Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Bobby Thomson played lead role in passion play
In the wake of this unfortunate news, I began compiling a list of the 10 greatest, most memorable home runs in major league history. Fortunately, before getting too far along I discovered that David Schoenfield and Jeff Merron, not so long ago, came up with the 100 greatest home runs. So, there.*
* For what little it's worth, my Top 10 would be roughly the same as Schoenfield and Merron's, except I would knock Barry Bonds off the list and add Aaron Boone.
They've got Bill Mazeroski No. 1 and Bobby Thomson No. 2, which seems exactly right to me. Granted, you might reasonably wonder why Thomson's pennant-winning home run ranks ahead of Joe Carter's World Series-winning home run.
Yes, it's partly because New York City, then as now, was the media and sports capital of America. But it's also because Thomson's home run capped one of the more amazing pennant races that anyone's ever seen, as the Giants made up a 13-game deficit in the National League standings in little more than six weeks to forge a tie and force a best-of-three playoff series for the pennant.
And then, nine years ago The Shot Heard 'Round the World hit the public consciousness again, when Joshua Prager revealed, in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, that the Giants were stealing signs in the Polo Grounds in the second half of the season. And that when Bobby Thomson got that fateful fastball from Ralph Branca, he probably knew it was coming. (Not that sign-stealing was really so uncommon, before or after.)
Was it Ralph Branca's fault? Even aside from the sign-stealing, there's plenty of blame to go around.
As I argued in this book, manager Charlie Dressen's decision to summon Branca from the bullpen is highly defensible. Branca was well-rested, and his 3.26 ERA that season was 10th best in the National League. Carl Erskine was warming up alongside Branca in the bullpen, but Erskine, not yet a star, had a 4.37 career ERA. Given his options at that moment, Dressen made the right choice.
Which isn't to suggest that Dressen didn't make any mistakes. In fact, he might have made three of them.
A few days before the end of the 154-game schedule, there was a coin flip to determine home-field advantage in the event of a playoff series. The Dodgers won the flip ... and chose to play just one game in Brooklyn. We'll probably never know for sure who made that decision, but longtime Dodger executive Buzzie Bavasi told me, "No one but Charlie Dressen made the decision."
The first game would be played in Brooklyn, the second in Harlem, and the third -- if there was a third game -- in Harlem again. Both teams were (almost identically) outstanding at home that season: 49-27 for the Giants, 49-28 for the Dodgers. It's really hard to imagine why Dressen (or anyone else) would have chosen to play just once at home.
In the event, the Dodgers lost the first game largely because Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca that would have been a routine fly ball in the Polo Grounds, and they lost the third game largely because Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca that wouldn't have been a home run in Ebbets Field.
The Dodgers won the second game 10-0, so presumably it didn't matter where they played. Which brings up my second quibble with Dressen. The Dodgers' second-best pitcher in 1951 -- after Don Newcombe, who started the third game -- was probably rookie right-hander Clem Labine. Labine started that second game, and finished it. The Dodgers went ahead 6-0 in the sixth and 8-0 in the seventh. If Dressen had been thinking ahead, he might have lifted Labine with that huge lead and let someone else finish up. In those days, it wasn't uncommon for a pitcher to start one day, and pitch a short stretch in relief the next day. But with Labine having pitched nine innings on Tuesday, Dressen didn't have him start getting loose on Wednesday until Branca was in the game.
And finally, it might not have come to this if Dressen had been paying closer attention in the fateful ninth inning. Giants shortstop Alvin Dark led off with a weak single. For some reason (as the story goes), Brooklyn's Gil Hodges held Dark -- who'd stolen 12 bases during the season -- on first base. Don Mueller took advantage with a single through the vacated space. And a few moments later, Thomson and Branca made history.