Left-hander pitched Dodgers to first title

Times Staff Writer

Buzzie Bavasi said that he had two great competitors in his time as the Dodgers’ general manager.

One was Jackie Robinson. The other was Johnny Podres.

Podres, the left-hander who pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first World Series championship in 1955, died Sunday at a hospital in Glens Falls, N.Y., of complications from a leg infection. The 75-year-old had also had heart and kidney problems in recent years.

“I had a lot of great pitchers with the Dodgers -- Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, and one of the best in the business, Sandy Koufax,” Bavasi said. “But when we needed to win a ballgame, who do you think we went to? Johnny Podres.”


That was the case in the seventh and deciding game of the 1955 World Series. Standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first championship were the New York Yankees, who had beaten them in the Fall Classic in 1941, ’47, ’49, ’52 and ’53.

Pitcher Don Newcombe said that in a pre-game meeting in the Dodgers clubhouse before Game 7 of the 1955 Series, shortstop Pee Wee Reese asked the team, “Can we beat the Yankees?”

Newcombe recalled the then-23-year-old Podres standing up and saying, “Guys, get me one run and I guarantee we’ll be champions.”

Podres threw an eight-hitter in a 2-0 Dodgers victory and was named the first-ever World Series most valuable player. The championship was the only one the Dodgers would win in Brooklyn.

“I was never superstitious, but that game was so tense until the end that I didn’t want to move on the bench, I didn’t want to breathe,” pitcher Carl Erskine recalled. But Podres, Erskine said, wasn’t scared.

Podres moved with the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 and was part of their World Series championship teams in 1959 and ’63. He was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1966 and retired at the end of the 1969 season, which he spent with the San Diego Padres.

He retired a three-time All-Star with a career record of 148-116 and an earned-run average of 3.68. His reputation as a big-game pitcher was well-deserved -- teammate and close friend Don Zimmer said that Reese used to call him “Mr. Clutch” -- as he was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in six World Series games.

Podres’ biggest weapon was a straight change-up that was taught to him and Erskine by former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. Newcombe and Maury Wills, another Dodgers teammate, said the change-up was the best they’d ever seen.


“No Dodger pitcher has ever used that particular kind of grip since,” Erskine said. “You let the ball recess back so that you use your middle knuckles like the ends of your fingers. The wrist had to collapse behind the ball. It had the same rotation as a four-seam fastball, so it was difficult to pick up. But it was also difficult to get over the plate.”

Not for Podres and Erskine. Podres used the pitch to get Elston Howard to ground out to Reese for the final out of the 1955 World Series.

Later, as a coach with the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Minnesota Twins, Podres tried to teach the pitch to a new generation of hurlers.

Zimmer was the manager of the Red Sox in 1980 when Podres was the pitching coach.


Zimmer recalled seeing Podres teaching a young pitcher how to throw a change-up. When the pupil threw one correctly, Zimmer said, Podres jumped and exclaimed, “That’s it! Now you’ve got it!”

“I got excited watching him be excited,” Zimmer said.

Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, whom Podres worked with in Philadelphia, posted a message on his blog Monday that read: “Outside of the Lord, my wife and my father there was no person who impacted my life more than Johnny Podres. . . . We spoke often about ‘big games’ and he instilled this belief in me, even before I had a chance to pitch in a truly big game, that when the time came I’d answer the bell. The postseason success I’ve been blessed to enjoy I’ve always known to be a direct result of who and what he was.”

Said Zimmer: “I never heard of anybody in a baseball uniform who didn’t like Johnny Podres.”


Which is partly why the service for Podres on Wednesday will be open to the public. It will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. at Singleton Healy Funeral Home in Queensbury, N.Y.

“It’s the way he would’ve wanted it,” said his son, John Jr. “He liked people.”

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 41 years, Joan, and another son, Joseph.