Monday, May 5, 2003 | 9:11 a.m.
Had that train to Miami been moving any slower, allowing aspiring hobo James Lamar Rhodes to hop into that freight compartment in Montgomery, Ala., a place in baseball lore would have passed him by.
Rhodes, better known as Dusty, had just returned from a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, and he and pal Elmer had their sights set on a vacation with another friend in South Florida.
After the speed of that train made hitching a ride impossible, Elmer suggested hoofing across town to watch a city league baseball game next to a church. One team was two players shy, and a barefoot Rhodes ended up playing center field.
He cracked a home run over a house, and another broke a window. It was the first baseball game Rhodes, destined to pick cotton on his family's 160-acre farm 22 miles away in Mathews, had ever played.
Rhodes, a Henderson resident, came through in a pinch on the game's biggest stage eight years later.
In a 1954 World Series best remembered for the over-the-shoulder catch that Willie Mays made on a Vic Wertz drive, Rhodes won MVP honors by going 4-for-6, with two homers and seven RBIs, in a part-time role.
Rhodes rode that fame to the Stardust over the weekend, when he signed autographs and regaled fans with stories of his improbable career and fairytale season of '54.
"It all started by me missing that freight train," said Rhodes, who turns 76 next Tuesday. "Then an 85-year-old priest asked me, 'Hey, what professional team do you play for?' I said, 'Are you kidding me, old man? This is my first game. I love it. Ain't it easy?'
"And I trotted out to center field."
A scout offered Rhodes a $150 monthly contract, requiring his mother's signature, the next day. Dusty and Elmer finally made it to Florida, and at the end of the trip Elmer forged Dusty's mother's signature.
A pro career that stared in Hopkinsville, Ky., hit its peak in the 1954 World Series, which the New York Giants swept from the favored Cleveland Indians. In the 10th inning of the first game, Rhodes slammed a pinch-hit, three-run homer off Bob Lemon to give the Giants a 5-2 victory at the Polo Grounds in New York.
The ball landed just inside the right-field foul pole, a 260-foot shot. The blast that Mays caught off Wertz's bat traveled 450 feet. "When I was walking to home plate, I thought I was going to take the first pitch. I figured it would be the sinker," Rhodes said. "But he hung a curveball. I swung and just got under it, and the wind took it into the seats.
"In fact, Bob Lemon threw his glove farther than I hit the ball. He threw his glove up in the upper deck in the Polo Grounds. I'm serious. He was hot."
In Game 2, Rhodes tied the game with a fifth-inning single off Early Wynn and smacked a home run off Wynn in the seventh for the final run of a 3-1 win. The first pitch he saw from Wynn just missed tagging Rhodes in his right temple.
"If it had hit me, it would have killed me," Rhodes said. "There were two guys on the club you didn't knock down, me and Willie Mays. We'd come back and try to kill you, swinging the bat."
In Game 3, his pinch single drove in two runs. Two hours after Game 4 ended in Cleveland, the Giants were celebrating back in New York.
"I never got nervous, or anything, when I went up to hit. Never. They had to get me out," Rhodes said.
It was the best of Rhodes' seven major league seasons. He hit .341, with 15 homers and 50 RBIs. He owes plenty to Monte Irvin, a Hall of Famer who shared the Stardust spotlight with Rhodes as part of a Play Ball memorabilia company promotion.
Rhodes received his first call-up to the Polo Grounds when Irvin suffered a broken leg. When Rhodes, who batted left-handed, was called upon to hit in a pinch, it was typically for Irvin, a righty.
"I had no animosity, only well-wishes for him," Irvin said. "Down through the years, we've become closer. He was a fun guy to have on the team. He was not too crazy about playing in the outfield, but he just loved to go up there and pinch-hit."
Rhodes always enjoyed himself. On a goodwill tour of Japan and Korea in 1953, he waltzed into the swank Imperial Hotel in Tokyo at 9 a.m., falling to the ground. He looked up to see manager Leo Durocher.
"Leo said, 'Are you coming or are you going?' " Irvin said. "Dusty said, 'When I play tonight, I'll let you know.' Leo made him play nine innings, and I think he hit two home runs."
By the time he came through repeatedly in the clutch in the fall of '54, his fun-loving image preceded him.
"I had a reputation," said Rhodes, who never attended high school. "I didn't care. Made me no difference. I just loved to play the game."
Rhodes quit playing in 1963, then worked on tug boats in New York Harbor until retiring in 1988. He and his wife, Gloria, have been married for more than 20 years, and they have spent most of the past nine in Henderson.
He has children, grandchildren and even a great grandchild or two -- "Hell, I might have a couple great, great kids, I don't know," Rhodes said. He just couldn't exactly remember how many, their names or where they live.
He has not pondered how he will be remembered, either.
"Who cares?" Rhodes said. "When you're gone, you're gone. What do I care how they remember me?"