Teammate recalls Robinson

Johnny Podres played with Jackie Robinson on Brooklyn's famous 1955 champions. And Podres has stories to tell.

Posted: April 10, 2007

Third of eight parts.

Johnny Podres spent 15 seasons as a player in the major leagues. He pitched in four World Series (helping to win three) and was the most valuable player in one of the most memorable ever.

Podres made three all-star teams and was the ERA king of the National League in 1957.

Later, as a pitching coach in the majors, he played a role in launching the careers of stars such as Frank Viola and Curt Schilling.

Clearly, Podres has had memorable experiences in a lifetime spent in baseball.

Being a teammate of Jackie Robinson's will always be one of the best.

"He was a great guy," Podres, 74, recalled one quiet morning this spring at the Phillies' training camp in Clearwater, Fla. "I was lucky to know him and play with him."

You want stories about Jackie Robinson? Podres can deliver.

Podres had grown up in Upstate New York (where he still lives and knows all the good fishing spots) and was a huge fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team with which Robinson made his historic debut in 1947.

Podres recalled his wide-eyed youth, going to camp with the Dodgers for the first time in the spring of 1952.

"When I got there, most of the social stuff was over with," he said, referring to the early challenges Robinson faced in becoming the first African American in the majors. "To me, he was just a ballplayer - a great ballplayer.

"I was 19 years old coming out of Class D ball. To walk into that clubhouse and see those guys - Jackie, [Pee Wee] Reese, [Gil] Hodges, [Duke] Snider, [Clem] Labine, Roy [Campanella], [Don] Newcombe, [Carl] Erskine.

"Hoo, boy, that was something."

Podres didn't make his debut in the majors until 1953. Two seasons later, he helped write the greatest chapter in Brooklyn Dodgers history. He beat the archrival New York Yankees in Games 3 and 7 to give the Dodgers their only World Series title in Brooklyn.

Though Podres was named MVP of that series, he still says it belonged to the veteran players on the team.

"I felt great for the Boys of Summer," he said. "That was their championship. I just happened to be the guy that pitched that day."

Robinson was a pillar of the Boys of Summer, a tight-knit group of longtime Dodgers who had lost to the Yankees in the World Series in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953. Finally, in 1955, the Dodgers beat the Yankees, and the entire borough of Brooklyn celebrated.

"After that game, players were in tears," Podres recalled.

That season, that glorious season, Robinson was an aging player, a year away from retirement. He hit just .182 in the '55 World Series. It didn't matter. This would be his only World Series title, and it was sweet nonetheless, particularly because the Dodgers fought back after losing the first two games.

Podres gave them life by beating the Yankees in Game 3, on his 23d birthday.

After that game, the 36-year-old Robinson congratulated the young Podres and said, "That's the most important game you'll ever pitch in your life."

Podres considers it one of the greatest compliments he's ever received.

"Jackie was a hell of a player and great team guy," Podres said. "You'd see him go 0 for 4 a couple of days in a row. He'd shake your hand and say, 'Maybe I'll help tomorrow,' and he'd go out and win four games in a row all by himself."

Podres was the Phillies' pitching coach from 1991 to 1996 and still helps out in the minors. As he walked around the Phillies' minor-league complex, he smiled in recalling memories of Robinson. He was asked for his favorite memory of No. 42.

"Just watching him play baseball," Podres said. "And let me tell you, I watched him. Everybody did.

"I played with him when he was older. But there were spurts of five or six days when he'd play like a 20-year-old and go out and win games all by himself.

"His speed. That's what I remember most. It was amazing. One step and he could be at full speed."

Podres chuckled at the memory of how Robinson's speed could unnerve an opponent.

"I remember we were playing the Cubs," he said. "It was a close game. Sam Jones was pitching and Jackie was on first. Jackie said, 'I'm stealing, Sam.' Sam Jones keeps throwing over to first, and finally he throws one bad and Jackie goes to second.

"Now Jackie's on second and he says, 'I'm stealing, Sam.' Jones throws a wild pitch and Jackie goes to third. Jackie says, 'I'm stealing home, Sam.' Jones throws another wild pitch and we win the game by a run."

Robinson was 28 when he came to the majors, but still had time to play in six World Series and win a National League MVP award, a batting title, and two stolen-base crowns.

"How good would he have been if he had gotten there when he was 21 or 22?" Podres wondered.

Jackie Robinson died in 1972.

Thirty-five years later, he's alive in the memories of a former teammate.

"Yep," Johnny Podres said. "I was lucky to know him."


Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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