The following is an excerpt from a new book written by The Sports Post contributor Marty Gitlin titled Powerful Sports Moments: The Most Significant Sporting Events in American History. It was published this spring by Rowman and Littlefield. A wonderful review of the book by Publishers Weekly can be seen here:
To read the rest of this chapter and the others, please purchase the book for $25 through his Pay Pal account at [email protected] Or feel free to contact Gitlin at that same email address with any questions or for his home address. The $25 represents a huge savings over Amazon, plus Gitlin will autograph, personalize and ship the book for free. Thank you.
The most superstitious among us most often provide no evidence to justify their beliefs. But they do boast one argument that should convince those with open minds to at least ponder the rationality of the seemingly irrational.
Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca wore number 13 in 1951.
Granted, one might cite more logical reasons for the legendary a�?Shot Heard ‘Round the Worlda�? that Bobby Thomson slugged off Branca to give the Giants the pennant. Branca, after all, had slumped in September while Thomson had been sizzling for more than a month. But the most historic single moment in baseball historya��arguably in the annals of American sporta��can most enjoyably be embraced with an element of superstition tossed into the mix. And one could certainly understand that donning a uniform featuring what has been deemed the unluckiest of numbers did Branca no favors on that fateful October afternoon.
There are those who argue that one swing of the bat that brought no significant social or political changes does not warrant inclusion in the pages of a book featuring such names as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean Kinga��not to mention such landmark society-shifting events as Title IX. But the fact that the pennant race in 1951 that so gripped the largest city in the United States came down to one pitch transcends sports. No one play in any sporting event in American history has ever jolted the emotions of so many in one fleeting flash.
Not that anyone could have imagined in the wildest of dreams two months earlier that such heroics from Thomson would have been possible. His team had recovered from a 10-game losing streak in late April that bottomed out its record at 2-12, but four consecutive defeats (including three at Brooklyn) had resulted in a mediocre 59-51 mark on August 11. The Dodgers, whose furious September rally the previous year had left them behind the miracle Whiz Kids of Philadelphia, appeared destined to make good on their vow to leave the rest of the National League in the dust. It not only seemed inevitable that baseball fans would experience a drama-free finish to the regular season, but Brooklyn was on the verge of establishing itself as one of the finest teams to ever grace a diamond with a 103-win pace.
A sweep of the Giants in July had Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen in a boasting mood despite having been ejected from both ends of a victorious doubleheader. a�?The Giants is dead,a�? he exclaimed. a�?They’ll never bother us again.a�?
The braggadocio grew in time. The thin door that separated the two teams in the clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, where the Giants made their home, was no escape. Branca and Dodgers ace pitcher Don Newcombe often banged on it after their team had emerged victorious and yelled to seething Giants manager Leo Durocher of a�?nice guys finish lasta�? fame, a�?Eat your heart out, Leo, eat your heart out.a�? The Dodgers reveled in humiliating their rivals. After another victory over New York on August 9 and despite the Giants having bricked over the door, the winners loudly serenaded the losers by singing, a�?Roll out the barrels, we’ve got the Giants on the run.a�?
By that time, Giants journeyman pitcher Ed Gettel revealed to the Wall Street Journal in 2000, his team had installed a powerful telescope in Durocher’s center field office to steal signs from opposing catchers and relay them via a buzzer system to the dugout. Gettel, whose claim had first been published by the Associated Press decades earlier, claimed that every hitter knew what pitch was coming.
A documentary that aired years later featured the spyglasses used by Giants backup infielder Hank Schenz to steal signs and relay them to little-used catcher Sal Yvars, who would in a matter of seconds give them to the hitters. But the advantages of the system remain up for debate. Though the Giants went 51-18 (24-6 at the Polo Grounds) after starting to cheat on July 20, they actually hit worse at home than they had before. It was their pitching staff that blossomed. Branca termed the sign-stealing a�?despicablea�? and a�?immorala�? and has expressed doubt about Thomson’s claim of not using the system to his advantage to slug his immortal home run.
Despite any benefit brought about by the hidden telescope, logic conceded in mid-August that only a complete Dodgers collapse could prevent a waltz into the World Series. But the Dodgers played better than .500 ball the rest of the way and even won 10 of 13 during one stretch. They simply could not beat the Giants, who embarked on an epic tear. They took advantage of a stretch in which they played 18 of 21 games at home, winning 16 straighta��including five against their bitter crosstown rivals to chop their deficit in the National League to five games.
Meanwhile, Thomson was already being fitted for his hero wings. He emerged as one of the hottest hitters in baseball after scuffling along at .220 through June, heating up in July after moving from the outfield to third base and changing his batting stance before dropping his average a bit to .248 on August 21. Thompson, who had established his worth in previous years as a two-time All-Star and eventually finished his career with four 100-RBI seasons, batted .428 (56-for-131) with nine home runs and 27 RBI over his last 37 games.
Branca, on the other hand, was foundering after appearing set most of the year to complete a fine rebound. A three-time All-Star from 1947 to 1949, his struggles in 1950 landed him in the bullpen. The hulking right-hander, however, had performed well most of the following season. After back-to-back shutouts to end August, he owned a 12-5 record and sparkling 2.60 ERA. But his September collapse played a role in the Dodgers failing to hold off the Giants. He allowed 14 runs in 13 innings during one five-appearance stretch, including a start against Pittsburgh in which he failed to record an out. It mattered not to Dressen, who named Branca his starting pitcher for the first of a three-game playoff series at Ebbets Field against the Giants.
By that time, New Yorkers had worked themselves up into a fever pitch. The sport of baseball was still a quarter-century distant from losing its status as the national pastime. Nobody imagined that both the Dodgers and Giants were less than a decade removed from donning their uniforms in California. The fans of both teams despised one another. It was the ultimate neighborhood rivalry. Brooklyn vs. Manhattan. Borough vs. Borough.
Dodgers fans perceived those who rooted for the Giants as crass cranks who were jealous that Brooklyn boasted such legendary landmarks as Coney Island. They envisioned the Polo Grounds as dank and dreary. Giants fans such as Everett Parker summed up the emotions felt by his brethren with a comparison that could have only been made during the Cold War. a�?I would have rooted for the red Russians over the Brooklyn Dodgers,a�? he said. a�?All I wished for them was 14-inning games played in the rain.a�?
Even their Minnesota-based minor-league teams and their fans hated each other. The Giants’ top farm club played in Minneapolis while the Dodgers’ counterparts made their home in St. Paul. Legendary cartoonist and a�?Peanutsa�? creator Charles Schulz, who grew up in the latter city, admitted that he cared nothing about Major League Baseballa��only that his Saints defeated the Millers.
The furious Giants charge down the stretch still left them four-and-a-half games behind the Dodgers with eight regular season games remaining. But New York ace Sal (The Barber) Maglie set the tone for the final blitz by pitching a shutout and outdueling legendary Braves southpaw Warren Spahn. Brooklyn, meanwhile, lost four of five. Their lead had shrunk to one game after a stinging doubleheader defeat to those same Braves on September 25.
The Giants completed their amazing run three days later without swinging a bat. A Dodgers loss to Philadelphia placed both teams in a flat-footed tie. Destiny appeared to have taken hold of their fates. Many believed the Dodgers would be put out of their misery by the end of the regular season. While the Giants finished on an eight-game winning streak, their Big Apple rivals rebounded to win their last two games. Included was a scintillating backs-against-the-ball comeback on the final day against the Phillies. The Dodgers overcame deficits of 6-1 and 8-5 to send the game into extra innings.
Facing elimination with every pitch in a game dripping with dramatics, they finally won out when Robinson, who had already saved the season with a diving snag of an Eddie Waitkus line drive in the 12th inning, slugged a two-out home run in the 14th against Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. The victory forced a three-game playoff for the National League title.
So on October 1, 1951, arguably the most intense rivalry in American sport was about to reach a new level. Perhaps the excitement would have been heightened had the pennant-clincher been limited to one game, as was the 1948 American League showdown between Boston and Cleveland. But the anticipation of a three-game series between the Dodgers and Giants had their fans bracing for an excruciating test of emotional fortitude.
Both teams would have preferred dispatching their aces or at least their second starters to the mound for the playoff opener, but necessity forced the Giants to use Maglie and 23-game-winner Larry Jansen to close out the regular season while the Dodgers did the same with Newcombe and Preacher Roe, who had won 22 of 25 decisions. The result was a matchup between Jim Hearn and Branca. And the former won out. Hearn crafted a complete-game five-hitter, yielding only a second-inning home run to Andy Pafko. Branca performed well, but surrendered a two-run shot to Thomson in the fourth inning and the Dodgers never recovered.
Nobody could have imagined the sense of dA�jA� vu the baseball world was about to experience.
The positive and negative momentum of both teams seemed to have lingered from the regular season into the playoffs. But the Dodgers fought back before 38,000 fans at the Polo Grounds. Rookie Clem Labine, who had joined the rotation only a month earlier and later emerged as one of the premier relievers in baseball, hurled a shutout while the Brooklyn bats came alive with four home runs, including one by the torrid Robinson. The result was a 10-0 shellacking and the fever pitch of a Game 3. It seemed only fitting.
It also seemed fitting that the celebrities of the day graced the Polo Grounds for the crescendo of an incredible baseball season. Among those sitting together were FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and entertainment superstars Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. The Wednesday afternoon starting time left about 20,000 seats unoccupied as New Yorkers were either forced to work, listen to the game on the radio or watch it on television. The second and third games of the series were televised nationally, as was the World Series for the first time since that newfangled medium arrived on the scene following World War II.
The country would be watching, but New York was the epicenter of baseball that day.