Baseball player Johnny Podres and his Lithuanian heritage

Johnny Podres
Johnny Podres

Unknown to most, famous baseball player Johnny Podres (1932-2008) had close ancestral ties with Lithuania. Both of his maternal grandparents were born in Dzūkija region, nearby Alytus. While Johnny Podres spoke little to no Lithuanian himself, his Lithuanian heritage had been a part of his life since early childhood.

Now, Johnny Podres is best remembered for the dramatic 1955 World Series, where he pitched two historic wins against the New York Yankees. Due to Podres’ spectacular performance, Dodgers won their first-ever world championship title in Brooklyn’s long history of losses. Lithuania Tribune traces back Podres’ Lithuanian heritage while reminiscing about his earliest influences and spectacular lifetime achievements in Major League Baseball.

Johnny Podres’ Lithuanian heritage

While hardly speaking any Lithuanian himself, Johnny Podres became acquainted with his Lithuanian heritage through both of his parents, Joe Podres and Anna Glebus Podres. They both spoke Lithuanian to him as he was growing up, he said to the Lithuanian daily Draugas, right after the historic 1955 World Series game.

When presented with a cookbook filled with traditional Lithuanian recipes, legendary baseball player Johnny Podres was delighted.

‘My mother prepares lots of Lithuanian food. My grandmother taught her,’ he said to Draugas at the time.

According to Draugas, Johnny Podres’ Lithuanian heritage can be traced back to Dzūkija region, nearby Alytus, where both of his maternal grandparents were born. Johnny Podres’ grandfather, Matthew Michael Glebus, was born in 1886, while his grandmother, Katherine Dembrosky Glebus, was born in 1892. She passed away at the young age of 34, without ever getting a chance to meet her gifted grandson.

Growing up with baseball

In 1904, Barney Podres, the paternal grandfather of Johnny Podres, left the mines of czarist Russia and sailed for the dreamlands of America. There, he soon found his way to an iron-mining community in upstate New York. He settled in Witherbee, in the Adirondacks region near Lake Champlain, married a lovely Lithuanian woman and eventually went back to the depths of New York’s mines, where he worked for nearly 50 years.

Just as his old man, Johnny’s father Joe Podres spent his youth down the mines. However, as the working conditions improved, Joe Podres could now dedicate a lot more time to one of his greatest passions – playing baseball.  For 25 years, Joe Podres played as a semi-professional pitcher for the local team, retiring only at the age of 43. While Joe Podres earned little to no money from playing himself, he introduced the fascinating world of baseball to his son, who grew up to become one of the most famous baseball players in American major league baseball. Johnny Podres’ mother, Anna Glebus Podres, worked at the Moriah Central School cafeteria for most of her life.

When dreams become reality

Since the early days, Johnny Podres had always been a Dodgers fan, listening to game broadcasts on the radio, driving hundreds of miles to see Brooklyn Dodgers play against other major teams and daydreaming of one day playing in the majors himself.

Little to his own knowledge, the dream of the young Lithuanian-American baseball player was destined to come true. Fresh out of high school, the 18-year-old Johnny Podres signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 and spent his first two seasons as a starter in the minors. After catching the eye of the Dodgers’ manager Chuck Dressen, Johnny Podres made his major league debut in 1953, pitching for Brooklyn in the World Series the same year.

Johnny Podres makes history

Throughout his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball player Johnny Podres won 9 games, only to be followed by 11 wins in his second. Going into the historic 1955 season, the Dodgers had already lost a total of seven times in the World Series. The most painful was the five consecutive losses to the Yankees in 1941, ’47, ’49, ‘52 and ’53.

Just as the years before, so too did the season of 1955 seem gloomy, with Brooklyn losing the first two games to the Yankees. While the Dodgers won the next three, the team once again lost to their biggest autumn foe in Game 6. Then, came the historic October afternoon of Johnny Podres’ lifetime. The whole of Brooklyn erupted in ecstasy when the Lithuanian-American pitched a 2-0 shutout to bring Brooklyn its first World Series championship in the deciding seventh game. After half a century of waiting, Johnny Podres’ skilful pitch at the most demanding moment of 1955 World Series game made Brooklyn Dodgers the champions of the world.

“I’ll never forget this all my life,” said Podres during the post-game celebration, only four days after his 23rd birthday.

None of the Dodgers’ fans ever did, either. After the legendary game, Johnny Podres was named World Series ‘Most Valuable Player’ by Sports magazine, only to be later honoured as the ‘Sportsman of the Year’ by Sports Illustrated.

Retirement years

Johnny Podres played for the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn, then in Los Angeles, from 1953 through to 1965. In 1966, he traded to Detroit Tigers and finished his career in 1969 playing with San Diego Padres. Legendary baseball player Johnny Podres retired from pitching with great lifetime achievements in Major League Baseball.

When Podres’ playing career ended, he went on to become a pitching coach for a number of major league teams, such as the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies, for a total of 23 seasons between 1973 and 1996.

In 2002, the Lithuanian-American was also elected to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, a moment in time when Johnny Podres’ Lithuanian heritage once again came into the spotlight.

‘A lot of people don’t even know […] I’m Polish and Lithuanian. This is quite an honour and I’m proud to be a part of an organization that has so many distinguished athletes,’ said baseball player Johnny Podres at the time.

Lithuanian-American athletes in major league baseball

Johnny Podres is not the only notable Lithuanian athlete with an exceptional career in Major League Baseball. Pete Gray, Eddie Waitkus, Frank J. Thomas and Barney McCoskey are only a few names among the many other exceptional baseball players that have put Lithuania’s name on the map.

According to Draugas News, Lithuanian-Americans have combined over 500 home runs, over 300 pitching victories and nine All-Star team appointments. Lithuanian-Americans have also represented all sixteen original teams that are now part of the Major League Baseball as well as participated in a total of nine World Series.

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