers repeatedly to the Dodgers’ former battle cry as “Wait’ll next year” when it really was “Wait ‘til next year.” (Or as more than one writer put it after Brooklyn lost the 1956 Series to the Yankees and perfect-game pitcher Don Larsen, “Wait ‘til last year.”)

Oliphant misspells the names of Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto (“Rizutto”) and Yankee Stadium PA announcer Bob Sheppard (“Shepherd”) and has a teammate bringing Robinson’s glove out of the dugout to him at a time (1947) when players left their leather on the field when their team came to bat.

The author also refers redundantly to a “grand-slam home run” and “setting a new record” and employs cliches like “pivotal fifth game,” “decisive seventh game,” “the roof fell in” and “sharp as a tack.”

Yet such nitpicking is somewhat akin to blasting the 1955 Dodgers because they lost 55 games during the season and three in the World Series. All told, Oliphant has written a significant book that recalls nicely how the Dodgers at last became masters of all they surveyed.

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