The ninth was Johnny Podres' inning. The anticipation of victory rode on every pitch. The first batter tapped the ball back to the pitcher's mound and Johnny, plucking the ball from the netting of his glove, threw him out. In Yankee Stadium 62,000 people leaned forward to watch Johnny Podres face the next man. He raised an easy fly to left field and was out. (Fifty million or so TV watchers were holding their breath now too.) The third man took a called strike (the stadium crowd exploded with noise), took a ball, swung and missed (an explosion from coast to coast), took a second ball high, fouled one, fouled another. The Brooklyn Dodger infield moved restlessly, fidgeting. Podres threw again, a big, fat, arrogant change-up that the batter topped on the ground. After a half century of waiting the Brooklyn Dodgers were champions of the world.
The grandfather of Johnny Podres climbed out of the mines of czarist Russia and came to America in 1904, the year after Cy Young and the Boston Red Sox beat Hans Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series. The chances are excellent that Barney Podres had never heard of Cy Young or Hans Wagner, or of the Boston Red Sox or the Pittsburgh Pirates, or of the World Series, or even, for that matter, of baseball. He was 24, and he had been working in the mines for 10 years.
In America he found his way to an iron-mining community in upstate New York in the rough foothills of the Adirondacks near Lake Champlain, married a Lithuanian girl and took his broad back and big hands down into the mines again. Forty-six years, two wives and eight children later he came out of the mines for the last time.
Now he sits in his weather-beaten house in the company village of Witherbee, N.Y., ailing from "the silica," the miner's disease, his great hands folded. His story is neither rare nor extraordinary; it has been repeated in one form or another in millions of American families. But it has a close relationship to the reasons why SPORTS ILLUSTRATED this week salutes the old man's grandson as its second Sportsman of the Year, to succeed Roger Bannister as the one person—of the millions active in sports all over the world in 1955—who was most significant of the year past.
For in the old man's lifetime sports has grown from a minor diversion for a leisurely handful of people to a preoccupying influence in almost every country on earth.
Consider Joe Podres, son of old Barney and father of Johnny, the Sportsman of the Year. Like his father, he went down into the mines in his youth. But Working conditions in the mines have improved, like working conditions almost everywhere, and a man has more time that is his own. Joe Podres spent a good deal of his free time playing baseball. He worked all week and played ball on Sundays, or whenever the local team could schedule a game. He was a topflight semiprofessional pitcher for 25 years, until he reluctantly retired three years ago at the age of 43. Sports earned him no money to speak of ("Eight dollars in eight years," is one family joke about it), but the competition and the pride of victory over a quarter century did a great deal to offset the exacting drudgery that goes with simply digging iron ore. And it provided the key that opened the way for his son to make come true a modern version of one of those old legends of beggars and kings and gold pots in the cabbage patch that were told for centuries by miners, farmers, peasants and other wishful Old World dreamers.
Today, even the dream is different. It does not deal with beggar boys becoming kings, or knights on white chargers. The boy kicks a football along Gorky Street and imagines himself booting the winning goal for Spartak in Dynamo Stadium in Moscow. He belts a hurley ball along the rich turf with a slick of Irish ash and thinks how grand it would be in Croke Park in Dublin saving the All- Ireland title for Cork. He stands on the edge of a street in a village in Provence as the Tour de France wheels by and sees himself pedaling into Pare des Princes Stadium in Paris, miles ahead of Louison Bobet. He throws a ball against the battered side of a house and dreams of pitching Brooklyn to victory in the World Series.
Johnny Podres, with three other high school boys, drove out of Witherbee in August 1949, and 265 miles south to New York City to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play a baseball game with the Boston Braves. It was the first major league game Johnny Podres had ever seen.
"We sat way up in the upper-left-field stands," Podres recalls. "Newcombe was pitching. The Dodgers had the same guys they have now: Robinson, Reese, Campy, Hodges, Furillo, Snider. I've always been a Brooklyn fan, and that day I made up my mind, I'm going to pitch for Brooklyn."
Johnny planned to see the Dodgers play again the next day but it rained, and the day after that when the Dodgers were playing again, some other youngster was sitting in the upper-left-field stands daydreaming of playing in the majors. John Podres was back in Witherbee, still a high school kid rooting for Brooklyn. While the Dodgers went on playing, winning and losing pennants, John Podres went on to become captain of his high school basketball team, to pitch his high school team to its league championship, to date, to dance, to hunt deer in the hills outside of town, to fish through the ice of Lake Champlain in the winter.