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Russ Hodges' call of Bobby Thomson pennant-winning home run in 1951.
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Monday, October 8, 2001
1951 was a season for the ages
By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

It was the first season Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle played in the major leagues and the last season Joe DiMaggio did.

It was the season Bill Veeck sent a midget to the plate and Bobby Thomson sent a pitch into history. The season boys first heard the sound of Topps baseball cards clothes-pinned to their bicycle spokes and fans heard Russ Hodges' home run call around the world. The season one future Hall of Famer's career ended before he ever played a game and another Hall of Famer's life began on baseball's most famous date.

It was the season the Polo Grounds was a nest of spies (including J. Edgar Hoover), Brooklyn a borough of tears and New York City was so much the center of baseball that the city should have been surrounded by a cushioned cork and yards of yarn.

In short, 1951 was a season so good, so rich and so thrilling, that even when it was over, it wasn't over (yes, Yogi Berra played that summer as well).

Bobby Thomson
Is there a season that still reverberates in American sports as much as 1951? In the most famous pennant race of all-time, the Giants rallied from 13 ½ games behind their hated Brooklyn rivals. Forget about the size of the lead, the pennant race became so heated and so frantic that there was barely enough time to keep track of who was coming and going. In a most unusual doubleheader in mid-September, the Giants played a day game against the Cardinals in the morning and a night game against the Braves. The Giants lost both, which was to be expected given they broke one of sports' elemental rules by trying to play them two at a time.

The Giants overcame that double-loss, of course, tying Brooklyn to force a three-game playoff and set the stage for the most famous home run call in history ... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.


There are several great rivalries in American pro sports but none has lasted longer or been as intense as the Giants and Dodgers. Playing in the same city for decades, then moving to California together in 1958, they have been a matched set for more than a century. Unlike the Red Sox and Yankees rivalry, the Giants and Dodgers also have been more evenly matched. Neither has repeatedly won at the expense of the other, nor has one enjoyed decades of success while the other floundered.

Not that the rivalry is anywhere near as intense as it was in 1951, when, as former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe described, "Sal Maglie would knock down Roy Campanella and then I would knock down Willie Mays."

Fueling the intense Brooklyn-New York rivalry in 1951 was the fact the Giants' and Dodgers' top farm teams, respectively, were the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints, who themselves were such intense rivals that older fans still talk about it. Charles Schulz, who had just created his "Peanuts" comic strip in 1951, grew up in St. Paul and in an interview before his death said that as a young baseball fan, he cared nothing about the major leagues, only that the Saints beat the Millers.

"We hated Minneapolis," Schulz said. "It just killed us to lose to them. They would play holiday doubleheaders and if we swept them, it was as if the sun never set."

Beating Minneapolis wasn't easy that spring because the Millers had a 20-year-old center fielder who hit .477 with eight home runs, 30 RBI and 38 runs in the first 35 games before the Giants called him up to New York and Willie Mays said Say-Hey to the major leagues.

(St. Paul could not counter with any such midseason contribution for the Dodgers, waiting until the season's final day to make its greatest contribution to baseball.)

Mays was reluctant to leave Minneapolis, especially when he began his big-league career by going 0-for-12 in his first three games. In his 13th at-bat, Mays finally connected with a pitch from Warren Spahn, sending it far into the bleachers. Depending on the source, either Spahn or Giants manager Leo Durocher said, "For the first 60 feet, it was a helluva pitch."

It also was a sign of things to come -- Mays would hit 20 more home runs that season to earn rookie of the year honors and hit 660 in his career.

Across the river at Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, Mickey Mantle was struggling in his rookie season. Two days after Mays' home run, he struck out five consecutive times in a doubleheader and was eventually sent back to the minors in mid-July. He wouldn't stay there long, however.


The first edition of Topps baseball cards appeared in a limited set in 1951 (the gum, of course, was manufactured 40 years earlier) and the company had an amazing collection of baseball talent to choose from that season. Mays and Mantle, DiMaggio and Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, Stan Musial and Berra, Satchell Paige and Bob Feller.

And while there was no Topps card for him, there was one other famous baseball name as well. Eddie Gaedel.

You see, while New York fans might have had the Yankees, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, the Boys of Summer and the annual pennant races, other cities didn't fare so well. It may have been baseball's golden age, but outside New York and Cleveland, not many people noticed.

No team struggled as much as the lowly St. Louis Browns, purchased that summer by radical owner Bill Veeck. Perhaps the finest promoter to ever run a baseball team, Veeck helped put ivy on Wrigley's walls and an exploding scoreboard in Comiskey Park, but his finest and most memorable promotion was August 19.

Prior to a doubleheader with Detroit, Veeck signed the 3-foot-7 Gaedel to a legitimate contract, fitted him with a bulky uniform that bore the number 1/8 on the back and then inserted him into the lineup as a pinch-hitter for Frank Saucier. Veeck told Gaedel there were sharpshooters on the stadium roof in case he tried to swing the bat.

Bobby Thomson
Bobby Thomson eludes fans on the base path after his pennant-winning home run.
With the crowd roaring, Detroit pitcher Bob Cain pitched to Gaedel as best he could, but walked him on four high ones (he really could have used this season's high high strike zone). Jim Delsing pinch-ran for Gaedel and the short man left the field to applause. "For a moment," Gaedel said, "I felt like Babe Ruth."

The next day, American League president Will Harridge voided Gaedel's contract and banned him from play, saying his presence was detrimental to the game. Gaedel complained that Harridge was ruining his career, but there were no lawsuits (it was a less litigious age) and baseball went on, its integrity no further challenged.

Veeck held several more outlandish promotions -- he let the fans make the managerial decisions just a few games later and took responsibility decades later when his son, Mike, held Disco Demolition Night -- but he maintained that no matter what he did, he would be forevermore remembered as the man who sent a midget up to bat.

He was right about that.

The Gaedel promotion earned Veeck lasting fame but it didn't help him much at the turnstile. Despite the promotion, the game drew less than 19,000 fans and the Browns drew less than 300,000 fans the entire season. Two years later, Veeck sold the Browns to investors who moved the team Baltimore where they became the Orioles.


Yogi Berra is famous for saying, "It ain't over 'til it's over," and he was right about that. He just was in the wrong league. The Yankees and Cleveland battled for first place in the American League all season before Mantle returned to fuel New York down the stretch to the title, but it is the National League pennant race everyone remembers.

The Giants got off to a horrible start in 1951, losing 11 in a row during the season's first two weeks and falling to 2-12. The heavily favored Dodgers, meanwhile, got off to a roaring start and held a 13 ½ game by August 11.

It seemed insurmountable, but in truth, the lead was as narrow as the thin door that separated the Giants and visitors clubhouses at the Polo Grounds.

"Me and Ralph Branca used to bang on that door after we beat them and holler, 'Eat your heart out, Leo, eat your heart out,'" Newcombe said. "Me and Branca. Isn't that ironic?"

Because of such disturbances, the Giants bricked over the door in midseason but that didn't prevent the Dodgers from serenading their rivals through the clubhouse wall after an August 9 victory, singing, "Roll out the barrels, we've got the Giants on the run."

With the possible exceptions of Pete Rose's vocalisms for Bryl-Crème and Roseanne's version of the national anthem, it was the most ill-advised song in baseball history. For even though they had been falling in the standings, the Giants were coming together as a team in midsummer.

For one thing, Dave Anderson writes in "Pennant Races," Thomson shifted from left field to third base and changed his batting stance July 20, moves that fueled a second-half surge. He hit .346 from that point on after hitting .241 before that. Or was it really the change in his stance?

For July 20, interestingly, also was the day the Giants installed a powerful telescope in Durocher's center field office to steal the opposing catchers' signs. A spotter stole the signs and relayed them to the Giants dugout via a buzzer system.

A Wall Street Journal story described the plan in explicit detail to nationwide headlines last winter -- "Every hitter knew what was coming. Made a big difference," pitcher Ed Gettel told the Journal -- but the spy tale leaked out as early as 40 years ago when the Associated Press first reported the story and was well known enough that Anderson described how it worked in his 1995 pennant race book.

How much did the sign-stealing help the Giants? Dave Smith of Retrosheet researched the Giants scoresheets for the entire and found something very interesting. While New York went 51-18 after they began stealing signs (including 24-6 at the Polo Grounds), the Giants actually hit worse at home after that point than before.

That doesn't mean the Giants didn't benefit because they might have hit even worse had they not stolen signs. But it does call into question just how much they might have really benefited from stealing signs and how much from a staff that pitched significantly better in the second half than the first.

Thomson has said that he occasionally took advantage of the stolen signs but definitely not on the final pitch of the season. Branca calls the sign-stealing "despicable" and "immoral" but trusts Thomson and doesn't criticize him. Newcombe says he believes Thomson and also downplays the importance of the stolen signs.

"The Giants also stole signs in 1952 and 1953," Newcombe says. "And we won those years so it didn't help them then."


Whether it was stealing signs or pitching better or a combination of the two, the Giants began winning. They won 16 in a row the second half of August and closed the gap to five games. Even losing their odd two-team doubleheader barely slowed them.

By September, it was a pennant race and Brooklyn could hear the Giants approach as loudly as a subway train approaching the ballpark. The Giants won 37 of their final 44 games to steadily hunt down the Dodgers, edging ever closer to Brooklyn and drawing the pennant race tighter and tighter, while the fans sweated more and more.

And remember, this pennant race unfolded decades before SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight could keep fans up to date. How did they survive?

With their magic number at just four, the Dodgers faded the season's final week, losing three of four from the Braves. Tensions ran so high in the final game of that series that umpire Frank Dascoli not only ejected catcher Roy Campanella over a disputed call, he ejected the entire Brooklyn bench.

That gave Dodgers rookie callup Bill Sharman a rare distinction -- he is the only player to ever be ejected from a major league game without having ever played in one. Sharman never returned to the majors but his sports career survived anyway. He traded his spikes for sneakers, teamed up with Bob Cousy and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics.

The Giants finally caught the Dodgers the season's final Friday and went ahead briefly the final Sunday when they beat the Braves. They were ready to celebrate with champagne when the Phillies took an 8-5 lead over Brooklyn into the eighth inning. With Newcombe pitching six innings of relief the day after throwing a shutout and Robinson saving the season with a diving catch and a 13th inning home run though, the Dodgers rallied to win the final regularly scheduled game of the season.

The Dodgers and Giants were tied, necessitating a three-game playoff.


New Yorkers love to brag about what great baseball fans they are and how the '50s were baseball's golden era, but after the two teams split the first two games of the playoff, the nation's largest city left about 20,000 seats empty for the most famous game ever played. Among the 34,320 who were at the Polo Grounds on that Oct. 3 afternoon was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who did not unearth the Giants sign-stealing scheme while sitting with Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra.

Others listened to the game on the radio or watched it on TV with the great Ernie Harwell providing the TV commentary.

The Dodgers scored a run in the first inning and led 1-0 most of the game. After each inning, Durocher yelled at Newcombe, Brooklyn's starter that day, "We're staying close, we're going to get you," and the pitcher yelled back, "You're running out of time."

The Giants tied it with a run in the seventh, only to give up three runs in the eighth and go into the bottom of the ninth trailing 4-1.

Newcombe had won two games in five days and allowed only one run in 23 innings but he was finally wearing down. He began the ninth by allowing singles to Alvin Dark and Don Mueller before retiring Monte Irvin on a foul pop. Whitey Lockman followed with a double to score Dark and advance Mueller to third base, where he pulled up with torn tendons in his ankle. While the Giants replaced Mueller with pinch-runner Clint Hartung, Dodgers manager called for Branca to relieve Newcombe.

"Branca patted me on the fanny and said, 'Don't worry about it, big fella, I'll take care of everything,'" Newcombe said. "And in two pitches he took care of everything."

With Hartung on third, Lockman on second, Mays in the on-deck circle and the baseball world peering in, Branca took the mound to pitch to Thomson, the man with whom his name would become forever linked.

Having allowed a home run to Thomson in the first game of the playoff, Branca wanted to get ahead of Thomson this time to set him up for a curveball. He never got the chance. After Thomson took a first-pitch fastball for a strike he swung at the second pitch, another fastball, and -- well, let the late Giants announcer Russ Hodges describe it.

Eddie Gaedel
Eddie Gaedel in his lone at-bat for the St. Louis Browns.
"Branca throws. There's a long fly. It's gonna be -- I believe -- The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits it into the lower deck of the left field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they're going crazy, they're going crazy!"

Wayne Terwilliger, the only man in the majors that season still wearing a professional uniform, was with the Dodgers and counting his money when Branca threw the pitch. "I was sitting near the corner of the clubhouse thinking, 'I wonder how much money we get if we win?' " Terwilliger said. "I was thinking (a World Series share) must be $5,000. And then Thomson hit the ball and I started to look and saw it go out and just fell to my knees."

Newcombe, meanwhile was showering in the Dodgers clubhouse, which had been crowded with writers and photographers preparing to write about the Brooklyn victory.

"In the Polo Grounds, the Giants clubhouse was right across from the shower and all of a sudden there was a stampede past the shower," Newcombe said. "I asked the custodian what happened and he said, 'Home run.' I said, 'That's what I figured because they're all gone."

Thomson appeared on the Perry Como Show that night and dined at Tavern on the Green with his family. Branca, meanwhile, drove home with an old friend who was a priest. "Why me, Father?" Branca has said he asked his friend. "Why me?" Because, the priest replied, "He knew you would be strong enough to bear this cross."

In the journal he kept as he wrote "East of Eden," Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck described the game as "the best I or anyone ever saw" while Pulitzer-Prize winning sportswriter Red Smith began his account of New York's 5-4 victory by writing, "The art of fiction is dead." Smith was wrong about that. Decades later Don DeLillo wrote the book, "Underworld," an 833-page, Pulitzer-nominated novel of America in the postwar era, all beginning with Thomson's home-run ball and what happens to it in the ensuing years.

In an interview with Hungry Mind, DeLillo said the idea of the book came when he was reading a microfilm of the New York Times from the day after.

"It seemed to be an unrepeatable event, the kind of event that binds people in a certain way," DeLillo told the interviewer. "Not only fans who were at the ballpark, but fans in general and even nonfans who were not necessarily interested in the baseball implications. There was a sense, at least for me, that this was the last such binding event that mainly involved jubilation rather than disaster of some sort."

Well, that depends on whether you rooted for New York or Brooklyn.


Played almost as an anticlimax, the World Series started the next day at Yankee Stadium where the Giants beat the Yankees in Game 1 before losing Game 2. Those two games were the only ones in which three of the greatest center fielders of all time -- DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays -- all played. Mantle, playing right field, stepped on a drainage outlet while chasing a fly ball in Game 2, ripping up his knee, knocking him out of the series and beginning the leg problems that would last his entire career.

The Yankees wound up winning the series in six games and after Game 6, DiMaggio told reporters, "I've played my last game."

One baseball era was ending. More significantly, another was just beginning with Mays and Mantle. And with Hank Aaron as well. In November, he signed with the Negro Leagues Indianapolis Clowns.

And another Hall of Famer began his career, so to speak, that year as well. On that memorable October day, while the Giants greeted Thomson at home plate at the Polo Grounds, 1,000 miles away in St. Paul, Minn., a woman delivered a baby boy. Asked half a century later what he was doing when Thomson hit his home run, Dave Winfield replied, "I was causing my mother a great deal of pain."

Born on the day Thomson hit his historic home run. Could there be a more fortuitous birthdate for a baseball player? "And I have the perfect name for baseball," Winfield said once. "Win and Field."

Fifty years have passed since that day and much has changed in that half-century. The Giants and Dodgers left New York, bringing baseball to the west coast. Winfield entered the Hall of Fame this summer. DiMaggio is dead. Mantle is dead. Gaedel is dead. And Mays is 70 years old, though his legacy is still felt everyday in the game. His godson, Barry Bonds, is one of the game's great players, chasing one of its great records and playing outfield for the Giants.

Thomson and Branca, meanwhile, are close friends, frequently traveling together and appearing together at memorabilia shows, making the best of the famous moment that brought them together.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Thomson said. "It may have been the best thing that ever happened to anybody. I walked on a stage made in heaven."

The Giants-Dodgers rivalry isn't what it once was but it still rears its head. The Giants wanted to hold a turn-back-the-clock day their final home series with the Dodgers to commemorate the Thomson game and asked the Dodgers to wear 1951 replica uniforms. The Dodgers refused.

"Now they want to celebrate and keep reliving the game," Newcombe said. "What's the sense of that? I'm not going to go to San Francisco and relive something that brings back those memories. For what? It's not going to change anything. Thomson still hit his home run, the Giants still won and they still went to the World Series."

Jim Caple is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.





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