Whenever Mickey Owen meets someone who can't quite place him, all he has to say is, "You remember. Mickey Owen, the guy who missed the third strike." Owen can even say it with a grin.
Fifty years after the feats of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams turned 1941 into perhaps baseball's most memorable season, it's fitting that Owen should be remembered as well. In his case, though, it's a gaffe at the end of the '41 season that enshrined him forever in the Bonehead Hall of Fame.
Owen's failure to hold on to a third strike thrown by Hugh Casey to Yankee rightfielder Tommy Henrich, which would have given the Brooklyn Dodgers a 4-3 victory and squared the World Series at two games apiece, has become a part of sports lore. The Yanks took full advantage of the reprieve, going on to win that game 7-4 in Ebbets Field and then closing out the Series the next day 3-1, giving the Bronx Bombers their ninth Series crown and denying the demoralized Dodgers their first championship.
Who would blame Owen if he felt bitter over the fact that everyone recalls his blunder, but few remember that he was also an All-Star that season? That was the result, in great part, of his setting a single-season record for National League catchers by handling 476 chances without an error. Owen played four more years with the Dodgers then jumped to the Mexican League in 1946. He returned to the majors in 1949, joining the Chicago Cubs, and remained in major league baseball as a player and then a scout until retiring in 1959. He later became sheriff of Greene County in Missouri, a position he held for 16 years, until 1980.
"Bitter? No reason to be," says the ebullient Owen, who at the age of 75 still catches occasionally at Old-Timers' games. "For a ballplayer of my caliber, if I hadn't done something unusual, I'd have been forgotten a long time ago."
Half a century after it happened, many old Brooklyn fans are still wondering how in the world the sure-handed Owen missed that fateful third strike. "It's really quite simple," Owen says. "Hugh Casey had two pitches—a fastball and a curve. But he had two of each. He had a fastball that would either rise or sink. And he threw a big overhand sharp-breaking curve or a hard, quick curve that was a little bit like a slider.
"When he came into the game in the sixth inning, we both realized that the big curve wasn't working. So whenever I gave him the signal for a curve, he threw the quick one. Then, with the count 3 and 2 on Henrich, I signaled for the curve and Hugh rolled off a big-breaking curve that was probably the best he ever threw in his life. It broke down and in to Henrich, a lefthanded batter, just as he swung at it.
"Meanwhile, me, with my one-track mind, I'm expecting the quick curve and couldn't get my glove around to handle the ball when it broke so sharp. Then the ball hits the heel of my glove and rolls back toward the stands as the cops were coming out to keep fans off the field. One cop, who we called Keystone, tried to kick the ball back to me as I chased it and Henrich ran toward first. But Keystone missed it too."
One of baseball's most intriguing mysteries is why, after Owen's miss and the beginning of a Yankee rally, Owen or Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher didn't go out to the mound to try to settle Casey down.
"I guess I should have," says Owen. "But I was a young catcher [25 at the time] and in a state of shock. I just went blank."
But how about Durocher, a wily manager always on top of any situation? "I don't know, but I guess that maybe he was in shock too.
"It's funny, though. There I had set a record for catchers that season, and all people seem to remember about me 50 years later is that I'm the guy who missed 'the third strike.'
"And Hugh Casey is remembered for throwing the curve that got away. To this day, he holds the record as the pitcher with the best lifetime relief winning percentage [.718]. But as I say, if I hadn't missed that pitch, people would have forgotten about me a long time ago. Now I'll be remembered forever."
Owen chases the third strike as Henrich runs toward a new lease on life for the Yankees.
Free-lance writer Jack Cavanaugh is a frequent contributor to SI.