But the game above all others that best demonstrates the vagaries of the Polo Grounds -- and how the stadium could taketh away as well as giveth -- may have been the opener of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants. Cleveland came into the series as the favorites after having set an American League single-season record by winning 111 games. However, they would win no more.
With the first game tied, 2-2, Larry Doby of the Indians walked to open the eighth inning and went to second on an infield hit by Al Rosen. Left-hander Don Liddle was brought in to face Vic Wertz, Cleveland's powerful first baseman. On a two-strike pitch, Wertz drilled a tremendous drive to center field. Willie Mays turned and ran back toward the fence to the right of the alcove. Mays stuck out his glove and, three steps in front of the warning track, caught the fly over his right shoulder. The catch was remarkable, but so was what he did next. Mays was so far away that if he couldn't get the ball in quickly, Doby would have had a chance to tag up and score all the way from second base. Mays spun and heaved the ball back toward the infield as he fell to the ground. Doby was able to get no farther than third on the play and was stranded there by the subsequent Cleveland batters. Thanks to Mays's great play, the game remained deadlocked.
In the last of the tenth inning, with the score still tied, 2-2, the Giants put runners on first and second with one out. Dusty Rhodes, a left-handed batter, pinch hit for Monte Irvin and lifted a fly to right field. Right fielder Dave Pope drifted over toward the line but quickly came up against the fence. He leaped but the ball came down beyond his reach, into the first row of fans for a game-winning home run. Dusty Rhodes won the game with a home run that traveled barely 260 feet while, two innings earlier, Vic Wertz had sent one well in excess of 400 feet that was nothing more than a long fly out.
The exact distance Mays was from home plate when he made the catch on Wertz's drive has prompted a great deal of debate among baseball historians. The most popular notion puts the catch approximately 440 feet from home plate, although many scholars claim it was no more than 405 to 410 feet away. Enough still photos and film footage exist to make it possible to mark the location where Mays made the catch. However, there is disagreement over how far this spot was from home plate, which points out the confusion regarding the distances to center field at the Polo Grounds. The marked distances on diagrams as well as within the stadium changed over the years. For much of the park's history, a 483-foot marker was attached to the clubhouse wall in center field (at the back of the alcove). By the 1960s, the length was listed at 475. At other times, 505 feet was the distance cited. Phil Lowry said he was never able to clear up the question of why the distances changed. "It could have been due to remeasurements or a slight shift of home plate's location," he wrote in Green Cathedrals. "Or it could have been a measurement to the base of the Eddie Grant Memorial. In the Giants' time, reading from left to right, the markers read 315, 360, 414, 447, 455, 483, 455, 483, 455, 449, 395, 338, 294. In the Mets' time [in the 1960s], they read 306, 405, 475, 405, 281. The foul lines were never marked."
Dusty Rhodes provided more heroics in the second game of the 1954 World Series. He pinch hit for Monte Irvin again, this time in the fifth inning, and singled home the tying run. With the Giants ahead, 2-1, in the seventh, Rhodes capped the game's scoring with another home run to right. The Giants won the next two games to finish off the Indians, but the first game remained the focal point of the series sweep. Mays's catch and Rhodes's home run became staples of newsreel footage and baseball highlight films.
Another Game 1 legacy was a book entitled A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano, who chronicled the hours he spent in the center-field bleachers of the Polo Grounds that day. In the book Hano provided vivid descriptions of batting practice and other pregame events along with a detailed play-by-play account of the game, with special emphasis on the game-saving catch by Mays. A Day in the Bleachers is often cited as the first adult baseball book. "Previous books by authors such as Fred Lieb and John Tunis were directed toward young readers," stated Ted Hathaway, a librarian and one of the creators of the Research in Baseball Index (a massive catalog and database of baseball literature). "A Day in the Bleachers was the first book of its kind that was written for adults."
Used by permission of Temple University Press from "The Final Years" as it appears in Land of the Giants by Stew Thornley.
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