LAST JUNE, the Devil Rays honored the world champion 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and invited three of the club's mainstays—Hall of Famer Duke Snider and pitchers Carl Erskine and Johnny Podres—to throw first pitches. Snider and Erskine made respectable tosses, especially considering both are octogenarians. The lefthanded Podres then broke off what The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn, who was also there, calls "the goddamnedest curve I've ever seen." Rays manager Joe Maddon turned to Kahn and asked, "How old is he?"
Podres, who died on Sunday at age 75, never lost the spirit—or, to judge by that hook, the skills—that made him a Dodgers hero. The 23-year-old Podres gave the Dodgers their only championship before they moved to L.A. by beating the Yankees twice in the 1955 World Series, including a 2--0 masterpiece in Game 7. He was named SI's Sportsman of the Year, and Podres's legend only grew when it later emerged that he had told his teammates before the game that if they scored one run, he'd take care of the rest.
As effective as Podres was as a pitcher—he was a four-time All-Star—he may have been a better teacher. After retiring in 1969, he worked as a pitching coach and instructor for five teams, ending with the Phillies in the late 1990s. Podres didn't bother with pitch journals or complex mechanics discussions; he preached a simple approach that stressed aggressiveness and fastball command. It worked: He helped develop lefthander Frank Viola into a Cy Young Award winner and turned around Curt Schilling's foundering career when Schilling was traded to Philadelphia in 1992. "I owe [him] everything," Schilling once said. "The only man who had more of an impact on me was my father."