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13,000 strong attended 1953 Giants-Indians game in Kingsport

Tanner Cook • May 5, 2020 at 10:00 AM

April 1953 was a good month in terms of history.

Winston Churchill was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, the double helix structure in DNA was discovered, Ben Hogan set the scoring record at Augusta while winning his second Masters and “The Doggie In the Window” by Patti Paige was the No. 1 song in the country, according to Billboard magazine.

And on April 9, local baseball fans were treated to an exhibition game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants at J. Fred Johnson Park in Kingsport.

A reported 13,000-plus spectators attended the game, filling both the baseball and the football stands to watch the Giants win 7-6.

Neither team made the postseason because in those days, only the top teams from the American and National leagues played in the World Series. They did, however, meet again the next year in the 1954 Fall Classic when the Giants — behind the heroics of Hall of Famer Willie Mays — won in a 4-0 sweep.

HARD PILL TO SWALLOW

The Indians — who had blown late-season leads in the AL pennant race the previous two seasons — allowed the Giants to score five unearned runs in the first inning thanks to the first of second baseman Doug Hansen’s two errors.

Al Corwin, the starter that day for the Giants, gave up three home runs, a triple, two doubles and a single in six innings of work.

According to reporter Ralph Kiser, Cleveland’s Bob Kennedy was easily the most game’s outstanding player. He smacked two homers and had three RBIs in addition to playing a defensive gem. In the fifth inning, Kennedy made a diving catch of Whitey Lockman’s long line drive to center field that broadcaster and Hall of Fame ace Dizzy Dean called “the greatest catch I’ve seen in centuries.”

GETTING TO FELLER

The Indians trotted out future Hall of Famer Bob Feller on that beautiful early spring afternoon in the Model City.

Feller was once the most feared pitcher in baseball, known for a 100-plus mph fastball and a curveball that fell off the table, but he was well past his prime by the early 1950s.

The Giants roughed up the wily veteran, sending 10 men to the plate in the first inning before the “Heater from Van Meter” could retire the side.

Feller, however, settled in after the first and held New York scoreless until the sixth.

GO-AHEAD RUNS FOR NEW YORK

With one out in the top of the sixth, Corwin beat out a bunt and Davey Williams followed with a single for the Giants. Hank Thompson hit a slow roller to second base with two outs and Hansen made another error, allowing Corwin to score and the inning to continue.

George Wilson singled to right and plated Williams for what proved to be the game-winning run.

WHAT ABOUT WILLIE?

Baseball immortal Mays was in military service in 1953, but he returned for the next season. That year Mays won the MVP with a .345 batting average, .667 slugging percentage and 1.078 OBP along with 41 home runs and 110 RBIs.

In Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds, Mays made the famous over-the-shoulder catch in straightaway center field that went on to be known simply as “The Catch.”

Some of the other Hall of Famers that did play in the 1953 game in Kingsport were New York’s Monte Irvin (0-for-1 with a run scored) and Cleveland’s Larry Doby (1-for-3 with a solo home run).

Both of the exhibition’s managers — New York’s Leo “The Lip” Durocher and Cleveland’s Al Lopez — also went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

OVERFLOW CROWD

According to Kiser’s article, only 7,110 people paid to get into the game.

Park superintendent Gene Fleenor estimated the crowd to be “more than 12,000 but less than 15,000” and it is still easily one of the biggest crowds ever in the long history of the facility.

Some of the fans overflowed onto the playing field, and the game had to be halted several times to hold them back.

18 YEARS EARLIER

This was not the only time the Indians and Giants faced off in Kingsport.

Eighteen years earlier to the day in 1935, the teams played in an exhibition game to 1-1 tie in 11 innings and it was called because of cold weather.

The teams had begun a traveling spring training series the year before that lasted until the early 1960s.

More than 6,000 fans gathered at the Dobyns-Bennett field to watch Cleveland’s Mel Harder take on the Giants and future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. New York was just two seasons removed from winning the World Series over the Washington Senators.

The teams were supposed to play in both Nashville and Memphis before coming to the Model City, but those games were rained out.

Hubbell was touched for back-to-back doubles in the fifth when Milt Galatzer and Hal Trosky took him to both right and left field.

Harder surrendered seven hits but didn’t allow anyone past second base until the eighth inning.

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