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HeartbreakersBaseball's Most Agonizing Defeats
By John Kuenster
Ivan R. Dee PublisherCopyright © 2002 John Kuenster
All right reserved.
Dodgers Crushed by the "Shot
Heard 'Round the World"
"Those Dodger-Giant games weren't baseball. They
were civil war."--Andy Pafko
It was approaching four o'clock in the afternoon on October 3, 1951, when Russ Hodges made one of the most spine-tingling home-run calls in baseball history. Seated in the WMCA radio booth at the Polo Grounds in New York, he was watching a tall Giants hitter, Bobby Thomson, step into the batter's box to face Ralph Branca, a right-handed Brooklyn Dodger reliever who had come in from the bullpen to close out the ninth inning and wrap up the final game of the playoff series that would determine the National League pennant winner.
A native Kentuckian, Hodges was a soft-spoken, droll professional who had been broadcasting Giant games since 1949. He announced action on the field with a certain sense of dispassion, except when he called "Bye, bye, baby!" in describing a home run hit by a Giant player. At 3:58 p.m. on that memorable Wednesday, however, his passion exploded. What transpired at that moment became known as the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" and turned into one of the dominant news stories of the year.
While baseball unquestionably remained America's game in 1951, it shared the public's attention with events that were making headlines as the second half of the twentieth century unfolded: the Korean War, Harry Truman's firing of General Douglas MacArthur, the powerful new influence of television.
In baseball, Joe DiMaggio signed a $100,000 contract with the Yankees for the third straight year; a 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays made his debut with the Giants; Bob Feller pitched his third no-hitter for the Cleveland Indians; Bill Veeck sent up a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns against the Detroit Tigers; and Ford Frick was elected to a seven-year term as baseball commissioner.
Less than two weeks after Frick's election, the Dodgers and Giants finished the season tied for first place in the National League, necessitating a three-game playoff to decide who would face the Yankees in the World Series.
Both clubs had completed their regular 154-game schedules with identical 96-58 records, though the standings were still in doubt until late the final day, Sunday, September 30. In Boston the Giants beat the Braves 3-2. The score was posted on the scoreboard at Philadelphia's Shibe Park, where the Dodgers were struggling against the Phillies in extra innings. It was getting dark, and players were having trouble following the ball, but league rules prohibited the lights from being turned on for a Sunday game. Finally Jackie Robinson, as he had done so often during the season, rescued the Dodgers by slamming a 14th inning home run into the left-field bleachers off Robin Roberts to give his teammates their needed victory, 9-8.
Although the Dodgers almost fell off the top rung of the ladder at the end, they entered the playoff series as favorites against a team that had fashioned an incredible rally to get as far as it did. As late as August 7 the Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13-1/2 games.
Earlier, critics had claimed that the Giants had only a two-man pitching staff in Sal Maglie and Larry Jansen, and an infield that included an erratic shortstop in Alvin Dark, an aging second baseman in Eddie Stanky, and a converted outfielder at third base in Bobby Thomson. But as the season moved into July, starter Jim Hearn finally gained his control and began throwing strikes, giving manager Leo Durocher three consistently effective pitchers. Thus armed, and with some robust hitting by left fielder Monte Irvin, the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games to hit the wire in a dead heat with Brooklyn.
The rivalry between the two teams was fierce. "Those Dodger--Giant games weren't baseball, they were civil war," recalled Andy Pafko, who played for Brooklyn that year. While the rivalry had festered for years, it was magnified by the fact the Giants' give-no-quarter manager, Durocher, had piloted the Dodgers in the 1940s. There was no love lost between Durocher and Charlie Dressen, the egocentric manager of the Dodgers. Dressen, at 53, was seven years older than Durocher and considered himself one of the world's great baseball minds. Durocher also had a substantial ego and used every trick imaginable to gain an upper hand on the field.
When the season began, the Giants went into a swoon after winning their first two games. They lost their next 11, five of them to Brooklyn. During these April skirmishes, tempers flared on both sides, and the bench jockeying was fierce. Durocher's loud mouth and down-and-dirty tactics riled not only the Dodgers but other opponents as well.
On April 29 at Ebbets Field, Jansen knocked down Duke Snider with a high inside fastball, a pitch the Dodgers obviously felt had been called by Durocher--though pitchers on both sides didn't have to be told to intimidate batters. Snider retaliated by hitting a pair of home runs as the Dodgers went on to win 6-3. During the game Don Newcombe, Brooklyn's ace pitcher, kept yelling over to the Giants' dugout, "Eat your heart out, Leo! Eat your heart out!"
On April 30 the Giants finally ended their losing streak, beating the Dodgers 8-5, but not before Jackie Robinson tried to exact a measure of revenge for the knockdown pitches thrown by the Giants. On a bunt down the first-base line, Robinson hoped to draw Sal Maglie over to the base line to field the ball so that he could slam into him. The ball rolled foul, but Robinson bumped Maglie anyway. Durocher blasted Robinson's effort as a "bush stunt." Robinson retorted, "If it was a bush stunt, he's a bush manager, because he taught me to do it."
The Giants were lodged in eighth place as May arrived, and their fans and some local baseball writers thought they were finished. "It would take a miracle for them to win a championship now," wrote Arthur Daley of the New York Times. "Says who?" countered the combative Durocher. "There's a long way to go before the season is over."
Durocher's bravado, however, could not diminish the fact that the Dodgers had one of the National League's best teams in years. Their regular lineup included four future Hall of Famers: Jackie Robinson at second, Pee Wee Reese at short, Duke Snider in center, and Roy Campanella behind the plate. They had power in Gil Hodges at first, and two skilled defensive players in third baseman Billy Cox and right fielder Carl Furillo, a dangerous hitter with a tremendously strong throwing arm.
The only apparent soft spot in the Dodger lineup was left field. That weakness was addressed in June when Brooklyn acquired 30-year-old veteran Andy Pafko in an eight-player deal with the Cubs. Although his normal position was center field, Pafko was moved to left. He brought with him solid defensive credentials and extra-base hitting power.
On paper the Giants seemed decidedly overmatched by the Dodgers, who continued their mastery by sweeping three straight from Durocher's crew at Ebbets Field in early July, bolstering their first-place lead to seven and a half games. The sweep caused Charlie Dressen to overflow with optimism. "We knocked 'em out," he crowed. "They won't bother us any more." An old-time baseball warrior, Dressen should have known better than to say something like that, even though the Dodgers continued to pummel their enemies from upper Manhattan, wrapping up another three-game sweep against the Giants in early August.
When the Giants brought up Willie Mays from the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in late May, he faltered at the plate in the early going, but he sparkled in center field and his presence gave the club a much-needed boost in morale. By midseason the Giants' pitching had come together, and Mays had found the range with his bat. The once seemingly insurmountable Dodger lead began to shrink as the Giants won 16 straight games from August 12 through August 27. On September 20 the Dodgers held first place, four and a
Labine, a young rookie whom he had bypassed during the club's desperate stretch run. Dressen could be a punitive character, and he had a grudge against the brash Labine who had lost a critical game to the Phillies on September 21. Labine promptly made Dressen look foolish for his peevishness by shutting down the Giants in the second playoff game, 10-0. His six-hit masterpiece set the stage for the decisive third game, pitting Newcombe against Maglie at the Polo Grounds.
Early in the game the lights had to be turned on because of overcast skies. Newcombe had pitched 23-2/3 innings over the previous seven days but managed to hold the Giants in check. After the seventh inning, with the score tied 1-1, Newcombe walked into the Dodger dugout and confessed, "I've got nothing left." Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, who sat out the game because of a pulled thigh muscle, talked to Newcombe. The big right-hander complained, "My arm is tight."
"Bullshit," responded Robinson. "Go out there and pitch until your arm falls off."
"Roomie," said Campanella, "don't quit on us now."
In the top of the eighth the Dodgers punched over three runs to fatten their lead to 4-1. Newcombe set down the Giants one-two-three in the eighth, but in the bottom of the ninth, holding a three-run lead, weariness caught up with him. He yielded singles to Alvin Dark and Don Mueller. Then, after retiring Irvin on a foul caught by Gil Hodges, Brooklyn's workhorse pitcher was touched for a double by Whitey Lockman, making the score 4-2, with runners at second and third and one out.
Earlier Dressen had called the Dodgers' bullpen, asking coach Clyde Sukeforth for an evaluation of Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine, who were warming up for possible relief duty. Branca had been loosening up his arm since the fifth inning.
"Branca's popping the ball," Sukeforth reported. "Erskine's not at his best." Erskine had thrown one of his curveballs in the dirt. Branca had pitched just two days earlier, but he was now firing glove-smacking fastballs.
"Give me Branca," Dressen ordered.
So Branca, wearing number 13 on the back of his uniform, was summoned to relieve Newcombe and face Thomson, a
"Before I got in the batter's box, all I thought about was hitting the ball," Thomson later recalled. "I got mad at myself. I said to myself, 'Get in there, you so-and-so, and bear down. Watch for the ball. Wait for it. Don't swing at a bad pitch.' I guess my anger was a way of disciplining my anxiety, forcing me to concentrate on the pitch, making me be selective."
In the radio booth upstairs, Russ Hodges began his now-famous eyewitness account: "Bobby Thomson up there swinging. He's had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line. One out, last of the ninth, Branca pitches. Bobby Thomson takes a strike call on the inside corner! Bobby hitting .292. He drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center. Brooklyn leads it, 4 to 2. [Clint] Hartung down the line at third, not taking any chances. Lockman without too big a lead at second, but he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one.
"Branca throws. There's a long drive! It's going to be ... I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands!
"The Giants win the pennant! And they're going crazy! Oh-ho! I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe Bobby Thomson hit a line drive into the lower deck of the left-field stands, and this whole place is going crazy. The Giants won it 5 to 4, and they're picking Bobby Thomson up and carrying him off the field!"
"When Thomson came to the plate," Andy Pafko recalled, "I was playing straightaway in left field. In the Polo Grounds you more or less had to play straightaway because you had to protect that big gap between you and center field. And besides, I knew Bobby was more of a straightaway hitter because I had played against him for a number of years.
"But you had to be careful playing left or right field at the Polo Grounds because the angle of the walls caused balls to be deflected in odd ways. If the ball hit off the wall and you didn't play it properly, it'd get by you for a double or triple.
"I was thinking ahead, figuring what I would do if he hit in my direction. He represented the winning run. Would I throw
what happened. We had this 4-1 lead, and the whole ball game blew up in front of me, right there.
"I had been thinking, well, tomorrow we're going out to Yankee Stadium for the opener of the World Series. Here we had gone into the ninth inning with a three-run lead. I mean, everything was on our side. But like they say, the game isn't over until the last man is out.
"I just started heading for the clubhouse out there in center field. I don't even remember looking at them mobbing Thomson at home plate. By the time I got to the clubhouse steps, all of us outfielders were there together--Snider, Furillo, and myself. We followed each other up the steps to the clubhouse, and I still couldn't believe what had just happened.
"All bedlam broke loose because the Giants had won the pennant. We were the first ones in the clubhouse, and all the photographers and newspaper guys were there, expecting us to be the winners. As we started taking our gear down, the photographers were leaving, going to the Giants' side. We could hear the noise in the Giants' clubhouse next door. They were banging on the walls to remind us, I suppose, that they had won.
"In the meantime I looked out in center field and the playing field was full of people. They were all cheering for Bobby Thomson, Bobby Thomson. It just kept ringing in our ears. Bobby could have run for mayor or had anything he wanted at that moment because he was the hero."
In the Dodgers' clubhouse "everybody was subdued, in disbelief," Pafko recalled. "We all went by Ralph's locker, patted him on the back, and tried to console him. He just stood there, didn't move a muscle. I felt sorry for Ralph. I never saw him so dejected. He thought he had lost the pennant. But we told him, 'You didn't lose it, Ralph. We lost it, we lost it as a team.'
"We had a lot of chances to win the pennant during the summer. We had a 13-1/2 game lead, but we blew it. With a short time to go we played .500 baseball. Under normal conditions we still could have won it, but the Giants got awfully hot. They'd win three out of four, three out of three, and that's why it went down to the last day of the season when we had to beat the Phillies just to get into the playoffs."
watching the game on TV, and the cab driver was blowing the horn. So she went outside and told the driver, 'I'm watching that playoff game in New York. Give me a few more minutes, the game will be over soon.' She gets back into the house, the TV is blaring, Bobby Thomson hits the 'shot heard 'round the world,' and she knew she wouldn't be going to New York.
"So my wife goes out to the cab and tells the driver, 'Well, you can be on your way. The Giants won the pennant.' She gave him a few bucks for a tip and away he went. Instead of her coming to New York to see the Yankees and Dodgers play, I was coming back to Chicago by plane."
Not considering himself, Pafko insisted that the Dodgers, man for man, were a better team than the Giants. "Campanella," he said, "was one of the best defensive catchers in all of baseball. You can name any of the good ones of the past, like Bill Dickey or Birdie Tebbetts. Campy was right up there with them. He was a power hitter. Pitchers liked to throw to him because he knew the game. That year he hit around .325 and had 33 homers. You know, he missed the last two games of the '51 playoffs because he had pulled a leg muscle in the first game.
"At first base we had Hodges, one of the finest defensive players I ever saw at that position. You find a lot of lefthanders at first. Gil was right-handed, but he adapted beautifully. He had a great pair of hands. He was a pull hitter. He hit the long ball and drove in a lot of runs for us. He was quiet, but every once in a while he'd show his temper.
"Jackie Robinson at second base--what can I say about Jackie Robinson that hasn't already been said? He had speed. He could upset the pitcher when he was on base. I'll never forget a game when I was with the Cubs, he stole second, third, and home on three pitches. He produced one run all by himself. I don't know whether Curt Flood or Rickey Henderson ever did that, but it was something to see. Jackie did so many things to win games.
"Over at shortstop we had Pee Wee Reese, another great defensive guy. He knew the game, he was our captain. He positioned our players a lot. He was a good hit-and-run man. Just an intelligent ball player. He would've made a good manager, but he didn't want to manage.
"Billy Cox was just an average hitter, but he was one of the finest defensive third basemen of that time. As far as fielding is concerned, I'd rank him with Brooks Robinson. He was quick with his glove and just outstanding with his throws.
"In right field we had Furillo, who was a magician out there. Ebbets Field was tricky in right field because of the wall, but he knew how to play the angles, and runners didn't take risks against him. The wall was 30 feet high with a 28-foot screen above it. And there was a scoreboard in right center with a clock on top of it. It wasn't easy to play right because the ball would bounce off those things in crazy ways. But Furillo mastered the caroms. He was called the 'Reading Rifle' because he had such a great arm. He got that nickname when he played for Reading [Pennsylvania] in the Eastern League. There was a game I remember when he caught the ball on one hop in right field and threw out the runner before he reached first base. They say he did that at Reading six times.
"In center field there was Duke Snider, who gave us great power from the left side of the plate. He was the only left-handed hitter in our regular lineup that year. He was coming into his own, and I think there were five straight years later on that he hit 40 or more home runs, which was something in those days. He was one of the greatest outfielders of our time, a Hall of Famer, even though he was overshadowed by Mays and Mantle.
"And, of course, I played left field." In seventeen seasons from 1943 through 1959, Pafko played on four pennant-winning teams--the Cubs in 1945, the Dodgers in 1952, and the Milwaukee Braves in 1957 and 1958. He was on four National League All-Star teams, finished with a career batting average of .285, and has long been regarded as one of the best center fielders ever to wear a Cub uniform. He also had good bat control; in 1950, when he hit 36 home runs, he struck out only 32 times. In fact he never struck out more than 50 times in a season during his entire career.
While the Dodgers were set in center field with Snider early in the 1951 season, they traded for Pafko because they knew he was versatile enough to make the adjustment to left field. "I had played a little left field in the minors," he said, "but when I was coming up through the Cubs' farm system, I was strictly a center fielder. In my opinion, center field is the easiest outfield position to play because you're directly behind the pitcher and you can get a better break, left or right, on the ball. In left or right you have to wait to see if the ball is being hooked or sliced.
"But I adapted. It wasn't much of a transition for me when I was with the Dodgers."
What about the rivalry between Dressen and Durocher during the '51 season?
"They were both great baseball people," Pafko said with a knowing laugh. "They tried to outsmart, outthink each other Leo had that crazy disposition. He was kind of a wild guy. I don't think he had too many friends in baseball. If you were on his side you admired the guy, but if you played against him it was different.
"I'll never forget my first game when I came up with the Cubs, and it was against the Dodgers. Leo was managing the Dodgers then. I was up to the plate for the first time, and Durocher is on the top step of the Dodgers' dugout, yelling, 'Ah, you busher, you'll be back in the minor leagues next year!' I got a couple of hits, and that quieted him down. He didn't say much after that."
Pafko recalls, "I once asked Bobby Thomson, 'How did it feel to hit that home run?' He said, 'Andy, that's history.' He didn't even want to talk about it. He was so humble. You'd think some players would gloat about that forever. It would go to their heads. That wasn't the case with Bobby."
Did that playoff heartbreaker darken Pafko's normally cheerful demeanor for long? "No," Pafko answered, "I managed to shake it off, but I think it was the beginning of the end for Ralph Branca. He was never the same after that. I could sense it hurt him emotionally. Maybe I'm wrong. Ralph was a great pitcher. He had good stuff. He just got one pitch in the wrong spot. We didn't want him to take it as a personal loss. As I said, it was a team loss, even though it's still hard to believe we got beat."
Excerpted from Heartbreakers by John Kuenster Copyright © 2002 by John Kuenster. Excerpted by permission.
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