Mel Stottlemyre wasn't even on the horizon as the Yankees played their first game in 1956, but I feared my fate would be similar to what would befall him -- a life without a World Series championship. I felt the law of averages and the Yankees' inordinate success to that point might conspire against me and make barren my years of baseball fascination. The Yankees had been 5-for-5, then I caught on to the grandeur of the great game and the majesty of Mickey Mantle, and the Yankees went without for two years. It was my one great depression.
My father was a New York Giants fans, his brothers rooted for the Dodgers. And a misinformed, bandwagon-jumping neighbor liked the Indians, of all teams. So my first two years as a baseball fan were rendered silent by the successes of the Indians and New York's other franchises. It was painful when the extended family assembled. I was in the "listen only" mode, forced to tolerate the Mays and Snider propaganda my elders preached. It was off-course discourse, and I had to take it, of course.
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Johnny Kucks died Thursday. And though I had expressed my appreciation to him at a Yankees' Old Timer's Day some time ago, I must repeat it now. It was Kucks who emancipated me, Kucks who removed the gag and enabled me to shut down my uncles by shutting out the Dodgers in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series. Thanks, Johnny.
The '56 season had been one of redemption for me and my team. The Yankees had won 97 games and left those wretched Indians far behind. Moreover, Mickey Mantle had raised the bar and the passions in the wonderful NYC center fielder debate. A Triple Crown and a season Mays and Snider couldn't touch. Vindica ... well, almost.
The World Series remained, and Dem Bums were in the way like a fallen sequoia across a roadway. Though Mantle performed magnificently and Don Larsen perfectly, the first six games had been split when Stengel discretely slipped the game ball into the glove in Kucks' locker, the only indication that the 23-year-old right-handed pitcher with 34 big league starts on his resumé would throw the first pitches in the deciding game of what became the final Subway Series for 44 years.
He would throw the final ones as well.
Stengel wanted Kucks' sinker eliciting ground balls in the Dodgers' bandbox home in Flatbush. And the Old Man's prophecy happened. Sixteen of the 27 outs Kucks achieved at Ebbets Field that afternoon were the result of ground balls. Batting cleanup, Jackie Robinson grounded into a double play to end the Dodgers' first when Kucks was in jeopardy for the only time. Kucks had allowed a single and a walk, but even before the Dodgers had a baserunner, Stengel had Whitey Ford and Tom Sturdivant throwing in the bullpen.
By the time the Dodgers produced their second hit, in the eighth inning, the Yankees led by the final score, 9-0, on the strength of two, two-run home runs by Yogi Berra and a grand slam by Moose Skowron.
Kucks pitched a three-hitter, walking three and striking out one -- Robinson for the 27th out. So it was the kid, the catcher and the Moose posing for the newspaper cameras in an afterglow that coincided with my own wild, albeit solo celebration. My mother took my picture; I scrunched my nose to look like Skowron. I could add "t-i-o-n" to "vindica" and call my uncle Percy to gloat. I did. He'd been crushed by Larsen's game. He was steamrolled by Kucks' performance.
John Charles Kucks of Hoboken, N.J., who became a Wall Street guy, was gone from the Yankees by Memorial Day 1959, and from the game by October 1960. I lamented his departures because of all he had done for me. He pitched 19 innings over four straight Yankees World Series appearances, his only start coming in that sweet Game 7. Nineteen innings in eight appearances. And his ERA was 1.89.
Now, he's gone, too. But in this household, he is not forgotten. I have his 1957 card somewhere. Thanks, Johnny.