When Bobby Thomson, the man who hit the most famous home run in the history of Major League Baseball, died last week it led me to do some thinking. It led me to think about the circumstances that so improbably brought Thomson and the 1951 New York Giants a National League pennant. It also led to me to think about how those circumstances affected my father, his family, and his neighbors in the Bronx, who were transfixed by what was happening before them.
This was a time when the Big Apple had three big league teams -- the New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. In those early years, the Giants were the most successful of them. Between 1883 and 1937, the Giants captured 13 NL pennants. The Giants won four consecutive pennants between 1921 and 1924. No NL team has matched this achievement.
But the Giants would fall hard. Between 1938 and 1950, the Giants finished in the second division six times including two last place finishes. During this period, the Giants finished no better than third. When the 1951 season began it looked like yet another long season. In April, the Giants rattled off eleven losses in a row and finished the month 3-12, including five losses to the Dodgers.
The Dodgers entered 1951 having won two of the last four NL pennants. Their roster included four future Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers -- Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider. Throw Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo into the mix and it's a wonder that any opposing pitcher could get through an inning. The dynamic duo of Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe anchored their starting rotation. They also had a gritty bullpen which included Carl Erskine, Clyde King, and Ralph Branca.
The Giants, on the other hand, did not stand so tall upon first sight. Campanella's batting average was more than 100 points higher than that of Giants catcher Wes Westrum (although Westrum drew nearly twice as many walks as Campy). Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky might have been scrappy but how could they stack up against Jackie and Pee Wee? Then there was The Duke, who was only the premier centerfielder in baseball. And what did the Giants have to offer but a 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays?
Now before Mays became "Say Hey Kid" the patrons at the Polo Grounds were asking, "Say what?" After Mays was called up from Minneapolis in late May he struggled at the plate. The despondent Mays wanted to be sent back down to the minors but Giants skipper Leo Durocher wouldn't have any of it. Durocher told Mays, "You're my center fielder. Don't worry about anything else." In his next game, Mays hit a long home run off Boston Braves ace Warren Spahn. It would be the first of 660. While Durocher is famous for having said, "Nice guys finish last," his kindness to Mays in his hour of need would be crucial not only to his success but that of the team.
The Giants slowly but surely began to win ballgames and would climb into contention. Sal Maglie and Larry Jensen proved to be as formidable a tandem for the Giants as Newcombe and Roe were for the Dodgers. Monte Irvin, a Negro League All-Star, was having the best year of his all too short big league career. Whitey Lockman and Don Mueller provided steady if unspectacular offense while Bobby Thomson led the team in home runs.
On August 11, the Giants had a respectable 59-51 record. But they seemed light years away from the Dodgers, who at 70-36 (plus one tie) were winning nearly two out of every three games they played. The Giants were 13½ games back of the Dodgers. The following day the Giants swept the Phillies in a Sunday doubleheader marking the beginning of a 16-game winning streak en route to winning 37 out of 44 games.
The Dodgers didn't collapse so much as the Giants ascended to new heights. The boys from Brooklyn went 26-22 over this same period. In any other season it would have been enough. But the Giants had tied the Dodgers for first place, forcing a three game playoff.
Thomson took Branca deep to put the Giants on top 3-1 in the first game. The Dodgers got even the following day 10-0. It all came down to one game.
My father's family was one of the few households that had a television set. The basement apartment on Longfellow Avenue in the South Bronx became an ad hoc clubhouse for the neighborhood kids, who were heartily rooting for the Giants. With the Giants down 4-1 entering the bottom of the ninth, the gang inexplicably decided to make hats out of paper bags. They had invented the rally cap without even knowing it.
And what a rally it was. Dark and Mueller hit back to back singles. After Irvin popped out to Hodges, Lockman doubled home Dark. But Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third and was pinch run for by Clint Hartung. Meanwhile, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen removed Newcombe in favor of Branca to face Thomson. He hit Branca's second pitch over the left field wall. Giants win 5-4. Russ Hodges exclaimed, "The Giants won the pennant!!! The Giants won the pennant!!!" Dad and the whole gang ran out onto the street along with the entire neighborhood to celebrate "the shot heard 'round the world."
That the Giants were dispatched in six games by the Yankees (who won their third of five straight World Series titles) was anti-climatic. Within the decade both the Dodgers and Giants would break their fans hearts by moving to California. But those memories aren't going anywhere. You can take baseball out of New York but you can't take New York out of baseball.