- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

Far off I hear the rolling, roaring cheers.

They come to me from many yesterdays. …

Great stars that knew their days in fame’s bright sun.

I hear them tramping to oblivion.

Grantland Rice,

“The Tumult and the Shouting,” 1954

Right-hander Clem Labine wasn’t a great star on the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s. But if it hadn’t been for him, the most dramatic moment in baseball history might never have occurred.

Oct., 2, 1951, Polo Grounds, second game of the best-of-three playoff for the National League pennant: Labine pitched a six-hitter to beat the New York Giants 10-0 and even the series at 1-1, making it possible for Bobby Thomson to swat his ninth-inning, pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” off Ralph Branca the next afternoon.

In baseball, as in life itself, there often is a thin line between success and failure. As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up.

“OK, the second playoff game finished 10-0, but when it was still close, Thomson came up with the bases loaded, and the count went to 3-and-2,” Labine once said. “I threw the curve, and it must have broken a foot wide. It would have forced in a run, but Thomson swung, and I had a strikeout. The next day …”

Labine, who died at 80 from pneumonia and heart disease March 2 after collapsing three weeks earlier at a Dodgers fantasy camp in Vero Beach, Fla., is the latest member of those great Dodgers teams to depart this world. So many are gone now: Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Junior Gilliam, Billy Cox, Carl Furillo, Sandy Amoros. And, of course, the man who personified the Dodgers to millions of black and white Americans, Jackie Robinson.

Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully paid perhaps the best tribute to Labine: “He had the heart of a lion and the intelligence of a wily fox. And he was a nice guy, too.”

Labine, a crew-cut sinkerballer from Rhode Island who could start or relieve, had a record of 77-56 with a 3.63 ERA and 96 saves in his 13-year major league career. In addition to his shutout in the 1951 playoffs, he notched a victory and a save in the 1955 World Series as the Dodgers defeated the hated New York Yankees in seven games after losing five previous Series. The following year, his seven-hit shutout in Game 6 kept the Bums alive the day after Don Larsen’s perfect game gave the Yankees a 3-2 Series lead.

But Labine’s most notable win came as a rookie after the Giants, who won 37 of their final 44 games to erase a 13-game Brooklyn lead, took the playoff opener. Ironically, he delivered only after escaping manager Chuck Dressen’s dubious doghouse.

Labine was promoted to the Dodgers from their Class AAA St. Paul, Minn., farm club in July and won his first four decisions. But after he and Dressen disagreed on whether to use a full windup or pitch from a stretch with the bases loaded in an August game, Clem didn’t work again for eight days. He also sat out the final week of the season in favor of Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe, both badly overworked. Dressen’s stubbornness likely cost the Dodgers a pennant.

Dressen, it must be said, was not the brightest bulb in the managerial firmament. When the Dodgers won the coin toss for the playoff, he barked, “First game in Brooklyn!” That meant the second and third, if needed, would be at the Polo Grounds instead of the Dodgers’ cozy Ebbets Field.

Labine was sitting in the bullpen alongside Branca and Carl Erskine when the Giants began their ninth-inning rally against Newcombe in the final playoff game. With Branca and Erskine warming up, Dressen called the pen on the dugout phone to learn who was ready.

“Erskine just bounced a curveball,” he was told.

“Give me Branca,” the certifiably dense Dressen said, and the rest was history.

In Roger Kahn’s classic 1972 book, “The Boys of Summer,” Labine recalled, “There was a bench in the bullpen where we sat. If you can find it, you’ll see a chunk of wood is missing. That’s where I took a bite.”

But that was hardly the biggest tragedy in Labine’s life. Years later, his son Jay lost a leg in Vietnam and, Labine lamented to Kahn, “If I hadn’t been a ballplayer, I could have developed a real relationship with my son. The years, the headlines, the victories — they’re not worth what they cost us.”

Clem Labine, a man who won the big games, also could see the big picture.

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