Remembering Al Gionfriddo

This is the story of a fringe major league player in the years just after World War II. Major League baseball owners had a death grip on the players with the reserve clause that bound a player to the club in perpetuity. This journeyman outfielder had a huge World Series -- then nevery played another Major League game.

In 1947 the men who had played major league baseball were coming home from the war, and Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey had more than his share of players. He used these circumstances to unload a veteran who was unhappy with the signing of Jackie Robinson, Kirby Higbe, and four others: Hank Behrman, a good right-handed pitcher who would be repurchased in June and help the club win the 1947 pennant; future manager Gene Mauch, catcher Dixie Howell and the pitcher of many names, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish.

In return the Dodgers received from Pittsburgh an estimated $125,000 and an outfielder by the name of Al Gionfriddo. Writers who covered Brooklyn wrote that Gionfriddo was only thrown into the deal just to carry the money.

Only 5'6" and 165 pounds, Gionfriddo had hit .284 in 122 games in 1945 but had played just 64 games in 1946 for the Pirates, hitting .255. It was doubtful that the 25-year-old would break into the Brooklyn outfield, despite the fact that he was fast and an excellent fielder, with Dixie Walker, Pete Reiser, Carl Furillo and Gene Hermanski fighting for the three starting positions, veteran Arky Vaughn ready when needed and rookie Duke Snider waiting for a chance.

During the regular season he played in only 37 games and hit .177 (11-for-62) with six runs batted in.

But Gionfriddo played a big part in one of the most exciting World Series in Brooklyn history. The fact he played a role in the action is difficult to ascertain when you look at his series record: four games, hitless in three trips. But when you look close, you will see he scored twice and had a stolen base. He also had three putouts in the outfield and one of them was a stunner.

Dodger-Yankee series The Yankees won the first game of the 1947 series 5-2, using a five-run explosion in the fifth to take care of the upstart Dodgers. New York also won 10-3 in the second game at Yankee Stadium, causing a flurry of "The Yankees Will Sweep" stories in the papers. Gionfriddo pinch hit in the second game but grounded out.

The series shifted to Ebbets Field and, as always, strange and weird things happened when the Dodgers played at home. The Dodgers jumped into an early 6-0 lead, then held on to win 9-8, delighting the 33,098 Flatbush Faithful who crowded into the old park.

Then on October 4, perhaps the most exciting World Series game in Dodger history was played. Bill Bevens was the Yankee starter and he had recorded a weak 7-12 record during the season, walking and striking out 77.

But that day he was completely in charge. He walked Eddie Stanky in the first and third innings but retired the other Dodgers down without incident. He was perfect in the fourth, but walked Spider Jorgensen and Hal Gregg in the fifth. He got out of the inning without giving up a hit, although a run scored on a Pee Wee Reese grounder. In the sixth he was again perfect and only a walk marred the seventh and eighth innings.

The Yankees had scored in the first on a bases-loaded walk. They added a second run in the fourth on a triple by Billy Johnson and a double by Johnny Lindell. The Dodgers could manage only the single run in the fifth and it looked like the Yanks would break the game open in the top of the ninth.

Lindell singled but Rizzuto forced him, Behrman to Reese. Snuffy Stirnweiss singled to center after Bevens had reached safely on a fielders-choice bunt. With the bases loaded and one out, Dodger bullpen ace Hugh Casey was called in to keep the game close.

"Old Reliable" Tommy Henrich swung on a hard sinker and bounced back to Casey who calmly threw to the plate to start an inning-ending double play. One pitch--two outs, and as it turned out, a victory.

It was tough enough trailing 2-1 into the last of the ninth, but Bevens was flirting with immortality by pitching eight innings without giving up a hit. The 33,443 Dodger fans were screaming for blood when catcher Bruce Edwards led off the final inning. Edwards connected solidly but Lindell caught the ball in deep left-center for the first out. Carl Furillo walked before Johnny Jorgensen fouled out to George McQuinn at first for the second out and it looked to the Dodgers faithful like it was all over.

Manager Burt Shotton called Gionfriddo to run for Furillo, in what was to be one of the key elements in the game. Why he waited to put in a runner until after Jorgensen hit, no one could figure. Shotton also sent Pete Reiser in to hit for Casey.

Reiser had broken his ankle earlier in the series and had it taped up but could hardly walk. He didn't tell anyone it was broken because he didn't want to play on a $1.00 'conditional' contract in 1948, a common occurrence then when a player had been injured.

Doc Wendler the trainer had examined his ankle after he finished icing it during the first three innings of play and told him to put on his street clothes because there was no possible way he could play on it. Reiser dressed anyway and was sitting on the bench when Shotton looked around for a hitter in the ninth.

Reiser and Shotton had tangled with each other in the minor leagues, and Reiser was loyal to Leo Durocher man, the manager Shotton had replaced. Apparently there was no love lost between them, but it didn't keep him from turning to Reiser and asking: "Well, ain't you going to volunteer to hit?"

Reiser responded to the challenge and limped toward the plate as the noise level in Ebbets Field climbed another 100 decibels.

The count ran to 2-1, and Bevens threw to first a couple times to keep Gionfriddo close. On the next pitch to the plate the speedy little outfielder dug for second. The throw from catcher Yogi Berra was slightly high and he slid under the tag. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto was furious about the 'safe' call and jumped around umpire Babe Pinelli in protest.

Shotton had gone against the 'book' by sending Gionfriddo in an amazingly courageous move. If he had been thrown out, it would have given the Yankees a 3-1 series lead and a no-hitter in the bargain, all but ending the series right there.

Now it was New York manager Bucky Harris' turn to throw away the same 'book.' With a 3-1 count on the only remaining Dodger long-ball threat, he ordered Reiser walked. It put the winning run on base but also set up a force play at second. Ed Miksis quickly went in to run for the crippled Reiser.

Ed Stanky was the hitter and Shotton made his final move, inserting veteran Cookie Lavagetto as a pinch-hitter for the Dodger second baseman. Lavagetto was 34 and in his final season. He had seen only limited play during the year, collecting 18 hits in 41 games.

Bevens nervously fingered the ball as Lavagetto set himself in the box. In a hospital in Oakland, California, Mrs. Lavagetto had awakened when she heard her husband's name announced over the radio. She had earlier given birth to the couples' first child.

There were two out and the Yankees led by a single run. Bevens nearly had nearly recorded his no-hitter on the play at second moments before but now there were two on base. Reese was on deck and Jackie Robinson was fingering a bat on the dugout steps.

Bevens fired to the plate and Lavagetto swung and missed the high, slightly outside, fastball. The New York pitcher stretched, then threw, again a bit high and outside.

This time Lavagetto connected and the ball lined toward the right field wall 298 feet away. Right fielder Tommy Henrich dashed toward the corner in a desperate attempt to head the ball off before hit hit the concrete, but he arrived too late and the ball caromed back into the outfield grass. He scrambled for the ball and fired to McQuinn at first base.

Gionfriddo and Miksis were away with the pitch. Gionfriddo scored easily to tie the game and Miksis slid across the plate well before McQuinn's relay reached Berra. Red Barber, providing the radio broadcast, said "Here comes the tying run and ... here ... comes ...the ...winning run. The Dodgers had won 3-2.

Barber, in his book "1947-When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball," wrote: "This was then, and still is to this day, the biggest explosion of noise in the history of Brooklyn."

The team and fans swarmed on the field to pound Lavagetto, then they picked him up and carried him off. The park was a madhouse and plate umpire Larry Goetz, carried away with the excitement, leaned over and dusted off home plate in preparation for the next hitter even though the game had ended.

Game Five
Gionfriddo walked and scored on a single by Jackie Robinson in game five but the Yankees won a 2-1 decision and took a 3-2 lead as the series shifted back to Yankee Stadium.

Game Six
In game six the Dodgers jumped into a 4-0 lead, but New York tied the game in the fourth and went up 5-4 in the fifth. Four Dodger runs in the sixth gave Brooklyn an 8-5 lead, but the Yankees made a bid to get them all back in the bottom of the same inning.

With Joe Hatten pitching, Shotton sent Gionfriddo to left field after he had pinch-hit for Hermanski. Left field was tough in the Stadium, with the late afternoon shadows known for playing tricks on a visiting outfielder.

Snuffy Sternweiss walked with one out. Henrich hit the ball out of the park -- foul by a foot. He then popped to Edwards in foul territory. Berra singled and with two out Joe DiMaggio came to the plate to face a struggling Hatten.

DiMaggio hit a long shot to left center. It was headed toward the bullpen 415 feet from the plate and it was going to be a home run to tie the game 8-8. The huge New York crowd was on its feet and screaming.

But the little man in left field was running as soon as DiMaggio hit the ball. He never looked back as the ball soared toward the deep left field wall. Gionfriddo raced to the low fence in front of the bullpen, reached in with his gloved right hand, and pulled the ball back out. Those present will never forget the sight of Gionfriddo turning to face the field, holding the white ball for all to see.

"I put my head down and ran," Gionfriddo once recalled. "I looked over my shoulder once and knew I was going in the right direction. When I got close to the fence, I looked over my left shoulder and then jumped practically at the same time and caught the ball over my shoulder. I turned in the air coming down and hit the fence with my butt. I caught it in the webbing."

DiMaggio prided himself in never showing emotion on the field. But as he came trotting into second base with an apparent three-run homer, he suddenly found he had come up with nothing but an out and the third out at that. He kicked the dirt viciously in a rare show of anger. When he took his place in center field, he walked around in tight circles, still unbelieving.

The catch saved the game, Brooklyn winning 8-6 after fighting off a Yankee rally in the ninth, and the win evened the series at three games each.

Out of miracles
However, that was it for the Dodgers, they had exhausted their supply of miracles. New York won the seventh game 5-2 and with it the series.

Gionfriddo received a hero's welcome when 5,000 people greeted him in his native Dysart, Pennsylvania.

Gionfriddo was sent to the Dodgers' Montreal farm club the following season. The three players who had outstanding performances during the series, never played played another major league game. Gionfriddo, Bevens or Lavagetto were out of the big leagues in 1948. It was all over for each of them in that final, fantastic series.

But despite the fact he hasn't played major league baseball in over 60 years, Dodger fans still remember Al Gionfriddo, the man who had come only "to carry the money," and who had nearly carried them to a World Series victory.

Gionfriddo relived his golden moment at old-timers' games at Yankee and Shea Stadiums and at autograph shows through the years. But amid the accolades, he remained bitter toward Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' general manager. Gionfriddo maintained that Rickey reneged on a promise to bring him back to the majors, leaving him 60 days short of qualifying for a pension.

Gionfriddo died on March 14, 2003. As he once put it, "Baseball is a dog-eat-dog business."

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