By Glen Sparks
This is a story about the day Mickey Owen of Nixa, Mo., dropped a baseball.
It was Oct. 5, 1941. Much of the world was at war. The United States would be, too, in just a few months. Now, though, at least in New York City and among all baseball fans, news about the World Series held sway.
The Yankees, 101-53 during the regular season, were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers, 100-54. It was Game 4; New York held a 2-1 advantage in this best-of-seven match-up. Yankees starter Red Ruffing gave up six hits in a complete-game effort in Game 1. Second baseman Joe Gordon drove in two runs, and New York won 3-2.
Brooklyn tied the Series with a 3-2 victory in Game 2. Whit Wyatt scattered nine hits over nine innings; Owen, Pee Wee Reese and Dolph Camili each drove in one run. The Dodgers overcame two errors by Reese at shortstop.
Yankee Stadium hosted the first two games. The World Series moved to Ebbets Field for Game 3 on Oct 4. Marius Russo started for New York, Freddie Fitzsimmons for Brooklyn. Each pitcher tossed shutout ball through the first seven innings.
Hugh Casey relieved Fitzsimmons in the eighth inning. The right-hander from Atlanta didn’t bring his good stuff. He only recorded one out and surrendered four hits. RBI hits by Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller gave the Yanks a 2-0 lead. Reese’s run-scoring hit in the bottom of the eighth wasn’t enough. New York won 2-1.
The following day, Ebbets Field hosted Game 4. The Yanks’ Atley Donald faced the Dodgers’ Kirby Higbe. “Swampy” Donald, a Louisiana guy, went 9-5 in 1941 with a 3.57 ERA in 159 innings. Higbe, from South Carolina, finished 22-9 and posted a 3.14 ERA. Interestingly, he struck out 121 batters in 298 innings and walked 132. Higbe led the National League in victories, walks, games pitched (48), starts (39), batters faced (1,266), earned runs (104) and wild pitches (nine). It was an odd year.
Neither “Swamp” nor Higbe pitched his “A” game in this one. Or, his “B” or “C” game. Donald went four innings and gave up four runs. Higbe, meanwhile, pitched 3.2 innings and allowed three runs. Each team’s bullpen did solid work, though; the Dodgers led 4-3 going into the ninth inning.
Casey, a 27-year-old right-hander with a decent curveball and a better spitball, went out to pitch the ninth. He had thrown 3.1 shutout innings up to that point in Game 4.
The first two Yankee batters grounded out. Right-fielder Tommy Heinrich stepped into the batter’s box. Owen got into his crouch behind home plate. The catcher was 25 years old. He grew up in Nixa, in southern Missouri. As a teen, he lived in southern California for a few years and graduated from Washington High School in south Los Angeles.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed Owen in 1935 and promoted him to the big club in 1937. Owen played four years for the Redbirds and hit .257 in 450 games. The Cardinals traded him to Brooklyn before the 1941 season began.
Owen made the N.L. All-Star team in ’41. He hit one home run on the season, drove in 44 and batted .231, actually an off-year for him. More importantly, he made 530 putouts and committed only thee errors.
Heinrich worked the count to 3-and-2. Casey’s next pitch moved down and in on Heinrich, a left-handed hitter. Heinrich swung and missed for strike three. Owen, though, couldn’t catch the ball. It glanced off his mitt and rolled far enough for Heinrich to reach first base. Instead of strike three and out No. 3, the Yankees had new life. Joe DiMaggio, in the year he hit in 56 straight games, followed with a single. Keller ripped a double to score both runners, and New York won 5-4.
The Bronx Bombers took a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series. They celebrated a championship after winning Game 5 by a 3-1 margin. It was the ninth World Series title for the Yankees and their fifth in six years. For Brooklyn, it was simply a disappointing end to a pennant-winning season. The Dodgers would not win a World Series until 1955.
Owen went on to play 13 seasons in the majors. He spent five years in Brooklyn and made four All-Star teams. He later played for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. He hit 14 career-home runs and batted .255 with a .318 on-base percentage. Despite that famous play in Game Four, Owen was known as a top-notch defensive catcher.
Later, he started a baseball camp near Springfield, Mo., and served four terms as Greene County sheriff. Arnold Malcolm “Mickey” Owen, born April 4, 1916, died July 13, 2005, at the age of 89.
He talked many times throughout his life about that dropped third strike, of course. He told Dave Anderson of the New York Times that the pitch was definitely a curveball and not one of Casey’s spitters.
“When we got to 3-and-2 on Tommy, I called for the curveball,” Owen said. “I was looking for the quick curve he had been throwing all along. But he threw the overhand curve, and it really broke big, in and down. Tommy missed it by six inches.”
Mickey missed it, too.