At 3:58 on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951, at the ancient Polo Grounds in Harlem, New York Giants play-by-play man Russ Hodges was no better than Gotham’s third best-known baseball broadcaster. Mel Allen of the Yankees and Red Barber of the Dodgers ruled the electronic horsehide scene in an era when radio still held sway over television. Most of Hodges’ national recognition came from working the Wednesday night fights on CBS-TV along with “Bill the Bartender.”
Then Hodges, two players named Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca and one Brooklyn fan changed all that in seconds. Before Lawrence Goldberg went to work that morning, he told his mother to turn on his Webcor wire recorder if the Dodgers were ahead in the ninth inning of the third and final game of their National League pennant playoff — the better to hear Hodges grovel, he thought. If Mom hadn’t done so, the most famous sports call ever might have been gone with the wind.
The Dodgers were leading 4-2 with one out when Branca relieved Don Newcombe, Brooklyn’s tiring ace. His second pitch was a fast ball high and inside, Thomson swung and the most riveting moment in baseball history — in (ITALICS) sports (END ITALICS) history — ensued. To his everlasting credit, Hodges’ hysterical description matched the drama:
“There’s a long drive! 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!”
So it was that Thomson’s Giants defeated Branca’s Dodgers 5-4. Shock and disbelief enveloped spectators at the ballpark and around the nation, for this was the first sports event televised live coast to coast. Author Roger Kahn told how a non-fan working in a Manhattan office heard the screams and thought World War III had been declared.
Even the nation’s most acclaimed sports columnist was temporarily at a loss for words. Wrote Red Smith in the next morning’s New York Herald Tribune: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it.” (Then, of course, he proceeded to do so brilliantly.)
From that day until this, Thomson and Branca have been linked as firmly as Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Antony or perhaps Abbott and Costello.
“If it wasn’t for Bobby’s home run, nobody would remember us,” Branca once said. These were good ballplayers, not great. But when Branca (88-68, 3.79 ERA lifetime) threw his fatal pitch to Thomson (.270 batting average, 264 homers), they ascended together to baseball immortality.
“Do you know what you did today?” Thomson’s brother, Jim, asked when Bobby visited him on his way home to his mother’s house on Staten Island.
“Yeah, I hit a home run, and we won the pennant.”
“No, no, I don’t mean that,” Jim said. “You did something that nobody may ever do again.” He was right. Sixty-two years later, nobody has even come close or likely ever will.
Branca had dinner that night with his fiancee, Ann, and a cousin of hers who was a priest. “Why me?” Branca asked.
The Rev. Frank Rowley replied, “God chose you because He knows your faith is strong enough to bear this cross.”
His baseball career cut short by an injury a few years later, Branca went on to succeed in business. Later he became chairman of the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization that helps needy ex-players and their families. But whenever he or Thomson met, the years fell away and it was Oct. 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds. Again. Forever.
In 2001, the Wall Street Journal printed an overblown story suggesting Thomson knew Branca was about to throw a fastball because the Giants had been stealing opposing catchers’ signs at home all season through a reserve player planted with binoculars in an office adjoining the clubhouse in center field. Branca said he believes the story; Thomson said he did not know what the pitch would be. But it doesn’t really matter. For one thing, many teams tried to steal signs illegally in the ’50s. For another, Thomson still had to hit the pitch.
Why does the game and its unreal conclusion still mean so much to so many? There are so many reasons. For starters, the Dodgers and Giants and their respective fans detested one another. In those days, there were just eight clubs in each major league, and teams met 22 times a year. Thus there was plenty of time for antagonism to simmer.
Expected to be a strong contender, under former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, for the first time in years, the Giants started 2-13 before calling up a 20-year-old center fielder named Willie Mays from the minors and moving Thomson to third base. Improvement followed, but by mid-August the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 1/2 games and had been written off by nearly everybody. Then, unbelievably, they won 37 of 44 to tie for the pennant after the regulation 154 games.
The Dodgers won a coin flip to settle the venues for a three-game playoff, and Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen unwisely chose to open at Ebbets Field and play the last two games at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won the first in Brooklyn 3-1 when Thomson, of all people, hit a homer off Branca, of all people. But the Dodgers rolled 10-0 in the second game at the Polo Grounds behind rookie Clem Labine. That got everybody to Oct. 3.
Although the day was overcast and the game was on local TV, the finale unfolded before just 34,320 fans, meaning there were 20,000 empty seats. Why? Nobody seems to remember. Those who did show saw a tight game until the Dodgers scored three runs in the eighth for a 4-1 lead as converted outfielder Thomson waved at a couple of balls that zinged past him at third.
Now the Dodgers were three outs from a pennant, but they got only one. Singles by captain Alvin Dark and Don Mueller and a double by Whitey Lockman made it 4-2 against Newcombe before Dressen phoned the bullpen, where three pitchers were warming up. But Labine had pitched a complete game the day before, and Dressen was told that Carl Erskine had just bounced a curveball.
“Give me Branca,” Dressen said, and the rest is, literally, history.
While Hodges was howling into his microphone at the finish, Barber simply told his listeners on the Dodgers’ radio network, “It’s in there for the pennant,” and shut up to let the crowd noise take over. Later he attempted to put the event into perspective by reminding his listeners that the United States had suffered 2,181 battle casualties in Korea the previous week and adding, “The Dodgers will get over this, and their fans will, too.”
He was wrong.
Flash forward 46 years to a hot, hazy Sunday morning at Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., home of the Class A Prince William Cannons. Thomson was conducting a mini-clinic for kid players who couldn’t possibly appreciate who he was and what he had done. By way of explanation, he told them a little bit about that distant day and what became known hyperbolically as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
“The Good Lord had a lot to do with that home run,” he said. “You’ve got to be lucky, too. I guess that was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”
Over lunch with a reporter a bit later, Thomson said something surprising. He insisted his epic home run was not the most important thing in his life.
“The most important thing that happened to me came after baseball, when I had to get out of bed in the morning and go to a job and learn to appreciate the work ethic,” said Thomson, who became a successful businessman when his playing career ended in 1960. After that he spent a half-century not allowing himself to be swallowed up by his 15 seconds of glory. He was a good baseball player. He was a good man, too, and he considered that more significant.
“No, I don’t get tired of talking about the home run,” Thomson said that day in Northern Virginia. “But sometimes I resent that it’s all people remember me for. Heck, I had a good career over 14 years, four seasons where I drove in 100 runs. But I guess if I hadn’t hit that home run, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
Many older fans consider Thomson’s swat the high point of baseball’s golden era. When he hit it, players did not move from team to team or clubs from city to city, and nobody had thought of artificial turf, designated hitters or night World Series games. But Bobby never clung to the past, not even to its supreme moment.
Although he died at 86 in 2010, Bobby Thomson is still alive and young in one sense. As long as baseball is played, he will be 27 years old in the film clips and the mind’s eye as he lines Branca’s pitch into the left-field stands, hops in exultation around the bases and leaps the last few feet into the arms of exultant teammates at the plate .
Russ Hodges again on that fateful fall day:
“I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”