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Unlikeliest World Series hero gone, not forgotten
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Forsyth County News
James Lamar Rhodes, the most unlikely World Series hero in baseball history, passed away last Thursday.  The cause was heart failure.  He was 82.

“I even had a nickname. You have to have a nickname to be remembered,” is the only quote attributable to “Dusty” Rhodes in Paul Dickson’s book, Baseball’s Greatest Quotations.

He was only half-right.  After the 1954 World Series, no one with any sense of baseball history could ever forget Dusty Rhodes.

When most people recall that Series, they recall one play:  Willie Mays’ fantastic catch of Vic Wertz’s long fly to dead center field in the old Polo Grounds in New York.

It remains one of baseball’s greatest film clips:  Mays sprinting full speed, back to the plate, reaching up to grab the ball as it descends over his shoulder, then leaping into the air, spinning, hurling the ball back towards the infield, and collapsing from the effort.

Sometimes we even get to hear the voice of the legendary Jack Brickhouse:

“Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people.  Boy!”

Mays’ catch kept Game 1 tied, 2-2, in the eighth inning. How did it end?

In the bottom of the 10th, with two on and one out, Giants’ manager Leo Durocher played a hunch.  He sent Rhodes up to pinch-hit for future Hall of Famer Monte Irvin.  The Indians’ pitcher was future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon.

Here’s how John Drebinger described the action for the New York Times:

“Lemon served one pitch. Rhodes, a left-handed batsman, swung, and a lazy pop fly sailed down the right field line.

“The ball had just enough carry to clear the wall barely 270 feet away. But it was enough to produce an electrifying three-run homer that enabled the Giants to bring down Al Lopez’ Indians, 5-2.”

No one suspected that Rhodes’ heroics had just begun. In Game 2, Durocher summoned Rhodes to pinch-hit for Irvin again, this time against another future Hall of Famer, and future 300-game winner, Early Wynn.

Rhodes drilled a fifth inning single to tie the game, 1-1, and key a two-run rally.  He added a solo home run in the seventh as the Giants won again, 3-1.

The next day the Series switched to Cleveland, and Durocher went to Rhodes earlier.  He rapped a pinch single with the bases loaded in the third, giving the Giants a 3-0 lead. That was enough for Ruben Gomez to beat the Indians, 6-2.

Rhodes’ victim in Game 3 was Mike Garcia, meaning that Rhodes victimized three pitchers who had combined for 65 wins during the season.

The Giants completed their sweep with a 7-4 win in Game 4.  They had so much momentum that Rhodes wasn’t needed.

“It was just as well,” Rhodes recalled for Bruce Weber of the New York Times.

“After the third game, I was drinking to everybody’s health so much that I about ruined mine!”

How improbable was the Giants’ Series win?  Perhaps the most improbable of all time. Those Indians won 111 games, breaking the record 110 won by the venerable ‘27 Yankees.

And the man who brought them down?  He played only seven seasons, never had more than 244 at-bats in a season, never hit more than 15 homers or drove in more than 50 runs, and finished with a .253 career batting average.

But in his only Series appearance, Rhodes hit .667 (4-for-6) with two homers and seven runs batted in.

Funny game, baseball.

“I was just lucky,” Rhodes told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2008 interview about the ‘54 Series.

“You know, once in a while, you get on a streak.  It was an upset.  But the Cleveland wives were celebrating winning the thing, and Leo made a speech before the first game and said, ‘They haven’t won yet.’”

Why didn’t he play more? As he told the New York World Telegram and Sun in a 1954 interview, “I ain’t much of a fielder, and I got a pretty lousy arm. But I sure love to whack at that ball!”

Rhodes was also a great teammate.

“He was a fabulous hitter and a great friend,” Mays told Bill Madden of the New York Daily News.

“He stayed at my house, and I’ve never had a greater friend.”

“It’s a sad day for me,” Irvin told Madden.  

“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 going?’”

Being a World Series hero sure agreed with savoring the good life.

“I couldn’t buy a drink in New York after that ‘54 Series,” Rhodes recalled for the Daily News last December.

“It’s funny, I was never sick a day in my life until I quit drinking.”

A memorable character indeed. Even without the nickname.