GORDON WHITE: Local Resident Linked to Thompson's Home Run
During the Great Depression, friends helped friends in many ways -- from sharing food and clothing to assistance in job hunting.
In those troubling days just prior to World War II there were a couple of young North Carolina gentlemen from Gaston County who loved baseball and knew jobs were not easy to come by. Then, after WW II both of these Carolina natives sought fame and fortune in the Big Apple.
But had it not been for the helping hand of one of these fellows, the other one might never have become the best known table setter in the history of Major League baseball.
The younger of the two was Carroll (Whitey) Lockman, the New York Giants' first baseman-outfielder whose greatest day in the spotlight came late in the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951, when he set the stage for Bobby Thomson's famous pennant-winning home run against the hated Brooklyn Dodgers in the Polo Grounds.
The other one in this neighborly duo was my dear friend, John Derr, now a retired gentleman of leisure in Pinehurst, who became famous for reporting on such epic athletic achievements as Thomson's homer, while he was director of sports for CBS in New York.
Whitey Lockman, who played 13 years for the Giants of New York and San Francisco, died 11 days ago in Scottsdale, Arizona. He spent more than half a century in Major League baseball as a player, manager, coach, front office executive and personnel scout. He managed the Chicago Cubs, 1972-1974.
Unusually fast for a first baseman, Lockman had his big day by scoring the tying run against the Dodgers just ahead of Thomson, who scored the winning run to conclude one of the greatest comebacks in Major League baseball history.
The Giants trailed the National League-leading Brooklyn Dodgers by 13.5 games on August 11, 1951.
From that point on the Giants established one of baseball's most amazing streaks by winning 37 of their last 44 games to tie the Dodgers at the end of the regular season.
National League rules called for a best two out of three playoff to establish the pennant winner. The two teams split the first two games as the Giants won, 3-1, Monday, Oct. 1, 1951, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and the Dodgers won the next day, 10-0, behind the shutout by Clem Labine at the Polo Grounds.
This meant a deciding game at the Polo Grounds, Wednesday, Oct. 3.
The Dodgers took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning with the overworked but usually reliable Don Newcombe pitching.
Alvin Dark led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and Don Mueller followed with a single to right just out of the reach of the diving Gil Hodges, the Brooklyn first baseman. Dark got around to third. Then Monte Irvin, who led the National League in runs batted in that year with 121, went for the first pitch Newcombe threw to him and popped out to leave men on first and third with one away.
This is when Whitey Lockman, a left-handed batter, slammed an outside pitch down the left field line for two bases.
Dark scored easily and Mueller got to third where he slid into the base so awkwardly that he broke an ankle. Manager Leo Durocher of the Giants sent Clint Hartung in to run for Mueller.
By setting the stage for Bobby Thomson, the next batter, Lockman had just forced the Dodgers to make the last and most telling adjustment to the cast acting out this drama below Coogan's Bluff.
It came when Charlie Dressen, the Dodger manager, replaced Newcombe with Ralph Branca to face Thomson. This was a suspect move since Branca gave up a 2-run home run to Thomson that proved the difference in the first playoff game two days earlier.
Branca's first pitch to the right-handed hitting Thomson this time was right over the middle of the plate for a strike. Then Branca went high and hard inside to Thomson, who turned fast and yanked the ball down the short left field line and into the seats less than 280 feet from home plate in the old Polo Grounds.
In came Hartung to make it 4-3, followed by Lockman to tie the score and then Thomson to win the National League pennant.
But what if John Derr had not offered to help Lockman find a job playing organized professional baseball instead of playing for a cotton mill team years before that 1951 day of glory? How very big is that tiny word "if"!
Derr was born and grew up in Dallas, just north of Charlotte in Gaston County. Ten years later, Whitey Lockman was born in Lowell, which is next door to Dallas.
The Derrs and Lockmans established friendships as John became a teenager and Whitey was becoming a child athlete of note. John Derr's older sister, Mabel, and Whitey's older sister, Nell, worked together at a company in Charlotte.
As a result, John Derr got to know Nell Lockman whom he occasionally dated.
Derr became a sports journalist and eventually worked his way up to be sports editor of the Greensboro Daily News.
All the while, Derr played baseball on various sand lot teams, pickup teams and semi-pro teams in and around Gaston County. Whitey Lockman was just a kid who was allowed to shag fly balls for his older friends on Derr's teams.
When Derr became the Daily News sports editor, Whitey Lockman was a teenager with excellent baseball skills who was looking for a job at a Greensboro cotton mill in order to play baseball on that mill's team.
In those days many industrial baseball, basketball and football leagues existed throughout the country. Young men good enough to play for an industrial team were paid for a factory job they rarely performed during the season. It made for a good depression salary.
Nell Lockman suggested her young brother look up John Derr and see if he could introduce him to the folks at the Greensboro cotton mill. Thus Whitey Lockman showed up at Derr's office one day in 1940 seeking help in getting a position at the White Oak Cotton Mill in Greensboro.
John did not know anyone at White Oak. But he told Whitey Lockman that he was about to drive a few miles north of Greensboro to do a story on the Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets of the Class D Bi-State League.
Did Whitey Lockman want to go along and see if the manager, Arnold (Andy) Anderson, would take a look at him?
Whitey Lockman, who traveled with his mitt, his spikes and a second pair of socks in a handbag, jumped at the chance.
Recalling those days and hard times, Derr said, "A lot of men grew up in the South playing baseball for the local mill until they were no longer good enough to play ball.
"Then they stayed on working a job at the mill until retirement.
"Whitey Lockman was willing to be a doffer in the White Oak Cotton Mill. That's a guy who puts the spool of cotton onto the machine. Sort of the lowest job on the mill work force."
Derr said, "Whitey did not know then just how good he really was as a baseball player. That was why he was willing to settle for a cotton mill job instead of reaching out to organized professional baseball."
John made him reach out. By the time Derr finished taking stock of the Triplets that day in 1940, Manager Andy Anderson wanted Lockman to stay on as an outfielder with the Leaksville-Draper-Spray team.
A few days later Derr received a post card from Anderson on which the Triplets' manager wrote, "Dear John, If you know of any more kids like Whitey Lockman send them along. He hit two home runs for us yesterday to win the game. Thanks"
Before the season was over Anderson sold Whitey Lockman to the Richmond Colts of the Class B Piedmont League, which was one of the New York Giants' lower farm teams in the minor leagues. Whitey was on the road to glory at the Polo Grounds where he became part of the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" that season of 1951.
Lockman made it to the Giants in 1945 and remained with them through their first season in San Francisco in 1958. He finished his playing days by short stints with the St. Louis Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds.
John Derr entered the Army in 1942, served in the China-Burma-India Theater and never returned to Greensboro. Upon discharge he took the job at CBS radio in New York City where he and Lockman were often reunited on Giants' game days.
"Whitey was a very quiet person," Derr said. "He was a tall, skinny, superb athlete who was very fast and a good hitter. All I did was make an introduction."
Neither the Bi-State League nor the Piedmont League exists any more. The White Oak Cotton Mill is but a memory now. The Polo Grounds was demolished 45 years ago. The three North Carolina towns of Leaksville, Draper and Spray joined to form the community of Eden.
John Derr claims, "After the war, a beer company set up a brewery in the area of Leaksville, Draper and Spray. You couldn't get all three names on the label of the beer bottles so the three towns agreed to combine into one town that is now Eden."
One wonders if that story didn't ferment a bit too long.
Those two minor leagues and three small towns may be forgotten by most people while Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" and the part Whitey Lockman played in that final inning in 1951 will never be forgotten.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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