- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

It was, surely, the most ironic of baseball ironies. With two on in the eighth inning of a 2-2 opener in the 1954 World Series, Cleveland Indians slugger Vic Wertz belted a ball some 450 feet only to have New York Giants superstar Willie Mays make his famous back-to-the-field catch in deepest center field at the ancient Polo Grounds.

In the bottom of the 10th, also with two on, Giants journeyman James “Dusty” Rhodes lifted a soft fly ball to right field that barely cleared the fence above the 257-foot sign. It gave the Giants a 5-2 victory and triggered their unexpected four-game sweep of a Cleveland team that had won an American League record 111 games.

When Rhodes died at 82 of multiple ailments Thursday in Las Vegas, his unlikely game-winner was all that most old-timers remembered about him. With good reason.

That fall week literally was Dusty’s big moment in the sun (Series games were played in daylight then). A potent pinch hitter that season, Rhodes went 4-for-6 with three key hits, two of them homers, in what was still called the Fall Classic.

Yet in seven years in the big leagues, all with the Giants, Rhodes batted just .253 in 576 games after slugging eight homers in 11 days during his rookie season of 1952. Giants manager Leo Durocher tried him as a regular outfielder that season and the next while Mays was in the Army, but Dusty hit only .250 and .233 those years.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that his decisive hit in Game 1 on Sept. 29, 1954, was a glorified pop fly. In fact, Indians second baseman Bobby Avila was running back to be in position for a possible catch when the ball landed among astonished fans in the right-field seats.

“Wertz hits a 450-foot line drive and he’s out. Rhodes hit’s a 250-foot popup and it’s a homer,” Roger Kahn recalled begging fellow baseball author Robert Creamer. “Explain this game to me.”

Said Creamer: “I can’t.”

Despite Rhodes’ heroics in the first three victories, Durocher did not use him in Game 4 - a fact Dusty laughed off with customary self-deprecating humor.

“It was just as well,” he said. “After those first three games, I was toasting everybody’s health so much that I nearly ruined mine.”

During the regular season, Rhodes had 14 pinch hits, batted an uncharacteristic .341 and helped keep the Giants loose with his Alabama country-boy demeanor.

“Dusty was the kind of buffoon who helped keep a club confident and happy,” Durocher wrote in his 1975 autobiography. “Between him and Mays, there was nothing but laughter in our clubhouse all season. Pressure? They spit on it.”

But Rhodes was more than a clown, as former teammate Monte Irvin noted last week.

“Dusty and I were such good friends,” longtime Negro League star Irvin told the (New York) Daily News. “Even though he was born in Alabama, he was like a brother to all the black players. Dusty was colorblind.”

Rhodes’ major league career ended in 1959 after he batted .188 in 54 games for the Giants, who by then had moved to San Francisco. He played three more seasons in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League before retiring

After that, Rhodes eked out a living as a security guard at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and as a tugboat owner on Staten Island. He lost his 1954 World Series ring - his only baseball memento - while being mugged on the subway.

Probably Rhodes would have laughed off his later misfortunes and reached for the nearest glass. Dusty was not exactly a deep thinker, which figures since his biggest hit was not exactly a deep drive.

It has been said that each of us enjoys 15 minutes of fame. For Dusty Rhodes, fame lasted perhaps five seconds as a gently kissed horsehide flew through the air. But as he might have said in a rare philosophical moment, you take whatever you can get, and there’s no use complaining.

“It is quite difficult to quit on Dusty, because Dusty absolutely refuses to quit on himself,” baseball writer John Drebinger once said in the New York Times.

And perhaps that, as well as one cheap home run, should be his lasting legacy.

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