On Oct. 4, 1948, the Boston Braves, who had already wrapped up the National League pennant, still didn't know who their opponent would be in the World Series that was to begin two days later at Braves Field. After 154 games, Boston's favorite team, the Red Sox, were tied with the Cleveland Indians for first place in the American League with a 96-58 record, necessitating a one-game playoff at Fenway Park.
Before the game, virtually everyone in Boston, including the Red Sox players, expected manager Joe McCarthy to give the ball to Mel Parnell, a lefthander who had won 15 games in his first full major league season. Indeed, even after McCarthy had announced that he would start righthander Denny Galehouse, who had only an 8-7 record, Lou Boudreau, the Indian shortstop and manager, believed that McCarthy was bluffing and that Parnell would pitch. He expected to see Galehouse pitch to the first batter, then head for the dugout while Parnell came in from wherever he had secretly been warming up.
Boudreau had a trick up his own sleeve. Before a game it was his habit to go to the locker of his starting pitcher and place a ball under his cap. But knowing that Johnny Orlando, the clubhouse boy in the Fenway visitors' locker room, was one of McCarthy's spies, Boudreau placed a ball under the caps of three pitchers: Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Gene Bearden. "I didn't want [the Red Sox] to know until the last minute," wrote Boudreau in his 1993 book, Covering All the Bases.
In the end, both managers gambled with their starting pitchers. Boudreau went with Bearden, a knuckleballer, instead of either of his power throwers; McCarthy convinced himself that he was better off going with the more experienced Galehouse. To this day, McCarthy's decision is a sore subject with veteran Red Sox fans. In the bottom of the first, Boudreau himself tagged Galehouse for a solo homer over the Green Monster, and the Indians went on to an 8-3 victory that deprived Boston of a Commonwealth Avenue World Series. Galehouse never started another game in the major leagues. A sportswriter for the Boston Evening American subsequently claimed that he had received 5,000 letters criticizing McCarthy's choice.
That night the Indians celebrated their pennant with a party at Boston's Kenmore Hotel. Boudreau told his teammates to enjoy themselves--then added that anybody who missed the team's workout at 10 a.m. the next day at Braves Field would be fined $250. Boudreau felt his players would need all the practice they could get. While the Braves, who had won the National League pennant by 6 1/2 games over the St. Louis Cardinals, didn't have a hitter as dangerous as Ted Williams of the Red Sox, they had a nearly invincible one-two pitching punch in righthander Johnny Sain and lefthander Warren Spahn, a duo whose exploits that season had inspired the war cry of Brave fans, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."
In 1948 the nation was only three years removed from World War II, and baseball was truly the national pastime. The NBA was in its infancy, and the NFL had a relatively small following. It was estimated that less than 10% of the nation's homes had television sets, which then were black-and-white. There were so few sets in Boston that the Gillette Safety-Razor Co., which sponsored the World Series on TV, placed 100 new sets in Boston Common so the man on the street could keep up with the Braves and the Indians.
Back then big league baseball players considered themselves lucky to be able to make a decent living just playing a game. The majors had only 16 teams, none west of St. Louis, and the teams' average payroll was $450,000. In 1948 the Indians paid Boudreau $49,000: $24,000 for playing shortstop (not to mention batting .355, with 18 home runs and 106 RBIs, and being named the American League MVP) and $25,000 for managing. Top baseball stars such as Joe DiMaggio made close to $100,000, an astonishing figure in a country where new cars cost less than $1,500 and you could get a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark for four bits.
This was an era in which it wasn't uncommon for players to endorse cigarettes. In the spring of 1950, for example, Bearden and the Chicago Cubs' Johnny Vander Meer did some pitching for Camels on the radio.
Vander Meer: "I've smoked Camels for 10 years, Gene. They're mild and they sure taste great."
Bearden: "Right, Van. It's Camels for me too, ever since I made the 30-day mildness test."
There was no hue and cry over the nicknames of the World Series teams, but race, then as now, was a subject of controversy. In the Series, the only black player starting for either team was Larry Doby, the Indians' young centerfielder, who had become the first black player in the American League when he joined Cleveland in the summer of 1947, only a few months after Jackie Robinson had integrated the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Braves had no black players, and the Indians had only one other: Leroy (Satchel) Paige, the legendary pitcher from the Negro leagues, whose age when he joined the Indians on July 7, 1948, was estimated between 39 and 50.
Signing Paige was the brainchild of Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic owner of the Indians who was far ahead of his time in recognizing baseball as showbiz. When the signing was announced, J.G. Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News, lambasted Veeck in an editorial: "To bring in a 'rookie' of Paige's age casts a reflection on the entire scheme of the operations in the major leagues. To sign a hurler of Paige's age is to demean the standards of baseball in the big circuits." But Veeck knew what he was doing. On July 14, during the All-Star break, a crowd of 64,877 showed up at Municipal Stadium hoping to see Paige pitch in an exhibition game against the Dodgers. Paige entered the game in relief and held the Dodgers hitless in the seventh and eighth innings, striking out the first three hitters he faced. When Paige got his first start, on Aug. 3 against the Washington Senators, a crowd of 72,434 watched him pitch seven strong innings and get the win.
A couple of weeks later, after Paige had thrown a three-hit shutout against the White Sox, the devilish Veeck sent a telegram to Spink: "Paige pitching. No runs and three hits. He definitely is in line for Sporting News' rookie of the year." In 21 games that season, Paige would have a 6-1 record with a 2.48 ERA, a nice boost for a team that would tie for the pennant.
The other news bomb of the summer of '48 was Leo Durocher's decision to leave his job as manager of the Dodgers and take the same position with Brooklyn's most hated foe, the New York Giants. The Catholic Church had been pressuring Dodger president Branch Rickey to get rid of Durocher for some of the same reasons that, just before the 1947 season began, baseball commissioner A.B. (Happy) Chandler had suspended Durocher for the campaign: associating with known gamblers and misbehaving in public, among other things. The church felt that Durocher's fast-living ways were having a negative impact on the nation's youth, and Rickey, who was also angry at Durocher for siding with Dodger player Eddie Stanky in a contract dispute, was only too happy to see the manager decamp for the Polo Grounds.
Although nobody in Cleveland could have foreseen it, Durocher's move to the Giants would have an effect on the Indians of the future. Six years later, in the 1954 Series, Durocher's Giants, led by the brilliant young centerfielder Willie Mays, would stage a shocking sweep of the Indians, winners of 111 games that season. It would be 41 years before Cleveland would make another postseason appearance.
But in 1948 Indian fans were interested only in driving another dagger into Boston's baseball heart. The Braves occasionally featured a feisty double-play combination of Stanky, whom Rickey had sold to the Braves, and shortstop Alvin Dark, who was the major league Rookie of the Year that season. Stanky didn't get along with Brave manager Billy Southworth, who had played him sparingly down the stretch because of the broken leg Stanky had suffered earlier in the season.
Sometime after the Braves clinched the National League pennant, the team celebrated at Al Schacht's restaurant in New York City. Stanky, peeved that Southworth couldn't decide whether to start him or Sibby Sisti at second base in the Series, bemoaned the situation to Dark as they shared a cab from the restaurant to their hotel. As Dark told it in his 1980 book When in Doubt, Fire the Manager, Stanky kept mumbling, "Sib-by Sisti, Sib-by Sisti.... Sibby Sisti is playing second base over me."
Southworth may not have gotten on well with Stanky, but he respected the aggressiveness that had earned Stanky the nickname the Brat. When the Braves took the field for the opening game of the Series on Wednesday, Oct. 6, Stanky was at second base.
As it turned out, the most memorable play of the 1948 Series occurred in the first game. In the bottom of the eighth, Sain and Feller were locked in a scoreless pitching duel. With one out and pinch runner Phil Masi on second for the Braves, Boudreau ordered Feller to walk Stanky, the number 8 hitter, to set up a double play. But Sain, next up, flied out. With Tommy Holmes, a .325 hitter, at the plate, Boudreau called for a pickoff play at second. Feller whirled and fired the ball to Boudreau, who was cutting in behind Masi. "I got him from his elbow up to his shoulder," Boudreau wrote in his book. "There was no doubt about it in my mind. It wasn't even close."
But umpire Bill Stewart called the diving runner safe. Boudreau, Feller and Indian second baseman Joe Gordon argued with Stewart, but the ump insisted that Boudreau's tag had been high. When play resumed, Holmes clobbered a fastball down the leftfield line, sending Masi home with what turned out to be the only run of the game. It hardly made the Indians feel better that photographs appeared to show that Masi was indeed out.
The next afternoon--remember when all Series games were played in the afternoon?--the Indians evened the Series as Lemon threw an eight-hitter to beat Spahn 4-1. In the first inning, with the Braves leading 1-0, Boudreau called the pickoff play again, and this time Lemon caught the Braves' Earl Torgeson scrambling to get back to second. "American League umpire Bill Grieve was there to make the call," wrote Boudreau, "and I've got to believe it was a matter of his being more alert to the possibility that we'd try the play because of what happened the day before."
When the Series moved to Cleveland for Game 3 on Oct. 8, a boisterous crowd of 70,306 watched Bearden, the knuckleballer and Camel lover, shut out the Braves 2-0 on five hits. Bearden also got two of the Indians' hits, and he scored his own winning run in the third inning when he doubled off Vern Bickford and got home on an error by Dark.
On Oct. 9 the Indians took a 3-1 Series lead with a 2-1 victory behind Steve Gromek, a sidearming righty. Gromek extended the Braves' string of scoreless innings to 23 before Boston's Marv Rickert homered in the seventh. The Indians scored once in the first inning, when Boudreau's double drove in Dale Mitchell, and again in the third, when Doby homered for what would prove to be the decisive run. With Feller pitching the next day, the crowd of 81,897 felt the Indians might not have to return to Boston.
But much to the disappointment of a Game 5 crowd of 86,288, Feller had nothing, and the Braves took advantage, eventually winning 11-5. After two homers by Bob Elliott had given the Braves an early lead, the Indians fought back to go ahead 5-4 in the fourth. But the Braves tied the game and then unloaded on relievers Ed Klieman and Russ Christopher in a six-run seventh.
The Indians got out of the inning only after Boudreau brought in Paige from the bullpen. It was the first time a black man had pitched in a World Series game, and Paige responded to the moment, retiring the only two batters he faced. That would turn out to be Paige's only Series appearance.
Back in Boston, Southworth decided to save Sain for a possible Game 7, meaning he had to gamble on Bill Voiselle in Game 6. That turned out almost as badly as McCarthy's decision to start Galehouse for the Red Sox in the playoff game. As Lemon continued his mastery of the Brave hitters, the Indians took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Boston loaded the bases, and Boudreau decided to bring in Bearden from the bullpen instead of Paige. The knuckleballer gave up a couple of runs, which were charged to Lemon, but he retired centerfielder Mike McCormick to end the inning still leading the game 4-3.
After the Indians failed to score in the top of the ninth, the Braves' final chance, in the bottom of the inning, went like this: Stanky walked, and Connie Ryan was put in to run for him. Sisti batted for Spahn, who had come on in relief, and popped up while trying to bunt Ryan to second. After grabbing Sisti's feeble attempt, catcher Jim Hegan threw to first to double up Ryan. That left it up to Holmes. He flied out to Bob Kennedy in left.
The Indians had won their first World Series since 1920, when Tris Speaker had led them past the Dodgers.
"You can't win a World Series with only two good pitchers," Boston's Dark would later lament in his book, "even if their names are Spahn and Sain. It's asking too much of the rain."
On the train back to Cleveland, the Indians whooped it up. Each player was to receive a World Series share of $6,772, a record. The next morning a crowd of about 200,000 cheered the team during a five-mile parade from Public Square, in the center of the city, to University Circle.
The '48 Series, as it happened, would be the last World Series until 1959 that didn't include at least one team from New York. The Braves, champs in 1914, would eventually win another Series, but not in Boston; in 1957, their fifth season after moving to Milwaukee, they defeated the New York Yankees for the championship. Spahn was the only member of the '48 team still playing for the Braves. In Boston, of course, the Braves' championship was no big deal. The city's baseball fans were much more concerned about the Red Sox, who hadn't won the title since 1918.
At the time of the Braves' 1957 championship, Lou Boudreau had just been fired as manager of the Kansas City Athletics, Satchel Paige was out of baseball, and the closest thing to major league ball in Atlanta was a Double A team called the Crackers, who finished tied for sixth in the Southern League.