Being in the bullpen for the Pirates in 1954 at Ebbets Field was similar to having a rifleman’s MOS in the infantry. You knew you were going to get into the battle, but you weren’t sure when. The fans at field level were so close they could reach out and touch you. The wonderful intimacy was great for the Dodgers and their fans, but hell for the visiting team players, since the bullpen was located in foul territory down the left field line.
The Dodgers’ roster that opening day in 1954 was loaded with established veteran players. Junior Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, and Billy Cox. They didn’t waste any time unloading on Pirates’ veteran starter Max Surkont. They got to him for eight hits in four innings, including home runs by Gilliam, Robinson, and Campanella for a 7-1 lead.
The bullpen phone rang in the fifth inning and Cal Hogue, a rookie right-hander with an outstanding curve ball, got the call. Cal pitched well, allowing only one hit in three innings before leaving for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth. When the Pirates played in Ebbets Field, the eighth inning was usually the Dodgers last inning at bat. This game was to be no exception.
In the top of the eighth inning, Sam Narron, the Pirates’ bullpen coach, answered the bullpen phone and in what sounded like an executioner’s voice, said, “King, it’s you.” With my major league debut moments away, I took off my jacket and began to experience intense anxiety. I said a silent prayer, “Please God, get me out of here without too much embarrassment.” Additional thoughts began going through my mind– “You can't hide a bad performance in New York, there are so many media covering the game; I have to face at least one hitter before they can take me out…”
I had been praying for this moment for a long time. As I looked at Duke Snider, I remembered the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for, you might just receive it.” Here I was, a right-handed, low-ball pitcher facing one of the best left-handed, low-ball, power hitters in the majors—and in a ballpark with a short porch in right field.
Atwell signaled for a sinker on my first pitch. Somehow I got it near home plate on the outside corner and Snider fouled it for a strike. I was now able to breathe, but I still couldn’t spit. I threw a curve inside for ball one, and then got a curve ball where I wanted it, low and inside off the plate, and Snider fouled it off for strike two.
Atwell signaled for another sinker. As I made the pitch it was like I was seeing it in slow motion—I threw the ball, followed through and for some reason Snider, with two strikes on him, tried to drag a bunt and fouled off the pitch. I suddenly thought, “Damn, he struck out!” If you saw the emotion Johnny Podres displayed in the final game of the 1955 World Series at Ebbets field, you have some idea of how I felt inside. Now I could spit! I got through the inning giving up only one hit and no runs.