Who cares that a bald-headed man in his 60s decided to go see a baseball game last week? Or that another bald-headed man did the same thing two days later? Who cares? Well, as Li'l Abner might say, "The Amurrican peeple, thass who." And in the full spirit of the occasion the President of the United States attended the opening game of the World Series at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and had a high, natural good time as the curtain went up on the great finale of the baseball drama—a drama that soon showed signs of turning into the All-America cliff hanger of 1956. The President himself was part of the drama's spectacle—as was his Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, at the second game—and when the presidential party drove off the field he was caught in a tableau (opposite) which recorded for history a vast amount of the whole day.
There on the scoreboard behind him was the record of Sal Maglie's 6-3 victory over the Yankees. There—still recorded as "at bat"—was the memorable No. 7 of Mickey Mantle, who had just grounded into a double play to end the game (though those two Yankee runs in the first inning were a tribute to a booming Mantle homer). And there, too, was the Yankee No. 17—for Enos Slaughter, LF, another major character in the drama whose big role was still ahead.
...ENTER THE OLD TROUPER: CASEY STENGEL
Casey Stengel prowled back and forth along the wooden floor of the dugout, giving signals to his coaches and orders to his players and, occasionally, hell to the umpires. More than anyone else in sight, he was the center of attraction. This was an extraordinary thing, because young men—even Slaughter at 40 and Maglie at 39 are boys next to the 65-year-old Casey—with firm muscles and springs in their legs were doing heroic things on the field.
October 14, 1956
But the television cameras recognized Stengel for what he was, a great performer on the stage of baseball, and, while they caught in action the feats of Mantle and Snider, Maglie and Ford, they shot their long lenses into the dugout to watch Casey clutch his head in agony after a Brooklyn homer, or close down onto the infield as he crabbed his way out to the mound to remove an erring pitcher.
Casey is an emotional man: he is not of the new phlegmatic school that believes in the poker face and the monosyllabic response. Casey reacts to everything. Perhaps this is why he appeals so strongly to the average fan: during the Series, Stengel, too, writhed and grimaced, yelled with glee or slumped unhappily in his seat, as the extraordinary series of dugout portraits by Photographer John G. Zimmerman reveals so graphically (right).
Casey's 10th Series (three as a player—he had a .393 average for World Series competition—and seven as manager of the Yankees) started dismally. In Brooklyn his "perfessional," the strong-shouldered Whitey Ford, was hit freely, and the Dodgers' old Sal Maglie stopped Casey's heroes dead after a first-inning line-drive home run by Mickey Mantle had put the Yankees ahead. Maglie is often accused of throwing an illegal spitball, and after that first game Casey delivered a center-stage soliloquy. "I don't know if he throws a spitball," he said, "but he sure spits on the ball. No, I don't want to say he spits on the ball, but he spits. Then he gives it this—" wiping his hands on his shirt—"and he touches the resin bag and he throws. But I don't want to say that I don't think he's a hell of a pitcher. He pitched good. He beat us. He pitched a good game."
Casey was a gracious loser then, giving his worthy adversary his due. But the next day, after his team had fallen from a 6-0 lead to a humiliating 13-8 defeat, he was just a little short-tempered. Why, a baseball writer asked, had he taken Starting Pitcher Don Larsen out with a 6-1 lead in the second inning. Why? It was obvious, at least to Stengel. "Wild!" he said in a loud, ringing voice. "He was wild. W-I-L-D."
And he waved his arms and stomped away, showing little physical fatigue despite the chore of removing five more pitchers from the mound after Larsen. It all seemed sad in a way. Poor old Casey.
Next day Stengel was back in the luxurious confines of Yankee Stadium, and he turned to the luxury of using his professional again. This time Ford beat the Dodgers, and the next day, behind Tom Sturdivant, Stengel's Yankees beat the Dodgers again.
And suddenly poor old Casey was back in business, back even, needing, after all these weeks of the season, only two more victories to recapture the World Championship flag that hasn't been the Yankees' since 1953. It was hard to imagine him losing again. The memory holds a picture of Billy Martin in the losing Yankee dressing room last year, near tears, saying, "It's a shame for a great manager like that to have to lose."
...HOME PLATE IS CENTER STAGE
The focus of attention is the plate: there, day after day as the Series advanced, the chief actors took their turns. Often enough—though rarely recorded by the camera or remembered by the eye—their gestures made odd vignettes of grace and awkwardness. Other pictures the eye will remember if it saw them: the very first run of the Series, scored in the first inning of the first game by the oldest man on either team, the 40-year-old Enos Slaughter, who three days later hit a game-winning home run; the called-strike Sal Maglie flicked past Mickey Mantle the first time Mick batted after hitting a homer off Maglie; the calm, serious, appreciative group of Yankees who met Yogi Berra after Yogi's epic grand-slam home run put the Yankees ahead 6-0 in the second game; and, a half inning later, the glee of the Dodgers and the unrestrained joy on Duke Snider's face as he scored after hitting a three-run homer that canceled out Berra's; Mantle in the fifth game fouling off outside pitch after outside pitch until Maglie finally came inside, and then hitting the home run that broke up Maglie's bid for a perfect game.
...THE DESPERATE BALLET OF THE BASE PATHS
If home plate is the focus of attention, the base paths are where the World Series plot was developed and explored. When Carl Furillo (above) suddenly decided to try for three bases on his long hit to right-center field, everyone watching had the story line clear in his mind: Baserunner Furillo trying for the impossible extra base, Outfielder Bauer charged with the responsibility of stopping him. The race was on: runner and ball. The ball, secure finally in Third Baseman Carey's glove, won. The tragedy was Furillo's. But the emotion of the moment, joy or indignation, was the spectator's.
Yankee infielders like Billy Martin (left below) and Gil McDougald (right below) played, for the most part, with masterful poise and grace, but the hero of the base paths, both on the field and on base, was the spry old (37) shortstop of the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese (below center). Reese was the steady man of the Brooklyn team, making the fielding play with steady, upright caution, but without delay. At bat he was of great importance. Just before Snider hit his three-run homer to tie the score of the wild second game, it was Reese who dueled with the young sidearmer, Johnny Kucks, pitch by pitch, foul ball by foul ball, until finally he powered a single into left field for the two runs that brought the Dodgers alive again. Baseball reveres the "clutch" player; here Reese came through heroically in a most serious "clutch."
He confounded his critics with his speed. He's beating out a crucial base hit below that was instrumental in a Brooklyn victory. He scampered around the bases to beat out a triple, and cashed his run by scoring on a fly to the outfield.
Enos Slaughter, another old one, was a delight to see, with his constant rhythmic running everywhere, particularly around the bases to score run after run. Even on the home run that won the third game, Enos trotted rapidly rather than jog slowly with casual tradition.
There were other brief flashes of rare beauty: Snider flashing into second with a magnificent sliding flourish to beat out a double; Mantle stealing a base with his blazing burst of speed and quick, neat little slide; Jim Gilliam timing a line drive perfectly and leaping high in the air and seemingly holding himself there until he had the ball.
...APPLAUSE DAY AFTER DAY
The thread of the plot and the clean, steady line of building suspense lay in the hands of the old stagers, to whom the plaudits of the crowd were an old and still intoxicating music. Enos Slaughter, as letter-perfect in his performance as a Shakespearean actor playing his 1,000th Hamlet, swung his bat with the immense assurance of 19 summers of baseball. He banged away steadily at the good Dodger pitching through the first two games, and his three-run homer in the sixth inning of the third game won for the Yankees and brought suspense back to a plot which had begun to flag.
Duke Snider of the Dodgers wrung applause from the crowds in a marvelously adept, versatile performance. He played center field audaciously and with sometimes nearly unbelievable skill. He dived headlong to catch Yankee line drives, his body one moment stretched and taut against the green background of the center-field sod, then suddenly tumbling, the ball held securely in his glove. And, in center stage at the plate, he provided a moment of high drama in the second game with a three-run homer which presaged victory for Don Bessent. On the base paths, he ran with a certain sagacious recklessness, twice trying for an extra base and making it, once against the slingshot-fast, very accurate throwing arm of Mickey Mantle.
Gil Hodges, who had been deep in a batting slump throughout the season, responded to the Series like an actor who is poor in rehearsal, magnificent on the stage for opening night. He supplied the Dodgers with a surprisingly sure touch at bat, hitting steadily and producing a home run in the first game and two doubles in the second which were the driving force behind the drumfire Brooklyn attack that melted away a long Yankee lead with startling speed.
Sal Maglie had the sure, deft technique of the real old pro, underplaying his part with a careful precision which made the power of his performance the more dramatic. He trod carefully along the edge of disaster for nine long innings in the first game, peering bale-fully at a long procession of Yankee batters, throwing the ball precisely and carefully and always in the marginal area of small return for the hitter. He spun the drama of his part out until it was nearly intolerable.
And the quiet man in the background was the manager of the Dodgers, Walter Alston. Alston, who partakes of none of the heroic style of Casey Stengel, slipped only once from his character. Then he referred to Pinch-hitter Rube Walker as "that feller," and quickly corrected himself to say, "The fellow I'm talking about is Rube Walker. I'm beginning to talk like Casey." But he wasn't. Like the other old pros, he remained strictly and proudly in character.
The man's name was Donald Larsen, 26, a big fellow, 6 feet 4, handsome, single, out of San Diego. The St. Petersburg police had him in tow because he'd run his car into a utility pole at 5 a.m. He had, he said, fallen asleep at the wheel. Sportswriters snickered.
This was last spring, in training in Florida, and this Larsen was a pitcher for the New York Yankees. Not a particularly good pitcher either: 3-21 with the Orioles in 1954, sent down to the minors for a spell in 1955. And now he was in trouble. He wouldn't be around too long, the wise ones predicted.
Larsen paid a $15 speeding fine and the cost of the damage to the pole. Then, to everyone's surprise, Casey Stengel said flatly he'd take no disciplinary action. The fuss quieted down. Larsen stayed with the Yanks, but he was still nothing special, and when Stengel named him to pitch the second game of the World Series there was some surprise. Larsen turned wild behind a 6-0 lead, and the Yankees collapsed and lost. The wise men said, "I told you so."
But once again Stengel, who does not spare his players the rough side of his tongue when he feels they need it, spared Larsen. "He wasn't throwing over there in Brooklyn," Casey said. "He was just pushing the ball. Maybe he was thinking too much about those fences. He can pitch a lot better than that. You'll see."
So, on Monday, Donald Larsen went out to pitch in the fifth game of the World Series, on a brilliant, clear day, a little on the chilly side, about 60° in the sun. He and his rival, the colorful old Sal Maglie, pitched impeccably. Maglie retired the first 11 batters, but then Mickey Mantle outfoxed him, hit a home run, and Maglie's no-hitter was gone. The spotlight swung to Larsen, for the scoreboard still showed no hits, no runs, no errors for Brooklyn. It was six innings and then seven, and suddenly—in view of the overpowering way Larsen was getting the first and second strikes in on almost every batter—the possibility of not just a no-hitter' but a perfect game became as real as the taste of a hot dog.
These things, of course, don't happen. There had never been a no-hitter in the World Series, and there had not been a perfect game in the major leagues for 34 years. But, there was Larsen, going into the eighth.
Jackie Robinson tried his best to slow down the inexorable pressure of fate when he stepped out of the box with two strikes and walked away to talk for a second with Gil Hodges. The crowd booed, Robinson stepped back in...and tapped back to the mound. Hodges hit a strange little liner to Carey. Amoros flied to Mantle. The crowd roared in relief and anticipation. One more inning to go.
Larsen went to the ninth. Furillo, the first batter, was greeted by Catcher Berra. "This guy's got good stuff, huh?" grunted Yogi. Furillo looked at him. "Yeah, not bad," he sniffed drily, and flied out. Campanella grounded to Martin. One out to go. Dale Mitchell was up. The first pitch was a ball, the second a called strike, the third a swing and a miss for strike two. One strike to go. Larsen turned his back to the plate, took off his hat and rubbed his brow, picked up the resin bag, rubbed his hand on his thigh. He pitched—and it was fouled back. He threw again, Mitchell half swung, held up—and it was called-strike three, the impossible: a perfect game! Berra ran out (right) and leaped into Larsen's arms like a-small boy greeting his father.
Anyone—Yogi, Old Sal, Old Case, Old Enos, and even those early bit players, Ike and Adlai—could tell you the Great Cliff-hanger of 1956 was really over.