By Paul Post
Pat Salerno Jr., has the world’s most extensive collection of Johnny Podres memorabilia. That’s why autumn is his favorite time of year.
In 1955, Podres won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award after beating the Yankees twice, including a 2-0, Game 6 shutout that gave Brooklyn its one and only World Championship in franchise history.
Four years later, the fireballing southpaw helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1959 Fall Classic, followed by a masterful Game 2 performance in the 1963 Series, when he beat the Yankees once again in a four-game sweep of the Bronx Bombers.
“When I was in Little League, Johnny came to our games and would watch me pitch,” said Salerno, of Port Henry, N.Y. “That was a great thrill. I started collecting because he was so nice to me. He helped me get a lot of stuff and then signed everything for me.”
Port Henry is a stone’s throw from Podres’ native Witherbee in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Each summer, since Podres’ passing in January 2008, Salerno has organized an annual Johnny Podres Day in Port Henry, where he puts his extensive collection on display free of charge for all to enjoy.
“I’ve got hundreds of his baseball cards from 1952 to the present, starting with his Montreal Royals card. That was his very first one,” Salerno said.
A card, showing Podres and Hall of Fame Dodger hurlers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, is autographed by all three.
Salerno also has the belt Podres wore during the 1955 Series, more than a dozen game-worn jerseys including some from World Series and All-Star Games, along with numerous autographed caps, spikes and balls, and several videos of Podres in action.
Caps and jerseys are from Podres’ career as both a player and coach. After pitching for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and L.A., Podres went to the Tigers and closed out his playing days with the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969.
Coaching stints took him to several clubs – the Padres, Red Sox, Twins and most notably the 1993 National League champion Phillies, where he mentored All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling.
“His pitchers didn’t like Johnny, they loved him because he helped them advance so much in their careers,” Salerno said.
He has a Podres cap and jersey from that ’93 World Series, along with balls autographed by everyone on the Phillies and Blue Jays rosters.
In 1996, Podres was named honorary captain for the National League in the All-Star Game played at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Salerno not only has Podres’ jersey from that contest, but it’s signed by 32 National League All-Stars, including 15 Hall of Famers.
The most prominent autograph, however, is from a genuine American hero, Ted Williams, who threw out the game’s first pitch.
In 2005, the Dodgers gave Podres a Brooklyn uniform for a 50th anniversary celebration of the 1955 World Series, at Dodger Stadium. Of course, that’s also part of Salerno’s collection, along with unique items such as 1955 Ebbets Field pins sold at the Brooklyn ballpark, an autographed 1955 World Series program, Podres’ 1950 high school yearbook and a rare 8mm home movie that shows Podres in the victory parade his hometown gave him after the ’55 Fall Classic.
Salerno got Podres’ 1955 World Series uniform belt last year.
“Right after that World Series, a friend of his – Bill Harris Sr. – took Johnny hunting in the Adirondacks,” Salerno said. “To show his appreciation, Mr. Podres gave him that belt.”
It got passed down to Harris’ son, Bill Jr., who gave it to Salerno last summer.
Salerno’s brother, Tim, also has an impressive collection of Podres game-worn jerseys. His other brother, Randy, has one of the most unique items of all – the Brooklyn Dodgers jersey that catcher Rube Walker had on when New York Giant Bobby Thomson hit his famed “Shot Heard ’Round the World” off Ralph Branca to win the National League pennant on Oct. 3, 1951.
It’s common for used major league uniforms to get passed down to minor league players. The Salernos’ father, Pat Sr., was a Dodger minor league outfielder in the mid-1950s and wound up with Walker’s jersey, which Randy Salerno has now.
Pat Sr. has some of the best things anyone could ask for – memories of playing against Podres for their respective local high schools.
“I played for Moriah and Johnny went to Mineville,” he said. “We played the first night game ever in Mineville. Johnny pitched a three-hitter against us. I had two hits and Chuck DeVito, who got signed by the Yankees, had the other hit. But we couldn’t beat Johnny. He threw nothing but strikes.”
One of his biggest thrills was being inducted with Podres, in November 2011, to the inaugural class of the Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I was proud to go in with Johnny Podres, that’s for darn sure,” he said.
The shrine has since been expanded and renamed the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame. Each year, the Hall hands out a Johnny Podres Lifetime Achievement Award to someone for their long-time contributions and dedicated service to baseball both on and off the field.
This year’s recipient is Ralph Branca, Podres’ former Brooklyn teammate.
“Johnny and I hit it off real good,” he said. “We got along well. I’m really honored to get this award.”
Branca and seven other native New York major leaguers will be inducted to the Hall on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Holiday Inn in Troy, N.Y. It’s a great opportunity for fans to get autographs and see some of Salerno’s collection.
Branca, Ed Kranepool of the 1969 “Miracle Mets” and Lou Whitaker, second baseman for the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers, are expected to be in attendance.
Kranepool and Whitaker are natives of The Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively.
Other inductees are 3,000-Hit Club member Craig Biggio (Astros) of Long Island; two Utica area stars, Mark Lemke (Braves) and Andy Van Slyke (Pirates); 1979 Tigers All-Star Dave Lemanczyk, who pitched at Hartwick College in Oneonta; and the late Pat Simmons of Watervliet, who pitched for the 1928 Red Sox and once struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession.
Podres had an extensive memorabilia collection of his own, highlighted by various awards and trophies, along with congratulatory notes from admirers, both long-time local friends and nationally known celebrities.
In October 1965, after the Dodgers beat the Twins in the World Series, then Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, of Minnesota, wrote to Podres on official White House stationery. “I cannot pretend that I was rooting as hard for the Dodgers as I was for the Twins, but I’m a baseball fan first,” he said.
One time, after Podres had heart surgery, actor and entertainer Jerry Lewis sent him a get-well telegram. “Welcome to the ‘Zipper Club.’ I know you’ll be fine. I’m rooting for you,” he wrote.
Such items produce plenty of fond memories for Podres’ wife, Joan, and their sons, Joe and John Jr.
In later years, Podres gave a great deal of his time to local baseball organizations by agreeing to sign autographs at shows for a nominal fee, or nothing at all. His popularity instead of waning, seemed to grow as time went by.
“Every time he would come home, the kids looked up to him and wanted his autograph. They crowded around him,” Joan Podres said. “John loved to come back after the season was over and just relax.”
It’s easy to see why Salerno decided to organize an annual Johnny Podres Day.
“I felt the town needed to do something,” he said. “Johnny Podres put this area on the map, so this is our way of honoring him.”
Branca: Career Filled With Highlights
Former Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Ralph Branca headlines the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2013 that’s slated for induction on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Hilton Hotel in Troy.
Branca, 85, originally from Mount Vernon, is best remembered for yielding the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” the most dramatic home run in baseball history, hit by New York Giant Bobby Thomson to win the 1951 National League pennant.
However, Branca was also a three-time All-Star and pitched in two World Series for the Dodgers – 1947, when he posted a career-high 21 wins, and 1949, when he had the National League’s highest win percentage with a 13-5 record.
Perhaps more important, he was one of Jackie Robinson’s closest friends on the Dodgers, when Robinson broke baseball’s color line as its first African-American player in 1947. Branca was portrayed prominently in the movie, 42, released earlier this year about Robinson.
“I thought it was very good and accurate,” Branca said. “The first time Jackie came into the locker room, Gene Hermanski and I were the only ones there. We both went over, shook hands and said, ‘I hope you help us win the pennant.’ We became good friends. We always got along. The block where I grew up had four black families, eight of Italian descent, two Jewish and two German families, and some Irish people, too. I was used to the United Nations.”
He spent parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues from 1944-56. But when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, Branca stopped rooting for them.
“I’m a New York fan now, the Yankees mainly because I pitched briefly for them in 1954,” he said. “I was born and have lived here my whole life.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.