The looniest game in major league baseball’s first 131 seasons boggled the mind 62 years ago last week at New York’s old Polo Grounds.
Final score: Brooklyn Dodgers 5, New York Yankees 1, New York Giants 0.
That’s right, there were three teams and two losers involved, which meant approximately two-thirds of the 50,000-plus eyewitnesses might have left the ballpark yowling, in the words of legendary fight manager Joe Jacobs, “We wuz robbed!”
Of course, this was an exhibition game — and in more ways than one. The wacky scheme was dreamed (or nightmared?) up in the office of Stanley H. Oshan, chairman of the U.S. Treasury Department’s War Finance Committee, and the idea was to sell war bonds. To that end, there were no losers at all.
The timing was perfect. The game came less than three weeks after D-Day, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s troops invaded Europe at Normandy and made it clear World War II was turning in the Allies’ direction. Optimism zoomed, and millions of patriotic citizens were eager to open their pocketbooks and purses on behalf of what was called the Fifth War Loan bond drive.
The three-way baseball game aided the cause dramatically. Ticket prices were a $25 War Bond for general admission, reserved seats cost a $100 bond, box seats required a $1,000 bond and the bleachers were free for servicemen. Fans contributed $5.5 million, a clothing company paid $1 million for an autographed game program and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia bought $50 million worth of bonds on behalf of the city.
Even if the game didn’t count, the spectators got their money’s worth. Milton Berle, still four years short of beginning his reign as “Mr. Television,” introduced a series of pregame musical numbers. Former pitcher Al Schacht, billed as the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” staged his silly routines. Former Mayor Jimmy Walker introduced many old-time heroes for the teams.
Adding to the fun, players competed in a series of field events and sprints. It might have been indicative of the war-time talent level that none of the six catchers could throw the ball into a barrel at second base. The fungo hitting contest was won by a teenage pitcher for the Dodgers, Calvin Coolidge McLish who probably should have been playing high school ball.
Finally, the ersatz combat started. How, you ask, can three teams play a baseball game? Easy, as it turned out. Each sat out every third inning, meaning each had six turns at bat. For instance, the Dodgers and Yankees played the first inning, the Dodgers and Giants the second, the Yankees and Giants the third and so on. Surprisingly perhaps, nobody got confused. Otherwise, you might have had the unique sight of a team batting out of turn.
Years later, the New York Times recalled it this way: “World War Two produced some strange sights: teenagers driving old jalopies on their rims because of [rubber] rationing, children pulling little red wagons filled with old pots and pans to scrap metal drives, women painting black lines on the backs of their legs to resemble nylons … and perhaps the strangest sight — a single baseball game [among] three major league teams.”
That game might have been the entertainment high point of 1944 for the three clubs, all stocked heavily with has-beens and never-wases in the third war season.
Player-manager Mel Ott’s Giants finished fifth (67-87) and Leo Durocher’s Dodgers seventh (63-91) in the National League. After winning seven pennants and six World Series in the previous eight seasons, even Joe McCarthy’s lordly Yankees were also-rans who did no better than third in the American League at 83-71, six games behind the pennant-winning St. Louis Browns, of all people.
With most of baseball’s elite serving in the Armed Forces, Hall of Famer-to-be Ott was the only superstar on the premises that night. But the lineups included several others who had or would gain fame or notoriety.
The Dodgers contributed the two biggest goats in their checkered history to the proceedings. Catcher Mickey Owen, whose passed ball cost the Bums a key victory in the 1941 World Series, walked and scored a run in his only plate appearance. Pitcher Ralph Branca, who would serve the infamous pennant-winning home run to the Giants’ Bobby Thomson in the 1951 pennant playoff, pitched two innings.
Frenchy Bordagaray, who sported the game’s only beard in a clean-cut baseball era, played third base and led off the game for the Dodgers. Joe Page, a brilliant relief pitcher for championship Yankees teams in 1947 and 1949, worked two innings.
Besides Ott, future Hall of Famers on the scene included managers McCarthy and Durocher and Dodgers outfielder Joe “Ducky” Medwick. We don’t know if Ott and Durocher chatted that night — given the latter’s nasty nature, it seems unlikely — but their names were forever linked four years later when Leo the Lip said of Mel, “Nice guys finish last.”
All of them are gone now, but if we could contact them in that great dugout in the sky and ask, “What was the weirdest thing you ever saw on a baseball field?” the answer well might be June 26, 1944 — and surely we’ll never see anything like it again.