NEW YORK — It was a glorious time in New York's baseball history. Late September thrived with pennant fever, and if there wasn't one New York team involved, there were two. And in one dazzling finish, the Yankees had to wait on a three-game playoff between the Giants and Dodgers to see which one of those National League teams they would play in the World Series. The year was 1951, and Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard 'round the world.
From 1949 through 1957 the three New York teams filled 15 of the 18 berths in the World Series. It started out as the time of the Duke and was soon to be the time of Willie and Mickey as well. The Yankees would win again in 1958, their seventh World Series victory in nine tries in 10 years, but it wasn't quite the same; the Dodgers and Giants had started calling Los Angeles and San Francisco home that year.
New York managed to become a two-team town soon enough. But when the Bronx was up, the Mets were down. And vice versa. Then came this September, and the poignant memories of a time gone by were stirred. Could it happen again? Could a World Series belong to New York? Baseball junkies have palates too, and in this town they would savor a matchup between Dwight Gooden and Don Mattingly at a game-deciding juncture.
The Yankees seem to be telling us it's not to be. Not this year anyway. Still, for a time this September, memories of a beautiful past were rekindled--the time of Willie, Mickey, the Duke and others. They remember it well, and when called upon to share their memories of baseball glory gone by and of the fans and the New York scene as they saw it in late September and early October, they were delighted to do so.
Things were a bit different then. Baseball didn't offer its first night World Series game until 1971. And the seventh game was over by Oct. 10 or sooner, while the 1985 World Series won't start until Oct. 19. Their playground was the bright clearness of an early autumn day. It was a beautiful time when New Yorkers almost came to count on a Subway Series.
"I had just turned 20 years old when the Giants called me up in 1951," said Willie Mays. "I had been to New York before, when I was 15 and playing for the Birmingham Black Barons. Our bus burned up in the Lincoln Tunnel. That was my introduction to New York. We played the New York Cubans in the Polo Grounds and we had to use their extra uniforms the next day. I was just a wide-eyed kid then.
"I was still really young in 1951, but what a year for memories that was. I broke in going 0 for 12 in three games in Philadelphia, and when we got back to New York, I was in the clubhouse crying. Leo Durocher, the Giants manager, relaxed me by telling me I was his center fielder no matter what. I was able to relax even more when right after that, I hit my first big-league homer. It was off Warren Spahn in the Polo Grounds.
"I lived in a lady's house, named Anne Goosby. That was a house the Giants arranged for me when I came up to make sure I was taken care of. The fans who lived near where I lived on 155th Street and St. Nicholas would make sure I was in bed by 10 o'clock at night. Every night about five or six would come by and make sure I was in or they would wait until I got home. They were that intent we should catch the Dodgers. The strain of that pennant race got so great I wouldn't dare be out later than that.
"In New York they know about baseball. You can't fool them. They knew when you were dogging it and they knew who could play and who couldn't. You had your favorite team and you pulled only for those people. And you pulled for those people every year because the players didn't jump around like they can now. So you knew what to expect when you played in Brooklyn or in Yankee Stadium where we played in the World Series my first year. Especially Brooklyn.
"I don't think I was hated in Brooklyn. But when you played good ball against their team, I don't think they liked it. I think my second series there, I hit two home runs in a game and when I came out of the park to the garage, all four of my tires were slashed. It wasn't anything they had against me. It was just they were Dodger fans and that was it. I had to go home on the subway with Monte Irvin. I called Leo and said, 'If you want me to come back, you better get my car back.'
"After the pennant race, you relax if you're in the World Series. You know you're there. The real pressure is getting to the World Series. And my rookie year it all came down to the final playoff game against the Dodgers in the Polo Grounds. Now that was pressure.
"I was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thomson batted in the ninth inning. I thought Dressen (Charlie Dressen, the Dodgers manager) would walk Thomson, and I would come up and Leo would pinch hit for me. That was what was going through my mind. Leo said he wouldn't have, but I'm still not convinced. But it doesn't really matter.