Johnny Podres remembered on and off the field

Johnny Podres was to the Dodgers what Bill Mazeroski and Bobby Thomson were to the Pirates and New York Giants, respectively.

A hero for the ages.

In his case, Podres gave Brooklyn fans what no one else ever could – a World Championship, which to this day endears Podres to legions of Dodger faithful who are mourning his passing on Jan. 13.

“He was a miracle,” said Brooklyn native John Cowan, who witnessed Podres’ 1955 World Series heroics from Yankee Stadium’s left-center field stands. After beating the Bronx Bombers in Game 3 at Ebbets Field, Podres came back and stopped the Yankees again before a full house in the “House That Ruth Built,” with more than 62,000 people on hand.
“We had to stay overnight to get the Dodger ticket,” said Cowan of Wilton, N.Y. “Ebbets Field only held 32,000 people. At Yankee Stadium, we bought it at 9 o’clock the day of the game. There were still a lot of tickets left.”
By game time, however, it was a sellout.

“He’ll never be forgotten,” Cowan said of Podres.

Cowan keeps such memories alive with a handsome collection of Brooklyn Dodgers items, including 1955 World Series ticket stubs. At Ebbets Field, he sat in the second-tier pavilion in dead center field. At Yankee Stadium, he was in the bleachers. Both tickets cost $2.10.

Cowan also has vintage 1940s and ’50s-era Dodger programs and yearbooks, along with hundreds of old newspaper clippings from his boyhood days when he followed “Dem Bums.” The old New York World Telegram captured Brooklyn’s wild post-Series celebration with full-page photo spreads. Through the years, Cowan has collected many other meaningful items, such as an old Dodgers jersey and a Duke Snider autographed bat.

His one lament is never getting Podres to sign his World Series Game 7 ticket stub, which he no doubt would have agreed to without reservation – or pay. Podres was a favorite wherever he went near his Queensbury, N.Y., home, making numerous appearances to raise money for baseball groups with nominal pay or no fee at all.

Stan Hudy has helped organize several Babe Ruth World Series events in nearby Clifton Park, N.Y. Part of his job was lining up celebrities to speak to young players, followed by brief autograph sessions.

“There were always big names, but they always wanted big dollars – tens of thousands for 90 minutes,” he said. “Babe Ruth baseball is a non-profit organization. With Johnny Podres, he always volunteered to come down, no questions asked.”

A life remembered

Podres had an impressive memorabilia collection of his own, highlighted by his 1955 World Series MVP Award. His living room wall was filled with dozens of plaques, framed letters and photographs depicting his years with the Dodgers organization and his Hall of Fame teammates in Brooklyn and L.A.

One of his favorite pictures was a photo showing Podres in the middle, flanked by the great Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, autographed by all three. In 1963, they combined to form one of the greatest pitching triumvirates of all time – joining forces to sweep the mighty Yankees in that year’s Fall Classic.

Podres won Game 2 of that Series, also in Yankee Stadium.

“Most people don’t realize that Johnny had a lot of good pitching left in Los Angeles,” said Carl Erskine, a long-time Dodger teammate. “Most people remember him for that big game in the 1955 World Series. But he was a strong pitcher for the early teams in Los Angeles.”

In 1961, his 18-5 record produced an NL-best .783 winning percentage. From 1959, when the Dodgers won their first West Coast World Series over the White Sox, until 1963, Podres went a combined 75-51, averaging 15 wins per year with 38 complete games.
A three-time All-Star, all with the L.A. Dodgers, Podres logged a career-high 255 innings pitched in 1962, making him a bona fide workhorse. Those kind of statistics today would make Podres among the most sought-after and highest-paid players in the game.

“Johnny always had good command; he was always around the plate,” Erskine said.
A colorful figure, he also produced his share of good stories.

“When John was a rookie, Chuck Dressen was the manager and he saw him in a bar one night,” Erskine recalled. “So the next day he saw John in the clubhouse and he said, ‘Hey kid. Listen, I saw you hanging around the bar last night. You’re a rookie. That’s no place for you.’

“And Johnny said, ‘Well, Skipper, I was just having a Seven-Up.’

Dressen said, “Look, go to the soda fountain and have it!”

Once on the mound, however, Podres was all business. Three years ago, in 2005, he reveled in the praise of baseball fans who celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1955 Dodgers.

Podres didn’t quite have a Hall of Fame career, but his likeness has been preserved forever in Cooperstown with the statue, “Eternal Battery Mates,” outside the Hall of Fame library. The sculpture shows a life-size figure of Podres delivering a pitch to Dodger catcher Roy Campanella, stationed 60 feet, 6 inches away.
The statues were originally meant to be displayed at the Brooklyn USA Diner near Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, but restaurant owner Sheldon Fireman, who commissioned the statues, changed his mind.

“I felt they belonged in a place where more baseball fans could see them and appreciate them,” he told the Hall of Fame magazine, Memories & Dreams. “Then, when I met Baseball Hall of Fame Chair Jane Forbes Clark, it dawned on me. That’s where they belong, in Cooperstown.”

He donated the statues in 2001, and they’re located in Cooper Park. From inside the Hall of Fame museum, they’re visible through large pane-glass windows near the “Scribes and Mikemen” exhibit. Designed by sculptor Stanley Bleifield, Podres is depicted following through on a pitch, while Campanella’s mask is pulled back on his head, preparing to receive Podres’ throw.

“I wasn’t good enough to be in enshrined in the Hall of Fame,” Podres once said, “but the statue is the next-best thing.”
Surprisingly, Fireman grew up in the Bronx as a Yankees fan. But he grew to admire the Dodgers and their loyal fans. He even has replicas of the statues at his home in Italy. That’s the kind of effect Podres had on people. You might hate the Dodgers, but you couldn’t help respecting everything he did.

Another one of Podres’ favorite collectibles is a full-color painting that shows his portrait in a San Diego Padres uniform, with the determined look of a baseball veteran etched on his face.
“That’s from 1969 when I made my comeback,” he said.

Podres closed out his professional career as a Phillies minor league pitching instructor. Previously, he was Philadelphia’s big league mound mentor, where he had a tremendous impact on the career of current Red Sox star Curt Schilling, who made the trip to Podres’ funeral services in upstate New York. Former Dodger teammates Tommy Lasorda and Don Zimmer were also there.

Podres was never affected by his World Series heroics, preferring instead to remain the small-town guy who had a knack for winning big games. He always kept things in perspective, which perhaps more than anything else explains why friends and fans looked up to him so much.

“There was no pressure on me,” Podres said of his 1955 Game 7 performance. “Who expected a guy 9-10, a young kid pitching against the Yankees, to beat them in the third game and then pitching again on the fourth day, to beat them again in the seventh game?

“If I get beat, I go home and they say, ‘Dem Bums, wait till next year.’

“But we changed all that.”

 Paul Post is a freelance writer from Glens Falls, N.Y. He can be contacted at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.

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