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August 10, 2010
Willie, Mickey, and the Duke
The universe wasn’t really very big then, pretty much a triangle from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium to Ebbets Field. The year was 1950. Or was it 1955 or 1956? Didn’t matter really; it was New York and this was the true Golden Age of baseball in the city.
Never has there been anything like it, never will there be. One city, three teams. Heaven on earth when you were 10 or 12 or 15 as I was growing up across the river from New York City in New Jersey.
It started really, the day Jackie Robinson burst through the color barrier, changing baseball forever. Before you could say, well, Jackie Robinson, there were Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and then along came Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, and if the Yankees were late in joining the 20th century it wasn’t because they were in need of any more players.
There was nothing like a trip with your father to the Polo Grounds, to the Stadium—which was always just “the Stadium”—or to Ebbets Field. You went often because tickets were affordable, there was a game every day somewhere, and you had this sense, even though you didn’t know it, that you’d never see anything like it again.
And when you didn’t go, the game came into your living room. If you thought the players were good, this was the Golden Age of radio and baseball.
How good were the broadcasts? You had Russ Hodges on the Giants, Mel Allen on the Yankees, Red Barber on the Dodgers, that being before he went over to the Yankees. As Allen would say, "How about that?"
What’s that, you say, those guys have nothing on Vin Scully and he’s still going strong today? True, but he was the backup on the Dodger games in those days. And Ernie Harwell, the great Hall of Famer, he was on television the day Hodges called the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard 'Round The World.”
Allen, Barber, Hodges, Scully, and Harwell—all on the air at once.
Of course, if for some reason you missed the game, you feared not because you could read all about it in the Daily News, the Mirror, the Times, the Herald-Tribune, the Journal-America, the Post—all of them daily papers with the best baseball writers who ever lived. Dick Young invented the art that is still followed today. Jimmy Cannon hit you between the eyes. Red Smith charmed you. Jimmy Breslin, Roger Kahn, Milton Gross, Leonard Koppett, Red Foley, Arthur Daley, Frank Graham, and Dan Daniel. Words never were so good.
Not that they could be bad. Go ahead, tell me about A-Rod and Jeter and Albert Pujols and I’ll agree that they match the skills of the players we had then. But what no one has ever had is so many great players gathered together in one city.
Terry Cashman didn’t invent Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. They lived and breathed and covered more real estate than Central Park as they patrolled center field in the city’s three major-league ballparks. All are in the Hall of Fame. Think about that for a moment, three of the greatest center fielders in baseball history in one city at one time.
Baseball is a game of numbers. Here are some numbers: The three center fielders in New York in the 1950s played a combined 7,536 games, hit 1,603 home runs, drove in 4,745 runs and scored 4,998 runs in their careers, combining to win five Most Valuable Player awards.
Snider was elegant, Mantle awesome, Mays magnetic.
They were so good that one year, 1954, Snider hit .341, led the league with 120 runs scored, hit 40 homers, drove in 130 runs—and didn’t win the MVP award. Mays did with a league-leading .345 batting average, 119 runs scored, 41 home runs, and 110 runs batted in. Mantle that year? Just hit .300 with 129 runs scored, 27 homers, and 102 RBI.
How could you not have a love affair with baseball?
Snider, of course, was surrounded with greatness in Brooklyn. The 1951 Dodgers team that lost the National League playoff to the Giants had no fewer than five Hall of Famers on the roster—Snider, Campanella, Robinson, Newcombe, and Pee Wee Reese. By the time the team won its first World Series title in 1955, it had added another Hall of Fame player in a kid left-hander named Sandy Koufax and a Hall of Fame manager in Walter Alston.
The Giants in 1951 had Mays and Irvin, who would go to the Hall of Fame, while the Yankees had six Hall of Fame players in Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, playing his final year; Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Johnny Mize, to say nothing of Cooperstown-bound manager Casey Stengel.
Glory days? That’s 12 Hall of Famers playing in 1951 in one city! And to make it even better, these were great all-around players who could hit and field and were smart.
Did they give you moments to remember? So many, you can’t remember them all. Here are just a few:
With all that in New York in the 1950s, who needed Pac Man or Super Mario? We had Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.