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1958 Giants Will Live Forever

MILLERI got to thinking about the 1958 Giants upon the news that a special pitcher from that inaugural San Francisco team, Stu Miller, had died at the age of 87. Miller was a memorable Giant. His pitch was a slow ball. They call it a changeup nowadays, but back then it was a slow ball. He’d throw the slow ball at various speeds: slow, slower and slowest. The most patient batter of those days would wait and wait and wait, and still had difficulty timing the swing against Miller. In 1958, Miller, whose real fame would come later as a full-time  reliever, started 20 games and had a league-leading ERA of 2.47.

In 1998, I was at Candlestick Park when the Giants held a pregame ceremony to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that 1958 season. As players from that time were driven around the field in convertibles, I remembered them the way they were when I saw my first major league game at Seals Stadium.

San Francisco was party central as it welcomed the team with a parade that rivaled the recent trio of World Series parades in enthusiasm. The Giants, who had been playing in New York since 1883, became an instant San Francisco treasure. They drew an impressive 1.2 million in their tiny ballpark in the first year in the city. I recall walking into Seals Stadium, a minor league park seating just over 23,000 that had just underwent an extravagant $75,000 makeover to make it major league ready. On the field were Giants’ veteran Willie Mays and rookie Orlando Cepeda. The world champion Milwaukee Braves duo of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews was supposed to be the 1-2 slugging punch of the National League, but in 1958, they met their match. Mays hit .347 with 96 RBI and 29 homers, along with 33 doubles and 11 triples. Cepeda batted .312 with 96 RBI and 25 homers, and added 38 doubles. Aaron hit .326 with 95 RBI and 30 homers, with 34 doubles. Mathews batted .257 with 77 RBI and 31 homers. The Giants put on an offensive show for their fans in 1958, leading the league in runs scored as nine players reached double figures in home runs.

The Giants were in first place as late as July 29, but they lost 13 games in a brutal 18-game road trip, and never could make up the ground on the Braves.

There were so many wonderful names on that 1958 team: infielder Daryl Spencer, who hit the first home run in San Francisco; power-hitting Willie “Boom-Boom” Kirkland, who earned the terrific nickname by slugging 40 homers in one year in the minors; pitcher Ramon Monzant, who got involved in the first Giants-Dodgers beanball battle on the West Coast six games into the season as he went brushback-for-brushback with the intimidating Don Drysdale; pitcher Ruben Gomez and catcher Valmy Thomas, the battery for the first ever game in San Francisco; starter Johnny Antonelli, a fiery competitor who ripped the winds at Seals Stadium, a weather pattern that would follow the club to Candlestick Point in 1960; and outfielder Felipe Alou, the first of a trio of brothers to grace the Giants lineups in coming years.

The 1958 Giants were a mix of young and old. Outfielder Hank Sauer, whose major league career began in 1941, was 41. Reliever Marv Grissom was 40. Pitcher Mike McCormick was 19, Cepeda was 20. Giants manager Bill Rigney liked to say that Grissom reminded him of a bottle of fine wine. “He gets better with age.”

Of the 39 who played for the Giants at some point in 1958, 21 had played for the New York Giants in 1957. Bobby Thomson, who hit baseball’s most famous home run to beat the Dodgers in the 1951 playoff, was traded by the Giants to the Chicago Cubs just 12 days before the West Coast opener, so San Francisco fans were denied the chance to root for the legendary Giant. Five players from that historic 1951 Giants team were part of the 1958 organization. Mays, and outfielders Whitey Lockman and Don Mueller were on the squad, Wes Westrum was now a coach and Rigney was the manager.

Jackie Robinson could have been with the Giants at the twilight of his career in San Francisco, but he rejected a trade to the Giants after the 1956 season and chose to retire instead.

Stu Miller played for 16 seasons and five teams. He led the National League in saves in 1961 as a Giant, and the American League in saves in 1963 as a Baltimore Oriole. He posted a 105-103 record and 3.24 ERA for his career.

Yet  for all his accomplishments, Miller will be forever known for the moment when the strong Candlestick Park winds caused him to balk in the 1961 All-Star Game. Miller did rock slightly as the gust hit him, and the balk helped the American League tie the game. The stories that followed exaggerated the incident as sounding like the wind blew the 5-11, 165-pound pitcher over the right-field fence, landing him somewhere in the waters off the shore of Candlestick Point.

I’m sure that will be on the minds of some when the Giants honor Miller at the home opener in April during their usual solemn moment to remember those in the Giants family who have passed away over the last year.

I’ll think about a lot more than that when they show his picture on the jumbo screen. I’ll remember Stu, but it also will be a time to remember the 1958 Giants. That team should have a place of distinction among Giants fans, not only because they were the city’s first major league team, but for how they dominated the Dodgers. The Dodgers won 14 of the 18 previous head-to-head season series against the Giants from 1940 to 1957. In 1958, the Giants went 16-6 against the Dodgers. It was the most victories the club had amassed against their historic rivals since they won 19 games against them in 1904.

Miller’s passing marks the 16th player we have lost from those 39 who wore a Giants uniform in 1958. We know that some who are still with us are not in the best of health. But for those of us who were there, the 1958 San Francisco Giants are a team that will live forever. Time will go on, but the excitement and thrills they provided will always make it a golden year in Giants history.

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