Remembering Mickey

Mickey Owen died in a veterans nurshing home in Missouri on July 19th and when I saw the announcement it caused a flood of memories that flashed across my mind. We only met him on one occasion, at one of the wonderful Old Timers Games that Peter O'Malley and the Dodgers sponsored some years ago.

The games exposed Los Angees baseball fans to some of the greatest names in baseball history -- Enos Slaughter, Johnny Mize, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Pete Rose -- and a flood of former Dodgers-- Leo Durocher, John Roseboro, QAl Gionfriddo, Dixie Walker, Adolph Camilli, Pete Reiser along with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tom and Willie Davis and Maury Wills to name only a very few.

Owen was sitting with his son, Charlie, well away from the main crowd in the hotel where the luncheon was being held when we approached him.

"How many people have asked you to explain the dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series?" we asked. "Surprisingly, you are the first," he said.

Owen came to the Dodgers early in 1941, shortly after then-President Larry MacPhail had purchased pitcher Kirby Higbe from the Phillies. MacPhail asked Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis if the announcement of the sale could be delayed while he was negotiating with Cardinal President Branch Rickey for Owen, because Rickey would not sell Owen to the rival Doders if he knew Higbe was already signed.

The absence of present-day media scrutiny allowed Landis to announce the sale in the weekly bulletin sent to each club and gave MacPhail times to snare the final piece of the 1941 National League Champions.

Owen was a brilliant catcher with modest hitting ability and little power but he was just what was needed to complete MacPhail's renaissance of a Brooklyn Club that had finished in the second division seven straight years before his arrival in 1938. The Dodgers won the 1941 pennant, edging Rickey's Cardinals on the final day of the season, the first title for Brooklyn since 1920.

Matched against the Joe DiMaggio Yankees, they split the first two games by identical 3-2 scores, lost the third when a line drive broke pitcher Freddy Fitzsimmons kneecap in the eighth inning of a 0-0 game that was eventually won 2-1 by New York, But the Dodgers were on the brink of tieing the series in the fourth game. Higbe, Larry French and Johnny Allen had held the Bombers to three runs and with Reiser hitting a homer, Brooklyn led 4-3 into the last of the ninth.

Relief ace Hugh Casey had come into the game in the fifth inning and had retired the first two Yankees in the ninth. He then fanned Tommy Henrich to seemingly win the game but Owen could not hold the third strike and Henrich reached first.

Before the stunned Dodgers could react, DiMaggio singled, Charlie Keller walked and Joe Gordon doubled for a 7-4 N.Y. lead.

Brooklyn went quietly in the ninth and also in the fifth game, giving New York their ninth World Series championship.

One New York writer noted, "The condemned man leaped out of the electric chair and executed the warden." Another commented, "Owen stood on the tracks and warned everyone that the train was coming but forgot to get off himself."

Many, including Pee Wee Reese, felt that Casey had slipped a spitball to Owen and that was why he missed it. Manager Leo Durocher said it wasn't a spitter and that was just what Owen told me that special day so long ago.

"Casey did throw the spitter," Owen said during a 45-minute conversation, "but he also had two kinds of curve balls. I called for a curve and it broke so sharply that I just didn't get my glove on it cleanly. It bounced toward the first base dugout and I can remember a fat Brooklyn policeman trying to kick the ball back toward me so I could make a play on it."

Casey died just four years later and Owen could have easily made the case that it was a spitter and that Casey had crossed him up.

He didn't.

To his dying day, he held to the story that he had simply missed the ball that could ...could... have given the Brooklyn Dodgers a shot at the world title. "I don't mind being the goat," he said. "I'm just sorry for what I cost the other guys."

Ironically, Owen had a .995 fielding percentage that season -- then a team record -- and had set a National League record for catchers with 476 consecutive chances without an error. Owen, a four-time All-Star in 13 Major League seasons over a 17-year span, jumped to the Mexican League as a player-manager in 1946 and was blackballed from the Majors for three years. He played for the Chicago Cubs from 1949-51 and appeared in 32 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1954, ending his career with a .255 batting average, 14 home runs and 378 RBI.

He was a scout after his retirement, and founded a popular baseball school to develop young players in 1959.

He lived proudly with his remarkable major league career, never wavering from the fact that he had made the deciding play of the 1941 series.

So when you see the obituaries, each one starting "Mickey Owen, whose infamous dropped third strike proved costly to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1941 World Series against the New York Yankees, died after a long illness …" remember he was much more than a player who made an error/

An error that has been made by thousands of other catchers throughout major league history.

He just made it on the biggest stage in baseball. But he taught a number of people, myself among them, that mistakes can be overcome with candor and honesty.

Rest in Peace Mickey.