Thomson’s Homer Was Baseball’s Dramatic High Point

published August 19, 2010

The home run hit by Bobby Thomson, who died on Monday, off Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951, represents, by any reasonable calculation, the dramatic high point of major league baseball’s one hundred thirty-five seasons.

The moment had everything you could ask for: heated rivals, a lengthy backstory, foreshadowing, a pregnant pause to heighten tension, a fateful substitution, a result that changed a season-ending defeat into a pennant won, an unforgettable call, a wild aftermath, a hyperbolic nickname, and reverberations that stretched for more than half a century.

What other event in baseball history has it all?

The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were not merely opponents; they hated each other with a passion bred of familiarity and proximity.  The Giants had a lordly past, while the Dodgers were the scruffy crew from the wrong side of the river.  There were even matching nasty quotes about each other: In 1934, asked about the Dodgers’ prospects, Giants player-manager Bill Terry asked, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” In August 1951, after sweeping three from the Giants to stretch their lead to twelve and a half games, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen declared, “The Giants is dead!”

But the Giants was not dead, even though they fell a game further behind with their next loss and another Brooklyn win.  From August 12 to the end of the scheduled season, the Dodgers went 26-22 while the Giants were 37-7, ending in a tie and requiring the first playoff in National League history, a three-game series.

The blazing Giants won the first game in Brooklyn, 3-1, the go-ahead run coming on a two-run fourth-inning homer by third baseman Bobby Thomson off Dodgers starter Ralph Branca.  (Thomson struggled against Branca over his career, except in 1951.  Near as I can figure, Thomson was 9-for-47, .191, with two extra-base hits off Branca in the other six seasons in which he faced him.  In ’51, he went 5-for-13, .385, off Branca, and between September 1 and October 1 he had three hits in six at-bats with two home runs.)

The Dodgers got even the next day at the Polo Grounds, 10-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown on October 3.

The Dodgers scored a run in the top of the first; the Giants got even in the bottom of the seventh.  Four Brooklyn singles, a wild pitch, and an intentional walk brought in three runs in the top of the eighth, so the Dodgers led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Alvin Dark – one of five future big-league managers who played for the Giants in this game – led off with a single through the right side.  Don Mueller followed with another single to right, advancing Dark to third.  Monte Irvin fouled out.  Whitey Lockman doubled into the gap in left-center, scoring Dark and sending Mueller to third.  Mueller, however, broke his ankle sliding into third, and the game was delayed as he was helped off the field.

The pause gave Dressen time to think, and he decided that his starter, Don Newcombe, was out of gas. He signaled to the bullpen for Ralph Branca to come into the game to face Thomson and Willie Mays.

We all know what happened.  Thomson lined the second pitch into the nearby left-field seats, Russ Hodges shouted, “The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant,” Giants manager Leo Durocher leaped onto Thomson’s back as he made his way around the bases [CORRECTED TO: Giants manager Leo Durocher gave second baseman Eddie Stanky a piggy-back ride], and the names Thomson and Branca were forever linked in baseball history.

A few things you may not know:

As Thomson circled the bases, the Dodgers trudged slowly through the outfield towards their centerfield clubhouse.  One stayed behind: Jackie Robinson waited in the infield and watched to make sure Thomson touched all four bases before heading to join his teammates.

The Russ Hodges call is frequently paired with the televised footage of Thomson’s homer, but it was Ernie Harwell who worked the telecast.  Hodges was on radio, on the Giants’ regular station, while the team of Red Barber, Connie Desmond, and Vin Scully handled the radio chores on the Brooklyn side.  Barber didn’t think much of Hodges’s famous reaction.  “I think he sort of lost his cool as a reporter,” he told Bob Costas.  “I didn’t think it was a professional call.”

The phrase “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn, and commemorates the battle that started the Revolutionary War.  It was also used to describe the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that set off the first World War, as well as Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in the 1935 Masters, before being bestowed upon Thomson’s blast.

Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and a few of their Yankee teammates attended the game, watching to see whom they’d play in the World Series.  After eight innings, with the Dodgers up three, Rizzuto suggested they leave so they could beat the traffic.  They were on the George Washington Bridge when they heard Thomson’s home run on the radio.

Years later, as Fay Vincent recounted in his book The Last Commissioner, Ralph Branca was at a banquet with some former teammates and opponents, and a young boy asked him what pitch he’d thrown to Thomson.  “I knew the kid wasn’t setting me up,” he told Vincent.  “He was a nice kid, and he wanted his question answered.  So I said, ‘Sonny, let me tell you something.  I could always get Thomson out with my curveball, low and away.  He couldn’t hit my curveball.  But at that moment, for some reason I decided I’d throw him a fastball up and in so the fastball would move him away from the plate and that would set up the next pitch, the curveball low and away, and I’d get him out.’

“Now I’m in the buffet line loading up my plate and I feel a tap on my shoulder.  It’s Sal Maglie.  All he did for those Giants in 1951 was win twenty-three games… Now it’s years later, and he’s heard me answer this kid’s question.  He looks me in the eye and says, ‘Dago, if you’re going to get him with the #$&(&! curveball, throw him the %(*$&*(  curveball.’”

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