The Giants’ World Series win Monday night was a uniquely unforgettable event for the millions of fans around baseball who had never before seen that franchise win a championship. As sports media reminded us throughout the Series, the Giants were standing on a 56-year run of failure and, for most of the team’s followers, 1954 might as well have been 1908.
One big difference between those two years, of course, is that there actually are people still around who remember baseball in 1954, although few enough who post on sports blogs. Perhaps my recollections of the Giants’ win that year remain so vivid because ‘54 was the first season I followed baseball every day, and, to date, the only year I ditched the Cubs early to follow a winner in the National League – the New York Giants of Durocher, Mays, Mueller, Maglie, Irvin, Wilhelm, Antonelli, and the legendary former Cubs’ farmhand, Dusty Rhodes.
When that season began, I followed both Chicago teams, with no strong allegiance to either. In truth, I probably liked the Sox better – they were the exciting team in town, almost as good as the Yankees and Indians. Also, I was a big fan of the White Sox’ new backup first baseman, Phil Cavarretta, the Cubs great who recently had been fired as player-manager by P.K. Wrigley in a famous episode at the end of spring training in Mesa.
Of course, 1954 was Willie Mays’ Perfect Year. Just out of the Army at age 23, he nearly won the Triple Crown in the only season in which the Giants truly have dominated baseball since the days of John McGraw. For at least that one year, Willie ruled baseball the same way Michael Jordan would preside over basketball throughout most of the 90’s. And, in one instant similar to any of Jordan’s signature playoff moves, Mays in ‘54 topped all he had done before with The Catch, a pivotal play in Game One of the World Series that became his trademark and, perhaps, the most famous Series play of all time.
Only a few weeks before The Catch, I was at Wrigley Field to see Willie cap a 4-for-4 day with a Waveland Avenue shot. Going to that game was a birthday present I gave my mother and, when Willie made it a special occasion for us with his home run, we both stood up to cheer. Sure, my mom loved the Cubs, but as I would see again many times with fans at Wrigley, as well as in Milwaukee and St. Louis, Mays at his best often brought opposing crowds to their feet.
Now, as the Giants prepared to sweep in Cleveland on this Saturday afternoon, October 2nd, I knew enough to try keeping quiet about my temporary allegiance as I sat watching the Channel 5 broadcast with my dad on our 12-inch RCA Victor table model TV set. Like any eight-year-old kid in Chicago, I had an almost natural dislike of New York baseball teams, something I normally shared with my father. But when the Giants built a big early lead that included a run-scoring double by Mays, I couldn’t help but yell out loud, much to his annoyance.
Later, maybe an hour after the game ended, I was helping him fire-up the Holland Furnace in the basement, as a cold front moved in right on schedule to mark the end of the baseball season. Still talking baseball, I’m sure we both already were looking forward to next season, and the possibility of a Chicago team playing in the ‘55 World Series. By ‘54, I knew his regular take on the Cubs by heart. Always realistic, it went something like this: “They haven’t been in it for almost 10 years. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Remember, a baseball team is a rich man’s toy.”
Now, it was starting to get dark, as we stood under the back porch, just outside the basement door. “I’ve got to finish up here,” he said, as he handed me a quarter, and told me to run over to Division Street to pick up the Red Streak edition of the Daily News. “Just make sure you get a paper that says something about today’s game.”
Walking up Leavitt Street, the classic fall aroma of burning leaves and coal dust marked the true change of seasons. Before crossing Division, I looked west through the haze toward a beautiful sunset. From several blocks away, I could see the dark outline of trees at the entrance to Humboldt Park and nearby, at Oakley, the even darker shape of the CTA carbarn where, 20 years later, the all-new Roberto Clemente High School would stand. Looking east, the Palmolive Beacon was casting bolts of light over the west side, as the movie marquee lights from the Biltmore and Strand began to mix with the colorful overhead neons from two-dozen taverns between Leavitt and Ashland, lighting the night as they advertised local beer in an alphabet that ran from Atlas Prager to Yusay Pilsen.
Across Division, the two old-timers who ran the newsstand had a fire going in a 55-gallon drum and, as I stepped up to the curb, I could see light from the flames illuminate a copy of the Daily News they had racked-up high on the side of the stand. “Giants are Champs: Win 7-4” it said. I must have been smiling a little as I put down my quarter and asked for the Red Streak. The man at the counter asked "So, did your team win?" When I replied yes, he said “I liked the Giants too. You know, I used to pitch for John McGraw.” Both men started to laugh, and I probably looked a little puzzled as I took my paper, They, indeed, were gentlemen who could remember 1908 on the west side, and as I walked away, I could hear one of them say “Next year, kid. Next year it’ll be the Cubs for sure.”