About the only thing that George Will and I do agree on is our undying, unyielding, unrequited love of baseball. We're also both at an age where the names in Dave Frishberg's hauntingly beautiful ode to the game, "Van Lingle Mungo," were instantly recognizable and, in some cases, still playing in the major leagues. These were the years just after WWII and prior to baseball's expansion. The Braves were still in Boston and the St. Louis Browns had not yet moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles. The Athletics were languishing in Philadelphia and New York had three major league teams. We Philadelphians hadn't had much to brag about in baseball for close to twenty years--until 1950. That was the year we surviving Philly natives have indelibly burned into our memories as though it were yesterday.
Phillies owner Bob Carpenter, a member of the DuPont family, had been building the team for several years and by 1950 had a good team in place, with three future Hall of Famers on the roster: Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons and Richie Ashburn. Through the farm system they had a good infield with Granny Hamner at shortstop and Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones at third base. Veterans included Eddie Waitkus at first base and Dick Sisler (son of Hall of Famer George Sisler) in left field. Waitkus was the inspiration for Bernard Malamud's novel, The Natural, having been shot in the chest by a deranged female fan in Chicago. Home grown power hitter Del Ennis was the right fielder. Ennis had the career stats to get into the Hall but never made it and today he is virtually unknown by the sports writers. Jim Konstanty, their ace relief pitcher, was so good that year he was voted the National League MVP.
The Whiz Kids were scrappy and were in first place for a large part of the season, but they started to sag in the last week of the season and blew a seven game lead to two games when they met the Dodgers. If the Dodgers took the last series there would be a tie for first place and there would be a three game playoff between them for the NL title. As good as the Phillies were they were facing guys named Don Newcomb, Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson. These guys could hurt you at any time. In the final game the score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Cal Abrams represented the winning run for Brooklyn, but Center Fielder Richie Ashburn made the throw of his career and got Abrams out at home plate. In the top of the tenth inning Dick Sisler hit a three run home run and the Whiz Kids clinched the pennant. That meant the New York Yankees. If they thought the Dodgers were tough they were now facing Casey Stengel's guys: Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Whitey Ford and others who could hurt you worse. To add another obstacle, Curt Simmons was called up into the military for a tour of duty in Korea and was unavailable for the series. Manager Eddie Sawyer had to put Konstanty into the starting rotation.
When you are eight years old and your team is in the World Series you are in heaven. My prized possessions were an autographed team ball and yearbook, as well as an official Phillies cap. I treasured the signatures, even the ones by Putsy Caballero, Milo Candini, Bill (Swish) Nicholson and Mike Goliat--names lost in the archives. The euphoria didn't last long because the Yankees won in four straight games. That's tragedy for an eight year old.
Watching Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning (yes, that Jim Bunning) throw ceremonial baseballs the other evening brought a lump to my throat and opened up a flood of memories. It's not easy to watch your team play so well and just not be able to beat the Yankees; not after 59 years waiting for your revenge. Here's the tough part. I can't hate the Yankee players from 1950 or 2009. They do their job and they do it well. You can't hate Yogi, or Rizzuto or DiMaggio. Actually, I got to spend some time with Joe DiMaggio as he was a frequent visitor to Downtown Hollywood, Florida and we hung out at the same restaurants in his declining years. He visited my theater on occasion and he was an absolute gentleman to the end. I don't have to like this year's Yankees but I certainly have to respect them.
Here's the difference. The 1950 Whiz Kids never again approached the level of play that they had in that season. It would be 14 agonizing years before the Phillies, with Jim Bunning, would come close only to blow a six game lead in the last week of the season because of Gene Mauch's stupid decision to use Bunning and Chris Short every other start. The Cardinals, with Curt Simmons, went to the series that year. This time the Phillies were the series champs last year and they are going to be a great team for a long time. Wait til next year.