Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fall Baseball, The Dodgers and Classic TV - A Look Back

Once upon a time, Hollywood fawned on the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a common occurrence for a star on the field to make his way to the screen, big or small. Here's the story of two men, the heroes of October 1959, Chuck Essegian and Wally Moon

1958 was a transitional year, their first in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers were shaky. They dropped from third place to seventh, not yet comfortable in their new surroundings. Whether it was the change from erratic East Coast weather to Southern California sun, or the move from cozy Ebbets Field to the cavernous Coliseum, deformed to fit baseball, the Dodgers were ill at ease. Only for one year though, as they came roaring back to win the World Series in 1959.

The offensive hero that year was newcomer Wally Moon. Moon captured the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1954 for the St. Louis Cardinals, beating out a couple of young kids named Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. Moon had several years of fine play in the Midwest before he was traded to the Dodgers for Gino Cimoli in December of 1958. Moon’s swing was perfectly suited to the short porch in left field with its giant net wall at the Dodgers new home. That year, he hit 19 homers, dubbed “Moon shots,” and added 74 RBI, as well as hitting for a .302 average. For this, Moon made the All Star team and garnered support in the Most Valuable Player voting, behind a couple of proven superstars, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron. He hit one home run during the Series, a six game L.A. victory over the Chicago White Sox.

Hollywood turned his way and Moon, a perfect western hero with his dark looks and heavy eyebrows was cast in a Wagon Train entry entitled “The Larry Hannify Story," which aired in January of 1960. Moon had one other acting role. In Game 2 of the Series, Chicago outfielder Al Smith ripped a Larry Sherry pitch between Moon in left and Duke Snider replacement Don Demeter in center field. Moon didn’t have a prayer to catch the clout, but instead of heading for the outfield wall he stared heavenward, pretending he had it all the way. The fakeout was enough to prevent base runner Earl Torgeson from scoring, as Moon quickly recovered the ball and threw strongly to shortstop Maury Wills. This performance, noted critic Casey Stengel,“was the greatest bluff anybody has seen in years.”
While Moon’s abilities on the field outshone those in front of the camera, he did a respectable as Sheriff Kelleher, and he sure looked the part. A still photo shows him gripping a rifle, with a face that says, “I know how to use it.” Standard Western fare, and as result Moon took his shots and his punches as expected.

Chuck Essegian didn’t have the pedigree of Wally Moon as an everyday player. Like Moon, he was signed originally by the Cardinals, but found himself with the Philadelphia Phillies in March of 1957. He played part-time in 1958, not in a particularly distinguished way and ended up back with the Cards. He spent the first part of 1959 there, but was sent on June 15 to the Dodgers in a minor deal. Cole Porter rhapsodized “How strange the change from major to minor.” For the Dodgers, this minor trade became a major part of their October championship.

Essegian showed promise as he hit .304 during his Dodger stint. No power though- just one home run in 46 at bats. So what does this fill-in fielder do in just three plate appearances in the biggest showcase of all, the World Series? He hits two homers!

In Game 1, pinch-hitting for pitcher Johnny Podres, Essegian tied the contest at 2-2 with a solo blast. To cap off the clinching Game 6, Essegian once against pinch-hit, this time for Duke Snider in the top of the ninth inning and hit another solo shot. Thus, the legend of Chuck Essegian was created.

Naturally several TV and movie offers came the way of a genuine World Series hero, but Essegian appeared in only one show. He doesn’t recall what other ones came his way. Another Western, there were so many at the time, called Sugarfoot. In “Blackwater Swamp,” a March 1960 chapter in the series third season, Essegian played Bob Fanning, a railroad man. Looking back, Essegian says it “was pretty routine” and that he didn’t really enjoy acting.
By 1962, the journeyman outfielder had gone from L.A. to Baltimore to Kansas City to Cleveland. Playing well for the Indians, Essegian was seen as a star. Writers noted that he was the spitting image of uber-popular Vince Edwards, lead actor in the huge hospital hit, Ben Casey. Alas, Essegian’s “scowl, dark locks and steely gaze” did not result in any more acting jobs. After all, Cleveland was no Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

can you believe a girl is reading about sports. lol :) i can't help it i love it!

mandie reed