- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

“I’d have to say more no than yes. … My answer is no. I was always proud of that swing.”

— Bobby Thomson, 2000

“I didn’t want to look like I was crying over spilt milk.”

Ralph Branca, 2000

I didn’t want it to be true. The most dramatic moment in baseball history eternally besmirched by revelations of cheating? But the evidence leads inescapably to this gloomy conclusion: Before New York Giant Bobby Thomson hit his bottom-of-the-ninth, three-run homer off Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca to win the deciding game of the 1951 National League pennant playoff 5-4, the Giants were stealing the catcher’s signs illegally.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager broke the story in 2001, traditionalists reeled a half-century after the fact. Fumed the Chicago Tribune editorially: “It’s as if the Nazis made the D-Day invasion easier than it looked. As if the first moon landing was faked at some desert in New Mexico. As if Picasso secretly paid his landlady to sketch his best stuff.”

Well, perhaps not quite. But such comparisons reinforce the hold on America’s elder sporting public retained by the incredible events that climaxed so suddenly at 3:58 p.m. EST that distant Oct. 3 in what was not yet known as the Big Apple.

Now Prager has turned his tale into a book, “The Echoing Green” ($26.95, Pantheon, 498 pages, illus.) that renders incomplete all predecessors. The research is exhaustive and the story as compelling as it was originally in telling how the most famous home run ever decided the most astonishing pennant pursuit ever between the greatest rivals ever. With one swing, Thomson sent thousands of fans in Gotham and elsewhere into paroxysms of utter joy or utter despair.

Still unanswered, however, is the question of whether Thomson knew Branca’s second pitch would be a fastball that he lined into the lower deck in left field, thus inspiring Russ Hodges’ famous radio yowl, “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!”

Thomson has said he knew the Giants were stealing signs — glommed by coach Herman Franks through a Wollensak telescope mounted at a window in the Giants’ center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds and relayed to the batter by third-string catcher Sal Yvars from the bullpen — but that he was distracted by an injury to teammate Don Mueller, who broke his ankle as he slid into third before The Pitch.

For Branca, this belated knowledge provided succor for his ongoing role as the most tragic figure in baseball history, enabling him to rationalize that he threw “a good pitch” — it was high and tight to the right-handed batter on an 0-and-1 count — at which Thomson should not have swung.

But who really cares? It’s sort of like discovering that Lee Harvey Oswald did not really murder President Kennedy. After all this time, what does it matter?

Nonetheless, Prager’s book (the title comes from a 1789 poem by Englishman William Blake) is well worth reading for the insights it provides. Most older fans are aware that Willie Mays was the next hitter when Thomson delivered. But how many know that the 20-year-old rookie was praying “God, don’t let me come to bat now” as he knelt in the on-deck circle? Or that he got sick in the delirious postgame clubhouse after taking his first swig of champagne ever? Or that the Giants and Dodgers had discussed a Thomson-for-Branca deal during the spring?

Throughout the book, Prager intersperses lengthy biographies of such peripheral figures as the electrician who rigged the apparatus enabling Franks to push a button that triggered a buzzer for catcher Yvars in the bullpen and Giants sub Hank Schenz, who gave Franks the telescope. Such segments, while testifying to the author’s thoroughness, tend to slow the narrative somewhat.

Surely you know the basics: How the Giants started 2-12 before calling Mays up from the minors, how the cocky Dodgers led by 13 games with 44 to play and six games with 13 left, how the Giants won 37 of their final 44 to catch Brooklyn at season’s end, how they took the first playoff game but lost the second 10-0, how Thomson’s careless baserunning and misplays at third helped stake the Dodgers to a 4-1 lead entering the final half-inning in the best-of-three series.

Prager faults both managers, Leo Durocher of the Giants for being loud, profane and insensitive; Charlie Dressen of the Dodgers for overworking Branca and virtually ignoring talented Clem Labine during the stretch drive and for giving Branca no instruction more detailed than “get him out” as the pitcher replaced starter Don Newcombe and prepared to face Thomson.

Through no fault of Prager’s, the book understandably falters over its last 86 pages as Thomson and Branca deal respectively with decades of fame and infamy. Though Thomson was only 27 and Branca 25 when their careers intertwined so memorably, injuries dogged both afterward. Thomson played for six clubs from 1954 to 1960. Branca pitched for three clubs between 1953 and 1956, winning only eight games. And each had a brief second tour with his original team.

These were good players — Branca won 21 games in 1947; Thomson drove in more than 100 runs four times and hit 264 regular-season homers — but Bobby probably had it right when he said, “If not for that home run, nobody would remember us.”

Both ultimately went into business and later retirement. Over the years, meeting at countless baseball functions, they have become friends. But always one game and one pitch define their relationship. And both have come to live with that, for better or worse.

Some years ago, in a thoughtlessly ignorant moment, a reporter asked Branca if “people still come up and ask you about it?”

Branca scowled menacingly, raised a fist and replied, “Only the dumb ones.”

Then he laughed, just a trifle ruefully.

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