The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World

The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World

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by Joshua Prager

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At 3:58 p.m. on October 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca. The ball sailed over the left field wall and into history. The Giants won the pennant. That moment—the Shot Heard Round the World—reverberated from the West Wing of the White House to the Sing Sing death house to the Polo Grounds clubhouse, where hitter and pitcher

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At 3:58 p.m. on October 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca. The ball sailed over the left field wall and into history. The Giants won the pennant. That moment—the Shot Heard Round the World—reverberated from the West Wing of the White House to the Sing Sing death house to the Polo Grounds clubhouse, where hitter and pitcher forever turned into hero and goat. It was also in that centerfield block of concrete that, after the home run, a Giant coach tucked away a Wollensak telescope. The Echoing Green places that revelation at the heart of a larger story, re-creating in extravagant detail and illuminating as never before the impact of both a moment and a long-guarded secret on the lives of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A revelation and a page turner, a group character study unequaled in baseball writing since Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer.”—The New York Times Book Review“Thrilling. . . . captures the enduring impact of the memorable moments that mark our lives.” —The Washington Post Book World“The most comprehensive account ever written of the most famous play in sports history.” —Newsday “This wonderful book is an absolute treasure. A master storyteller, Prager captures the reader from beginning to end.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin“A delightful book . . . You don’t have to believe that the Giants stole the game to enjoy The Echoing Green. You don’t even have to like baseball. That moment defined a generation.” —The New York Times“Compelling and thoughtful, the book meditates on the meaning of that home run in the legacies changed forever by a single crack of the bat.” —The Miami Herald“A seat along the first base line. . . . Prager, like a good hurler with a command of many pitches, delivers nuance even when you're expecting a fastball.” —The Plain Dealer“Prager turns his remarkable powers of investigation on the men involved in the scheme. The result is an absorbing critique of the competitive ethic that too often rules not only America's playing fields but its boardrooms as well.” —Sports Illustrated“The depth of Prager's research staggers the mind. . . . A must-have for baseball mavens.” —The Buffalo News“You will not find a better-reported book on any subject than The Echoing Green.” —New York Post
Elliott Vanskike
The story of how Thomson and Branca came to oppose each other on Oct. 3, 1951, and how each dealt with the aftermath gives The Echoing Green shape. But the brisk, detailed account of the playoff game and the home run that ended it gives the book pop. Prager contends that Thomson's home run resounds in the American consciousness more persistently than the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR's death or Kennedy's assassination. To those who would argue that a home run, even the most famous home run ever hit, doesn't signify in the way that grand historical events do, Prager has the perfect rebuttal: With novelistic detail and cinematic sweep, he situates Thomson's home run amid the daily lives of ordinary fans and against the backdrop of the Korean War and Soviet atomic tests.
— The Washington Post
John Thorn
The Echoing Green is a revelation and a page turner, a group character study unequaled in baseball writing since Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer some three decades ago. It is an ambitious book stylistically, with beautiful passages far outnumbering the clunkers.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
October 3, 1951, 3:58 p.m., Polo Grounds, New York City: "Branca throws. There's a long drive. It's gonna be, I believe-the Giants win the pennant!" That's the way New York Giants' announcer Russ Hodges described what is arguably the greatest moment in American sports, the shot "heard round the world," as the Giants defeated the Dodgers to win the National League pennant. Prager, a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal, has written a brilliant narrative not only about the most famous homerun in baseball history but also about the mystery that haunts it. Americans love a conspiracy, be it the grassy-knoll variety or perhaps a more innocuous one, like the stealing of baseball signs. For that is at the crux of this book: did the Giants know what the Dodger pitchers were going to throw before they threw it? (It should be pointed out that there is no baseball rule prohibiting stealing the opposing team's signs.) Prager, who first broke this story for the Wall Street Journal in 2001, tells a tale worthy of a "Deep Throat." The sign heist was ingeniously simple-all that was involved was a telescope, a buzzer and an isolated bullpen catcher. The baseball story is exciting, but Prager concentrates on what happened to the protagonists: Ralph Branca, the pitcher, forever branded a loser; Bobby Thomson, the phlegmatic gentleman, equally haunted by his heroics. We see the change in Branca when he learns the truth years later from Sal Yvars and the bitterness it engendered toward Thomson, a God-fearing man uncomfortable with his legal cheating. Finally we see a reconciliation between old adversaries, who became business partners, lucratively exploiting their infamy, becoming friends along the way. Although Prager does have a tendency to overpsychoanalyze both ballplayers, he paints a marvelous portrait of New York City baseball in the tradition of The Boys of Summer and Summer of '49, bringing to life once again a genuine piece of Americana. $125,000 promotional budget; appearances by Thomson and Branca; 6-city author tour. (Sept. 12) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The shenanigans that won the Giants the 1951 pennant. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Say it ain't so, Leo: an iconoclastic, most penetrating look at a famed 1951 clash between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Both teams long ago "deserted New York together," remarks Wall Street Journal writer Prager, yielding existential trauma yet unhealed. Well before leaving, on Oct. 3, 1951, their storied rivalry played itself to perfection in a pennant race to end all pennant races, "deadlocked after 156 games, seven innings and six months." It was, Prager writes, something that adults of a certain age would remember as surely as they did the death of JFK or FDR: Dodger Ralph Branca fires a fastball, Giant Bobby Thomson steps forward to swat it out of the park halfway to the moon, the Giants win. The moment is instantly celebrated as the greatest moment in baseball history, immortalized in novels by Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, in The Godfather and The Simpsons. Problem was, as Prager revealed on the 50th anniversary of the grand smack, Giants manager Leo Durocher, of fabulously foul mouth ("I never saw a fucking ball get out of a fucking ball park as fucking fast in my fucking life," he said of one Willie Mays homer), had stolen signals, employing spies with a telescope to suss out what the opposition was planning next. Durocher wasn't even the most masterful signal-stealer in the business, and it happened all the time, but he was also a gambler so profoundly compromised as to make Pete Rose look like a Brownie, and some writers have suggested that he be booted from the Hall of Fame for it. The whole affair was a black smudge on the game-and, as Prager patiently reveals, a dirty and tragic secret that would haunt both Thomson and Branca for decades to come. A masterfulblend of journalism, sports history, social history and even literature: one of the best baseball books to appear in a long time.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Now do you understand serendipity?

—horace walpole, letter to

Horace Mann, January 28, 1754

The sky above brooklyn darkened in seconds, a borough plunged into dusk five minutes after noon. It was July 18, 1951, and in offices downtown, people turned on lights and peered out windows. A squall in Brooklyn Heights toppled a tree on Willow Place onto three parked cars. A bolt of electricity cracked, hailstones big as marbles pelting Borough Hall. Gusts of wind rocked Sheepshead Bay, small boats radioing distress. The temperature freefell from a balmy 80 to 69 degrees and it began to pour, sheets of rain flooding Prospect Park, empty garbage cans afloat in Flatbush, eighteen inches of water cascading onto the tracks of the Grand Army Plaza subway station. Service halted.

The blitzkrieg stopped abruptly at 12:40 p.m. And born of a cold front in Canada, it all but sidestepped Manhattan, the IRT leading to the Polo Grounds just fine. Still, it was the second-to-smallest crowd of the season that wended this Wednesday to the Harlem field, just 3,538 folks come to watch Giants versus Cubs.

Turnout would no doubt have been smaller still were it not for Willie Howard Mays Jr. Mays was a rookie. The child of an Alabaman railroad porter, he had joined the Giants just twenty years, eighteen days old, the youngest black ever called to the major leagues. And on that May day had all New York excited. For in thirty-five AAA games, the center fielder had hit a startling .477.

Harlem had pulsed with pride when Jackie Robinson turned Dodger, Larry Doby Indian, Monte Irvin Giant, Sam Jethroe Brave. But it was the great black ballplayers in Brooklyn to whom Harlem gave its 700,000 hearts. Wrote poet Langston Hughes in 1950:

On sunny summer Sunday afternoons in Harlem

when the air is one interminable ball game

and grandma cannot get her gospel hymns

from the Saints of God in Christ

on account of the Dodgers on the radio. . . .

It was however a black Giant who now bunked at the corner of St. Nicholas and 155th Street, Mays renting the first floor of a boarding house owned by a woman named Ann Goosby. And quickly did Harlem take to Mays as it had to no Giant before. For the pheenom brought to the north end of Sugar Hill not only three 34-ounce bats but humanity. Willie, not William, was his given name. He weighed just 170 pounds, stood two inches shy of six feet. His black wool cap flew off mid- gallop. He scolded his Rawlings mitt when it dropped a ball. One hitless night in Philly, well along an anemic 1-for-26 start at bat, Mays sobbed. But oh that first hit—a home run off Warren Spahn that left its mark on both the left-field roof of the Polo Grounds and Leo Durocher. Cooed the Giant manager, “I never saw a fucking ball get out of a fucking ball park so fucking fast in my fucking life.” Harlem was in love.

Mays was the sure antidote to a proud organization’s thirteen-year pennant drought. It seemed no coincidence that with his arrival, New York won three straight to slip above .500. And so a manager protected him, teammates marveled at him and fans adored him, bestowing by summer a nickname on he who greeted all with a chummy “Say hey!” Just one person in fact had reason not to celebrate the Say-Hey Kid—the man manning center field before the kid arrived.

Bobby Thomson was in his fifth full season. Twice an all-star, he possessed power at the plate and skill afield—fast enough to play shallow yet still cover the enormous expanse that was center field at the Polo Grounds. But Thomson had neither the arm of young Mays nor his preternatural glove. And the day Mays turned Giant, Durocher alerted the papers (even before his center fielder) that Thomson was shoving over to left.

“Every time a kid comes up and takes your job, you’re not going to like it,” says Mays. “But I never heard Bobby complain. Actually, Bobby and Al Dark helped me how to play the hitters.” Dark went so far as to wag behind his back before most every pitch of the remaining 1951 season one or two fingers to alert the baby-face in center to what was upcoming.

Thomson, twenty-seven, received no such care. Batting just .229 when Mays arrived, yielding his position further bled his confidence. Over the next month, Thomson hit but three home runs and lost his spot in the starting lineup, Durocher using him only as pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. And as baseball’s June 15 trade deadline approached, the manager sought to unload him. Dangling Thomson and infielder Jack Lohrke, Durocher contacted Cub skipper Frankie Frisch to see if he might trade for Andy Pafko. Pafko was perfect, a left fielder who in 1950 had hit .304 with 36 home runs and a .591 slugging percentage. The slugger was off flying again with 12 home runs through 49 games. But when midnight struck on June 15, Pafko was a Brooklyn Dodger.

The deal was engineered by Emil Bavasi, a rookie general manager who had in the minors assembled five pennants. Just thirty-five, the wunderkind had wangled Pafko in person, flying to Chicago the day before to meet Cub general manager Wid Matthews at Wrigley Field. The trade was Bavasi’s first for Brooklyn and most in baseball felt it assured the club the pennant. When it was completed—eight players and $25,000 changed hands—Brooklyn senior scout Ted McGrew telegrammed the young Catholic general manager all called Buzzie. Read his note: “And a little child shall lead them.”

Desperate for help, Durocher picked up Earl Rapp, a minor league outfielder in Oakland. But in thirteen games in New York, the lefty contributed one single. Durocher would have to live and die with Thomson.

Thomson began July on a home run binge, belting six in eight games. But hitting just .231 at the all-star break, his .944 fielding percentage the worst of his young career, Thomson continued to sit more than he played. The fans did not seem to miss him—when in the ninth inning on July 15 he spelled Don Mueller in right, they booed.

And so now two days later at the Polo Grounds, Thomson was but a spectator, number 3,539 left this afternoon to watch Giants versus Cubs, to ooh when Mays hit a solo shot deep to left field, to aah when righty reliever George Spencer loaded the bases down 4–3 in the eighth.

It was a wonder Spencer, twenty-five, could pitch at all. For mid- game he had learned that wife Billie was in labor and rushed to the hospital. Cub pitcher Frank Hiller extended his lead off third and Spencer fired to Hank Thompson a pickoff throw. Hiller slid in ahead of the tag. Safe, his spikes pierced Thompson’s right foot, a black shoe welling with blood. Eleven outs later the game ended: Chicago 6, New York 3.

As after every Giant loss, a maintenance worker named Henry Colletti raised high above the clubhouse in center field a red flag. And in the green concrete below him, Anthony Palermo sewed a stitch into Thompson’s right big toe, the Giant doctor estimating the lefty hitter would sit at least ten days. New York needed another third baseman. And in Minneapolis, they had one.

Ray Dandridge was a minor league star. Property of New York, the bowlegged third baseman was batting in AAA .317 with 8 home runs and 53 runs batted in. He possessed a glittering glove besides. Dandridge in fact had but one drawback. He was black.

On February 28, a group of NAACP lawyers had walked into the federal district court at 424 South Kansas Avenue and on behalf of thirteen parents filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The parents wished for their twenty children entrance to a nonsegregated elementary school. As just one of the thirteen parents was a man, a black welder named Oliver Brown whose daughter Linda was eight, the suit bore his name. The trial of Brown versus the Board of Education began on June 25, and the national pastime, having wrestled with segregation, awaited its verdict.

Though four seasons had passed since Jackie Robinson trotted onto a diamond, the black major leaguer remained very much a statement, a conspicuous reflection of team policy. Just five of sixteen clubs had seen fit to employ a black player. And the major league owner who did, finger held to the wind of public opinion, remained careful to pussyfoot about the matter of race. He knew that many shook their heads when on July 7, in a Southwest International League game at Hidalgo Park in Mexicali, a man named Emmett Ashford was arbiter of foul and fair, the first black umpire in the twentieth century not in the Negro leagues. He knew that many bristled when on June 3, with two out in the second inning of a game at the Polo Grounds, Irvin, Mays and Thompson got aboard, white bases flush for the first time with black men. And he knew that many approved when on May 24, having called Mays up, New York at once sent down another black player, infielder Artie Wilson.

That unwritten quotas continued to hamstring black players was widely known. And it was certainly known by Dandridge. When in 1949 New York signed Dandridge, the son of a semipro catcher, it mattered not that in nine seasons in the Negro National League he had hit an estimated . 315, an estimated .343 in an additional nine seasons in Mexico. It mattered not that his mitt was renowned, that he was en route to the Hall of Fame. He was black and thirty-five, and so off not to New York but Minneapolis. And when there in 1949 Dandridge promptly batted .362 with 6 home runs and 64 runs batted in, still New York did not call him up. And when the next season Dandridge was named his league’s Most Valuable Player, still New York did not call him up. And when he continued to shine after his roommate Mays was promoted in May 1951, still New York did not call him up.

That Mays would become the fourth black in five years to be named Rookie of the Year did not matter. Since signing its first black player, fastballer John Ford Smith, on January, 27, 1949, New York had been careful to field only so many Negroes.

But Hiller had now spiked Thompson. And owing a stitched toe, the New York Giants were at last on July 18, 1951, primed to overlook race—if only until Thompson mended.

Dandridge, though, was suddenly unavailable. Three days prior, before a doubleheader at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, the third baseman had felt an acute pain in his side and been relieved in Asbury Hospital of his appendix. Dandridge would not play again until August 19.

Thus did a bloody digit and enflamed appendix now convene Durocher and Horace Stoneham in New York’s center-field clubhouse. And minutes after their 6–3 loss, so desperate were Giant manager and owner to scrounge up a third baseman that they settled on Bobby Thomson.

Thomson had not played third base in five years, had not played any infield position since April of 1947. But serendipity had smiled on Thomson. And Stoneham and Durocher had now three pronouncements for the New York press: Thompson would be optioned to the Ottawa Giants of the International League, Ottawa pitcher Al Corwin would fill his roster spot, and Thomson would take over for Thompson at third.

The lineup, though, needed more than to add Corwin and shed a P. For the 1951 season was half gone and the orange and black trailed the Brooklyn blue by seven and a half games. Durocher was exasperated.

The fiery manager had come to New York from Brooklyn in July of 1948 and vowed to rebuild the team in his image. He had. Gone were sluggers Johnny Mize, Sid Gordon and Walker Cooper. In were scrappers Alvin Dark, Eddie Stanky and Wes Westrum.

The new Giant warp and woof had meshed under Durocher in little more than a season, the team running up baseball’s best record in the second half of 1950. And on February 19, 1951, the very first day of the spring training that followed, Durocher chirped to the media that his boys would grab the pennant.

The press agreed, ninety-nine members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America fingering as pennant-winners New York. (Brooklyn, with sixty-nine votes, was runner-up.) “A new era has dawned,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times on April 20. “The hustling Leo Durocher finally has assembled a team of hustlers, and hope actually is blazing in the lee of Coogan’s Bluff.”

The Giants lost 12 of their first 14 games.

The team righted itself—winning 21 of 33 to pull within 4 games of first-place Brooklyn on July third. But their loss to Chicago on July 18 was their ninth in 14 games. The team was heading south.

Facing reporters after the game, Durocher fumed. He ripped his team for its poor play, umpire Dusty Boggess for tossing second baseman Eddie Stanky, clubhouse-man Eddie Logan for not confiding that he had told Spencer that his wife, Billie, was in labor. Durocher then stamped from the clubhouse, a trail of Fabergé cologne behind.

With evening, the rains returned. They forced the DC-3 flying Corwin from Ottawa to Manhattan to land at 1:00 a.m. in Albany. They slicked Spencer’s drive to Jewish Memorial Hospital, where Billie gave birth to a baby that was dead. And at 46 East 61st Street, they rapped the windows of Durocher’s apartment where a terrier named Briney Marlin and a boxer named Slugger greeted the manager at his door. Durocher always went straight home after a loss, stepped onto the baseball diamond etched into his linoleum floor, put on silk pajamas and his RCA television. And always, as Perry Como or Milton Berle entertained, he scavenged for any edge to win the next damn game.

“As long as I’ve got one chance to beat you,” Durocher later wrote

in his autobiography, “I’m going to take it. I don’t care if it’s a zillion

to one.”

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