October 2013

From Mineville High to the Majors

Celebrating pitcher Johnny Podres

1958 Padres postcard courtesy of Pat Salerno Jr.

Joan Podres strolls down Main Street in Port Henry and the memories come flooding back. A smile crosses her face as she recalls her late husband’s World Series heroics, funny ice-fishing mishaps on Lake Champlain and countless other adventures in between.

Once a year, they come alive for everyone to enjoy during Johnny Podres Day festivities, which celebrate the life and legend of this Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers all-time great.

Podres, born in tiny Witherbee, went to nearby Mineville High School and played on the biggest, brightest stages baseball had to offer. But when the dust
settled each autumn, he always returned to his Adirondack roots, where his fame still grows after his passing on January 13, 2008.

“John always wanted to come back home,” Joan says. “He never forgot where he came from. Right after the World Series he’d go out with a hunting party, all his friends, like Tommy Roselli and Jimmy Fernandez. They’d have a good old time. If they got a deer, everybody in town knew it. They’d let everybody come and see it. John loved to come back after the season was over and just relax.”

This year’s Johnny Podres Day is part of a townwide Labor Day Weekend celebration that includes Port Henry’s longstanding Champ Day, an event that honors Lake Champlain’s mythical sea monster. It’s classic, small-town Americana with Saturday night fireworks, a Sunday afternoon parade and plenty of food, craft vendors and live music set against the backdrop of a quaint community rich in history and heritage.

Podres Day was started three years ago by Pat Salerno Jr., who owns the world’s largest collection of Podres memorabilia. This year on Podres Day he’ll display it on Main Street next to the Lee House. “Johnny Podres put this area on the map, so this is our way of honoring him,” Salerno says. “I felt the town needed to do something.”

His collection, because of its variety and value, is worthy of a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. Fortunately, he makes it available for everyone to see, free of charge.

Many items were given to him by Podres. The cache includes caps, spikes and more than 20 game-worn jerseys, some from All-Star and World Series games, as well as Podres’s belt from the 1955 World Series, when his Game 7, 2-0 shutout of the Yankees gave Brooklyn its first and only world championship.

“Right after that World Series a friend of his—Bill Harris Sr.—took Johnny hunting in the Adirondacks,” Salerno says. “To show his appreciation, Mr. Podres gave him that belt.” It got passed down to Harris’s son, Bill Jr., who gave it to Salerno last summer.

Podres was named 1955 World Series Most Valuable Player and Sport Magazine’s Athlete of the Year, an honor that came with a new Corvette.

Recently, Salerno obtained rare eight-millimeter color footage of the parade Witherbee threw Podres right after those World Series heroics. “The highlight is Johnny in his 1955 World Series home jersey, pitching to his father at home right before the parade,” Salerno says. “That’s priceless.”

The film, which he’s put into DVD format, also shows Podres riding in the back of a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria surrounded by Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, with his white Corvette following behind, driven by his brother. It’s one of several videos that Salerno will be showing fans.

His father, Pat Salerno Sr., was a Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league player in the 1950s and is a fount of knowledge about Podres’s feats on local baseball diamonds.“I played against Johnny in high school, Port Henry versus Mineville,” Salerno Sr. recalls.“We played the first night game ever in Mineville. Johnny pitched a three-hitter against us. I had two hits and Chuck DeVito, who got signed by the Yankees, got the other one. But we couldn’t beat Johnny. He threw nothing but strikes.”

Tim Bryant, of Port Henry, says Johnny Podres Day is an inspiration. “As I grow older, I have a better appreciation for what this local guy was able to achieve,” he explains. “Coming from a rough and tumble immigrant town, it’s pretty amazing.”

Playing for the Dodgers fulfilled a boyhood dream for Podres. “A lot of people don’t know this, but Johnny told me one time that his parents would make him go to bed early,” Salerno Jr. says. “So he would go to his room, turn the radio on and listen to Brooklyn Dodger games. He knew every single Brooklyn Dodger by name. At 13 and 14 years old, all he wanted was to be a Brooklyn Dodger. He was a small-town boy who made it big.”

Joan says she’ll never forget her first visit to Witherbee, population 347, shortly after she and John were married in 1966. She was from suburban Philadelphia and was a renowned athlete in her own right, a professional figure skater with the Ice Follies.

“We were driving up the Northway, which was brand new, and we got off by Frontier Town, Exit 29,” she remembers. “I thought, Oh, my God, where are we? The road just kept turning and turning. I said, ‘Is there a town somewhere?’ Finally, we got to the end of the road and John said, ‘This is it.’”

“I said, ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhh, OK.’”

Podres was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish. Lincoln Pond was his favorite angling spot.

For all his athletic prowess, however, he also had the occasional sportsman’s mishap. “One day we were out ice fishing on Lake Champlain and it was so windy that the whole shanty blew over,” says Joan. “Thank heavens the door was above us. We had a little stove out there to cook hot dogs with and John yelled, ‘Quick, quick, turn off the gas!’”

Their son, John Jr., recalls another ill-fated fishing adventure. “We were near shore in a boat and got a line snagged on a tree. We tried to get the line loose and when we yanked it, it came right back at us. We both moved sideways and the boat flipped right over,” he says.

Turning serious, Podres Jr. marvels about his father’s accomplishments. “Just realizing where he came from. How tough it was to do what he did. How did they find him up there? I mean there’s nothing there. It was just raw ability to be able to throw a baseball,” he says. “Period.”

Johnny Podres helped the Dodgers, following their move to Los Angeles, win two more World Series, in 1959 and ’63. In the latter, 50 years ago this October, the Dodgers beat the Yankees again. But this time it was a four-game sweep with Podres hurling another masterpiece in a 4–1 Game 2 victory in front of 66,455 fans at Yankee Stadium, the same place he beat the Yankees before, for Brooklyn.

After their children were grown, John and Joan moved from Witherbee to Queensbury, but his career in baseball was far from over. In 1993 Podres went back to the World Series as pitching coach for the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

All-Star and Cy Young Award winner Curt Schilling credits Podres with helping him professionally and personally during their time together on the Phillies. He said, “If I hadn’t run into him and had his influence on my life when it happened, I probably would have never stayed around. He came along when I needed it most. My dad had passed away a couple of years before that. I was looking for a father figure and he was there. He’s one of the most compassionate people I ever knew.”

In November 2011 Podres was posthumously inducted into the inaugural class of the Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame.The hall gives an annual Johnny Podres Lifetime Achievement Award to a Capital District resident for his or her years of dedicated service and contributions to baseball.

Podres Jr. recalls one incident that puts everything else into perspective. He says, “I remember I was out fishing by myself one day and this older guy came along. My dad was coaching then, he was on the road somewhere. So this guy starts talking to me, he asks my name and I tell him. Then he says, ‘I played against your father. You know what the highlight of my career was? I hit a foul ball off him.’”

Johnny Podres Day happens Sunday, September 1, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in Port Henry. For a schedule of events call (518) 250-1050.

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