Academic journal article Nine

The Fireman

Academic journal article Nine

The Fireman

Article excerpt

This is the story of a great pitcher and a deeply flawed man, of a duality that elicits both admiration and regret, and of the tragic realization that it is often impossible to savor the taste of one without the bitterness of the other.

In Brooklyn, the summer of 1947 was a time of hope for Dodgers fans. The war had ended, and Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Dodgers since 1943, was building a pennant-winner. He had stocked up on talent during the war, and now those young players, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snider, were back from the military, joining established returning stars like Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser. The Dodgers were a rising force, perhaps one player away from dominance. That player arrived in 1947; his name was Jackie Robinson. Despite the opposition of all fifteen of the other major-league owners, Rickey had broken the color line. Baseball and the country were changing.

I was seven that summer, just beginning to understand baseball and in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After school, I would hurry home to catch the end of Dodgers games on the radio. On hot summer afternoons, I would often sit on an upended milk crate outside my father's grocery store on St. John's Place in Brooklyn, listening to the dulcet southern tones of Red Barber on our new portable radio. I learned about "sittin' in the cat-bird seat," "rhubarbs" on the playing field, and "F.O.B.," which meant that the bases were "full of Brooklyns."

Red Barber had been born in Mississippi, raised in Florida, and steeped in the bigotry endemic to his habitat. When Rickey told him, in confidence, of his plan to bring an African American to the Dodgers, Barber seriously considered resigning. As he tells it, his wife Lylah urged him not to act rashly. Barber listened to her advice, thought things through, and realized that his job was to broadcast the ballgame, not to concern himself with the color of the ballplayers. (1) And that's what he did; he described the game and Robinson's talent spoke for itself. Not only did he galvanize the Dodgers, but he electrified Brooklyn with strategic bunts, stolen bases, clutch line drives, and unquenchable verve. He was on his way to Rookie of the Year, to be followed in 1949 by the MVP award, and the Dodgers were on their way to a pennant. Robinson's Hall of Fame career has been recounted many times and, in 1997, his number forty-two was permanently retired throughout Major League Baseball.

There were other stars on the 1947 Dodgers--Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser, and Dixie Walker--but there was another player I also came to admire. His name was Hugh Casey, also known as the "Fireman," a nonpareil reliever who won 10 games, lost 4, and saved 18, the most in the National League. He pitched seventy-six innings, all in relief, and it seemed to me that he magically materialized at moments of maximum peril. I began to anticipate his appearance when the game was most on the line. The other Dodgers could forge a lead, but only Casey could preserve it. In 1947, the closer's role was not well-defined, and managers would put their best man on the mound late in the game and ask him to pitch two or three innings as needed. For the Dodgers, the best man was Casey.

As Red Barber put it: "Trouble starts in the game and away down in the right field corner, a bulky right-hander gets off the bullpen bench, picks up his glove, and in almost majestic and unhurried tempo begins warming up ... then an arm is waved toward the bullpen and here he comes. Ole Casey, walking as serenely as a barefoot boy down an empty country road." (2) "Sukeforth waited at the mound with the ball. He handed it to Casey, and left. There was nothing Sukeforth could tell Casey. You don't tell a supreme artist how to paint a canvas or sing an aria." (3) Casey said that his manager, Burt (Barney) Shotton was responsible for his success in 1947: "Barney handled me perfectly. He asked me how much work I thought I could do, and I told him I could work three innings almost every day if necessary. …

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