May 1, 1958: Frank Thomas has a big day for Pirates

This article was written by Matt Keelean

The game on Thursday, May 1, 1958, pitting the Pirates against the née Brooklynites, came in the midst of the Bucs’ first visit to Los Angeles after the Dodgers’ relocation. In the first two games of the five-game series, the Pirates prevailed, and would do so again in the third contest. Indeed, the game itself was a matchup of two teams heading in distinctly opposite directions. The Pirates would remain relevant in the 1958 National League pennant race, finishing second to the defending World Series champions, the Milwaukee Braves. The Dodgers would struggle in their first season in their new home, finishing in seventh place, a mere two games ahead of the perpetual basement-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies.

The Pirates won this contest 8-3, despite an ordinary pitching effort from right-handed starter Vern Law, on the strength of Frank Thomas’s big game, one of many such games he would enjoy for as long as the Dodgers called the Los Angeles Coliseum home. But on May 1, he had arguably his most impressive outing in the unintentional ballyard, going 4-for-5 with two runs scored, three RBIs, two home runs and 10 total bases. Although Law gave up two earned runs in the 5⅓ innings he worked, he did help his own cause with a three-run homer in the midst of a fine 2-for-3 day, taking advantage of the short porch (250 feet) and tall fence (40 feet) in left field in much the same manner as his third sacker did.

The opposing starter, the venerable Dodger hurler Don Newcombe, was just coming back from a rest to heal a sore right arm, having thrown only a single inning since April 17 (in relief on April 29). His return to the rotation came at a critical moment for the Dodgers, who were struggling in the early part of the season and desperately needed a return to form from their big veteran right-hander. However, Newcombe’s rest period did not last long enough; he was shelled for five runs (all earned) over five-plus innings, giving up eight hits, including the two homers to Thomas (the second of which chased the starter from the game in the top of the sixth), while recording only two strikeouts.

In Thomas’s first at-bat, in the top of the second with one out, the game was still in its early stages. Newcombe had thrown only 11 pitches to that point, and had retired the Pirates in order. Up stepped Thomas, ready to take his cuts and pepper the oversized yard fence in left. He fouled off three straight pitches, then let ball one pass by without response. Facing the 1-and-2 pitcher’s count, Thomas proceeded to stroke a solid base knock to the opposite field. But he was eliminated from the basepaths by a fielder’s choice off the bat of Bill Mazeroski for the final out of the inning.

Thomas’s next trip to the plate, as the leadoff batter in the top of the fifth, found the Bucs trailing 2-0. Staying true to his hack-first approach, Thomas drove the first pitch served over the 40-foot barrier in left field for what was variously categorized the following day as both “a cheapie” (by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)1 and “strictly legit” (by the Los Angeles Times).2 At this point, Newcombe began to struggle. He had been cruising comfortably through the first four frames, giving up only the single to Thomas in the second, and had thrown a modest total of 43 pitches, but had barely escaped the fifth inning after giving up four more singles (including three in a row) and two more runs for a 3-2 Pittsburgh lead.

With the score tied, 3-3, Thomas’s next at-bat proved to be Newk’s undoing. Still unsteady after the debacle in the previous frame, Newcombe proceeded to serve up a 1-and-2 fastball to Pirates cleanup hitter Ted Kluszewski, who drove it back up the middle into center field for his first hit of the series. Thomas followed his fellow slugger by punching the second pitch thrown to him over that now-familiar chain-link wall in left field for a two-run shot, a fly ball “… that barely cleared the barrier” in left field, according to the Times,3 or a shot that he “conked … pretty far over the screen …” per the Post-Gazette, depending on one’s perspective (or perhaps bias).4 At that point, Thomas had shown beyond any doubt his preference for not only hitting off Newcombe, but hitting in the so-called shallow concrete oval in downtown Los Angeles. And while Newk’s day was done, Thomas and his teammates still had more firepower to offer. Right-handed reliever Ed Roebuck allowed a one-out double and a walk before Law cleared the fence for his fifth career circuit clout to produce an 8-3 cushion. Manager Walter Alston pulled Roebuck in favor of southpaw Jackie Collum, but the Bucs’ offensive damage had been done.

In the top of the seventh inning, Thomas faced the third relief pitcher of the evening for the Dodgers, right-hander Don Bessent. Thomas continued his big day at the plate without regard as to the opposing hurler. Once again the leadoff batter for the inning, he worked the count even at 1-and-1, and then drove the third pitch deep into left field for another solid single, described in the Pittsburgh Press as having “… just missed” being “… a third circuit blow.”5 One can imagine that the shot ricocheted off the tall fence back toward Don Demeter, limiting Thomas to a safety. However, he no sooner reached first base than he was eliminated on the next pitch, as Roman Mejias hit into a 4-3 twin killing.

Finally, in the top of the ninth, one final plate appearance awaited Thomas. Facing the Dodgers’ top reliever of the past two seasons, right-hander Clem Labine, Thomas worked the count to his favor, 2-and-1, and then slapped a shot to his opposite number with the Dodgers, Jim Gilliam. Gilliam gobbled up the ball and threw it across the diamond to Gil Hodges at first base to record the final out of the Pirates’ frame.

In the bottom of the ninth, righty Ron Blackburn, who had relieved Law in the bottom of the sixth after Law yielded three consecutive singles, continued his mastery of the Dodgers, retiring Duke Snider, Hodges, and Charlie Neal in order to preserve the victory. The heart of the Dodgers lineup went down ignominiously on a mere 10 pitches, only one of which was a ball.

The game vaulted the Bucs into second place in the National League, wrapping up an early-season six-game winning streak after a 2-5 start to the 1958 campaign. For Thomas, the 4-for-5 night carried him closer to the top 10 in batting average (.345) in the National League.

That Thomas would have a big game against Newcombe in the favorable confines of the Coliseum is, in hindsight, obvious. On top of his success in that venue, Thomas enjoyed even greater success against Newk: over 67 plate appearances, Thomas laced 25 hits, including eight home runs, for a slash line of .391/.418/.813, giving him an astonishing 1.231 OPS. Newk never conceded to Thomas individually nor to the in-game situation when facing Thomas, as he intentionally walked Thomas only once.

Thomas also greatly enjoyed hitting in the Coliseum. In 42 lifetime games played there, over 177 plate appearances from 1958 to 1961, Thomas was.294/.345/.620, for a total OPS of .964, or 144 OPS+. He hit 17 home runs, and had 31 RBIs and 101 total bases. For this particular five-game series, Thomas would collect 11 hits in 21 at-bats, five of which were home runs, and seven RBIs. This astonishing performance gave Thomas a slash line of .524/.545/1.238, and a total OPS of 1.783 for the five-game set. According to chroniclers, Thomas believed that if he had played in Los Angeles for an entire season, he could have challenged Babe Ruth’s then-single season record of 60 home runs.6 Performances such as his evening on May 1 also added to Thomas’s overall success in 1958, as he not only started at third base for the National League in the All-Star Game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on July 8, but he also finished a strong fourth in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award. In contrast, Newcombe, the 1956 National League MVP and Cy Young Award winner, continued to struggle with the Dodgers, going winless against six defeats before being traded to Cincinnati on June 15.

Much in the same manner as the two teams playing that evening of May 1, Thomas and Newcombe’s seasons became emblematic of their teams’ seasons. In something of an ironic twist, the following season would find both players as teammates on a middling 1959 Cincinnati ballclub. While that season would be an utterly forgettable experience for Thomas, it proved to be Newcombe’s last good season as a professional, as he managed a very respectable 13 wins against 8 defeats for the fifth-place Reds.

 

This article appears in "Moments of Joy and Heartbreak: 66 Significant Episodes in the History of the Pittsburgh Pirates" (SABR, 2018), edited by Jorge Iber and Bill Nowlin. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted BacktoBaseball.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, The Sporting News, SABR’s BioProject, and Lowry, Philip J. Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of All Major League Ballparks (New York: Walker and Company, 2006). 

 

Notes

1 Jack Hernon, “Thomas Swats 2, Bucs Win 6th in Row, 8-3,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 1958.

2 Frank Finch, “Thomas Smacks Two as Pirates Win, 8-3”, Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1958.

3 Ibid.

4 Hernon.

5 Lester J. Biederman, “Thomas Continues Home-Run Blasting in Dodger Coliseum”, Pittsburgh Press, May 2, 1958.

6 Bob Hurte, “Frank Thomas,” SABR Baseball Biography Project. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ff969dc6.