A man in a gray uniform threw the ball, a man in a white uniform hit it and seconds later the most riveting moment in sports history was history.
The date was Oct. 3, 1951, 60 years ago Monday, and Russ Hodges’ famous broadcast echoes through the baseball ages: “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! … I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”
His three-run homer over a left-field wall just 315 feet away at the ancient Polo Grounds sealed a 5-4 win that stole the pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of a three-game series between arguably the greatest sporting rivals ever.
“Do you know what you did today?” Thomson’s brother, Jim, asked him that evening.
“Yeah, I hit a home run, and we won the pennant.”
“No, no, I don’t mean that,” Jim said. “You did something that nobody may ever do again and nobody will ever forget.”
You might have another choice for sportsdom’s Greatest Moment. Drama, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But for many, Thomson’s three-run swat off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning stands alone when it comes to shock value. Today it would be called a walk-off wallop. Back then, it became known somewhat bombastically as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
After the ball settled into the grandstand, near hysteria enveloped spectators at the ballpark and around the nation, for the playoff series marked the first games televised live coast to coast via the new coaxial cable. Author Roger Kahn told how a non-fan working in a Manhattan office building heard the screams and thought nuclear war had erupted.
Oddly enough, Thomson and Branca became good friends after their epic encounter and remained so until Thomson’s death in 2010. As Branca often put it, “If it wasn’t for Bobby’s home run, nobody would remember us.”
These were good ballplayers, not great. But when Branca (88-68, 3.79 ERA lifetime) threw his second pitch to Thomson (.270 average, 264 homers) at 3:58 that afternoon, they ascended together to baseball immortality.
A decade or so ago, the Wall Street Journal printed an overblown story suggesting Thomson knew Branca was about to deliver an inside fastball because the Giants had been stealing opposing catchers’ signs at home all season through a reserve player planted with binoculars in an office adjoining the clubhouse in center field. Dodger Branca said he believed the story; Giant Thomson said he did not know what the pitch would be. But who really cares? Who wants to besmirch memories of this momentous moment?
The result means so much to so many because, among other reasons, the Dodgers and Giants and their respective fans were mortal enemies. In those simpler times, just eight clubs existed in each major league, and teams tangled 22 times a year. There was plenty of time for antagonisms to simmer because neither franchises nor players moved around.
Expected to be contenders under former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, the Giants started the season 2-13 before calling up a 20-year-old minor league outfielder named Willie Mays and moving Thomson from center field to third base. Though improvement ensued, the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 1/2 games in mid-August. Then, incredibly, New York won 37 of 44 to tie for the pennant at the end of the regular season and force a best-of-three playoff.
The Giants took the first game in Brooklyn 3-1 when Thomson, of all people, hit a homer off Branca, of all people. But the Dodgers rolled 10-0 in the second game at the Polo Grounds behind rookie Clem Labine. That got everybody to the denouement.