From 1941 to 1981, the Dodgers faced off against the Yankees in 11 World Series. But oddly enough, the team that once called Brooklyn home hasn’t visited either Yankee Stadium since winning the title-clinching Game 6 of the 1981 World Series; this despite the institution of interleague play in 1997.
Tonight, the Dodgers become the final franchise to visit the Bronx since interleague play began.
Tommy John, who has the rare distinction of playing on both sides of the rivalry in the World Series, believes the Dodgers’ stop at Yankee Stadium is long overdue. He’d prefer to see the teams match up “every two or three years.”
“Baseball is for the fans, and [interleague play] gives the fans a chance to see teams and players they would not normally have a chance to see,” said John, who is retired in northern New Jersey.
Jerry Reuss, who started two games for the Dodgers in the ’81 World Series and had never previously pitched in the Bronx, remembers being caught up in the history of Yankee Stadium when he took the field for Game 1.
“It was like a cathedral for me,” said Reuss, who is retired in Las Vegas and working on a book scheduled for release early next year. “... I knew that everywhere I stepped, there was a bit of history. Something had happened there. It may have looked like just a piece of grass or some dirt, or whatever, but there was history there.”
Of course, this year’s Dodgers-Yankees two-game set will be played at the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009. John, who was in attendance when the Yankees clinched their 27th World Series title against the Phillies that year, said the new venue is “10,000% better,” with the only exception being that the sound of cheering fans doesn’t resonate the way it used to.
“The Yankees won, and there was cheering, but you couldn’t hear it,” John said.
With apologies to Brooklyn Dodgers fans, players from the three most recent Yankees-Dodgers World Series — ’77, ’78 and ’81 — felt detached from the Brooklyn-Bronx rivalry because the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957.
“My assumption was that once the Dodgers went to Los Angeles, that became a far-removed rivalry,” said Burt Hooton, who went 3-3, with a 3.69 ERA, over the course of three World Series for the Dodgers and is now the pitching coach for the Padres’ Class A affiliate in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Going back to Game 6
Yankees fans old enough to remember Game 6 of the 1981 World Series aren’t likely to have fond memories of the last time the Dodgers came to the Bronx. With the Yankees down 3-2 in the series, they sent Tommy John to the mound against the Dodgers’ Burt Hooton.
The teams were deadlocked at 1-1 when Yankees manager Bob Lemon surprisingly pulled John for pinch hitter Bobby Murcer in the bottom of the fourth inning. John was baffled, even when Lemon reasoned that the team needed to “score some runs” and that he would bring in reliever George Frazier.
“I said, ‘Frazier hasn’t pitched well all series,’” John said. “Then he yelled at me, and then I just went over there and that’s when the cameras caught me shaking my head.”
Hooton was as shocked as anyone when he saw from the mound that John was being lifted so early in a low-scoring game, even with two runners aboard.
“I frankly couldn’t believe it,” Hooton said. “And Bobby Murcer came up, and I’m thinking if I can get Bobby Murcer out, I think we win the World Series. And I still remember Tommy sitting at the end of the dugout, he was standing at the end of the Yankee dugout with his hat off and his jacket on, just standing there shaking his head like he couldn’t believe it.”
Murcer flew out to right and Hooton got out of the inning. Then Frazier surrendered three runs in the fifth inning, and the Yankees went on to lose 9-2. It would be 15 years before the Yankees played another World Series game.
John was none too pleased to hear why Lemon made the move. Doug Melvin, “the Yankee eye-in-the-sky,” told John that owner George Steinbrenner met with the coaches to go over a game plan.
“George was a football guy,” John said. “There is no game plan in baseball. The game plan is the game. You play the game out. Your best pitcher goes as long as he can. And then you go to your bullpen.”
John said that game plan involved the Yankees taking an early lead before going to the bullpen.
“That’s good if you’re talking about the sixth or seventh inning. But you’re talking about taking ... your best pitcher that night, and you’re pulling him out of the game in the fourth inning. That made absolutely no baseball sense. Lemon did it, [and] we wound up losing the ballgame.”
(with Paul Tierney)