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Greatest moment in Brooklyn baseball history

Author Thomas Oliphant reconstructs the seventh game of the 1955 World Series in "Praying for Gil Hodges." Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

The 1955 baseball season ended with the one and only world championship victory for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Within three years the team would be in Los Angeles. Author Thomas Oliphant talks about that historic year in "Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family's Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers." Here's an excerpt:

It happened right out of the blue.

I had started early on my way through rural, southern Indiana to spend some time in the university town of Bloomington.  After maybe thirty uneventful, placid miles on State Highway 57, I passed a sign announcing the nearby town of Princeton.  It set off an indistinct bell in my head, one of those moments when you react to something before your memory tells you why.

I had not quite resolved the question when the next sign several miles north answered it for me with jarring finality:

The Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge.

I slammed on the brakes, skidding a bit on loose gravel and coming to a halt just on the far side. 

It wasn’t much, a simple, concrete structure spanning the not-mighty White River in an area where coal had once ruled.  The bridge was puny compared to the other one named after Gil Hodges — which connects the western chunk of New York’s Rockaway peninsula to Brooklyn.  His name was added to its more familiar Marine Parkway title in 1978, six years after he died of a heart attack on a Florida golf course, just shy of his forty-eighth birthday.

But this bridge was Gil Hodges — quiet, simple, strong, unadorned.

It was in the middle of nowhere — a pine forest framed the two-lane road with no signs of nearby life beyond the birds.  It was a crisp, clear, windy October day, not unlike another October day decades earlier that began coming back to me in a rush.

It had already been a lovely morning.  State Highway 57 shoots straight north out of Evansville.  It quickly clears what pass for the suburbs of a small city and then becomes this quiet road, guiding a traveler by fertile fields of soybeans and corn, thick woods, and little else.

It was the right road for someone on the wrong roads a bit too much, the perfect respite from the homogenized sameness of interstate-airport-hotel “life.”  As a newspaper columnist with a yen for politics, this is familiar, favored territory because of its proximity to one of the most revealing stretches of real estate in America — the land on either side of the Ohio River.  From Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi, the Ohio defines what is called Middle America; every two years, the six states that touch it provide many of my best clues to where the country is headed.

I am a New Yorker by birth, childhood, and disposition still.  Gil Hodges was my father’s hero and he became my hero.  At first, I assumed it was because he and my father were both from rural Indiana.  Only later did I understand that my father — and eventually I — looked up to his enormous character, his abiding concern for others, his stoic response to adversity.  It was very personal.

Gil Hodges was one of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball team that after World War II personified the hard-luck struggler’s lot; blazed amazing trails in race relations long before the rest of the country caught up; represented a huge chunk of New York with deep ties to the entire country; and then migrated west.

In addition to being one of the premier first basemen of his time, Hodges was also one of the stars on what for a great many years I had no difficulty identifying as the happiest day of my life — October 4, 1955, the only day in the seventy-odd years of the fabled and cursed franchise when the Dodgers ruled the world.  I don’t have to close my eyes; I can still see the solid single he hit cleanly into Yankee Stadium’s left field that drove in Roy Campanella with the first Dodger run of the afternoon.

I can still see the long fly ball that he hit near the warning track in right-center field two innings later that for one thrilling instant looked like it might be a grand-slam home run.  It was more than deep enough to drive in his pal and Ohio River valley neighbor, Pee Wee Reese, with the second and only other run of an excruciatingly tense game.

I can still see this tall, broad-shouldered man with a big, expressive face reaching and then reaching some more to take two famous throws at first base from his Kentucky friend that day — the first to complete an electrifying double play following a spectacular catch in the outfield that remains one of the memorable moments in one hundred years of World Series lore; the second to record the last out of the seventh game of the one Series Brooklyn won.

I can still see the Dodgers sprinting from their dugout, led by a courageous black man of legendary intensity named Jackie Robinson, to converge around the most improbable hero of all — a kid from upstate New York who had just turned twenty-three and had pitched a shutout at the New York Yankees with everything on the line, too young to understand or accept the long odds against him.  For two hours and forty-four minutes, Johnny Podres had simply defied defeat.

And I can still see something else a few hours later, sitting on the stoop of a brownstone just off Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn, a couple of steps above my father and mother, who were laughing and necking like teenagers while a parade of happy people pranced before them on the street.

That day on the bridge at Princeton, I had a few doughnuts and a milk with me, so I left my car by the side of the road and sat on the bridge for a while.

I have always associated my Dodgers with the World Series of 1955, and above all with the seventh and deciding game — the moment when the finally won a World Championship, finally defeated the hated New York Yankees, finally gave those of us who adored them the one (and, it would turn out, the only) World Series they managed to win after decades of usually daffy, maddeningly frustrating existence.

But my memories of that glorious day are bittersweet as well as joyous, painful as much as happy, sober as much as triumphant, quietly proud as much as tickled to death.  They go well beyond baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In those days, baseball with its complicated but natural rhythms of pitch counts, innings, games, and seasons was such a shared experience across America that metaphors were not only common but also clear and unforced.  Baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers were major ingredients in the glue that held my little family together through tough times and happy times, a metaphor for hope, disappointment, triumph, and tragedy.  On that one day in 1955, just before my tenth birthday, I had my first vague insight into how they all fit together — how effort is more important than result, why We is more important than I, and why the only things that truly matter are whether your word’s any good and how you treat others….

The enduring resonance of the Dodgers has been analyzed before and probably will be forever, but I had never thought of one element of it until it was mentioned to me by their starting pitcher that long-ago October afternoon, Johnny Podres.  He is in his seventies now — a direct, interesting man.  We had concluded a long talk about those days and that day in his home, still in upstate New York; I had run through the questions I had thought about ahead of time, but on an impulse I asked him why 1955 has lived on when other years and other events — some just as dramatic, some perhaps more so — have lived on solely as sports memories or not really survived at all.  He smiled.

“One thing you have to keep in mind is what happened that day can never happen again.  There will be other great seventh games, already have been.  Someday someone will pitch another perfect game in the Series, someone will make another unassisted triple play, someone will hit another home run to win it all in extra innings.  But the Brooklyn Dodgers will never win another championship. They are gone.  The events of that day are frozen forever.”

Excerpted from the book “Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers” by Thomas Oliphant. Copyright © 2005 by the author. Reprinted with permission from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.