- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

"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! …"
Broadcaster Russ Hodges

The most riveting moment in sports history erupted at the Polo Grounds in Harlem on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951 50 years ago today.
At 3:58, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Ralph Branca threw the ball, Bobby Thomson hit it over the 315-foot sign into the left-field stands and the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 to win their playoff for the National League pennant. Shock and disbelief enveloped spectators at the ballpark and around the nation, for this was the first sports event televised live coast to coast. Author Roger Kahn told how a non-fan working in a Manhattan office heard the screams and thought World War III had been declared.
I was standing at a bus stop in front of my school on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington when a motorist screamed out the news. Can it really have been a half-century ago? Can the teen-ager at the bus stop now be approaching his golden years? Can Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, now grown old together, have become linked for all time as firmly as Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Antony, or perhaps Abbott and Costello?
"If it wasn't for Bobby's home run, nobody would remember us," Branca has said. These were good ballplayers, not great. But when Branca (88-68, 3.79 ERA lifetime) threw his second pitch to Thomson (.270 batting average, 264 homers), they ascended together to baseball immortality.
"Do you know what you did today?" Thomson's brother, Jim, asked when Bobby visited him on his way home to his mother's house on Staten Island.
"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."
Branca had dinner that night with his fiancee, Ann, and a cousin of hers who was a priest.
"Why me?" Branca asked.
The Rev. Frank Rowley replied, "God chose you because He knows your faith is strong enough to bear this cross."
And so it was. His baseball career cut short by an injury, Branca went on to succeed in business (as did Thomson). In later years, Branca was chairman of the Baseball Assistance Team an organization that helps needy ex-players and their families. But whenever he or Thomson meets a veteran fan, the years fall away and it is Oct. 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds. Again. Forever.
Last winter the Wall Street Journal printed an overblown story suggesting Thomson knew Branca was about to throw a 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.
Branca has said he believes the story; Thomson has said he did not know what the pitch would be. But it doesn't really matter. For one thing, many teams tried to steal signs illegally in the '50s. For another, Thomson still had to hit the pitch.
Why did the so-called "Shot Heard 'Round the World" mean so much to so many? There are so many reasons.
The Dodgers and Giants and their respective fans cordially hated one another. In those days, there were eight clubs in each major league, and teams met 22 times a year. There was plenty of time for antagonism to simmer because neither franchises nor players moved around.
Expected to be a strong contender, under former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, for the first time in years, the Giants started 2-13 before calling up a 20-year-old center fielder named Willie Mays and moving Thomson to third base, where he was unlikely to let in more runs than he drove in. Improvement followed, but by mid-August, the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13? games and had been written off by nearly everybody. Then, unbelievably, they won 37 of 44 to tie for the pennant after the regulation 154 games.
The Dodgers won a coin flip to settle the venues for a three-game playoff, and Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen unwisely chose to open at Ebbets Field and play the last two games at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won 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 Oct. 3, 1951.
Although the day was overcast and the game was on local TV, the finale unfolded before just 34,320 fans, meaning there were 20,000 empty seats. Why? Nobody seems to remember. Those who did show saw a tight game until the Dodgers scored three runs in the eighth for a 4-1 lead as Thomson waved at a couple of hits that zinged past him at third.
Now the Dodgers were three outs from a pennant, but they got only one. Singles by captain Alvin Dark and Don Mueller and a double by Whitey Lockman made it 4-2 against dead-tired Dodgers ace Don Newcombe before Dressen phoned the bullpen, where three pitchers were warming. But Labine had pitched a complete game the day before, and Dressen was told that Carl Erskine had just bounced a curveball.
"Give me Branca," Dressen said, and the rest is, literally, history.
A Dodgers fan at the game had instructed his mother to turn on his Webcor wire recorder if the Dodgers were leading in the ninth inning the better to hear Hodges grovel, he thought. Thus was preserved the most famous sports broadcast ever:
"The Giants win the pennant, and they're goin' crazy! … I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it!"
Ernie Harwell, still broadcasting for the Detroit Tigers at 83, shared the Giants' microphone with Hodges that season. He was on TV then the less-prestigious assignment when Hodges rode Thomson's home run to everlasting electronic fame.
"Before the game, Russ said, 'I think it's my turn [to do the first and last three innings] on TV,' " Harwell recalled this summer in Baltimore. "I said, 'No, it's mine,' and that's how it worked out. But, no, I'm not envious. Russ made a great call."
On the Dodgers' radio network, meanwhile, Red Barber told his listeners, "It's in there for the pennant," and then shut up to let the crowd noise take over. A bit later, Barber attempted to put the event in perspective by reminding his listeners that the United States had suffered 2,181 battle casualties in Korea the previous week and adding, "The Dodgers will get over this, and their fans will, too."
He was wrong.

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