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In Robinson's words: You play bolder in the World Series

Written by 
Published in Baseball
Friday, 15 April 2022 08:25

This story originally ran in the November 1956 edition of SPORT Magazine -- a year after Jackie Robinson finally won his first World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before 1955, Robinson had played in four World Series since he debuted in 1947 -- all against the New York Yankees, all losses. After he and the Dodgers finally broke through, he spoke to SPORT Magazine about how he played in the series. This story has been condensed for clarity and space.

I GO ABOUT the World Series in an entirely different frame of mind from the way I play during the regular season. I don't play the same way in the Series at all.

There are two reasons for it. First, I think you've got to fight hard to keep from giving in to a natural tendency to relax and let down after you've won the pennant -- especially if you don't clinch it until right at the very end. This may not be true of your first World Series, when just the excitement of playing in one keeps you fired up, but it's something to worry about after you've been in a few of them. And second, you've got to remember every minute that the World Series is short and you can win it or lose it in an awful hurry. In a 154-game season the breaks average up and you can usually figure that the best team is going to come out on top in the end. But in a seven­-game series, or shorter, you get a couple of bad breaks and you're practically out of it.

Like what happened to the Indians in 1954. If they had won that first game, the one they lost at the Polo Grounds, 5-2, on Dusty Rhodes' three-run homer in the tenth, after Willie Mays had robbed Vic Wertz of a long hit that would have broken up the ball game, it might have been an altogether different story. But they didn't win it; the breaks went against them and they fell apart.

The thing is, the breaks mean everything in the Series, but you can't stand around and wait for them to happen. You've got to force them, and not only make sure they happen but make sure they happen in your favor.

Take that first game last year. It was the fifth Series I'd been in with Brooklyn, and we'd lost four out of four up to this one. Always to the Yankees. And despite the fact that we'd been losing them all, we'd been going along playing them in orthodox fashion, never trying anything different-and always getting beat. We came up to the eighth inning of this first game losing 6-3. Our club was just playing a baseball game; there was no spark. All the while, I kept thinking, we've got to do something to stir this up. Well, Carl Furillo singled to center and Gil Hodges hit a fly ball to Elston Howard. Then I rapped a grounder that Gil McDougald couldn't hold and Furiilo went to third and I wound up at second. Don Zimmer flied out to Irv Noren in left center and Carl and I both tagged up after the catch. Carl scored, and I went to third.

Billy Herman, our third-base coach, walked over to me and the first thing he said was, "The only way you can go is if you get a big jump." In effect, he was telling me not to try to steal it. But I was worried about the way things were going and I thought that if I could just do something maybe a little bit different, there might be a change in the feeling of the ball club. As I've been saying, I believe that in a World Series you can't just go along depending on the bunt and the hit-and-run and the orthodox play. And standing out there, as I went up the third-base line on the first pitch, I could see that Whitey Ford, the Yankees' pitcher, wasn't paying any attention to me at all. Naturally, with us behind two runs, he didn't figure me to try it. So I made up my mind to go all the way on him if it looked like I could make it, and I did. Sure, it was a close play, and we didn't win the game anyway, but I honestly believe the steal gave the ball club a shot in the arm. I think there was a different attitude in our clubhouse after the game than there would have been if we'd just gone down quietly, 6-4.

I know the steal was criticized as dumb baseball by a lot of people, but I don't agree. I was gambling that a big steal would pay off not just on this one run but in the whole Series. And, anyway, even though we needed two runs to tie, it's a lot easier to get the second one after you've already got one in the bank. And with our big hitters coming up, we figured to have a pretty good chance to make it.

There were a lot of pictures in the papers that were supposed to show that I should have been called out. I don't know. There were also pictures taken from the third-base side of the field that ·came out later in the week and that showed I was safe. My foot was on the plate and Yogi still hadn't put the ball on me; you could see daylight between us. The only way I could have been out was if he had tagged me and was going away, and you know he wasn't doing that.

As far as the uproar was concerned, all that was accomplished by all the stories and pictures they ran on the steal was to cast an unfair reflection on the umpire, Bill Summers, who had to make a quick call on a very close play. Berra had a kick coming but in my opinion a play that hadn't changed the outcome of the game shouldn't have been played up so much after the Series was over. Nobody disputes decisions more than I do, but I don't keep complaining about an un­important safe-or-out play for days after it's over.

ALL IN ALL, I wasn't too impressed with the Yankee ball club in this last Series. I knew, however, that unless we went all out, we'd once again be waiting for another Series. The DiMaggios, Reynoldses, Henrichs and Raschis were missing, and Mantle was hobbling around, but I kept remembering that anything can happen in a short series.

We didn't lose by much to Whitey Ford in that first game, 6-5. And even though Tommy Byrne gave us only five hits and beat us, 4-2, in the second game at the Stadium, we were actually getting pretty good wood on the ball. We thought that if we had been play­ing in Ebbets Field, we'd have taken him. So, when we finally did get over to Ebbets Field, we had a lot of confidence and we were a long way from a beaten ball club.

We went all out. I decided to do everything I possibly could, and I made up my mind that the one thing I wasn't going to do was just stand pat. I did a lot more running than I'd ever done before in a Series - and I even did a lot more hollering. I wanted to make sure that we didn't wait for the breaks to come our way and suddenly wake up and find out that we'd run out of ball games and had blown another one.

As an example, in the third game, against Bob Turley, Gil Hodges started our half of the second inning by hitting a fly ball to Bob Cerv. Then I singled to center and went to second when Turley hit Sandy Amoros in the leg with a pitched ball. Johnny Podres laid a good bunt down the third-base line and they didn't have a play any­where. Turley had picked up Johnny's bunt and had bobbled it for a second and I knew he didn't feel very good about the way things were going. Of course, he's famous for being wild, anyway. So I set out to aggravate him as much as I could. I went up and down the line like I was bound and deter­mined to steal home. Actually, with only one out, the bases loaded, and Gilliam, Reese, Snider and Campanella coming up, I wasn't likely to try it. In fact, Billy Herman came over to me and said, "Hey, there's only one out. Don't go!" But I had a hunch Turley wasn't so sure what I was going to do and I kept after him. I yelled over the Amoros to watch me because I was going to go, and I went about as far up the line on Turley as you can go without actually taking the base. A couple of times, I think I might have made it easy. Turley seemed really upset. He hardly ever took his eyes off me, and when he finally got around to pitching to Gilliam, he couldn't throw anything but balls. I remembered how Earl Torgeson had stolen home on Turley during the sea­son, with the bases loaded and two out, to win a ball game for Detroit, and I was pretty sure that Turley was thinking of it, too.

When something like that happens to a guy, it's bound to be on his mind. He loses a ball game in a certain way, and he remem­bers it. He's scared it will happen again. So I kept hollering, Watch me, Watch me, and I kept daring him by going way up the line. Sure enough, he gave Gilliam a walk and I was forced home. We not only had a cheap run but we had got the pitcher out of there, too. Stengel took Turley out and put in Tom Morgan.

There was another instance of what I'm talking about in that same ball game. It was in the last of the seventh. Tom Sturdivant was pitching for the Yankees and I hit a double down the third-base line. I have pretty good reflexes, and when I rounded second I noticed that Elston Howard, who had fielded the ball in left, was coming up throwing. So when I slowed up, I kept on moving around a couple of steps, making like I was going to go for third. I was watching Elston close, and he came up with this strictly overhand throwing motion, and as soon as he came overhand, I was posi­tive he was going to throw to second and try to catch me off. I figured the only other thing he could do was fake, and then turn and throw to third, and if he did that I was sure I still could get back to second. As soon as I felt sure he was going to throw, I took off for third as fast as I could go. I made it easy.

Nine times out of ten, no outfielder will throw the ball behind me on the bases because they know I'll go for the extra base. But Elston thought he had me hung up when I took the big turn. It was a good play; the whole thing was the motion. He didn't hide what he was going to do. Irv Noren threw behind me in one of the games at the Stadium, but the big difference was the motion. I didn't know where he was going to throw the ball. He looked like he was going to throw to third but instead he threw it to second and I had to scram­ble back the best way I could.

We got a run out of it, too. With me on third, the infield was drawn in and Sandy Amoros hit a ball that went through to right field for a hit. If the infield had been back, the way it would have been with me on second, it probably would have been an out.

You have to be alert all the time on the bases. That goes for any ball game but it goes double in the World Series.

IN A SHORT SERIES, the manager has to be more alert, too. ... Walt Alston did a good job in the Series last year. He didn't give up; he didn't panic. When we got back to Ebbets Field after losing those first two games at the Stadium, he held a meeting and he told us he knew we were a good ball club, that he'd seen us bounce back before and he knew we could do it again and that it was up to us to come back and show we were the same ball club we'd been in the National League and not just fold up and lose another one. It had an effect on the ball club. I know it did.

Walt, of course, isn't much of a man for meetings. He isn't much of a man, usually, for talking. But when he does say something, you know he's thought about it a lot and you know he means it.

During the season, under Alston, we have a clubhouse meeting usually be­fore each new series with a different ball club-under Dressen we used to have a meeting every day-but in the Series we met before every game to talk over the hitters. Because, after all, you don't know these hitters well, and sometimes you start pitching them the way you've been told by your scouts, and you find out they're taking a pretty good cut at the ball that way. Like last year we were told to pitch Elston Howard inside, and in the first game he hit a home run off a high inside pitch. After the second game we went over him again.

We'd noticed that, with his wide stance, when he swung at the ball he was falling away from the pitch, and when you pitched him in, you were helping him out by following him up with the ball. The way it looked to me, he had to hit it. So we started to pitch him away instead of in, and he didn't hurt us nearly so much later on as he did in the first two games. We were keeping the ball out there away from him, and, falling away like he was doing, he couldn't get the good part of the bat on it.

Maybe, after he hit that first-game homer, Elston was trying too hard to hit it all the way. That happened to me in '52. I led off in the second inning of the first game, at Ebbets Field, and hit a home run into the stands in lower left. Right away, I got homer-conscious. Now, I know I'm not a home-run hitter. But I started swinging for the home run and I ruined my whole Series. I was swinging too hard. That's all right for the big free-swingers, Hodges and Duke and Campy-they've got to swing hard. But I should just meet the ball. I hit homers strictly by accident. If I happen to hit just a little bit underneath the ball, instead of hitting it like I usually do on a straight line, then I get a little more loft on it and I'll get a homer. It's all right if it's an accident. But it's no good if I forget who I am and start trying to do it.

Even the strong guys can get in trouble over-swinging. Look at Duke Snider. He's a big, powerful guy any­way, and when he swings hard with his feet on the ground, he's a great hitter. But when he goes overboard he's in trouble. And he's so strong he really doesn't have to lunge after the ball. It's just that every once in a while, he forgets himself and tries too hard.

I think a lot of the trouble we had winning a World Series came from trying too hard. I know we never choked up, like a lot of people said. It was more a case of our being over­anxious and not playing our real game, plus the fact that the Yankees always managed to come up with that one big man at the right moment. Look at the job Billy Martin did in '53. And then there was Allie Reynolds. Or, back in '49, Tommy Henrich. The breaks just went against us; one or two of their guys would get hot. This last year, as I've said, the breaks went our way. Nobody is saying the Yankees choked up.

I've never had a real big Series and I've never been accused of choking up, because that's not the kind of reputation I've got. And I know very well that Pee Wee Reese isn't going to choke up, or Carl Furillo, or Campy. We don't have a choke-up ball club.

Of course, after we'd been in two, three, and then four World Series, and still hadn't won one, I'll admit I be­gan to wonder if we were ever going to win one. But I tried not to let it upset me. In my first Series, I was tense. But last year, even after we lost the first two games, and it looked for a while as though it was going to be the same old thing all over again, I slept like a log every night. I went into the ball game wanting to win des­perately but knowing that as long as I was doing the best I possibly could, I couldn't do anything more.

THE KIND OF bear-down competitors who will give you trouble in a short, all-or-nothing series ... don't worry about the things that might go wrong; they play to win and they expect to win. That's the only way to play the World Series successfully. Your attitude has a lot to do with whether you win or lose. Too many ballplayers are so apprehensive of how bad they may look if they kick one in the Series that they just don't risk the big play.

When I'm in a World Series, give me a guy like Johnny Podres. I'll never forget him before the seventh game last year. "These guys can't beat me," he said in the clubhouse before we went out on the field. "They can't beat me. They're afraid of me." He meant it, too. It was so obvious that he meant it that we all got the fever from him, and when we went out on that field, there wasn't a man on the Brooklyn ball club who figured we were going to lose.

As for me, I can't wait to get a chance to practice what I've been preaching here. After waiting all those years for it, I gave my World Series championship ring to my wife Rachel last winter. Now I'd like to get one for myself.

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