Seventy years ago, one of the most memorable World Series was played between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Yankees would prevail in a tense, seven-game series, and it would be marked by one of the most memorable defensive plays and a no-hitter attempt that fell agonizingly short.
Bill Bevens, Cookie Lavagetto, Al Gionfriddo and George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss, along with opposing managers Burt Shotton and Bucky Harris, are the focus of Kevin Cook’s book, Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame that Lasted Forever (Henry Holt and Company; hardback; $30; 291 pages). Cook, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated and the author of several books — including 2012’s The Last Headbangers and 2007’s Tommy’s Honor — takes a Boys of Summer-like approach to the 1947 World Series, zeroing in on six key players from that postseason drama.
Electric in the book title is a passing nod to the fact that this was the first televised World Series, but from a descriptive standpoint, what took place on the field between these two rivals was electric, too.
The reader is treated to interesting and thorough biographies of each subject, a synopsis of the ’47 Series, and how each player and manager were affected by their brief moments of glory. The 1947 season opened an 11-year stretch that saw at least one team from New York in the World Series (1948 was the exception); the Yankees and Dodgers would meet six times during that era, with New York winning five times.
In Game 4, Bevens came within one out of throwing the first no-hitter in World Series history despite walking 10 batters. The right-hander allowed a ninth-inning double to Lavagetto, which gave the Dodgers a 3-2 victory at Ebbets Field and evened the series at 2-2. It was his only hit in the 1947 World Series, but it was a big one.
Gionfriddo made the defensive play of the World Series in Game 6, racing to the bullpen fence in left-center field at Yankee Stadium to make a twisting, backpedaling catch to rob Joe DiMaggio of a sure game-tying, three-run homer. DiMaggio famously kicked the dirt between first and second base in a rare show of on-field emotion. Brooklyn Dodgers’ announcer Red Barber was incredulous at the catch, as his famous “Ohhhh, doctor” call demonstrated.
Shotton took over the Dodgers in early 1947 when manager Leo Durocher was suspended for the season for reasons never fully explained, although his alleged gambling and ties to organized crime probably factored into the decision of Commissioner Happy Chandler. Shotton, a quiet man who managed in street clothes, led the Dodgers to the pennant during a turbulent year that saw Jackie Robinson break the modern-day color barrier in major-league baseball.
Harris was the original “Boy Wonder” of baseball when he led the Washington Senators to their only World Series title as a 27-year-old in 1924. He also led the Senators to the 1925 Series but lost in seven games to Pittsburgh; he was a surprise choice to manage the Yankees in 1947 but rose to the challenge and produced the Yankees’ first Series title since 1943.
Cook’s storytelling ability is excellent, and he unearths wonderful tidbits about each subject. Bevens’ first name, for example, was Floyd, but he got his nickname when he lost a fly ball in the sun and also lost his balance. The baseball hit the bill of his cap, bounced straight up and then into the glove of the startled Bevens.
Shotton was also known as Barney, a nod to his playing days when his speed and base-stealing ability earned him comparisons to Barney Oldfield, the racecar driver who broke the 100 mph barrier. Lavagetto, born Enrico Atillio Lavagetto, was nicknamed Harry by an elementary school teacher. He earned his “Cookie” nickname because of Oakland Oaks’ owner Victor “Cookie” Devincenzi. When older players wondered what the owner saw in Lavagetto, they called him “Cookie’s boy.” It was a natural progression to “Cookie,” who managed the old Senators through their final years in Washington and in its first season as the reincarnated Minnesota Twins.
Cook’s research creates a lively narrative as he takes the reader through the 1947 World Series. Of the four players he profiled, only Stirnweiss would return to the majors in 1948. The other three would continue their playing careers, but in the minors.
Cook spoke with family members of the players and managers to give readers a more complete picture of the men who made such an impact in one Fall Classic. They gave him access to clippings and mementoes, and Cook also researched old newspaper and magazine clippings for information. He also relied on books about the era, including those from Barber, Peter Golenbock, Jack Smiles, David Gough and SABR member Lyle Spatz.
In today’s memorabilia-driven world, one can only speculate on what the ball Gionfriddo caught in Game 6 might be worth today. “It never occurred to Gionfriddo to keep the baseball he caught,” Cook writes. “At the time, Al was thinking about getting to the dugout and the bat rack because he was up next.”
Stirnweiss had several bats around his house that were cut in half and hung on the wall; one of them had belonged to Babe Ruth, Cook writes. Memorabilia buffs are fainting at this point.
Bevens and Lavagetto were the 1940s’ version of Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, or even of Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, seemingly joined at the hip because of one play. Bevens, Cook writes, “had a chip on his shoulder.”
“He was tired of being known mainly as the “Guy Who Lost the No-Hitter,” Cook writes. Bevens thought about the play often and once even asked Lavagetto, “You knew I had a no-hitter. You coulda let it happen. Why not?”
Lavagetto would not have laid down for Bevens, and the pitcher knew that. But his frustration was palpable.
Gionfriddo, for his part, delighted in retelling his brush with fame. Even DiMaggio played the good sport. When Bob Gionfriddo ran into the Yankee Clipper at a restaurant in San Jose, California, he mentioned that he was Al’s cousin. DiMaggio smiled.
“Is that little son of a bitch still alive?” he asked.
He was. And he’d outlast DiMaggio by several years, too.
Electric October is a wonderful look back at a World Series that had drama, humor, tension, joy and sorrow. The YouTube videos of the Series and its defining plays are grainy, but Cook brings it back clearly to the reader with his precise prose.