Throughout 130 years of major league baseball, some notable goats graze. Consider: Fred Merkle, Heinie Zimmerman, Hank Gowdy, Ralph Branca, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Dennis Eckersley, Mitch Williams.
And near the top of this ignominious list, Mickey Owen.
When Owen died at age 89 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease last week in Mount Vernon, Mo., the obituaries barely mentioned he was a fine major league catcher for 13 seasons. Instead he was labeled, as he had been for 64 years, as the man who let the third strike get away.
That was so unfair, yet so understandable.
Oct.5, 1941, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn: The Dodgers lead the New York Yankees 4-3 in Game4 of the World Series with two out in the top of the ninth. When Tommy Henrich swings and misses at reliever Hugh Casey’s 3-2 pitch, the game appears over and the Series tied at two games apiece. But let famed Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen tell what happened:
“Strike three … but the ball gets away from Owen! It’s rolling back to the screen! Henrich races down to first! He makes it safely, and the Yankees are still alive with Joe DiMaggio coming up to bat!”
As plate umpire Larry Goetz signaled strike three, policemen jumped onto the field to discourage fans from doing the same, and the briefly joyous Dodgers poured from their dugout. So as Owen chased the bouncing ball to the backstop, a mini-mob scene ensued.
Had DiMaggio been retired when order was restored, no one would remember Mickey Owen today — but, of course, he wasn’t. In a year when he had mounted his incredible 56-game hitting streak, the Yankee Clipper singled to left, Charlie Keller doubled off the right-field wall to score two runs and put the Yankees ahead. By the time Bill Dickey walked and Joe Gordon doubled in another run, the Dodgers and their fans were in shock.
New York columnist Henry McLemore put it this way: “When you give the Yankees a reprieve, they get up out of the chair and electrocute the warden.”
The next day the Yankees won 3-1 to nail their fifth Series victory in six years. After winning their first pennant since 1920, the Dodgers would have to wait 14 more years and endure four more World Series losses to the pinstripers (1947, 1949, 1952, 1953) before Johnny Podres pitched Brooklyn to its first (and last) Series triumph in 1955.
Ace reliever Casey, who committed suicide in 1951 at age 37, was known to enjoy the good life and bend the rules a little when he could get away with it. For years, it was thought he had thrown an illegal spitter that Owen missed, but the fateful pitch actually was a devastating curve.
“I know definitely it was not a spitter,” Dodgers manager Leo Durocher insisted in “The Dodgers and Me,” his 1948 autobiography. “It was a curveball with a little something extra. When Owen did not shift his feet but gave it a casual reach with his glove, the roof fell in on our heads.”
But, Durocher insisted, the passed ball and DiMaggio’s single were not important. “The big thing was that Casey was numb with anger, and I did not realize it. … When he got two strikes on Keller, I thought, ‘Should I go out there and talk to Hugh?’ I decided against it because I didn’t want to get everybody on the ballclub unnerved [as if they weren’t already]. … When finally we came in [after the half-inning ended], we sat on the bench and stared straight ahead of us without seeing anything.”
Casey had two curveballs, one that broke sharply and another with a smaller break that we know today as a slider. Because the Dodgers had only one sign for a curve — something we can blame on the supposedly astute Durocher — Owen wasn’t sure which his pitcher would throw. He guessed wrong, and the ball caromed off the tip of his mitt.
“I gave him the target for a low, inside pitch,” Owen said afterward. “He rolled off the big curve, and I never figured he’d throw that one. I’m a guy with a one-track mind, so I was looking for the [little] curve he had been throwing to all those other guys [since coming in to pitch in the fifth inning].”
So whose fault was it? Dodgers second baseman Billy Herman felt Owen might have “nonchalanted” the pitch a little, and the catcher did not disagree.
“It was as good a curve as Hughie ever threw,” Owen said, “and I should have had it.”
Henrich, who batted just .167 in the Series, was fooled just as badly.
“It came in chest high and broke like no other curve I’d ever seen thrown,” said Henrich, later known as “Old Reliable” because of his ability to deliver in the clutch. “As I started to swing, I thought, ‘No good — hold up,’ but I couldn’t. That thing broke so sharp, though, that I thought [Owen] might have trouble with it.”
Said Owen years later: “Henrich missed [the pitch] by more than I did — he’s the one who ought to be famous. At least I touched the ball.”
Like Durocher, Owen regretted not visiting Casey after the passed ball. “It was like a punch on the chin — you’re stunned,” he said. “I should have gone out to the mound and stalled around a little.”
Shoulda, woulda, coulda — three of the most common laments in sports.
“I tell you, those Yankees have all the luck on their side,” groused Dodgers right fielder Dixie Walker. “Never saw a team get so many breaks as they have.”
Getting breaks is one thing. Taking advantage is what really matters.
After 1941, Owen played seven more seasons in the majors, sandwiched around military service in World War II, but never again reached the World Series. He was barred briefly from Organized Baseball after jumping the Dodgers in 1946 to be a player-manager in Jorge Pasquel’s shortlived Mexican League but was reinstated in 1949 with the Chicago Cubs.
After finishing his playing career with the Boston Red Sox in 1954, Owen coached and scouted for various clubs and ran a baseball school of his own. In his 70s, he was still playing in old-timers’ games.
Two supreme ironies mark Owen’s life. During the regular season of 1941, he set a major record by accepting 508 consecutive chances without an error and a club record for catchers with a fielding percentage of .995 for the season.
And after his baseball days, Mickey Owen served as sheriff of Greene County, Mo., for 16 years. But as far as the Dodgers and baseball history were concerned, he let the big one get away.