I have very specific memories of certain lessons I learned in life as a boy. For example, when I was eight years old, I remember taking a shortcut by walking between the catcher and the backstop at a sandlot baseball game, in spite of the urgings of others not to do that. This took place on a sunny day on the playground of my grammar school. Watching the batter carefully, I did not notice the boy next up taking a practice swing. I saw stars and had a black eye for about a week. I remember that day vividly.
Then there was the time I learned not to gamble, ever. It was about the Cleveland Indians and a World Series game. As I write this, Cleveland is playing in one, but has not won the World Series in more than half a century.
The year was 1954, and the lesson I learned about gambling took place in the men’s locker room of the Montauk Golf Club’s clubhouse.
I was 15 that year. My dad was a member of this club and was playing a round with his friends. If there was a shortage of caddies, the children of members could caddy for the members and their friends. We could make extra pocket money that way. So I was caddying for dad and one of his buddies.
It was a hot day. We were all sweaty. When the game ended, I left the two bags I was carrying at the pro shop and caught up with my father’s foursome as they entered the men’s locker room, where we would all change into fresh clothing. I took a shower. And, as I was getting dressed, I witnessed two other members in that locker room get into a loud argument about a baseball game that was being broadcast on a portable radio there. It was the first game of that year’s World Series, between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. And I have since looked this up. It was September 29.
Both these men arguing were in their 40s. One a Giants fan, the other a Cleveland fan. I remember this argument vividly.
This was in the early days of black-and-white television. Only a few people had sets, and they were pretty blurry. So everyone was used to listening to baseball games on the radio. (WINS on the AM dial came into Montauk, loud and clear.) And I was a big fan at 15. So that is what was on in that locker room.
“The Giants are going to kill Cleveland,” one of the men said.
“Are you kidding me? Cleveland is the best team in baseball. They just won 111 games. It’s the most games won by any team, ever, in one season.”
“The Giants will take them.”
“You want to bet on this?”
“And they are going to do it in four games.”
“You’re crazy. They haven’t got a chance. They’re already behind by 2 to 0 today.”
“They’re going to win this game and the next three. They’re going to blow them out.”
“You want to bet that the Giants will win the World Series in four games?”
“I’ll bet you $500 about that.”
“You’re crazy. I have to give you odds.”
“Give me any odds you want. They’re going to win in four games.”
“I’ll give you 10 to 1 odds. This is the fastest five hundred dollars I will ever pick up.”
“Shake on it.”
They shook hands. And that was that. My dad and I left the club, and as we walked to the car, I remember thinking this was a crazy bet. Five hundred dollars back then was a lot of money. (It was the equivalent of nearly $5,000 today.) I had just watched two men in full testosterone mode make an extraordinary bet.
I would never have remembered where I was and what that day in the locker room looked like had it not been for what happened over the next four days. The New York Giants swept the Cleveland Indians. At 10 to 1, one of those men had just lost the equivalent in today’s money of almost $50,000 on one of the most unlikely bets ever.
I thought, I will never gamble. Ever. And I learned later, because there were quite a few men watching the bet in that locker room that day, that the loser paid. It was big news all over the club and all through town for the next week or so.
This year the Cleveland Indians are facing the Chicago Cubs. Though Cleveland has not won a World Series since 1948, the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. And it made me think of that long-ago bet I witnessed in 1954. Cleveland had won in 1948 and were in it again, but then got blown out in four.
I spent time yesterday Googling that World Series to learn some of the details of those four games. This is why I know the first game was played on September 29 at the Polo Grounds in New York, the home of the Giants back then. I also know it was a day game, because we were playing golf during that day. The box score shows that Cleveland scored two runs in the top of the first. The bet had to have been made between the bottom of the first and the bottom of the fourth after we left, because that’s when the Giants scored to tie it up.
The rest of this game was also quite remarkable. It remained tied until the top of the eighth, when Cleveland threatened. With two men on base and two outs, the Cleveland batter hit a long fly ball to deep center field. The great Willie Mays raced back to try to get it, and the resulting catch is considered the greatest moment he ever had in the field. Autographed copies of the black- and-white photo of him making “The Catch” today can sell for $100 or more. He is running away from home plate as fast as he can. His left arm is extended out in front of him with his mitt turned upwards to be able receive the ball, which is seen in this picture two feet above the mitt. Mays cannot see the ball or judge it’s arrival at this moment. But instinct tells him this is where it will come down. And it does.
In the bottom of the tenth, the Giants came up and the first batter singled. The next batter was Willie Mays. They intentionally walked him. The next batter hits a double that drives in both runners and the Giants win. The next three games then become a relentless parade of Giants batters crushing the Cleveland Indians in a parade of relentless victories.
Cleveland only made it to the World Series one time from that day to this fall. This year it’s the Cubs they face. And the Cubs won 103 games in the regular season. Best record of the year. That’s the story. And that’s why I don’t gamble. Ever.
A few further notes: In 1954, Willie Mays led the league by hitting .345 and was selected the Most Valuable Player in the National League. The Giants moved to San Francisco four years after winning the World Series. A 12-foot-high statue of Mays, hitting a home run, is in front of the main entrance of the Giants’ stadium in San Francisco. Incidentally, between 1947 and 1958, the New York Yankees went to the World Series eight times—1954 was not one of them.