Willie Mays and 3.2 Beer

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 31.

On any list of the great heartbreaks in Cleveland sports history you will find the usual suspects—Red Right 88, the Drive, the Fumble, Michael Jordan’s shot, Game Seven of the 1997 World Series, losing three straight playoff games to Boston in 2007, LeBron James quitting against the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, the dispirited Indians losing the 1940 pennant to Detroit by one game because of their rebellion against hated manager Oscar Vitt. It’s an interesting list.

Include the 1954 World Series.

The ’54 Indians, managed by Al Lopez, snapped the New York Yankees’ streak of five straight American League pennants and in the process set an American League record with 111 victories. The previous record of 110 was held by the 1927 Yankees, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig hit 47.

There were three 20-game winners in the American League in 1954 and the Indians had two of them—future Hall of Famers Bob Lemon (23-7) and Early Wynn (23-11). The other starters were Mike Garcia (19-8), Art Houtteman (15-7) and Bob Feller (13-3). The Indians led the league with the lowest team earned run average at 2.78 and their staff had an astounding 77 complete games. That was exactly half of their 154-game schedule.

Relief pitchers were not clearly defined at that time. There were no labels. There were no setup men or closers. Even the term “long man” didn’t come into use until the ’70s. The only American League teams with relief specialists were the Yankees with 36-year-old veteran Johnny Sain (22 saves) and Boston with 39-year-old Ellis Kinder (15 saves), both savvy former starters.

The Indians were a spectacular exception. They alternated three closers, depending on the situation, and two of them were raw rookies, left-hander Don Mossi (7 saves) and right-hander Ray Narleski (13 saves). The third was 33-year-old lefty Hal Newhouser (7 saves and 7 wins in relief). Newhouser enjoyed a long earlier career as a starter in Detroit and eventually was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. When makeup doubleheaders left the Indians short of starters late in the season, Lopez turned to his three bullpen aces, each pitching three innings. The Indians won that game, Mossi getting the win and Narleski getting the save.

Look at the Indians’ pitching staff this way. The five starters combined for 93 wins and 36 losses. The three relief specialists combined for 27 saves and a 14-3 record coming out of the bullpen. It was the greatest pitching performance by any team in history.

From beginning to end, that season was magical. Second baseman Roberto Avila won the batting crown at .341. Centerfielder Larry Doby led the league in home runs with 32 and runs batted in with 126. The Indians led the league in home runs and were second in runs scored. When the Indians needed a pinch hit late in a game, backup second baseman Hank Majeski usually came through. He batted .301 as a pinch hitter.

The Giants had a slight edge in home run power but otherwise were similar offensively. Centerfielder Willie Mays was the National League batting champ at .345 and he clubbed 41 home runs. The Giants had Dusty Rhodes, the best pinch hitter in baseball. He batted .333 as a pinch hitter and .341 overall with 15 home runs. Left-hander Johnny Antonelli had a 21-7 record and led the league with the lowest earned run average. The Giants’ staff also led the league in earned run average and they used a two-man closer tandem, 36-year-old Marv Grissom (19 saves) and 31-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm (7 saves).

Where they differed most dramatically was in their managers. They called the Indians’ Al Lopez the Silent Señor. The Giants were managed by Leo (The Lip) Durocher.

The World Series opened on Sept. 29 in the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home field in Manhattan, and everything that happened after that was strange and impossible to explain.

In the first game, with Bob Lemon and Sal Maglie locked in a 2-2 tie, the Indians threatened to break it open in the eighth inning. With runners on first and second bases, and only one out, Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz hammered a monstrous drive to dead centerfield in the oddly shaped Polo Grounds. Willie Mays turned his back to the infield and ran at full speed until he caught up with the ball and caught it over his left shoulder almost 460 feet from the plate. Most historians call it the greatest catch in World Series history.

With the score still tied, 2-2, and right-hander Lemon still pitching in the last of the 10th inning, Durocher sent left-handed hitting Dusty Rhodes to the plate as a pinch hitter for right-handed Monte Irvin and he lofted a fly ball down the right-field line where the seats were only 257 feet from the plate. The ball cleared the wall for a three-run homer and the Giants took Game One, 5-2. It was probably the time to bring in Mossi to face the lefty Rhodes, but matchups were not yet part of ordinary baseball strategy. Durocher, however, seemed to have a handle on the lefty-righty thing.

By the way, I’m curious about the man who designed that ballpark. He must have been a sadist.

Al Smith led off Game Two for Cleveland with a home run on Antonelli’s first pitch, but the Indians managed only three hits the rest of the game and the Giants beat Early Wynn, 3-1. Rhodes drove in a tying run with a bloop single to center in the fifth inning. Once again, Rhodes was pinch hitting for Irvin, the 35-year-old left fielder who was enjoying a fine season in his own right. Rhodes stayed in the game in left field and hit another home run in the seventh, this time an honest blast over the roof in right field.

Rhodes delivered the big hit again in Game Three as the Series moved to Cleveland. In the third inning with runners on second and third, Rhodes pinch hit for Irvin for the third time and delivered a sharp two-run single against Mike Garcia for a 3-0 lead. The Giants won the game, 6-2. Rhodes drove in seven runs in the Series and went 4-for-4 as a pinch hitter.

The Series ended on Saturday, Oct. 2, when the Giants completed a shocking four-game sweep by beating the Indians, 7-4.

Many years later, Indians third baseman Al Rosen postulated that the Indians lost the World Series because they placed too much importance on breaking the Yankees’ record for most wins in a season. He claimed they lost their momentum after they won their 111th game. Emotionally, that was their impossible dream. Vic Wertz stood alone as a valiant soldier. He hit an even .500 with four singles, two doubles, a triple and a home run. And a 460-foot out.

Nobody in Cleveland, however, cried in his beer like Ignatius McIntyre, owner of Pat Joyce’s Tavern on East Ninth St., one of the busiest joints in downtown Cleveland. It was on a stretch between Superior and Chester Avenues where the sporting crowd congregated. Kornman’s was a few steps to the south and a few steps beyond that was the Roxy Burlesque house, where the top strippers in the country appeared. Across the street from Joyce’s was Jean’s Fun House, where you could play arcade games and buy risqué trinkets. High school kids got a kick out of it. Not far from there was a strip tease bar where girls coaxed traveling salesmen and naive visitors from the suburbs into buying them watered down drinks. If you turned west on Short Vincent Ave. you found the Theatrical Grill, a classy joint that featured entertainment but no strippers. Gamblers, bookies and other sharpies fancied the Theatrical. Also squeezed onto that block were several other bars with no distinguishing features. In good weather you could stumble upon gamblers and bookies hanging out on the corner of East Ninth and Short Vincent. Also in bad weather. They were never in their cups because they lived by their wits. Many of them survived to an old age if they didn’t do something to get bumped off. Cleveland was a hot town in those days. It was exciting. Athletes and entertainers liked coming here. We were the sixth biggest city in the country.

Joyce’s was the best. Visiting ballplayers and umpires appreciated it because you could get a meal after a game. Newspaper people liked it because the food was good and it wasn’t too expensive. The downtown office workers liked it because you weren’t embarrassed to be seen there.

Unlike most of the other spots on East Ninth Street, Joyce’s was open on Sunday. The Victorian liquor laws in Ohio at that time mandated that only 3.2 beer could be sold on Sundays, no wine or liquor. Three-two referred to the amount of alcohol in the beer, 3.2 percent. Supposedly regular beer had more alcohol although I don’t know anybody who could tell the difference. The only way to distinguish them was by the bottle cap. Three-two had a red cap; regular beer had a blue cap. I believe it was the same beer. All they did at the brewery was change the bottle cap. That’s my theory.

The point of all this is that Game Five of the World Series was to be played on Sunday, Oct. 3, at Cleveland Stadium and a large portion of the crowd of 86,000 was expected to descend on Pat Joyce’s after the game. In anticipation, Ignatius McIntyre, whom everybody called Iggy, laid in enough 3.2 beer to slake the thirst of the entire 82nd Airborne Division. You could barely move in the basement of Joyce’s. There were cases of 3.2 beer stacked floor to ceiling. It was like a submarine at the beginning of a cruise with every passageway crammed with cans of food.

Not everybody shared my theory about 3.2 beer. Many thought there was a difference and they didn’t want to drink it except on Sundays. Bartenders had to be careful when opening bottles of 3.2 beer so that the customer could not see the red cap.

So Iggy was stuck with 3.2 beer until the following St. Patrick’s Day, which, unfortunately, fell on a Wednesday.

The Indians spent most of the next four decades rebuilding and so did the City of Cleveland. In the 1960s, urban renewal leveled the entire block. There went the Roxy, there went the strip joint, there went Jean’s Fun House, there went the gamblers and there went the fun. Joyce’s moved to East Sixth Street and St. Clair Avenue. The McIntyre family later opened a second restaurant downtown and third and fourth restaurants in Rocky River and North Olmsted. That was progress but downtown Cleveland never was the same.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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