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The Shot Heard 'Round the World

In baseball, the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" is the term given to the walk-off home run hit by New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds to win the National League pennant at 3:58 p.m. EST on October 3, 1951. As a result of the "shot" (baseball slang for "home run" or any hard-hit ball), the Giants won the game 5–4, defeating the Dodgers in their pennant playoff series, two games to one. It is referred as one of the most famous episodes in Major League Baseball history, and possibly one of the greatest moments in sports history.

The phrase shot heard 'round the world is from a classic poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally used to refer to the first clash of the American Revolutionary War and since used to apply to other dramatic moments, military and otherwise. In the case of Thomson's home run, it was particularly apt as U.S. servicemen fighting in the Korean War listened to the radio broadcast of the game.

Thomson's homer, and the Giants' victory after overcoming a double-digit lead in the standings by the Dodgers in the weeks preceding the playoff, are also sometimes known as the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff.

Contents

Line score

Polo Grounds

Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Brooklyn 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 4 8 0
New York 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 5 8 0

WP: Larry Jansen (23–11)  LP: Ralph Branca (13–12)  
HRs:  NYG – Bobby Thomson (32)

The game

The tiebreaker was not a playoff in the current postseason sense, but an extension of the regular season – game statistics counted in the season records (several one-game tiebreakers have been played under the same circumstances). It had to be played because both the Giants and the crosstown rival Dodgers finished the regular season with identical 96-58 records.

On August 11, Brooklyn had held a 13½-game lead on the Giants, but the Giants turned around and won their next 16 games. While Brooklyn finished the season on a 26–22 clip, the Giants put together a streak almost unequalled in baseball history, winning 37 of the last 44 games, including the last seven in a row. Only a 14-inning victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, the previous year's league champions, on the last day of the regular season enabled the Dodgers to force the best-of-three-games showdown.

Brooklyn won the coin toss to decide home-field advantage in the series. Controversially, manager Charlie Dressen opted to play only the first game at home, rather than the last two; he reasoned that if the Dodgers won their only home game, they would need to win only one out of two on the road.

The Giants won the first game 3–1 at Ebbets Field, with Thomson spearheading the New York offense with a two-run home run off Branca. When the series moved to the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers won the second game 10-0 on a complete-game shutout by the rookie hurler Clem Labine.

For the third game, the Giants' 23-game winner Sal Maglie would face Brooklyn's Don Newcombe in a battle of aces. In the first inning, Jackie Robinson singled home Pee Wee Reese for the first run of the game. In the bottom of the seventh, Thomson tied the game with a sacrifice fly, scoring Monte Irvin. In the eighth, the Dodgers touched the exhausted Maglie for three runs and headed to the bottom of the ninth with an apparently secure 4–1 lead.

Newcombe, however, was showing the effects of overuse in the season's final days. He had pitched a complete game the previous Saturday, then thrown 5⅔ innings in relief the next day in the season finale. Pitching on only two days' rest and tiring badly, he attempted to take himself out of the game, only to have Robinson talk him into trying to finish the inning.

The Giants shortstop Alvin Dark singled to start the rally. As Bud Greenspan pointed out in Play It Again, Bud (p. 78-83), the Dodgers may have made a crucial strategic mistake. First baseman Gil Hodges was playing close to the base. But with a 3-run lead, the normal strategy would have been to position for a possible double play. With a large gap in the right side of the infield, Don Mueller placed a single through that gap, past the diving Gil Hodges, and Dark ran from first to third base. Instead of a possible rally-killing double play, the Dodgers found themselves facing the potential tying run with no outs. But with a chance to drive in a run, Irvin, who led the National League that year with 121 RBI, chased the first pitch and popped out (Greenspan argued that could have been the season-ending third out).

However, Whitey Lockman followed with a double down the left-field line, scoring Dark and advancing Mueller to third. Mueller slid awkwardly into the bag and broke his ankle, forcing the Giants to send in Clint Hartung to pinch-run for him. Dressen, the Brooklyn manager, finally pulled the spent Newcombe and sent Ralph Branca into the game. The move has bewildered baseball historians to this day (and, combined with the positioning of Hodges, was possibly at least the second questionable decision by Dressen that inning). Branca had pitched and lost Game 1 of the tiebreaker on a Thomson home run (something Dodgers' fans were painfully aware of at the time) and had given up several home runs that year to Thomson, who had hit 31 during the season. However, in Dressen's defense, he had few decently rested pitchers available; in the last regular-season game alone the Dodgers had sent seven men to the mound.

Branca's first pitch was a fastball down the middle for a strike. His second pitch was a fastball up and in to Thomson, intended as a setup for his planned next pitch, a breaking ball down and away. But Thomson yanked the fastball down the left-field line and toward the invitingly close outfield fence, with a foul line a mere 279 feet from home plate (unmarked), and a roll-up door in the 17-foot wall with a 315 marker posted, some 30 or 40 feet out from the foul line.

Andy Pafko, the Dodgers' left fielder, rushed toward the fence, thinking the rapidly sinking line drive might bounce off the wall. Instead, the ball disappeared into the stands for a game-ending three-run homer, just above the 315 marker. With one swing of Thomson's bat, the Giants had turned near-certain defeat into sudden victory and a pennant.

Seeing the ball disappear over the fence, Thomson hopped crazily around the bases, then disappeared into the mob of jubilant teammates who had gathered at home plate. The stunned Dodger players trudged off the field - all except Robinson. No doubt remembering "the Merkle boner" 43 years earlier, he watched to be sure Thomson touched every base before he, too, headed for the clubhouse.

As has often been pointed out, waiting on deck to bat behind Thomson was a young man who would hit many home runs of his own: 20-year-old rookie Willie Mays.

The broadcasts

Four broadcasters captured the moment for baseball fans in the New York City area and nationwide[1]. Excerpts from the three radio accounts were played during the second hour of the October 6, 1991 installment of the Costas Coast to Coast syndicated radio show. Russ Hodges' call, which was the most famous of the three, was played last, but only to the extent of Thomson's climactic at bat. The segment of Red Barber's version started with the final out of the Dodgers' ninth and continued through both the live Schaefer Beer commercial read by his broadcast partner Connie Desmond and the entire bottom half of the inning. The portions from Gordon McLendon's broadcast included his buildup to the first pitch, Maglie's strikeout of Carl Furillo to start the game, Thomson's baserunning blunder in the bottom of the second and the decisive homer. Copies of the audio and/or visual of the telecast are currently not known to exist.

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Ernie Harwell

Ernie Harwell called the game for Giants television flagship WPIX -- the independent station's broadcast was carried nationally on the NBC network, the first coast-to-coast live telecast of a Major League Baseball game—and his description of the home run was a simple shout of "It's gone!" almost at the moment Thomson's bat struck Branca's pitch. Harwell later admitted he had probably called it "too soon", but fortunately for him, the call proved to be correct.

Red Barber

Meanwhile, the Dodgers' radio voice, Red Barber of WMGM-AM, straightforwardly said, "Branca pumps, delivers - a curve, swung on and belted, deep shot to left field -- it is -- a HOME RUN! And the New York Giants win the National League pennant and the Polo Grounds goes wild!" This was followed by about a minute of amplified crowd noise. Barber, who was known for a relatively low-key play-by-play approach, later criticized the famous Hodges rendition as being questionable journalism.

Russ Hodges

Russ Hodges, broadcasting the game on WMCA-AM radio for Giants fans, seemed perhaps the least likely man to immortalize the play; the broadcast was not national and Hodges was considered calm-voiced rather than excitable. Nonetheless, it was his call that captured the suddenness and exultation of the home run:

Bobby Thomson... up there swingin'... 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 called on the inside corner... Bobby hitting at .292... He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center... Brooklyn leads it 4-2...Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances... Lockman with not too big of a lead at second, but he'll be runnin' like the wind if Thomson hits one... Branca throws... [audible sound of bat meeting ball]

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!!!'' [ten-second pause for crowd noise]

I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson... hit a line drive... into the lower deck... of the left-field stands... and this blame place is goin' crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it... by a score of 5 to 4... and they're pickin' Bobby Thomson up... and carryin' him off the field!

Ironically, the main reason the WMCA call was recorded and saved for posterity was because a Brooklyn-based fan asked his mother to record the end of game. Urban legend says that Lawrence Goldberg was a Dodger fan who sought to torture a friend who was a Giants fan by capturing and replaying Russ Hodges' heartbreak from a Giants' loss. But according to Joshua Harris Prager's 2006 book The Echoing Green about the 1951 playoff, Goldberg was actually a Giant fan.

Gordon McLendon

Furthermore, only a tiny minority of people actually heard the Hodges call live. Most heard Gordon McLendon's call on the Liberty Broadcasting System, which was carrying the game nationally. McClendon's account (complete with a similarly hair-raising yell of "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!") remains the only complete broadcast account of the third game. That recording is available on Harwell's "Audio Scrapbook". His own call was not recorded. The McClendon call, in addition to being similar in tone to Hodges' call, is also a better-quality recording, having been recorded professionally instead of on a home recorder.

'Round the World

The main reason for the terminology of being a shot heard around the World was due to the high number of U.S. servicemen who listened to the game on Armed Forces radio.[2]

Afterward

Afterward, sportswriter Red Smith penned the following recap:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

The official attendance of the third game was 34,320, a shockingly low number considering the importance of the game, the location of the opposing team (just a 45-minute subway ride from the Polo Grounds), and the bitter rivalry between the two teams. However, most historians agree this figure represents only the number tickets sold before the game, and does not account for the New Yorkers and Brooklynites who had left work early and gone to the Polo Grounds. Careful study of photographs and film of the event show that the 56,000-seat stadium was nearly full, and McLendon's live broadcast features him commenting more than once that the Polo Grounds was packed.

An article recapping the game in the New York Daily News on October 4 was accompanied by the headline, "The Shot Heard 'Round the Baseball World". The phrase quickly spread to other media, and soon became a widely-recognized slogan for Thomson's homer.

The Giants faced the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series, but their miracle season would end on a down note, losing the Series in six games.

Sign-stealing

In February 2001, Joshua Harris Prager of the Wall Street Journal reported that the Giants had positioned coach Herman Franks with a telescope in the Giants' clubhouse during the latter half of the season, including the game itself, and had stolen the pitching signs of the Dodger catcher, Rube Walker, subbing for the injured Roy Campanella in the playoff game[3]. Prager concluded that the spy had signalled pitches to the Giants' batters, including Thomson, thus enabling Thomson to know in advance what pitch Branca was going to throw him. According to Prager's research, Franks was hidden in Giant manager Leo Durocher's office, which was positioned in the Polo Grounds center field and offered a line-of-sight view of the catcher. A buzzer system was installed so that Franks could signal a player in the Giants' bullpen, located on the field of play in deep left field. The player would then signal the batter as to what pitch was coming.

However, acknowledging that sign-stealing was not made a violation of rules by Major League Baseball, and that it had been a part of baseball since the inception of signs as a means of communication between pitcher and catcher, Prager in an interview with CNN on February 3, 2001, left it to readers to determine if the sign-stealing, which Thomson denied, diminished the stature of the event. While the Prager article said that MLB had formally outlawed sign-stealing in the 1960s, his followup book in 2006, The Echoing Green, notes that the major leagues to this writing have not outlawed the practice.

The burden of uncovering sign-stealers is consigned to the opposing team, typically the visiting team. The fact that the visiting teams won the first two games of the playoff series raises the question of how effective the alleged sign-stealing really was. Nonetheless, Prager points out in The Echoing Green that Thompson hit over .100 higher after the sign stealing scheme began in July 1951 and "no doubt" received advanced notice of the two fastballs Branca threw at him that day.

Pop culture references

  • In his 2009 book Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard 'Round the World, Brian Biegel & Pete Fornatale explore the mystery of the actual baseball involved in this historic sporting event (the ball has never been recovered). They determined that a Franciscan nun attended the game, recovered the ball, and kept it in a shoebox with her modest worldly possessions for more than half a century, before bequeathing that shoebox to her biological sister. Her sister then deposited the shoebox in a landfill, forever dooming the mystery of the "Miracle Ball" to an unresolved status.
  • In the movie The Godfather, Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan) is listening to Russ Hodges' commentary of the playoff in his car just before he is shot dead, half an inning before Bobby Thomson hits the home run. This is an anachronism, as Corleone was killed in 1948.
  • The novel Underworld by Don DeLillo opens on October 3, 1951, when a young man named Cotter Martin sneaks in to watch the game. In baseball the ultimate fate of the ball Thomson hit is unknown, but in DeLillo's world, Cotter Martin wrests this incredibly valuable treasure away from another fan he had just befriended.
  • The ABC television show Sports Night used the Shot Heard 'Round the World in its episode "The Giants Win the Pennant, the Giants Win the Pennant", written by series creator Aaron Sorkin and former Roseanne writer Matt Tarses. When Sports Night anchor Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) finds out that his boss Isaac Jaffe (played by Robert Guillaume) had been at the Giants game, he wants to use him in a feature story, despite Isaac's protests. Dan eventually learns that, as a cub reporter Jaffe did cover the game, but missed the crucial ball - he was in the bathroom washing his hands because Branca was said to be notorious for taking his time warming up before pitching.
  • In the M*A*S*H episode "A War for all Seasons", the previously baseball-apathetic Major Charles Winchester is encouraged by Corporal Klinger to invest heavily in wagers that the Dodgers will win the pennant, and is subsequently heartbroken by the loss. He initially listens to the game on the radio, which is a recreation of Hodges' call. (At the very end of the episode the M*A*S*H people watch a Fox Movietone News replay of the game. When Thomson's home run scene appears, along with Hodges' recorded commentary, Winchester growls insanely, slashes the screen, and, still angry with Klinger, bellows, "Where is that Lebanese mongoose?" Fade out.)
  • On an episode of The Wonder Years, during baseball tryouts Kevin Arnold is relieved of pressure upon knowing he will not make the team, and in his last at bat belts a home run as the call to Thomson's famous home run is heard.
  • The game ranked #2 of ESPN's SportsCentury Ten Greatest Games of the 20th Century.[4]

References

  1. ^ Tudor, Deborah. "Baseball on TV". http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/TVbaseball/index.html. Retrieved 2009-12-04.  
  2. ^ Regan, Becky (August 9, 2007). "No. 756 takes Giants back to 1951". MLB.com. http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070809&content_id=2139611&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb&partnered=rss_mlb.  
  3. ^ Prager, Joshua Harris (Jan 31, 2001). "Inside Baseball: Giants' 1951 Comeback, The Sport's Greatest, Wasn't All It Seemed -- Miracle Ended With 'The Shot Heard Round the World'". Wall Street Journal.  
  4. ^ MacCambridge, Michael, ed. ESPN SportsCentury [1951 National League Playoff]. New York: Hyperion ESPN Books. p. 171.  

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