Dusty Rhodes, Giant World Series Hero (1927 – 2009)

James Lamar “Dusty” Rhodes was about to bat for the first time as a pinch hitter in Game One of the 1954 World Series, facing Bob Lemon in the Polo Grounds. Monte Irvin was scheduled to bat, but Giants manager Leo Durocher did what he had done most of the 1954 season – he called for Rhodes.

“My intention was to take the first pitch because I never hit Lemon good in spring training,” said Rhodes. “But Bob hung a curve ball and I changed my mind.”

The ball floated down the right field line, traveling about 260 feet, before it landed just beyond the wall for a game-winning three run homer. Rhodes says that when Lemon threw his mitt in disgust, the mitt traveled farther than the ball. Later he compared his shallow fly ball homer in the corner with the ball Vic Wertz hit to the deepest part of the Grounds that Willie Mays famously caught, saying that in the Polo Grounds, you could hit a ball 260 feet down the line for a hit, but hit one 200 feet further into centerfield for an out.

Rhodes would have four hits in the series, three as a pinch hitter. In Game Two, he had a pinch hit single that drove home the lead run and later hit his second homer of the series – a shot that cleared the roof of the Polo Grounds – off Early Wynn. In Game Three, he drove home two more runs with a pinch hit single – setting a record with six RBIs as a pinch hitter in a World Series. He was the hero of the World Series as the Giants swept the Cleveland Indians, who had won 111 games and were the prohibitive favorite. [1]

Until then, Rhodes admitted he was just battling for a baseball career. He grew up in Mathews, Alabama, working on a family farm that grew everything from cotton to watermelon. “That’s how I learned to hit a baseball – by knocking cotton stalks down.” Playing in various minor league outposts, Rhodes was drifting from city to city because he could hit, but he couldn’t field and he had a reputation for drinking. [2]

The Rock Hill (SC) Herald, where he played the outfield in 1950 and 1951, says that he would work jobs with a bleachery and construction crew in the off season, but “wasn’t afraid to step out on the town at night and admitted his partying sometimes landed him in the local jail.” He nearly quit baseball, but when he lost his job, went back to playing ball for Nashville. [3]

It was in Nashville where the Giants, who had recently reached a farm club agreement with the AAA minor league franchise, took a chance on Rhodes and paid $25,000 to add him to the Giants for the 1952 season.

Sec Taylor wrote that the Giants scout who signed him, Tom Sheehan, took him despite a reputation for drinking. His Des Moines manager, Charlie Root, said he didn’t keep in condition, so he was sent packing. However, in 1952, Rhodes played great for Nashville and Sheehan signed him. “Once the word gets around baseball that you drink, you can’t convince anyone that you don’t,” said Rhodes. “Root insisted that I did, I guess, and since I didn’t hit much in the Des Moines park he thought it was because I wasn’t in condition. But that wasn’t the reason. They had a white beer sign on the centerfield fence and another white sign on the other side and the pitches would come out of the signs and were difficult to see. I hit all right on the road, but I was beery-eyed without having touched a drop at home!” [4]

Rhodes could hit, but he couldn’t field. “He was the worst fielder who ever played in a big league game… I have seen Dusty Rhodes pound his glove and have the ball fall behind him. I have seen more balls fall into his glove and right out again…” [5]  In fact, Durocher pleaded with the Giants to get rid of Rhodes after he batted only .250 in 67 games as a rookie in 1952, and followed with .233 in 76 games the next season. “He’s the worst fielder I ever saw,” Durocher complained. “Granted, he can hit a little, and with power, but his glove is useless.”

What he could do, though, was pinch hit.

Whitey Lockman says that Dusty Rhodes had the ideal temperment for a pinch hitter. “Rhodes was loose. Nothing bothered him and he loved to hit. He’d come out to the park early and take extra batting practice. That’s all he would talk about – hitting.” [7]

In 1954, he was 15 for 45 coming off the bench, and in the World Series, Dusty Rhodes went from a virtual nobody with a reputation for a little carousing, to the most famous pinch hitter in baseball history.

“A year ago I was just a guy hanging out on the fringe, battling to hold my job. Now for the first time in my life I’ve got security. I have a new six-room house that’s practically all paid for down in Montgomery. The folks down home gave me a closet full of clothes and a new auto. They gave the kids enough toys so they’ll never need any more. Everybody wants to meet me. Life is just wonderful.”

Rhodes added that the fame wasn’t always easy, though. “They sure do make a fuss about you, but there are times I wish they wouldn’t. I’d rather go up and pinch hit before 80,000 than speak to a room of 200 people. I don’t mind the talking. Once I’m on my feet, I just talk about anything that comes into my mind and I kill ’em. They love that southern accent. It’s the waiting before your turn comes that kills me.” [8]

Once his statistics fell off – he went from a .300 hitter in 1954 and 1955 to a .220 hitter in the 1956 and 1957 – he was sent back to the minors. He played a couple of seasons with Phoenix and then Tacoma (both AAA) until 1962. After baseball, he worked on tug boats for a transportation company specializing in oil barges, moving to a “modest Staten Island home next to abandoned Little League field.”

Actually, this is the second obit for Rhodes – The New York Times Magazine mistakenly reported that Rhodes died in 1973. “A few people wrote my wife and said they would like to have a momento,” Rhodes said. “I wrote back and told them that although some people want me gone, I’m still here.” [9]

In the memories of baseball fans everywhere, Dusty Rhodes is still here.

1. Distel, Dave (LA Times). “Dusty Rhodes Recalls His Biggest Hit”. Baseball Digest, December 1972, Pgs 58 – 59.

2. Hester, Jere. New York Magazine, 23 October 1989.

3. http://www.heraldonline.com/sports/story/1420557.html

4. Simons, Herbert, Hern Gerry, and Taylor, Sec. “Rhodes to Glory”, Baseball Digest, November 1954, Pages 5 – 12.

5. Vass, George. “Managerial Moves Often Affect World Series Outcome”, Baseball Digest, October 1998, Pages 26 – 35.

6. Vass, George. “Pinch-Hitting: Baseball’s Toughest Job”, Baseball Digest, November 2004, Pages 30 to 38.

7. Holzman, Jerome. “Big Men in a Pinch”, Baseball Digest, June 1961. Pages 23 – 32.

8. Murray, Arch (NY Post) Baseball Digest, May 1955, Pages 61-62.

9. Hester, Jere. New York Magazine, 23 October 1989.


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