Sixty years ago this week, all three of New York‟s major league baseball teams finished the season in first place. The Yankees won the American League pennant, and the Dodgers and Giants tied with identical 96-58 records in the Senior Circuit.
To determine which team would advance to the Subway Series with the Yanks, the Dodgers and Giants met at Brooklyn‟s Ebbets Field on October 1, 1951 for a three-game playoff. The Giants won the first game, 3-1, but lost the next day at the Polo Grounds, 10-0. Game three, also at the eccentric, bathtub-shaped Polo Grounds, would decide the National League title.
A middling crowd of 34,000, well under its SRO capacity of 56,000, filed into the ballpark on October 3, and nervous tension mixed with excitement touched both the fans and players. The first-ever live national television broadcast transmitted the edgy anticipation from coast to coast. Radio, then still the lifeblood of professional baseball, likely reached most everyone else.
No one, however, knew they were about to witness one of the most dramatic events in American sports history. The game would offer both clutch heroism and panicky mistakes, as well as a bit of larceny that would ultimately threaten to undermine what The Sporting News called the greatest moment in baseball history.
On the morning of the deciding game, Bobby Thomson, the Giants third baseman, drove onto the Staten Island ferry en route the Polo Grounds in Harlem. The tall and rangy 27-year-old, who had been born in Glasgow, Scotland, felt good about his season—.293 batting average, 32 home runs, and 101 RBIs. He had hit a homer in the first playoff game and liked his chances against the Dodgers pitcher that day, Don Newcombe.
“If I can just get three for four,” he thought, “then the old Jints will be all right.”
Other than their pasting in the second playoff game, the Giants had months of momentum stored in their minds as the 1:30 p.m. game approached. Woefully behind the Dodgers on the morning of August 12—13 ½ games—they proceeded to rip off 16 straight wins, and go 37-7 through the end of the regular season. That streak had baseball insiders scratching their heads. The run seemed too good to be true.
In the visitor‟s clubhouse before the game, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen carefully summarized the scouting reports on the Giants hitters, a lecture lost on the players, who had faced the team 24 times already that year. When he got to Thomson, he told Newcombe, “Keep the ball low and away. Don‟t let him pull it.”
New York manager Leo “the Lip” Durocher sent Sal “the Barber” Maglie to the mound as his starting pitcher. Although Maglie sported a 5 o‟clock shadow at noon, he gained his nickname by his willingness to throw inside. A little chin music from the Barber could give a hitter a close shave.
Maglie, 23-6 for the season, got into hot water in the top of the first. He walked shortstop Pee Wee Reese and centerfielder Duke Snider, and second baseman Jackie Robinson singled home Reese. Brooklyn had the game‟s first lead, 1-0.
Newcombe, who was 20-9 at that point, was an imposing figure on the mound—6 feet 4, 220. The Dodger ace met his first test in the second when first baseman Whitey Lockman singled. Thomson, batting sixth in front of the 20-year-old rookie Willie Mays, hit a line drive down the left field line. Spurred by the team motto, “Let „er rip,” Bobby sprinted with his head down and rounded first thinking second all the way. When he finally looked up, he saw that Whitey hadn‟t been thinking third. Thomson was out in a run down.
By the fifth inning, Newcombe was rolling. “Up to that point,” Thomson said later, “Newcombe was really firing the ball, looking strong and confident.” Bobby was up to the task and doubled. New York Times sportswriter John Drebinger wryly attributed the two-bagger to the fact that “there was no one in front of him to watch.” The Giants stranded Bobby, but his two hits put him within reach of his goal of three for four.
Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine, 16-12 during the season, began to throw in the bullpen. Ralph Branca, who had lost the first playoff game, began lobbing balls in the bullpen, trying to loosen his stiff arm. Branca said later that throwing helped ease his nervousness. “I‟d never felt tension like this,” he admitted.
Thomson came up again in the seventh, with Monte Irvin on third. “With the tying run at third, Newcombe was going to pitch me tough,” Thomson recalled years later. Bobby fouled off three pitches before lifting a sacrifice fly to Snider in center. The Giants faithful finally exhaled. Tied, 1-1.
“I got nothing left,” Newcombe reportedly said before the eighth. “Nothing.” There are competing recollections about the level in Don‟s gas tank at this point. Roger Kahn offered this take in 1960. “My arm‟s tight,” he said to Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella, who was sitting out with a pulled thigh muscle.
“@#$%&*,” replied Robinson. “You go out there and pitch until your @#$%&* arm falls off.”
In the top of the eighth, the Dodgers took a strop to the Barber. Reese scored on a wild pitch, and now leading 2-1, Brooklyn had runners on the corners. Leftfielder Andy Pafko hit a ground ball toward Thomson, who Durocher had shifted from the outfield to third when Mays came up from Triple-A ball in May.
“The ball hit my glove just as I tried to grab it between hops,” Thomson said, “but my timing was off.” After it squibbed away, the friendly Polo Grounds scorer ruled it a hit. Snider scored, 3-1. But that wasn‟t all for Thomson that inning.
Third baseman Billy Cox then rifled a shot toward third. “Get in front of it,” Bobby thought, but the ball bounced past him. Scored as a hit. Dodgers, 4-1.
Newcombe, tired arm and all, breezed through the bottom of the eighth, and reached the dugout with a four-hitter going. Dodgers fans were thinking World Series tickets.
Larry Jansen pitched for Maglie in the top of the ninth and retired the Dodgers, 1-2-3. Three outs left for the New York baseball Giants.
Durocher had been coaching at third during the series in place of Herman Franks, who was nowhere to be seen. As Al Dark walked to the plate, Leo said, “It‟s up to you to get it started.” As the shortstop dug in, a Giant on the bench yelled, “Let ‘er rip!”
Dark‟s infield single brought a mild charge to the fans. The keen observers among them also noticed that Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges seemed to be holding Dark on first as right fielder Don Mueller stepped into the box. Odd. Down 4-1, the Giants wouldn‟t be stealing. “When I saw Hodges,” Mueller said later, “I went for the hole between first and second.” Bingo.
Mueller‟s single to right put Giants on first and third with no outs. Irvin fouled out to Hodges. One down.
Dressen had been calling bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth repeatedly to check on Erskine and Branca. “Who‟s ready? Who‟s ready?” Dressen usually would plan on when relievers would step in, so his nervousness was out of character, according to Sukeforth. Dressen also furiously paced the dugout, and several players thought he was losing control. Robinson yelled, “Will some tell Dressen to sit down. He‟s making us all nervous.”
Lockman doubled, scoring Dark. Mueller did not slide into third as many have said, but stepped awkwardly on top of the bag and badly sprained his ankle. He went down hard, the ump called time and the drama froze as trainers helped Mueller onto a stretcher.
Dressen went to the mound, and after talking with Reese, Robinson, Hodges, and Newcombe, he called for Branca. As the big right-hander walked in, Snider yelled, “Go get ‘em, Honk!” Called Honker and Hawk for his large nose, Branca didn‟t respond.
“Here,” said Dressen as he flipped the ball to Branca. “Get „em out.” Again, that was strange behavior from the skipper, who normally gave specific instructions to the reliever.
Clint Hartung came in to pinch run for Mueller at third. Lockman stood on second. One out, Giants down 4-2. Nineteen fifty-one was a time when “all the marbles” meant something to players and fans alike.
Thomson passed Leo as he walked to the box. “If you ever hit one, hit one now,” Durocher said. As he stepped in, Thomson thought about fundamentals. “Wait and watch for the ball. Wait and watch, you sonofabitch.”
Branca served up a fastball, waist-high, down the middle. Thomson took it for a called strike, but then thought, “Should have swung at that.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Branca heard Durocher yell at Thomson.
Catcher Rube Walker signaled for another fastball. Branca threw it high and inside.
Thomson took an aggressive cut as if he had been sitting on a fastball. Crack! The ball screamed on a line toward left. “Get down, get down,” Cox screamed at the ball, hoping it might drop in for just a single or double. Pafko took a few steps in left. Those in the Polo Grounds still sitting arose as one.
The sinking line drive just cleared the left field wall and snuck under the second deck scoreboard that jutted out over the lower level. After a heartbeat of shocked silence, the crowd roared, a noise that echoed across the country on TVs and radios. The Giants radio announcer, Russ Hodges, added what some have labeled the most famous call in sports.
Branca throws . . . There’s a long drive! It’s going to 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 hits into the lower deck of the left field stands! The Giants win the pennant! And they’re going crazy!
The Yankees punctured the Giants balloon in the World Series, winning 4-2. But the buzz from the National League playoff still permeated the baseball kingdom. The stonemasons continued to chisel the names Branca and Thomson, as well as “The Giants Win the Pennant” in the highest frieze of the Amazing Games Museum.
In recent years, however, disheartening rumors began to dim the luster of the Giants win that day. Players talked about the Giants stealing signs throughout most of the summer as well as in the Brooklyn playoff.
Everyone in baseball tries to sneak a peek as the catcher flashes signs to the pitcher. Base coaches and men on second are supposed to do that. Knowing that a fastball or breaking ball is on the way doesn‟t guarantee a hit, however. A batter still has to use a stick to hit an aspirin that dips, slides, or curves. But knowing the pitch gives the batter an edge. However, elaborate and systematic schemes, especially involving a “mechanical device,” were not illegal until 10 years later. Nevertheless, in 1951 off-field sign stealing was generally taboo.
Branca relates in his just-released book, “A Moment in Time,” that he discovered the elaborate and closely held Giants secret in 1954. While playing for Detroit, one of Ralph‟s teammates told him that he had learned about it from Earl Rapp, a member of the 1951 Giants. Branca kept it to himself until 2001. “I don‟t want to be a crybaby,” he told his wife at the time.
On January 31, 2001, writer Josh Prager fully exposed the Giants sign-stealing system in the Wall Street Journal. He wrote that Durocher had gathered the team on July 19, 1951 to gauge the players‟ reaction to his plan to methodically steal signs in the Polo Grounds, and on the road where feasible. No one objected, but about half said they didn‟t want to be informed.
First Henry Schenz, a utility infielder, and then third base coach Herman Franks, a former catcher, trained a telescope on the opposing catcher while hidden in the Giants clubhouse deep in centerfield. After picking up the sign for the next pitch, Franks would notify reserve catcher Sal Yvars by pushing a button that rang a buzzer in the bullpen—one for a fastball, two for a breaking ball. Yvars then used a simple, visible sign to alert the batter—tossing a ball, flapping a towel, or remaining still.
Back to Branca‟s second pitch to Thomson. Did he use the sign? Prager wrote that Thomson replied, “My answer is no.” There seemed some equivocation in his other comments, though. Yet Thomson also denied getting a sign when interviewed by the New York Times later in 2001.
Branca and Thomson gradually had become friends and the two men eventually appeared as a team in the lucrative autograph and memorabilia industry. Branca writes that he called Thomson after the Wall Street Journal article appeared. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I think, Ralph, that you must feel exonerated,” Thomson said.
Thomson died in 2010. He had worked for 30 years as a business executive after leaving baseball in 1960. Branca retired after the 1956 season and enjoyed another career in insurance and financial planning.