October 3, 1951: Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Giants
I wrote this story 35 years ago, for a book called Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games. It has never been published on the net. My editor discouraged me from including any nineteenth century contests, or the game of June 14, 1870 would have been in there, along with other games from 1907 to 1978. Maybe it’s time to update my list to include, say, Game Six of the 2011 World Series, but in any recounting this game would make the cut, and might well retain its honor as The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Ralph Branca, who on October 3, 1951, before 34,320 lucky fans, threw the single most famous pitch in baseball history, has said: “Whenever somebody tells me he was there I tell him he’s the four-hundred-and-thirty-first thousandth guy to tell me he was at the game.”
Of course, in the age of television the audience for a baseball game is no longer limited to the seating capacity of the park. For Game Six of the ’75 Series, 62 million people could say, “I was there.” You may have been one of them. But technology cannot enable us to step back in time and witness games whose glories passed uncaptured on film, yet which have endured and taken their place in baseball lore. Nor will snippets of more recent games, stitched together into a “highlights” program, call up the excitement of seeing the game unfold play by play, as it was happening.
For Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” and and all the events that led up to it, I hope you’ll now feel that you can say, “I was there.” So come with me now to the Polo Grounds on this damp third day of October.
Here we are, sitting in the lower left-field stands of New York’s Polo Grounds, about to witness a game no schedule-maker had planned last winter, and no fan had dared to dream of even six weeks ago. The contest to be played on this dim, overcast afternoon will determine the National League champion.
The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who through the years have produced baseball’s greatest rivalry, have this year produced baseball’s greatest pennant race. While Brooklyn, which was nipped for the flag on the final day in 1950, broke fast from the starting gate, the Giants stumbled, dropping eleven straight games in April. Eventually the New Yorkers picked up the pace and moved into second place; but by August 11 they were still hopelessly behind by thirteen-and-a-half games. On the next day, however, a whirlwind began to take shape: the Giants went on to win sixteen games in a row and an unbelievable thirty-seven of their final forty-four. They pulled into a tie with two games left to play, and only a fourteenth-inning homer by Jackie Robinson against the Phils on the final day of the regular season prevented the Giants from taking the flag. In the best-of-three playoff the Giants took the first game, 3-1, and the Dodgers, with their backs to the wall, captured the second game. 10-0. Now the teams have arrived at a crossroads: After today’s game, one club will meet the Yankees in a “Subway Series”; the other will lick its wounds and wait till next year.
The morning threat of rain appears to have held down the size of the crowd. Game time, 1:30, is only a few moments off, yet fewer than 35,000 people occupy this grand old cavern of a stadium, which has accommodated more than 60,000. The Polo Grounds, named after polo fields which existed on an earlier Giants site in the nineteenth century, may be great for football, or soccer, or even polo . . . but baseball? Look around the outfield and you’ll see why this park built below Coogan’s Bluff has been such a nightmare to pitchers and batters alike. Down the lines, a ball must drift a mere 258 feet to right field or 280 feet to left to become a four-bagger, dimensions which have yielded countless pop-fly homers. (Actually, a fly hit to left may travel even less than 280 feet and still be a homer, for the upper deck juts out over the stands below.) To the power alleys, where most well-hit shots go, a ball can rocket 425 feet to left center or 450 feet to right center and still be caught. Dead center is beyond home-run consideration, an outlandish 475 feet from home plate.
In mid-1948 Leo Durocher, manager of the Dodgers since 1939, was let go and, miracle of miracles, was hired by the Giants. He inherited a team which had been designed to take advantage of the short porches in left and right—lumbering strongboys who could powder the ball but do little else. Gradually, he stripped the Giants of their aging sluggers and constructed his team around a stingy pitching crew and aggressive players who could “execute”—who could manufacture runs from such odds and ends as a grounder hit behind the runner, a bunt, a steal, or a hit-and-run, as well as the occasional circuit blast. It is these new-breed Giants who are running out to their positions now.
The big change Durocher has wrought in this team has been up the middle, where tradition has it that pennants are won or lost; so let’s check out those five vital stations first. Behind the plate is Wes Westrum, an excellent receiver whose anemic batting average of .219 masks his real contributions to the team offense: 20 homers, 70 RBIs, and 102 bases on balls, all excellent totals for an eighth-place batter. Warming up on the hill is thirty-four-year-old Sal “The Barber” Maglie—his intimidating combination of fastballs up and in and curves low and away have produced 23 wins coming into today’s game. Durocher reclaimed this veteran from the Mexican League last year and put him in the starting rotation with Larry Jansen, Dave Koslo, and Jim Hearn to give the New Yorkers the best moundwork in either league.
The keystone pair of Alvin Dark at short and Eddie Stanky at second was acquired as a unit in a trade with the Boston Braves, and these two scrappers have led by example in the field and molded the team spirit off the field. At thirty-five years of age Stanky, nicknamed “The Brat” for his combative nature, does not run, field, throw, or hit particularly well: but like Bucky Harris back in 1924, he finds a way to beat you. Dark, who bats second behind Stanky, is more naturally gifted in the field and at the bat. He can be counted on to advance Stanky if he has reached base, or to take matters into his own hands: He is a .300 hitter who this year leads the league in doubles.
Out there in center field is a twenty-year-old kid who started the season in Minneapolis, the Giants’ Triple-A club. After thirty-five games there, in which he batted .477, the Giants couldn’t keep him down on the farm any longer and summoned him to the Polo Grounds, where he promptly went 0-for-21. But Leo was convinced the kid would hit; and even if he didn’t, his glove alone merited him a spot in the lineup. As the season progressed the young center fielder did get over his jitters at the plate and hit 20 homers. When he hangs up his spikes in 1973, he will have hit 640 more. His name? Willie Mays.
The arrival of Mays in the month of May led in turn to the Giants’ most important move of the season: uprooting Bobby Thomson from his center-field turf and transplanting him to third base. Thomson is a good but not great player who had been enjoying a good but not great year until the Giants’ closing charge, when he became the league’s hottest hitter. At the other corner is Whitey Lockman, a reliable hitter and like Thomson a transplanted outfielder. Unlike Thomson, however, Lockman has become a first-rate infielder.
In the remaining two outfield posts we have Monte Irvin in left and Don Mueller in right. Irvin was a long-time star in the Negro Leagues who arrived at the Polo Grounds in 1949 as a thirty-year-old rookie. Though his best years may be behind him, he still had enough left to give the Giants an exceptional 1951 season, batting over .300, belting 24 homers, and driving home a league-high 121 runs. Mueller, only twenty-four years old and in his second year as a regular, is still developing as a hitter but already is nearly impossible to strike out, having whiffed only thirteen times all year long.
So there you have it, the team which has made the greatest stretch run in baseball history. But that accomplishment will be forgotten soon enough if victory eludes the Giants today. Brooklyn is a formidable foe, having finished first in two of the last five seasons and second by a whisker in two others. On paper they seem a stronger team than the Giants, with pitching nearly as good, and hitting and defense which are vastly superior. We’ll examine the Dodgers individually when they take the field; right now it’s time to focus our attention on home plate, for a Dodger batter is in the box and Maglie is peering in at Westrum for the sign.
Sal gets off on the right foot, slipping a called strike three past Carl Furillo, but then he loses sight of the plate and walks Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider on only nine pitches. Jackie Robinson lines a single past third, and Reese scores. The fans have hardly settled into their seats and already the home team is one run down and in trouble. But now The Barber regains his edge, inducing Andy Pafko to dribble one down to Thomson, who steps on third for the force. His throw to Lockman is too late for a twin killing, but no matter, for Gil Hodges pops to Thomson in foul ground and a big inning has been averted.
The Giants will send Eddie Stanky to the plate as their lead-off man; but before he steps in let me tell you a few things about the Dodgers, and you’ll see why perhaps they ought to have run away with the pennant. At first base is Gil Hodges, a superlative fielder whose 40 circuit blows this year are second only to Ralph Kiner’s 42; in a game last year he hit a record-tying four home runs. At second base is the incomparable Jackie Robinson, the trailblazer for all the black stars to follow and a remarkable player despite having to wait, like Monte Irvin, until he was well along in years to reach the majors. This year he hit .338 and established a record for second basemen by making only seven errors. The shortstop is Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger captain who started playing in Brooklyn in 1940 and shows no signs of slowing yet. And at third there is Billy Cox, a light hitter whose magic glove has no equal in his day.
Standing below us in left we see Andy Pafko, a proven slugger whose acquisition from the Cubs in midseason seemed to assure smooth sailing to the pennant. Thus far he has hit 30 homers. Patrolling center is the twenty-five-year-old Duke Snider, whose “off year” in 1951 still produced 29 homers and 101 RBIs. And in right is Carl Furillo, “The Reading Rifle,” whose powerful throwing arm cut down twenty-four foolhardy runners, a league high.
The backstop is Rube Walker, substituting for the injured Roy Campanella, who struggled through the playoff opener but could go no further. Dodger manager Charley Dressen hopes his team will not feel the loss of Campy today, but how do you replace a man who hits .325, with 33 homers and 108 RBIs? And now we come to the mound where, ball in hand, his hulking frame bowed toward the plate, waits Don Newcombe. He has won 20 games thus far, and was Brooklyn’s salvation in the final weekend against the Phils, throwing a shutout Saturday and five and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief on Sunday. He pitches today with only two days’ rest, but Newk is strong—last year he pitched both ends of a doubleheader.
The big right-hander gets Stanky on a fly to Pafko in short left, Dark on a pop to Cox, and Mueller on a liner to Pafko. He will not be easy to solve today.
In the top of the second. Maglie breezes through the Brooks in order, fanning Walker along the way. Irvin opens the Giant second by grounding to Reese, but Lockman breaks the ice by singling past Hodges into right. Now the batter is Glasgow-born Bobby Thomson, “The Flying Scot,” whose two-run homer in Game One of the playoff was the winning blow. He leans on a Newcombe fastball and drills it into left for a single, extending his hitting streak to fifteen straight games. But this is no time to accept congratulations: while Lockman stops at second as Pafko fetches the ball, here comes Thomson motoring head down onto Whitey’s heels. Bobby imagined his hit would certainly reach the wall and that Lockman would scurry to third. He neglected, however, to confirm his theory by actually looking to left field or at the first-base coach, who was waving frantically to stop him. Bobby does spot Lockman at the last moment and tries to retrace his steps, but the “rock” cannot be covered up—Thomson is tagged out, and the budding rally goes for naught as Pafko races back to the wall to grab Mays’s drive.
The skies have become, if possible, even more overcast than they were at game-time. As Furillo steps to the plate to start the third inning, the lights are turned on; it is only 2:04 in the afternoon. Again, Maglie puts the Dodgers down in order, this time whiffing Snider. In the bottom of the frame, with Westrum on first after a walk, Stanky smashes one down the third-base line only to have Cox intercept it and send it round the horn for a brilliant double play. In the years to follow, only Brooks Robinson and Clete Boyer will bear comparison to Cox for artistry at the hot corner.
The fourth frame is “nothing across” for both sides, but in the fifth Maglie’s streak of fourteen consecutive outs is broken by Cox’s leadoff bunt single. The next three Dodgers, however, flail helplessly at Sal’s curves. We are only at the halfway point in the contest, yet that run Brooklyn pushed across in the first before The Barber found his form is looking bigger all the time.
After Reese throws out Lockman in the Giants’ half of the fifth, Thomson hits another screamer to left, this one a surefire double since no teammate occupies second base. Newk bears down and strikes out the overanxious Mays. Now Dressen employs a mildly unorthodox strategy—with Maglie on deck, he orders an intentional walk to Westrum, the potential lead run. Dressen is fully aware that in the Polo Grounds everyone is a home-run threat, but chalks up the move as a good one when Maglie rolls out to short.
In the top of the sixth with one down, Snider, a dead-pull hitter with a picturesque swing, is fooled by a change of pace, takes a halfhearted poke at it, and dumps the ball into left off the end of his bat. With Robinson at the plate, Snider takes off for second, surprising everyone in the ballpark except the Giants. Westrum calls for a pitchout, and The Duke is out by a mile. Though Robinson draws a walk, another zero goes up on the scoreboard for Brooklyn. New York fares no better in its at bats, as Cox robs Dark of a hit, and the score holds at a nerve-wracking 1-0.
Despite a two-out single by Rube Walker, the Dodgers once again shoot a blank in the seventh. Now the home-team rooters stand for the seventh-inning stretch, and this display of allegiance seems to do some good as Monte Irvin smashes a double off the left-field wall. The situation demands a sacrifice, and Lockman dumps a bunt out toward the mound—he had meant for it to roll toward third. Walker pounces on it and throws to Cox, but too late to tag the sliding Irvin. Now Giants stand on first and third with nary an out. While Newcombe paws the mound, Cox sneaks up behind Irvin trying to pull the old hidden-ball trick; Monte doesn’t fall for it—he sticks to the bag. Dressen orders his infielders to play back for the double play, conceding the tying run but hoping to get out of the inning no worse than even. After fouling off two two-strike pitches, Thomson renders the maneuvering pointless as he skies to deep center, easily scoring Irvin. Newk again must face Mays in the clutch, and again he proves the master, getting Willie to smack a hard grounder to Reese for a rally-killing double play.
One to one. Now the entire season, 156 games plus, is compressed into six outs per side. There have been league play-offs in the past—in 1908 and 1946 in the National League, in 1948 in the American—but in none of these was the issue deadlocked so near to the end. Through seven innings, each hurler has permitted only four hits; if we had to guess which one might tire first, the choice would be Newcombe. A fastball pitcher who ordinarily strikes out five or six men a game, Big Newk has fanned only one to this point. Maybe the strain of last weekend’s exploits is showing up after all. The Barber, on the other hand, has fanned six with his razor-sharp curveball, and has been in complete command since the first.
Furillo begins the eighth by lining one back to the box which Maglie is fortunate to stab for the out. Now, all of a sudden, both his luck and his skill run out. Reese laces a single to right and dashes to third as Snider drives a hit past Stanky’s outstretched glove. With everyone on the edge of his seat, wondering if Maglie will retire Robinson or Robinson will retire Maglie, this marvelous game takes an unexpected and disappointing turn: The Barber heaves a wild pitch. Reese scoots across the plate with the lead run and Snider makes it all the way to third.
Pitching carefully to Robinson, Maglie runs the count to 3-1, then puts him on intentionally to set up a possible double play, as Dressen had done an inning earlier. Durocher looks awfully smart when Pafko smacks a hot shot to third; but the ball kicks off Thomson’s glove for a tainted hit, scoring Snider and moving Robby to second. Now Hodges pops to Thomson, and there are two outs. The light-hitting Billy Cox, however, hits a wicked smash off Thomson’s chest; the ball bounds away for a hit, and Robinson tallies the third run of the frame. With two men still on base, Maglie at last gets out of the inning as Walker grounds to second.
You can sense the dejection of the Giants and their fans as the players come in from the field—to have come from so far back, and to have forced the Dodgers beyond the season’s end, only to lose on a wild pitch and some ground balls that should have been outs … it just doesn’t seem right. But right or not, defeat seems a certainty as the Giants bat against Newcombe in the eighth. Newk, who relaxed his grip on the Giants’ throats in the seventh, tightens it once more. Bill Rigney, batting for Westrum, strikes out on three pitches. Hank Thompson, hitting for Maglie, raps one to Hodges’s right, which Gil gracefully backhands and flips to Newcombe, covering first. Stanky fouls out to Reese near the field boxes behind third. So much for our “educated” guess about which pitcher figured to tire first.
Coming in from the bullpen to hurl the ninth for New York is Larry Jansen, who with 22 wins this season trails Maglie by only one for league honors. The thirty-one-year-old righthander will be working with Ray Noble, who replaces Westrum as the backstop. The Dodgers, perhaps already looking ahead to tomorrow’s World Series opener against the Yankees, go down meekly on two grounders and a lazy fly to center.
In the dugout, Newcombe tells Dressen he’s running out of gas; Dressen sends him out to the mound but alerts the bullpen to get some arms ready. Three outs are all that stand between the Dodgers and an incredibly hard-earned flag. First up for the Giants is Alvin Dark, hitless in his first three trips. Newcombe rears back and throws the best smoke he’s got left, jamming him up and in, but Alvin steps off the plate and, with a protective, awkward swing, loops a single to right. Next up is left-handed Don Mueller, like Dark, hitless today.
What’s this? Hodges has moved in a step or two behind Dark, obviously to hold down the size of his lead. But why? With the Giants down three, Dark is no threat to steal, and his run means nothing; by moving Hodges in behind the bag, Dressen has opened up the entire right side of the infield for Mueller. And Don, nicknamed ”Mandrake the Magician” because he uses his bat like a magic wand to “hit it where they ain’t,” does just that. He drives a grounder to precisely the spot where Hodges would have stood had he been permitted to ignore Dark. Gil dives, but the ball bounces by, perhaps two feet beyond his reach. If Dressen had not pulled a boner, the Dodgers would have had a cinch double play, for Mueller runs poorly.
In the third-base coach’s box, manager Durocher is praying that Irvin can get another single so he can have Lockman bunt the tying runs into scoring position. But Irvin lifts a pop to Hodges, and now Whitey must swing away. As he prepares for Newk’s first delivery, Lockman thinks to himself that he must at all costs get the ball into the air and stay out of a possible game-ending double play. And more than get it in the air, he will try to park it in the seats. Though he connected for only 12 homers during the season, the dimensions of this park make everyone a potential Babe Ruth. Newcombe recognizes the danger and offers up a high, outside ball. For Whitey, who ordinarily is the type of hitter who goes with the pitch, thoughts of home-run glory vanish and instinct takes over. He strokes the pitch down the left-field line for a double, scoring Dark and moving Mueller to third.
Don, however, didn’t begin his slide until he was almost at the bag, and now is writhing on the ground with a severely sprained ankle. While Don lies at third, surrounded by teammates and waiting for a stretcher to be brought out, Dressen is on the phone to his bullpen coach, Clyde Sukeforth. Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca have been warming up; now Sukeforth tells him that while Erskine’s got nothing, Branca’s fastball looks good. So as Newcombe walks off the mound to scattered cheers and Mueller is carried out to the clubhouse in deepest center field, in comes Clint Hartung to run for Mueller and Ralph Branca to pitch for Brooklyn.
Branca, a twenty-five-year-old right-hander, was the loser in the opening game of the play-off. He had also been the loser in the opening game of the 1946 play-off. In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, he won 21 games for Brooklyn. This year he has been effective both as a starter and as a reliever: he has won 13, the same number he wears on his uniform.
The batter is Bobby Thomson, who last inning made the Giant faithful wish that Billy Cox had been playing third for their side. On the other hand, he has gone 4-for-9 thus far in the playoff and did drive in the tying run in the seventh. While Branca tosses in his warm-ups, Durocher confers with Thomson. What he says, we will learn later, is, “Bobby, if you ever hit one, hit one now!”
The thought crosses Dressen’s mind whether, with men on second and third, to walk the dangerous Thomson intentionally and pitch to Mays, the overanxious rookie who has been a flop at the plate this afternoon. Charley had employed this strategy successfully, though with far less risk, in the fifth. But this time he decides to go with the book and does not put the potential winning run on base.
Assuming his stance in the batter’s box, Thomson remembers that the pitch he hit off Branca for the game-winning homer two days ago was a waist-high fastball, so that’s the one pitch he knows he won’t see now. But surprise, surprise, that is precisely what Branca fires in, and Thomson takes it for a strike. Lockman, perched on second, thinks, “Oh, no, he’ll never get another pitch like that again.”
And he’s right. The next pitch is a fastball high and inside, the kind pitchers had been getting him out on all season long. It is not a strike but a “purpose pitch” designed to set Thomson up for a curveball away on the next pitch. But Bobby takes a cut at it, meets it squarely, and the ball sails out in a low arc toward us in left. Here comes Andy Pafko, racing to the wall at the 315-foot mark and hoping the liner will start to drop. On the mound, Branca whirls to follow the flight of the ball, muttering, “Sink, sink, sink!” Thomson runs head down to first at full speed, for though he knows he has hit the ball hard, he doesn’t think it will reach the stands. As he nears first he looks up, in time to see his drive sink, sink, sink—not into Pafko’s waiting glove, but barely over the wall of the lower left-field stands! The Giants win!
A tremendous roar fills the old stadium, which has never seen a finish like this one. The Giants and their fans are jumping up and down, hugging each other in disbelief, shouting, laughing, crying from joy. Had there ever been a season such as this, a game the equal of this one? It is the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. The Dodgers and their faithful stand silent and hollow, trying to absorb the enormity of what has just happened. With one swing of the bat, the game that was won is lost. The pennant that was theirs now belongs to the hated Giants. The campaign that was to reach its climax in the World Series is now over. A thirteen-and-a-half game lead in mid-August, and now . . . nothing.
As Thomson realizes that the ball is in the seats, he begins to hop, then skip, then trot around the bases, the picture of joy unbounded. At home plate he is swallowed up in the throng of teammates and fans waiting to share this moment with him. It’s a great moment for Thomson, for the Giants, for baseball—but cast your eyes toward the outfield, where a scattered procession of somber Dodgers paces off the interminably long trip to the center-field clubhouse. Walking by himself, feeling the complete weight of the Dodger collapse on his shoulders, is Ralph Branca—Number 13—who forever after will be remembered as the “goat” of this incredible game, just as Bobby Thomson, very nearly the goat himself, will be remembered as its hero. One pitch, one swing—a goat, a hero—and the 156 games that have gone before, and the countless opportunities for victory along the way, are all forgotten. It’s unreasonable, and it’s cruel, but there’s no changing it now.