The ninth was Johnny Podres' inning. The anticipation of victory rode on every pitch. The first batter tapped the ball back to the pitcher's mound and Johnny, plucking the ball from the netting of his glove, threw him out. In Yankee Stadium 62,000 people leaned forward to watch Johnny Podres face the next man. He raised an easy fly to left field and was out. (Fifty million or so TV watchers were holding their breath now too.) The third man took a called strike (the stadium crowd exploded with noise), took a ball, swung and missed (an explosion from coast to coast), took a second ball high, fouled one, fouled another. The Brooklyn Dodger infield moved restlessly, fidgeting. Podres threw again, a big, fat, arrogant change-up that the batter topped on the ground. After a half century of waiting the Brooklyn Dodgers were champions of the world.
The grandfather of Johnny Podres climbed out of the mines of czarist Russia and came to America in 1904, the year after Cy Young and the Boston Red Sox beat Hans Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series. The chances are excellent that Barney Podres had never heard of Cy Young or Hans Wagner, or of the Boston Red Sox or the Pittsburgh Pirates, or of the World Series, or even, for that matter, of baseball. He was 24, and he had been working in the mines for 10 years.
In America he found his way to an iron-mining community in upstate New York in the rough foothills of the Adirondacks near Lake Champlain, married a Lithuanian girl and took his broad back and big hands down into the mines again. Forty-six years, two wives and eight children later he came out of the mines for the last time.
Now he sits in his weather-beaten house in the company village of Witherbee, N.Y., ailing from "the silica," the miner's disease, his great hands folded. His story is neither rare nor extraordinary; it has been repeated in one form or another in millions of American families. But it has a close relationship to the reasons why SPORTS ILLUSTRATED this week salutes the old man's grandson as its second Sportsman of the Year, to succeed Roger Bannister as the one person—of the millions active in sports all over the world in 1955—who was most significant of the year past.
For in the old man's lifetime sports has grown from a minor diversion for a leisurely handful of people to a preoccupying influence in almost every country on earth.
Consider Joe Podres, son of old Barney and father of Johnny, the Sportsman of the Year. Like his father, he went down into the mines in his youth. But Working conditions in the mines have improved, like working conditions almost everywhere, and a man has more time that is his own. Joe Podres spent a good deal of his free time playing baseball. He worked all week and played ball on Sundays, or whenever the local team could schedule a game. He was a topflight semiprofessional pitcher for 25 years, until he reluctantly retired three years ago at the age of 43. Sports earned him no money to speak of ("Eight dollars in eight years," is one family joke about it), but the competition and the pride of victory over a quarter century did a great deal to offset the exacting drudgery that goes with simply digging iron ore. And it provided the key that opened the way for his son to make come true a modern version of one of those old legends of beggars and kings and gold pots in the cabbage patch that were told for centuries by miners, farmers, peasants and other wishful Old World dreamers.
Today, even the dream is different. It does not deal with beggar boys becoming kings, or knights on white chargers. The boy kicks a football along Gorky Street and imagines himself booting the winning goal for Spartak in Dynamo Stadium in Moscow. He belts a hurley ball along the rich turf with a slick of Irish ash and thinks how grand it would be in Croke Park in Dublin saving the All-Ireland title for Cork. He stands on the edge of a street in a village in Provence as the Tour de France wheels by and sees himself pedaling into Pare des Princes Stadium in Paris, miles ahead of Louison Bobet. He throws a ball against the battered side of a house and dreams of pitching Brooklyn to victory in the World Series.
Johnny Podres, with three other high school boys, drove out of Witherbee in August 1949, and 265 miles south to New York City to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play a baseball game with the Boston Braves. It was the first major league game Johnny Podres had ever seen.
"We sat way up in the upper-left-field stands," Podres recalls. "Newcombe was pitching. The Dodgers had the same guys they have now: Robinson, Reese, Campy, Hodges, Furillo, Snider. I've always been a Brooklyn fan, and that day I made up my mind, I'm going to pitch for Brooklyn."
Johnny planned to see the Dodgers play again the next day but it rained, and the day after that when the Dodgers were playing again, some other youngster was sitting in the upper-left-field stands daydreaming of playing in the majors. John Podres was back in Witherbee, still a high school kid rooting for Brooklyn. While the Dodgers went on playing, winning and losing pennants, John Podres went on to become captain of his high school basketball team, to pitch his high school team to its league championship, to date, to dance, to hunt deer in the hills outside of town, to fish through the ice of Lake Champlain in the winter.
Then the major league scouts came around and the dream began to come true for John Joseph Podres. Two or three clubs were interested in him for their minor league farm clubs, but for one reason or another John did not sign. His father says, "I think he was just waiting for Brooklyn to come along." Come along they did, and Johnny signed a contract and, in 1951, went off to the Dodgers' farm system. He won 21 and lost five in his first year, later caught the eye of Dodger Manager Charley Dressen and in 1953 was indeed pitching for Brooklyn in a World Series. That, however, was far from being the magic moment, because young Podres was driven from the mound by the New York Yankees, who were beating Brooklyn again, for the fifth time in five World Series meetings.
John Podres is on good terms with luck, however, despite a chronic bad back and a midseason appendectomy. Last fall, as most of the world knows, he got a second try at immortality. Fittingly enough, it was on his 23rd birthday. Brooklyn had lost the first two games of the World Series—and Johnny himself had not finished a game since early summer—but he was the right man in the right place that day. The Yankees could not rattle him, nor could they connect solidly against his arrogant blend of fast balls and lazy-looking slow ones. The Dodgers not only won that game but the next two to take the lead in the Series and approach the brink of incredible victory.
Then they lost the sixth game, woefully. People in Brooklyn were saying, "those bums," and not in tones of rough affection. Rather it was an expression of heartbroken anger and frustration, that they should have come so close only to lose again. They had always lost to the Yankees in the World Series. They had always lost to everybody in the World Series. They were losing now. They would always lose.
At this propitious moment the grandson of old Barney Podres stepped forward, bowed to the audience and promptly became the hero of the year. It was the setting of the dream of glory, and Johnny Podres knew exactly what to do. He beat the Yankees for a second time, shut them out without a run in that old graveyard of Brooklyn hopes, Yankee Stadium itself. Johnny Podres pitched with his ears shut. The explosive noise of the crowd, the taunts of the Yankee bench never got through to him. "I guess I didn't really hear the noise," says Johnny, "until I came up to bat in the ninth." By that time the noise was for Johnny Podres, pitcher, and it was time for him to hear it.
In winning—and this was, in retrospect, the most exciting and fascinating thing about the Series—Johnny became the personification, the living realization of the forgotten ambitions of thousands and even millions of onlookers who had pitched curves against the sides of their own houses and evoked similar visions of glory, only to end up at the wheel of a truck or behind a desk in an office. What was happening transcended any game, or any sport...
...The Russian more often than not ends up in a factory turning out heavy machinery for the state; he keeps his emotions under control until he can get to his seat high up on the side of Dynamo Stadium Where he can yell his heart out for Spartak. The Irishman puts his hurley stick away and tends dutifully to the farm, except when he can get down to Cork City to shout for Cork against Tip or Limerick. The Frenchman uses his cycle only to ride back and forth from home to shop to café; but the day the Tour goes through his village he's back on the curb again, watching, watching, as the wheels fly by. Dreams die hard.
And so, when the country boy from the small mining village stands alone on the mound in Yankee Stadium in the most demanding moment of one of the world's few truly epic sports events, and courageously, skillfully pitches his way to a success as complete, melodramatic and extravagant as that ever dreamed by any boy, the American chapter of the International Order of Frustrated Dreamers rises as one man and roars its recognition.
There were others in the world of sport eminently fitted for the robes of Sportsman of the Year.
Sandor Iharos set five world records in 1955, astounding records that left track and field aghast. Donald Campbell kept faith with the memory of his father by surmounting setback after setback to drive his jet-propelled hydroplane to the fastest speed ever achieved on water. Humberto Mariles ignored the excruciating pain of a cracked coccyx to execute with matchless grace the superb rides necessary for Mexico to win the International Jumping Championship. Rocky Marciano broadened his omnipotent rule over heavyweight boxing. Paul Anderson performed Bunyanesque feats of weight lifting that evoked admiration and applause even in Russia. Aging Jackie Robinson retained the fiery spirit of the competitor sufficiently to light an exciting spark of success under his Brooklyn teammates during the pennant race and again in the World Series. Mrs. Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias brought great credit to sport by the courage, serenity and bright good humor she displayed in the face of a terrifying attack of cancer. Juan Fangio combined magnificent skill and cold, practical courage to drive racing cars faster than anyone else in the world. Otto Graham came out of the ease of retirement to lead the desperate Cleveland Browns to yet another magnificent season. Eddie Arcaro rode a horse as well as ever a horse can be ridden. Julius Helfand quietly and efficiently dedicated himself to the Augean task of cleaning up boxing. Ray Robinson wrote a brilliant chapter of climax to the most dramatic comeback in the history of boxing. And dozens of others, with names like Cassady, Tabori, Alston, Russell, Sowell, Stengel...the list is endless if you listen to the sincere arguments from every part of the world of sport.
But nowhere else in that vast, heterogeneous and wonderful world did such a moment exist in 1955 as that of the seventh game of the World Series. Nowhere else did a man do what he had to do so well as Johnny Podres did that day. Nowhere else in all the world did sports mean as much to so many people as it did the day John Podres beat the Yankees.
A DOZEN WHO HELPED TO MAKE 1955 A MEMORABLE YEAR
RUNNER OF YEAR
SPEED ON THE WATER
WEIGHT LIFTER EXTRAORDINARY
MASTER OF MOTOR CARS
THE PROFESSIONALS' PRO
KING OF THE JOCKEYS
HE "CAME BACK"