Saturday, 30 August 2014

THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD--Part Two


1952 Bowman baseball card of Ralph Branca
(United States Public Domain)

In the second inning, with the score 1-0 Brooklyn and Whitey Lockman on first, Thomson--hot on a 15-game hit streak--came to the plate and smashed a liner to left field. Dodger Andy Pafko, grabbed the ball on the bounce and threw a rope to the cutoff man, shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Rounding first, Thomson was thinking double, and kept going with a burst of speed. But when he looked up, he was shocked to see Lockman--held by manager Durocher--standing on second. Reese threw a bullet to first baseman Gil Hodges who tagged Thomson retreating back to the bag.

In the eighth inning, all hell broke loose when Maglie threw a wild pitch, allowing a runner to score and Thomson flubbed two grounders at third. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers were cruising along to a 4-1 lead. Should the Giants lose, Thomson would be the goat, sure thing.

Then Newcombe gave up a single to Al Dark. Now, for some strange reason, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen elected to hold Dark at first, a questionable move for a team leading by three runs. Sure enough, the next batter, lefty Don Mueller smashed a single through the infield spot where first baseman Gil Hodges would have been playing if he hadn’t been ordered to hold Dark on. Now, Dark was on third base. Two on and none out. The fans who had started to leave began to return to their seats. Monte Irvin then popped up for the first out.

Whitey Lockman kept the rally going by smacking a double to left field off a high-and-outside Newcombe pitch. Dark scored, Mueller raced for third, and Lockman pulled up at second. But Mueller twisted his ankle stepping awkwardly on the bag and was in pain. Durocher immediately called for Clint Hartung, a huge 6-foot-5, 210-pounder from Hondo, Texas, to pinch run. Hartung was once considered a “can’t miss” pitcher in the majors. But he could never quite cut it. He tried the outfield for a while, and found out he couldn’t hit either. Nicknamed “The Hondo Hurricane,” Hartung was now at third to protect Durocher should Newcombe try anything.

While Mueller was taken off on a stretcher, manager Dressen came out to the mound. Leo Durocher really let Newcombe have it with a few colorful metaphors. Next up was Bobby Thomson. Dressen waved to the left-field bullpen for Ralph Branca, who had thrown 133 pitches only two days before. Another bad choice on Dressen’s part because the Giants had been killing Branca with the long ball all year to the tune of 10 homers, Thomson hitting two of those.

The outgoing Newcombe wanted to take on Leo “The Lip” Durocher now. Hartung welcomed Newcombe with a motion to make something of it. Instead, Newcombe turned and started walking towards the Dodger clubhouse in center field. At the outer edge of the infield, he met the incoming Ralph Branca. They patted each other on the back, and both continued on. At the mound, Dressen met with Branca and Rube Walker, the catcher. Instead of discussing how to pitch to Thomson, Dressen simply handed Branca the ball and said, “Get him out,” leaving the two players somewhat surprised.

Bobby Thomson, uniform number 23, the year he was born, stepped to the plate to face Branca, the pitcher with uniform number 13. Two on, one out, the score 4-2 Brooklyn. Again, Dressen goofed. He should have had Branca put Thomson on in order to pitch to rookie Willie Mays with the bases loaded. His batting average down 20 points in the last three weeks, Mays was mired in a hitting slump. But Dressen was from the old school--you don’t intentionally walk the potential winning run. Thomson took the first pitch--a fastball--down the middle for a called strike one. Many people to this day wondered why he didn’t swing. The second pitch was another fastball, this one high and inside, supposedly his weak spot. This offering, Thomson crushed…

As soon as Thomson connected, the crowd began to rise. In his seat, Frank Sinatra, a Giant fan, also wanted to jump up to catch the action. But couldn’t. He was distracted by a full load of fresh vomit in lap spewed there from his friend, Jackie Gleason, a Dodger fan.

The ball took off to left field, towards the 315-foot mark, leaving Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges to utter his classic call…

“There’s a long drive! Pafko goes back! It’s gonna be…I believe…THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hit the ball into the lower deck of the left-field stands! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT AND THEY’RE GOING CRAZY. I DON’T BELIEVE IT! I WILL NOT BELIEVE IT!”

While Frank Sinatra missed one of the greatest clutch home runs ever, the three Yankees, Yogi Berra, Allie Reynolds, and Vic Raschi were listening to the broadcast in a cab crossing the George Washington Bridge. They had left the game early in the ninth to beat the traffic with Brooklyn up 4-1, thinking that the game was all but over and the Yankees would be facing the Dodgers in the World Series. What they remembered most about that day was Russ Hodges going absolutely nuts! The three players now had their wish--a World Series against the Giants and the use of the Polo Grounds. They didn’t know until a few days later that ball cleared the left-field wall by a mere six inches.

With one pitch, Thomson went from goat to hero, turning Branca into the goat. And so, 3 October 1951, at 3:57 PM, the Giants were declared the National League champs, thanks to what soon became known as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Was the New York Giants’ version of “Sign Stealing 101” responsible for taking the pennant?

All these years later, some people say they did. When asked if he got the sign on the Ralph Branca pitch, Thomson would always maintain to his dying day in 2010 that he didn’t and added that no one was going to take his “moment of glory” away from him. Besides, as Dodger great Duke Snider once admitted in an interview, “Even when you know a fastball is coming, you still have to hit it.” Ralph Branca, on the other hand, is certain that Thomson knew exactly what was coming by how he jumped all over the pitch.

1951 New York Giants, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago (United States Public Domain)

Apparently, two weeks after the memorable National League playoff, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and eighteen-year-old daughter Terry were waiting at an elevator in a downtown Manhattan office building. Stepping inside, they saw the elevator man, another man, and Bobby Thomson.

“Hello, Bobby,” O’Malley greeted the Giants third baseman who had destroyed O’Malley’s World Series hopes for 1951.

“Hello, Mr O’Malley,” Thomson replied.

The other man grunted, as he immediately recognized the two baseball men. “Why do you even talk to this bum?” he said to O’Malley, pointing to Thomson. “He cost me a hundred bucks!”

O’Malley smiled, as his thoughts turned to the financial windfall he had missed out on had the Dodgers made it to the legendary Fall Classic. Gate receipts. Hot dogs. Beer. Scorecards. Radio, Television. “Is that so,” O’Malley told the man. “He cost me almost a million dollars.”

To which the operator shook his head. “You mean you bet that kind of money, mister?”

Although neither Branca nor Thomson are enshrined on plaques in Cooperstown, and probably never will enter the Hall of Fame, both players are etched in baseball lore by playing their exclusive roles in “The Shot Heard Round the World”…still the greatest moment in baseball history.

FYI—To read more on the 1951 New York Giants sign-stealing undertaking, you can check out The Echoing Green, written by Joshua Prager, published by Pantheon Books, New York, 2006. It’s a real “page turner,” an excellent read, one of a number of sources I used in putting this article together.

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