The Big Dodger in the Sky

Johnny Podres, who won arguably the single biggest game in the Dodger history, passed away on Sunday. Just 23 at the time, Podres will forever be remembered for pitching a complete-game shutout against the Yankees in Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, giving the Dodger franchise their first World Championship after seven World Series defeats (the last five to the Yankees) and the only one of their Brooklyn days. As epitaphs go, you could do a whole lot worse.

Buzzie Bavasi claimed that along with Jackie Robinson, Podres was one of the two greatest competitors of the GM’s 18-year career with the Dodgers. It’s fitting that those two players were responsible for the signature moments in Brooklyn sports history, Robinson with his breaking of baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 and Podres for bringing Next Year to Dem Bums. But that was hardly the only thing Podres accomplished in baseball. Over the course of a 15-year career, he went 148-116 with a 3.68 ERA (105 ERA+), including a league-leading 2.66 in 1957. He pitched for the Dodgers from 1953 to 1966, mostly slotting into the middle of the rotation behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Along with Koufax and Jim Gilliam, Podres holds the distinction of being one of the three players who were part of all four of the Dodgers’ championships under Walter Alston. Gilliam was the only one to play in each of those World Series (1955, 1959, 1963, and 1965); Podres was on the roster for the latter but didn’t pitch, while Koufax wasn’t on the 1955 roster (he made up for it later). Podres had such a big-game reputation that Pee Wee Reese nicknamed him “Mr. Clutch.” True to that, he came up big in postseason play, going 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in six World Series starts.

Podres’ best pitch was his change-up:

Podres’ biggest weapon was a straight change-up that was taught to him and [Carl] Erskine by former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. [Don] 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.”

Podres was traded to Detroit early in the 1966 season, and wound up his career — wait for it — as a member of the expansion San Diego Padres. Later he worked as a pitching coach for the Red Sox, Twins and Phillies, most notably with the 1993 NL pennant winners. No less than Curt Schilling credits him with instilling the mentality he needed for big games.

As former teammate Tommy Lasorda might say, Podres has gone to the Big Dodger in the Sky. Rest in peace.

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