Monday, October 3, 2011

Sixty Years Later, Bobby Thompson Stands Alone

Five days ago, Evan Longoria hit the home run that sent the Tampa Bay Rays into the playoffs. Down nine games in the Wild Card at the beginning of September, Joe Maddon's team completed their comeback literally three minutes after the Boston Red Sox completed their collapse. Baseball being a game so rooted in history, the comparisons started flying almost immediately. But the Rays' comeback and Longoria's home run can only be compared to, but cannot be matched with, one particular episode in the sport's grand history. It is the most famous, perhaps, of all baseball legends, and its story came fruition sixty years ago today.

On October 3, 1951, Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants stepped up to the plate against Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Down 4-1 at the start of the bottom of the 9th, the Giants had already scored one run and had two runners on. Branca's first pitch was a fastball right down the middle, which Thompson took for a strike. Branca's next pitch, a fastball high and in, was supposed to set Thompson up for the third pitch, a curveball low and away. Branca threw his second pitch. Thompson jumped on the fastball...

Everyone knows this part of the story. It has been told and retold a countless number of times over the past sixty years. What often gets glossed over in its retelling is the buildup to Bobby Thompson's famous swing. And while it still makes a great story without the prelude, what makes the Shot Heard 'Round the World the greatest moment in baseball history is the incredible road the Giants and Dodgers took to get to that moment.

Sixty years after the teams reached their destination, let's take a walk down that road.

By Saturday, August 11, the New York Giants had bottomed out. After dropping all three games of a series in Brooklyn, Leo Durocher's team lost 4-0 at home to the Phillies. Across town at Ebbets Field, Chuck Dressen's team split a doubleheader with the Boston Braves. When the newspapers were printed for the next morning, the Giants were 13 games behind the Dodgers in the standings. Remember, in these days there were no divisions, and certainly no wild cards. The team with the best record went to the World Series, and everyone else went home for the winter. So with 48 games left to go for the Dodgers and 44 left for the Giants, it appeared to be over and done. The Brooklyn Dodgers would be the National League champions in 1951 and get the chance to win their first-ever World Series. The only question that remained was who the Dodgers would face in the Fall Classic. In the American League on August 11, the New York Yankees were tied at the top with the Cleveland Indians, and the Boston Red Sox were only five games back. You had to figure the Bums were looking ahead to a match-up with the Yankees, the team that had beaten them for the title in 1941, 1947, and 1949. It might be harder to beat the Yankees, but oh, it would be sweeter to beat the Yankees than the Indians for the world championship.

But there were still those 40-odd games left to play before the Series. And while the Brooklyn Dodgers were looking way down the road, the New York Giants were about to slam on the gas.

Let's take another look at the month that just unfolded in the AL Wild Card race. While the Rays' comeback was indeed spectacular, it took an even more spectacular collapse by the Red Sox to make it happen. At the beginning of September, Boston was actually leading the AL East; the lowly Rays were nine games out. Tampa Bay went 17-10 in the final month of the regular season, while the Red Sox collapsed under pressure and went 7-20. The Rays had a great run to the playoffs, but it would not have happened had the Red Sox not crashed and burned at the finish line.

This is where 2011 deviates from 1951. Over the final month and a half of the regular season, Brooklyn did not collapse the way Boston did. Over their final 48 games, the Dodgers went 26-22. Nothing special, but still solid, and good enough to finish with a record of 96-58.

Their rivals from Manhattan, on the other hand, finished off their regular season with perhaps the most remarkable hot streak in baseball history. Clich├ęd as it may be, there's really no other way to describe it: in their final 44 games, the New York Giants caught fire.

Starting on August 12, immediately after falling 13 games behind the Dodgers, the Giants won 16 in a row, leapfrogging ahead to just five games back. They stalled a bit for the next couple weeks, going 9-6 and seesawing between five and seven back. Before their game on September 14, New York was 84-57. Would lose once more over their final 13 games. When the dust had settled, the Giants had finished on a 37-7 run. That's a winning percentage of .841 in a little over a quarter of a season. They had overcome their 13-game deficit and matched the Dodgers with a 96-58 record. What's more, for a while it appeared that the Giants would win the NL without needing a playoff: it took Brooklyn a three-run comeback and 14th-inning Jackie Robinson home run to beat the Phillies on the final day of the regular season, September 30.

With 154 games played, the two Big Apple teams were dead even in the standings. It would come down to a three-game playoff to decide who would face the Yankees, who finished five games ahead of the Indians, in the World Series.

The Dodgers won a coin toss and elected to play the first game at home, while the next two (if necessary) would be played at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won the first game at Ebbets Field, 3-1. The deciding runs came in the 4th when Bobby Thompson took Ralph Branca deep with two on and two out. The Dodgers won the second game 10-0, setting the stage for October 3, 1951.

In this match-up of aces, the Giants sent out Sal Maglie to face the Dodgers' Don Newcombe. Brooklyn got on the board first when Jackie Robinson singled home a run in the 1st inning. Not much happened until the 7th, when (who else) Bobby Thompson tied the game on a long sac fly to center (keep in mind this was the Polo Grounds, where center field stood around 483 feet from home plate; when I say long sac fly, I mean it). In the 8th, the Bums finally got to Maglie, touching him for three runs on four hits and one wild pitch. The Giants went 1-2-3 in their part of the 8th, and the Dodgers went down in the same fashion in the 9th, leaving Brooklyn with a three-run lead and New York three outs to make a miracle.

Al Dark and Don Mueller led off with singles against Newcombe, who was looking unstoppable, even on short rest (more on that later). After Monte Irvin fouled out to first, Whitey Lockman slashed a double to left, scoring Dark. Mueller broke his ankle on the slide into third base and was pinch-run for by Clint Hartung. The Dodgers met for a conference on the mound. At this point, Don Newcombe had run out of gas. Three days before in Philadelphia, he had pitched 5 2/3 innings in relief in that game the Dodgers had to win. With 8 1/3 innings under his belt in this outing, Newcombe had pitched 14 innings in four days. Even in this era, long before pitch counts and inning limits were on anybody's mind, you knew that Newcombe was spent. So with the tying runs in scoring position and Bobby Thompson due up, manager Dressen went to his bullpen and called for Ralph Branca. If Branca could get Thompson out, the Giants' last chance would be a 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays.

You know what happens next.

"Branca throws... [crack] There's a long drive... it's gonna 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 goin' crazy, they're goin' crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!''

Complete with Russ Hodges's call on WMCA-AM radio, the New York Giants had beaten the Brooklyn Dodgers and completed what is still the greatest comeback in the history of baseball. Never mind that they lost the Fall Classic to the Yankees in six games. It's been said that history only remembers champions, but sixty years later, what do you remember more about baseball in the year 1951?

I'll give credit to this year's Tampa Bay Rays. It takes something special to come back from that far back (not to mention the seven-run deficit they overcame in the final game), and they still have a chance to do what the Giants could not: win the World Series. But add to Rays-Red Sox in 2011 all of the above, plus the fact that these were not just divisional foes competing for a playoff spot but cross-town rivals going at it for the playoff spot, and you get Giants-Dodgers in 1951.

Beyond that, only one similarity exists between Evan Longoria and Bobby Thompson. Each of their home runs took around three seconds to send their fans into frenzies.


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