Lives To Remember

Chuck Stobbs | 1929-2008

By Jane Leavy
Friday, January 2, 2009; 11:01 AM

Chuck Stobbs knew how he would be remembered.

For one pitch from a lifetime of pitches, one inning of 1,900 innings, one game from 15 years in the major leagues. April 17, 1953.

It was his first start for the Nats, having been acquired in the offseason to give Washington its only left-handed pitcher. The week had been cold, wet, inhospitable for baseball. Opening Day had to be postponed. Manager Bucky Harris rearranged his pitching rotation; President Dwight D. Eisenhower rearranged his golf vacation, enabling him to return in time to throw out the first pitch.

Stobbs was a last-minute managerial decision. The Yankees had struggled against another lefty earlier that week, Harris reasoned, perhaps forgetting that Mantle had hit a game-winning grand slam off Stobbs the year before, when Stobbs was pitching for the White Sox. Stobbs held his own against the Yankees through four innings, giving up two runs, one on a wind-aided home run into the left field bleachers to diminutive Billy Martin, an omen of bigger things to come.

In the fifth inning, with New York leading 2-1, Stobbs committed pitching's cardinal sin, walking Yogi Berra with two outs to bring Mickey Mantle to the plate. Later, as a coach with the George Washington University Colonials, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Royals, Stobbs always admonished young pitchers: no two-out walks.

Stobbs had been a three-letter man at Granby High School in Norfolk, where baseball was his third-best sport. As guard on Granby's basketball team, he made the longest shot in the history of the Duke-Durham Invitational Tournament-- from the opposing foul line. As quarterback, he led the Granby Comets to three undefeated seasons. He dreamed of playing in the Rose Bowl for the University of Southern California. But a $34,000 signing bonus from the Boston Red Sox changed his career plans and, his son said, offered an escape from an overbearing Navy father. When Stobbs made his major league debut in 1947, at age 17, he was the youngest player in the major leagues.

Now he was in his seventh season, playing with his third team. He was a control pitcher with a very good curveball and a 40-36 career record. Only 23, he had gotten old early. He didn't throw very hard, and he hadn't thrown much that spring because of a stiff shoulder. Harris thought he might prosper in vast Griffith Stadium, the toughest place in baseball to hit a home run.

Mantle took the first pitch for a ball. On the Yankee bench, Jim Brideweser gazed at the distant scoreboard hovering over left field and told coach Jim Turner, "I bet this kid could hit that big scoreboard."

It was 391 feet to the base of the left field wall and another 69 feet to the back of the bleachers. The scoreboard projected 15 feet above the 55-foot back wall of the stadium. It was adorned with the smiling visage of "Mr. Boh," the advertising logo for National Bohemian beer. "Naw," Turner said, "nobody could do that." Nobody ever had.

As Stobbs went into his windup, 11-year-old Bill Abernathy got to his feet. He and his father, two of only 4,206 paying fans, sat in the presidential box Ike had occupied the day before. "I said to myself: 'Wow, this wind is really blowing. Straight out to left field.' "

The Weather Bureau later said gusts up to 41 mph blew toward the bleachers between 3 and 4 p.m.

The pitch was a fastball or slider. Stobbs later said he couldn't remember which. Either way, he left it over the plate. Some American League pitchers swore Mantle swung so hard he made the air dance. He timed this swing perfectly. The ball exited the stadium so fast that Nats broadcaster Bob Wolff did not have time to raise his voice in narrative exclamation. It was hit so high, infielder Wayne Terwilliger said that "Mantle was at second base by the time it came down."

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