The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

          I wasn’t aware of it when it happened. It was on television, I have read, but we did not then own one. It was on the radio, but I did not care. I was aware of little beyond our backyard and our block, even though I ventured further than that to attend one of our two years of kindergarten. I was six years old.

          But my world changed a lot during the next three years, and when I was nine, I learned about it. By then the Braves baseball team had moved from Boston to Milwaukee. I had become a baseball fan, and the New York Giants had traded Bobby Thomson to my Braves prior to the start of the 1954 baseball season. Almost every mention of Thomson referred to probably baseball’s most famous home run (only Babe Ruth’s “called” shot could compare), which Thomson hit on October 3, 1951. With the season nearing its end, the Giants were far behind the Brooklyn Dodgers—13 and a half games. The Giants, however, went on a tear winning 37 of the last 44 scheduled games, and the regular season ended in a tie, which produced the National League’s first playoff, a two-out-of-three affair. The Giants won the first game; the Dodgers the second. In the decisive contest, the Dodgers were winning 4 to 1 going into the bottom of the ninth. The Giants scored one run and got two more runners on base. Thomson then hit a three-run homer that won the game and the National League Championship for the Giants. (The Giants went on to lose the World Series to the New York Yankees.)

          There have been exciting, season-concluding baseball games since then ending that ended with a home run. Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays hit a homer to the end the 1993 World Series, and even more dramatic was the end to the 1960 World Series. The New York Yankees had won three games over the Pittsburgh Pirates in blowouts, outscoring their opponents 38 to 3. Pittsburgh had won three close games. In the seventh and deciding game, the Yankees were leading when Pittsburgh scored five times in the bottom of the eighth after a ground ball took a bad hop hitting Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat and wiping out what appeared to be a double play. Down two runs, the Yankees scored twice in the top of the ninth with the aid of some unorthodox base running by Mickey Mantle. Bill Mazeroski, who averaged a mere eight home runs per season in a long career and who had already hit a decisive home run in Game 1 of the series, led off the bottom of the ninth, and on the second pitch, hit a home run over the left field wall to win the game and the baseball championship for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

          And since 1961, Super Bowls, NBA, college football playoffs, and college basketball championships have concluded on exciting, improbable plays. Even so, that 1951 game with Bobby Thomson’s home run seems to live on in the American consciousness in ways Mazeroski’s homer and the other exciting games have not. Or maybe I just think that because several things I have read recently and a conversation with a Neapolitan have placed that game high in my consciousness.

          One of those readings was the 1997 memoir of her childhood by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year. She was raised in a middle class New York City suburb that emerged after World War II in a family of rabid Brooklyn Dodger fans. The 1951 playoff between the Giants and Dodgers was a momentous event in her eight-year-old life. In those days, playoff and World Series games were played during the day, and her teachers had allowed their charges to listen to the first two games on the radio, but Doris asked to stay home on the afternoon of the decisive game to watch it on that new instrument, a television. Her mother readily consented. She was not alone. Half her classmates also were not in school that afternoon. But the spectatorship was many more than diehard New York and Brooklyn fans, for a continental cable had been finished a few months earlier, and these playoffs were the first nationally televised sporting event.

          Kearns, as she then was, describes the tension of a close game, with the Dodgers scoring three times in the top of the eighth to take a 4-1 lead. And then the fateful bottom of the ninth. The Giants had scored to pull within two runs and had two men on base. The Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe was tiring, and the manager replaced him with Ralph Branca. “I was horrified,” Doris writes. “Images of Branca’s other failures filled my mind.” She pleaded for this move to be rescinded. “But my pleas were fruitless. The stage was set, the moment irrevocable. Ralph Branca stood on the mound, and Bobby Thompson was advancing to the plate.”

          And the home run came, and along with it, she reports, “the never-to-be forgotten voice of Giant announcer Russ Hodges. ‘There’s a long fly. . . . It’s gonna be . . . I believe.’ He stopped for a moment. Then, as the ball dropped majestically into the lower decks of seats, there came that horrifying shout. ‘The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

(continued September 25)