Podres taught baseball, life skills

Podres taught baseball and life

There is no way you could have had the honor of knowing Johnny Podres and not have a memory of your relationship with him.

When Podres passed away on Sunday in Glenn Falls, N.Y., the headlines on his obituary featured the fact that he pitched the Dodgers to their one and only World Series championship in Brooklyn in 1955.

He was 23 years old at the time and for the Dodger fans of that era, he always will be 23 and be remembered for his joy as catcher Roy Campanella lifted him off the ground to celebrate the team's first World Series championship.

Podres loved that moment in time and what it meant to him and to his teammates, but he never attempted to cling to it as though it was his claim to fame.

There were too many more games to pitch; too many more good times to spend with teammates and friends in his beloved game of baseball; too many more young pitchers to teach as a coach; and, unfortunately, too many more drinks and too many more cigarettes to enjoy.

Podres loved baseball and he loved life. He loved his friends and he loved a good time. He always had a twinkle in his eye that told you he knew more than you thought he knew.

He couldn't always pick the right horse in the race, and heaven knows he tried, but he could pick people and he knew his friends from those who wanted to hang on for their own selfish reasons.

"He was a happy go-lucky individual and nothing seemed to bother him," says former teammate Ralph Branca. "He lived his life to the fullest. Even though he had serious heart problems, he never quit smoking or drinking. I would chastise him and he would say, 'Ralph, I don't care what those guys say, it's not going to get me.' I guess at 75, it really didn't get him."

Podres always was confident in his ability, but never one to brag about accomplishments.

Long-time friend Tommy Villante recalls being with Podres on a train transporting the Dodger team on a road trip and having dinner when two sailors asked if they could join them.

The sailors soon realized that there were a number of Dodger players on the train and one asked Podres if he was a ballplayer.

"Yes, I am," replied Podres.

"What's your name," asked one of the sailors.

"Johnny Podres. I'm a pitcher," came the reply.

"Never heard of you," said the sailor.

Johnny replied, "You will."

"I had many great pitchers during my Dodger days including the one that I thought was the best ever, Sandy Koufax," says former Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi. "However, I agreed with Walter Alston that if the occasion came about that we had to win a game, Walter always went to Johnny."

Dodger pitching great Carl Erskine still remembers the first day he met Podres. "It was in the Spring of 1953 on Field No. 2 at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla.," recalls Erskine. "Johnny had just been called up from Hazard, Ky., and we were going through the drills of covering first base. He was not a big guy and he was very shy.

"We both learned the 'straight change' that Mr. [Branch] Rickey developed and had Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen teaching to the Dodger pitchers. Podres and I were the only ones to perfect it at the time and use it effectively.

"It had the same rotation as a four-seam fastball, same arm motion too and it destroyed the hitters timing."

Erskine recalled that it was a changeup that Podres threw to Elston Howard to end the 1955 World Series and give the Dodgers the title.

"In the seventh game of the 1955 World Series with two outs in the ninth, Podres threw Howard five fastballs and he fouled them off. At that point, Johnny threw Howard the strange change and he hit a weak ground ball to Pee Wee Reese at shortstop," said Erskine as he relived one of Brooklyn's most memorable moments.

Podres himself recalled the moment on an HBO special "The Ghosts of Brooklyn" that aired last year.

"I threw Elston Howard a changeup," said Podres. "He hit a ground ball to short, which Pee Wee had been waiting for his entire life." The Dodgers had won the World Series after seven setbacks, including losses to the Yankees in 1941, '47, '49, '52 and '53.

Johnny Podres was a winner and he knew what it took to be a winner.

My own special memory of Podres was when he was a Minor League pitching instructor for the Dodgers and I was the general manager of the team.

We were having a meeting of our Minor League department one spring and the discussion turned to a young pitcher who was being evaluated as related to a move from Double-A ball to Triple-A.

One of the coaches mentioned that the pitcher stated that he preferred to stay at Double-A, as opposed to receiving the promotion to pitch at a higher level.

Podres couldn't contain himself in the meeting. "You're telling me this guy doesn't want the challenge. Doesn't want to go from Double-A to Triple-A."

During the next week or so when I saw Podres he couldn't get the pitcher out of his mind. The pitcher had a great arm and many saw him as a definite prospect.

Podres finally came up to me one day and said, "Fred, I have to tell you something. In my view this guy never, ever will pitch in the big leagues. I don't care how good his stuff is. If he doesn't believe in himself there is no way he will pitch in the big leagues."

Podres knew about pitching and he taught that amazing changeup to many young pitchers as a coach at both the Minor and Major League level. He also knew about believing in yourself and having the heart to win big games.

Oh yes, the young prospect who didn't want to move up the ladder from Double-A to Triple-A. He never pitched in the Major Leagues.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. His book -- Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue --was published by SportsPublishingLLC This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.