Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dusty in the Wind

Dusty Rhodes, the incorrigible, free spirit, and pinch hitter extroadinaire, and often game-winner of the 1954 New York Giants died last week of a variety of illnesses at 82.

The Alabama-born Rhodes with the great baseball-name, came to the Giants in 1952 and lived up to his reputation of being a hard-hitting, hard-drinking and defensively-challenged left fielder. Rhodes, who played in only seven seasons with the Giants, retired in 1959 with a career .253 average and 54 homers in 576 games.

But in 1954, he had a gift for the dramatic and won many a game with a timely, clutch hit, including in the '54 Series when he went 4-for-6 with two homers and seven RBI in the Giants' four-game sweep of the heavily favored, 111-win Cleveland Indians. Rhodes, had a left-handed stroke that was tailor-made for the short right field porch of 257 or feet at the old Polo Grounds. He won the first game with a pinch-hit, 10th-inning three-run homer off Bob Lemon just inside the right field foul pole, about 296 feet away, and the next day, delivered a pinch single in the fifth and a home run in the seventh against Early Wynn, as keys to a 3-1 Giants win. In Game 3, he came back to hit a two-run pinch single off the Indians' Mike Garcia to spark a 6-2 Giants win. For all three pinch-hitting opportunities in the Series, Giants manager Leo Durocher had Rhodes bat for the legendary Monte Irvin.

I saw Dusty on Tuesday, June 29, 1954, when he stroked a timely pinch hit in the 13th inning to win an incredibly exciting 4 to 3 game for the rival Giants against my favorite, the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. Don Hoak had homered in the top of the 13th for Beloved Bums, and I celebrated briefly before Rhodes came through in the clutch once again. Although, I was a strong Dodger rooter, I could not help but like Rhodes who seemed to love the game and the key moments he was brought in to tempt fate.

"It's a sad day for me," Monte Irvin said recently. "Dusty and I were such good friends. Even though he was born in Alabama, he was like a brother to all the black players. Dusty was color-blind. He sure did like the good life, though, which would drive Leo crazy. I remember one time we were in Japan playing an exhibition series and Leo and I were standing in the hotel lobby late one night when Dusty came through the door. Leo said: 'Are you coming or are you going?'"

In his autobiography, "Nice Guys Finish Last," Durocher described Rhodes as "the worst fielder who ever played in a big league game who made training rules forgotten" but added: "Dusty was the kind of buffoon who kept a club confident and happy. And boy could he hit! Between him and Willie Mays, there was nothing but laughter in our clubhouse." Willie Mays recently called Rhodes "a fabulous hitter and a great friend." "He stayed at my house and I've never had a greater friend."

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