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Mets Stir Memories of '55 Dodgers : Dominance of Both Teams Is a Link Between Past, Present

July 10, 1986|TOM FARREY | Times Staff Writer

"He's not home right now, but I'm sure he'd love to talk," said the voice on the other end of the line, Barbara Labine, wife of Clem Labine. "He always likes to talk about his '55 team."

Don't they all. Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Johnny Podres, Duke Snider, every one of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.

They alerted the town by building a 9 1/2-game lead in early May, invited them in for the summer, clinched the pennant earlier than any National League team ever had, then disassembled, of all teams, the New York Yankees for their first World Series championship.

In 1985, the '55 Dodgers gathered at the Vero Beach, Fla., spring training camp to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Junior Gilliam, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson and Manager Walter Alston have since died, but the memories of the 23 who did show up were as distinct as their dominance once was.

One has to wonder if this year's Mets, who are 55-25 and have built up the league's greatest July lead since the '55 Dodgers, will be gathering 30 years from now.

"You know, there's more to baseball than money," said Labine, who in 1955 was 13-5 as a reliever and spot starter. "I just hope they have as much fun as we had. If you can't have fun when you're winning like that, that's the sign to get out of the game."

Certainly, they will be richer. But if the vital signs say anything, the 1986 pennant will also be conceded as quickly as the one in '55. Consider:

--After their first 24 games, the Dodgers were 22-2, the Mets 20-4.

--On June 10, the Dodgers led by 8 1/2 games and the Mets led by 8.

--On July 10, the Dodgers led by 11 1/2; the Mets today lead by 10 1/2.

And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of the National League, the Mets' 12 1/2-game lead over the Montreal Expos on July 4 equaled the lead of the '55 Dodgers. Not since the 1912 Giants, who were up by 14 1/2, has any other team in the majors had a more devastating lead so early in the season.

Even the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who were 55-21 at the end of June, were only 7 games up in the American League East on July 4.

Of course, since 1955 the league has expanded from eight teams and split into two divisions of six. And artificial grass, the dilution of talent and other modern-day conventions may also be factors that separate the two teams.

The dominance of each is unmistaken, however.

"Whoever is going to win the American League had better start scouting the Mets--and I mean right now," Atlanta Braves Manager Chuck Tanner recently told the Detroit Free Press.

Said former Chicago Cubs Manager Stan Hack in The Times, almost 31 years ago today: "Nobody's going to catch Brooklyn in the National League. I can't see the Dodgers losing unless they are hit by a flock of injuries."

The Dodgers stayed healthy and, with a 77-36 record, moved to a 15-game lead over the Milwaukee Braves by Aug. 10. On Sept. 10, they were 16 games ahead with a 93-47 record; two days earlier, with more than two weeks still left in the season, they had clinched the title--four days sooner than any team in the 79-year history of the National League. They finished 98-55, 13 1/2 games ahead of Milwaukee.

"After we opened that big lead, we really just played win-one, lose-one ball the rest of the season," said Sandy Koufax, a rookie who appeared in 12 games that season. He was 2-2 with a 3.00 earned-run average.

"It was a fun thing all year," said Podres, who was 9-10 as a pitcher but won two games in the World Series, "because were were up by about 13 all season. We could lose three, and everybody else would win two, and we'd still have a huge lead."

The first two games of the Series were won by the Yankees, who had beaten the Dodgers each of five previous times they met in the World Series. With the help of Snider's four homers, however, Brooklyn extended it to seven games, becoming the first team to win after losing the first two games.

It was the Dodgers' first crown after seven World Series failures, and in a way, it vindicated the Brooklyn people.

"The best part of it was that we beat the Yankees," Labine said. "I don't think I can ever imagine anything like being a world champion in that town. It was a great time."

For the Dodgers that season, everything seemed to work, almost without effort. Example: Though the Dodgers were outhit, 14-9, a Snider gland slam at Philadelphia in May beat the Phillies, 9-8, for the team's 10th straight win. The next game, Don Newcombe, who was 20-5 that year, pitched a one-hitter to beat the Chicago Cubs, 3-0.

Similarly, the Mets have built much of their lead by uncanny timing. They do not have consistent sluggers like Snider and Campanella, but clutch hitting has become a trademark. Last week, the Mets beat the Houston Astros, 6-5, with three runs in the 10th inning after trailing, 5-3. Darryl Strawberry tied it with a two-run homer, his first home run against a left-hander this year, and Ray Knight won it on a homer after striking out in his first four at-bats.

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