Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Joe Hicks' mighty swing toppled the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1963

Joe Hicks never fancied himself as a home run hitter, yet for one magical day on July 17, 1963 as a member of the New York Mets, Hicks supplied the necessary power to slay the defending National League champs, the San Francisco Giants. The 80-year-old Hicks, speaking from his home in Virginia, vividly recalled a shining moment from his career that put the bat in his hands with a chance to win the game against one of the elite teams in baseball.

Joe Hicks

“We were playing the Giants in the Polo Grounds on a Wednesday afternoon," he said. "The Giants were in town and they were the defending National League champs. They had Gaylord Perry pitching against us. Gaylord was in the early stages of his career and we knocked him around pretty good. … We jump off to a 5-3 lead and they started to chip back, and at the end of the 9th [inning] it was 7-7. We’re batting in the bottom of the 11th inning and they bring on Don Larsen to pitch. Joe Christopher, he was the lead off hitter, and he led off with a single.”

Hicks was waiting on deck. Everyone in the house including Hicks knew what was coming next, a sacrifice bunt.

“I knew I was going to be sacrificing," he said. "I look down at third [base] and sure enough Solly Hemus gives me the bunt sign.”

Hicks, an expert bunter, placed the ball in the perfect location, but the laws of physics intervened.

“I lay down a nice bunt, and would have had a hit, but at the last minute it kicked foul," he said. "I’m walking back [to the plate] and I’m so glad it went foul because as I’m going back to the batter’s box, I’m looking back at Solly Hemus, and Old Casey had taken the bunt off."

Stengel knew as Larsen’s former manager, what his next pitch would be after the bunt rolled foul. He relayed that information to Hicks, which proved pivotal moments later.

“He had managed Larsen in New York, and knew that if a guy sacrificed, on the next pitch he would throw him that high hard fastball," he said. "I was looking for that pitch and I pull it down the right field line to hit a home run into the upper deck to win the game. We didn’t call them walk-offs back then, just a game winning home run. That day against Larsen was my best in the major leagues.”

His heroics earned him a spot on Kiner’s Korner after the game along with Choo Choo Coleman. Hicks was an eyewitness to Coleman’s brief, but classic interview that is still told fondly today.

“At the end of the game, he sent for me and Choo Choo Coleman to be on his show," he said. "I’ll never forget the interview; we had to climb up in the TV booth. We get up there, and Ralph Kiner said, ‘Hey Choo Choo, I saw your wife at the game today. What’s her name?’ He said (in a southern drawl), ‘Mrs. Coleman.’ Choo Choo didn’t know anyone’s name. He would just say, ‘Hey Bub!’”

Hicks started in the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1959, and came to the Mets after the 1962 season, when he was purchased from the Washington Senators. He debuted with the Mets halfway through the 1963 season after tearing up Triple-A Buffalo, batting .320 with 14 home runs in only 81 games. The Mets hoped that he would be a shot in the arm to their struggling offense, and for the first eight games, including the aforementioned one against the Giants, he was. He batted .419 with three home runs and nine RBIs during that span.

“I enjoyed my time with the Mets," he said. "I was with Buffalo and they brought me up for the last half of the season in 1963. I was playing regularly in Buffalo, but they [the Mets] would play me only every time a right handed pitcher pitched. I had a great start with them, but then again I was on the bench a lot. I was not a good bench player, as I was so used to playing all the time.”

Even though his manager didn’t play him every day, Hicks was endeared to Casey Stengel and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game.

“I really liked him, even in spring training. He was a great guy. He had such knowledge of the game. Back in those days, they didn’t have computers for all this stuff; he had all that information in his head,” he said.

Stengel was also known for his ability to spin yarns from his many years in the game, often lasting hours at a time. Hicks recalled one of those storytelling incidents with Stengel during spring training.

“One day we’re supposed to get there at nine o’clock to St. Petersburg," he said. "We get there and it’s raining. We’re in the dugout and Stengel starts talking to us. He talks for about an hour and asks the trainer to check if the rain stopped. When he found out it didn’t stop, he kept talking for another few hours. It was hard to concentrate on what he said because he jumped around so much. He would say, ‘A guy leads off with a double with nobody out, it’s so important to get that guy to third base with nobody out because if you get that guy to third base, there are 12 ways to score without getting a base hit. I will give $100 to anyone who figures that out.’ I figured that out over night and I brought them in. He said, ‘Hicksy, how did you know that?’ I said, ‘Skip, I’ve followed this game since eight years old.’”

The early years of the Mets was a mix of young talent and aging veterans. One of Hicks’ partners in the outfield was an aging Duke Snider, who was a legend in New York from his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stengel was famous for platooning his players, and the future Hall of Famer wasn’t exempt from sitting on the bench. One game against the Dodgers, Hicks found himself on the bench alongside Snider while Sandy Koufax was pitching. Late in the game, Stengel peered down the dugout to look for a pinch hitter to bat against Koufax.

“Casey, who loved to platoon, had all of his right-handed hitters in the lineup and the left-handed hitters were on the bench," he said. "We get to the 9th inning and Casey has a problem ... he doesn’t have any right handed pinch hitters to hit against Koufax. He turns around and says to Duke, ‘Do you want to hit?’ He said, ‘Not particularly.’ Casey just turns around says nothing. He’s headed my way and before he gets to me, I said, ‘Hey Skip, I’ll give him a try.’”

From afar, Koufax looked hittable. That apparition quickly changed as Hicks approached the plate.

“From the dugout Koufax looked so easy because he was so smooth," he said. "I get to the on deck circle, he looked faster. When I got to the batter’s box, he looked a lot faster. I worked the count to 3-2 and I’d seen two of his fastballs and I knew his fastball was coming. I had it timed perfectly and at the last minute, it had a little rise to it. I struck out; I’m walking back to the dugout, and Stengel says, ‘Hicksy, don’t let it fret you, don’t let it fret you. He struck out a lot of guys and he’s gonna strike out a lot more.’ I was glad to hit against him because Duke said no.”

Hicks played another three seasons in the minor leagues with Buffalo from 1964-66, but despite hitting .282 and .318 the next two years, the Mets never brought him up to experience Shea Stadium.

“They were beginning to make their youth movement and I was in my 30s at the time," he said. "They were beginning to bring up guys like Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, and Cleon Jones. I just never got a chance after that.”

After retiring from baseball, Hicks returned to Charlottesville, where he became the athletic director for the city. Going strong at 80 (a year older than his "baseball age", which was changed at the urging of the scout that signed him), he continues to umpire and play handball. I caught him on a Sunday evening in July after he spent the entire day on the field.

“I umpired three games today," he said. "I’m the commissioner for the high school baseball umpires. I recruit and assign them games and do some games myself. I also do girls fast pitch and [schedule] those umpires. I do all of that by myself without the computer. It gives me something to do when I’m not playing handball. I learned the game at the University of Virginia, fell in love with the game, and I’m still playing it.”

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