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Editor's note: The following is adapted from the forthcoming "The Echoing Green" by Joshua Prager, excerpted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. On sale September 19, preorder now at Amazon. The following excerpt from Chapter 14 chronicles Bobby Thomson's decisive at-bat against Ralph Branca during the 1951 playoffs.
Now, some ten feet from home plate, Leo Durocher walked up to Bobby Thomson. "Boy," he told his leading home-run hitter, "if you ever hit one, hit one now." With that, Durocher slapped with his right hand Thomson's rear and retreated to his coaching box alongside Clint Hartung.
Russ Hodges watched Thomson walk to the plate. His voice was hoarse and his throat hurt but still he leaned into the white call letters on his metal microphone. "He'll be up there against big Ralph Branca swinging," the announcer told his WMCA audience. "A home run would win it for the Giants and win the championship. A single to the outfield would more than likely tie up the ballgame and keep the inning going."
On the mound, Branca and catcher Rube Walker prepped for Thomson, reviewing that which Dressen and his coaches had laid out before the game. "We had said," remembers Erskine, "keep the ball up. Thomson was a low fastball hitter. His power was low." Now Walker told Branca to try and get ahead of Thomson with a fastball. If he did so, they would then bust him up and in, thus setting up the curve low and away. Branca, who had overruled Walker thirty-eight days before only to see a no-hitter broken up, agreed. Then he asked, "What signs are we using?"
Walker was partial to the "count system." The number of signals flashed would determine the pitch to be thrown. Such was the system Branca normally used with Walker. The pitcher nodded.
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Walker trotted back to home and squatted in front of umpire Louis Jorda. The catcher was for Branca not an unfamiliar target. He had pitched to him already six times this season and with great success. In 36.1 innings, the battery had yielded just six earned runs, its ERA 1.49. Branca reared and fired his first warm-up pitch, a BB. "Probably the best I felt since the second shutout in August," he says.
Branca was comfortable coming out of the pen. Over the previous two seasons, he had relieved in 42 games, exactly the number of games he had started. And out of the bullpen he had fared fairly well. Over that two-season span, Branca was 17-15 as a starter with a 3.92 ERA and 375 base runners allowed in 270.2 innings. As a reliever, he was 3-5 with a 3.35 ERA and 96 runners allowed in 75.1 innings.
Branca hurled another warm-up pitch. And as St. Christopher danced about his neck, the pitcher was eager for redemption. For in the history of the major leagues, just five playoff games had been waged and he had lost two of them. The baseball gods had been unfair. "Why is it," Branca's brother John had asked him the night before, "the team scores ten runs for Labine and one for you?"
A dozen rows behind the Brooklyn dugout, Al Branca rose in his seat. The youngest of seventeen, he was off to the army in just days, set to begin basic training in Fort Lee, Virginia. Unfettered, he was on this weekday the only Branca at the park, the only with a rectangular ticket -- section, row and seat printed in red -- to cheer on his relation. Brother Ralph set to pitch and Al walked toward him, kneeling now in the stone aisle beside Ann Mulvey, an orange "NY" figural prettying her armrest.
Seated with her parents in a box just behind the Brooklyn dugout, Mulvey watched her fiancÚ finish his eight practice throws. She turned to owner Walter O'Malley. "Isn't it nice of Dressen," she said, "to call in Ralphie to nail down the pennant?"
Thomson positioned his 10 1D2-D black shoes in the inner half of the batter's box. "My cleats fit like a glove," he remembered years later. Branca stepped to the third-base side of the rubber, his 11-D black shoes two sizes too small. The pitcher liked his spikes tight. Branca wiped his brow, and pitcher and batter, both nicknamed Hawk, eyed each other. Don Mueller's injury had distracted Thomson and only now did he notice Don Newcombe's relief. "Branca!" thought Thomson. "Where did he come from?"
Pitcher and hitter had both awakened that morning at 7:30 in the home of parents. Both had eaten eggs prepared by his mother, Thomson with a side of bacon, Branca a side of ham. Both had left a New York suburb for the Polo Grounds minutes before 10, Thomson in his blue Mercury, Branca his blue Oldsmobile. Six hours later -- it was now
3:57 p.m. -- one held a bat and one a ball. And a batter faced the pitcher Durocher had once sought to swap him for.
Unseen in the overhang in left, Henry Colletti, thirty-nine, kept up by pulley his scoreboard: A.B. 23, OUTS 1, BKLYN 100000030, N.Y. 00000010. Another run already in, Colletti would wait for the end of the inning to fill the ninth New York slat.
It was now that Durocher had infielder Jack Lohrke run toward the Giant pen in right to warm up. In the event the game went extra innings, Thomson would replace Mueller in right and Lohrke would move to third. Brooklyn's infield inched back and, as planned, Walker called for a fastball. Lockman, lurking off second, saw the catcher's fingers move. They were bare, not taped like Campy's. "I didn't recognize the sequence," says Lockman. The first baseman touched his belt buckle to let Thomson know he could not read the sign.
But Herman Louis Franks could. Through the season, the Giants had played Brooklyn two outs short of 25 games -- just the sixth time teams had in one season squared off so much. The coach knew Brooklyn and its signals inside-out. Walker had called for a fastball. Of this Franks was certain and he pressed his push-button once. The current coursed along Chadwick's yellow and slate wires and the ringer on the green phone in the bullpen buzzed.
The previous inning, Sal Yvars had warmed up pitcher Larry Jansen. But the catcher was now in the hot seat, now at the far end of the right-field bullpen bench set off under cover of shadow from coach Frank Shellenback, pitcher Jim Hearn, catcher Ray Noble and third baseman Lohrke. When the metal buzzer sounded just once, the former test dummy knew what to do. "If I did nothing, it was a fastball," he says. "I did nothing."
Off in center field, Newcombe stepped into a shower. And as big Ralph went into his windup -- five ounces in the grip of 220 pounds -- the posse of writers squinched into the Brooklyn players lounge listened to Red Barber's call: "Branca pitches and Thomson takes a strike."
Franks was right. Branca had thrown a fastball.
The pitch, a little low and a little inside but squarely over the pentagonal plate, seemed an eminently hittable one for Thomson. And far off in the Brooklyn pen, Erskine and Labine, the latter now warming up too, paused momentarily from their tossing to holler at their brother-in-arm. "Oh, no!" shouted Erskine. "Ralph, not down there! Good-night! Not down there!"
Lying beneath a naked lightbulb on a trainer's table in the clubhouse, Mueller missed the pitch. He was in pain but at the moment ignored. "Nobody was tending to me," he says. Eddie Logan did share his room. But he was far away. The bespectacled clubhouse man had learned mid-game that his sister Marie had died of cancer, had had her last rites. So as to be able to hurry after ball to her home across the river on Merriam Avenue, he had packed the team trunks and stood now by a wire-mesh window, his back to the injured right fielder.
Walker tossed the ball back to Branca. And as Colletti inserted at the far left of the left-field scoreboard a "1" in white paint, Dodgers statistician Allan Roth noted the called strike too, a capital letter "C" drawn in pencil in the first-pitch column on his blue score sheet. Branca was pleased. He had gotten ahead of Thomson.
A season hung in the balance and everywhere did people turn to God. Jews observing an annual fast for a governor of Judea murdered 2,537 years before recited this afternoon a silent Hebrew prayer: "Answer us, God, answer us, on this day of our fast, for we are in great distress." This Nota Schiller would, in his Brownsville tenement, read in minutes. But his current distress had less to do with a fast than a fastball just thrown, the yarmulke'd boy of thirteen, home early from yeshiva, hanging now on the every word of Red Barber. Just below Barber, a girl of twenty wearing the blue-white diamond ring the pitcher had given her in November began to move her lips in prayer, to ask that above all Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca emerge unscathed from this contest seventeen days before his wedding: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." General manager Emil Bavasi invoked the virgin mother too, mumbling in the ear of gossipmonger Walter Winchell seated one row ahead. So did Carl Bayuk, a sandy-haired boy of thirteen beseeching intervention not on behalf of Brooklyn but New York. Middle son of gentile and Jew, Bayuk balanced now on hands and knees on a Persian carpet in New Jersey. And having communicated with Mary, he spoke now to Thomson, the player tiny in his living room RCA television: "If you hit a home run, I will do anything the good Lord wants me to do." Bayuk's idol Willie Mays, a boy of twenty genuflecting in the on-deck circle at the Polo Grounds, prayed too. "Please don't let it be me," mouthed Mays. "Don't make me come to bat now, God."
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As much as anyone, the rookie had Jack Carter to thank he was not in Thomson's spikes.
Carter, twenty-four, loved statistics. Born Jack Cohen in the Bronx, he was a statistician at Standard Oil, his first job since graduating City College in 1948. But less keen on barrels of oil than bats, the Giant fan had from his apartment on Walton Avenue devised in 1950 two baseball statistics: "Equivalent Batting Average" and "Equivalent Batting Average Allowed." These weighted the effectiveness of hitter and pitcher (a single advancing a runner to third, for example, more valuable than one hit with no one on base). And in the spring of 1951, having for months foisted voluminous tables of EBA and EBAA upon his Phi Delta Pi fraternity brothers, Carter had shopped his analysis to baseball.
Giant vice president Chub Feeney had been interested. For stats were the future. (While the just published Official Encyclopedia of Baseball took a first statistical stab at baseball history, the U.S. Census Bureau had in June put to use the brand-new UNIVAC, the world's first commercial computer.) Feeney had pitched Carter to Durocher. The manager was game and so off to the clubhouse went Carter, tall, fair and giddy. "He was very excited to meet Durocher in the nude," remembers Estelle Kraysler, then his wife. "He didn't know whether to extend his hand." Carter did and New York offered him a job, $2,000 for a season of stats.
Carter was diligent, once sending in his stead to a game his wife with grids at the ready. "He had to teach me what his system was," remembers Kraysler. "I went to the game pregnant." By May, Carter had set for Durocher what he called a "Most Productive Batting Order."
What Carter gave New York was not quite what Roth gave Brooklyn. But unlike Dressen, Durocher welcomed the input, altering his lineup at Carter's behest, the statistician later wrote, "when the Giants started their stretch drive." Remembers Kraysler, "Durocher changed the batting order many times because of some of the things my husband told him."
Though the press would never learn of Carter, Durocher had indeed endlessly shuffled his lineup through the season, using Thomson, for example, in every slot in the batting order save leadoff and second. Now, for the fourth game in a row, Thomson was batting sixth.
That morning, driving in his Mercury, zipping alone along the West Side Highway, Thomson had decided that if he could somehow collect three hits in the game, the team would likely win. Three hits. As he now crouched and cocked his orange bat above his right shoulder, two hits already claimed, this thought came to mind.
Another thought, another memory of morning, wafted now to Branca. Robinson had in the clubhouse before the game declared that anyone who did not feel butterflies in his gut was not human. Branca then confessed to Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese that he did feel butterflies. The men had laughed. And now, as Branca adjusted his belt, cap and sleeve, rubbed a ball and flipped a white cotton bag holding three ounces of yellow rosin, he thought of butterflies.
Walker's fingers wigwagged. He wanted a fastball and Branca agreed to throw one. Perched in the press box above first base, Hodges painted the scene: "Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances. Lock-man without too big of a lead at second but he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one."
The wind was blowing southward, the American flag high in center field riffling to right. Some ninety feet below, Franks sat behind the fourth window in the clubhouse, brown eye held to a telescope. About him were pictures framed: a team portrait, actor George Raft, Franklin Roosevelt smoking a cigar, beautiful Laraine Day (Durocher's wife) and the kids. The room was dark, sunlight glinting off the silver ridges of a radiator peeking up and over the sill before him. The window was open some six inches, the shade drawn even with the lowered wooden frame. And it was through the aperture cut months ago in the wire grid beneath that frame that Franks, all but hidden in Durocher's locked office, now peered. Again, the coach pressed the push-button once. Again, Yvars was still, unaware that he sat within the eye of a newsreel camera off in the press box.
Thomson crouched, in his mouth half a stick of gum. He knew Franks was off spying in center field. "Of course!" says Thomson. And he knew Walker's sign was there to be gotten in the person of Yvars far beyond Robinson. From the batter's box, says Thomson, "you could almost just do it with your eyes."
Branca withdrew with his large right hand a baseball from his mitt. It was a hand befitting his surname, Branca Latin for "paw." As the starting center at New York University, he had palmed a basketball with ease and so now, a baseball, nine inches in circumference, all but disappeared in his fingers. Branca raised the ball above his head together with his gloved hand, leaned back on his right leg, kicked his left and brought down his arms, elbows bent inward to his chest. Ball in hand, he reached his right arm far behind his head, elbow pointing toward first, then took with his left leg a giant step toward home, his right leg leaving the ground. Branca whipped his right arm forward and, twenty-three seconds after a first pitch, again let go of the ball. Hodges spoke: "Branca throws."
Thomson watched Branca and like all good hitters slowed his rival's delivery. He saw the pitch unfurl, saw the momentum of a windup thrust Branca's right side past his left, saw the ball leave his right hand, rolling off at last touch his long middle finger. It was all very clear: a buttery sun had in the sixth inning joined Chadwick's eighteen-inch lights to illuminate play.
Atop the concrete outfield wall, astride both staircases that led to the clubhouse, five canvas panels stood side by side, each 17 feet high and 20 feet wide. Batters appreciatively referred to them as "the eyes"; dark green, they helped the hitter pick up a pitched ball homeward bound. This they now did Thomson, Branca's second pitch a white ball with red stitching whooshing brightly through the air against a green backdrop.
The ball was fast moving, traveling some ninety-three miles per hour. As it approached, Thomson slightly lifted then returned to earth his left foot. Walker raised his glove to receive the pitch: it was high, at the level of Thomson's triceps, and set to pass over the inner portion of the plate. The approaching ball some ten feet away, Thomson began his swing, an uppercut, his torso coiling, his right shoulder moving toward first, his arms struggling to extend yet still direct his clenched bat into the path of the inside pitch. Thomson's bat struck the ball before it reached home plate.
Branca's right leg landed, his body following his pitching arm down. Thomson's right wrist turned over, his body following his swinging bat up. The men were moving in opposite directions.
The ball shot toward third base and Branca whipped his head right to watch its flight. Still in the batter's box, so too did Thomson. He took a step toward first, letting go his bat with his left then right hand.
There loomed the possibility of an extra-base hit, and Branca should now have stepped toward the plate, run to back up Walker in the event of a throw home. But the pitcher stayed cleated to the mound, imploring a baseball: "Sink!" Pee Wee Reese was also dumbstruck, the shortstop not running toward left for a possible cutoff, only screaming where he stood: "Drop!" Billy Cox at third spoke too to a ball as it flew overhead: "Get down!"
Andy Pafko, Pruschka, raced sideways in left toward Matty Schwab and his hidden apartment. Duke Snider in center barely moved, forgetting a possible carom. Batboy Billy Leonard reached for a warm bat.
"It's going to be!" Hodges screamed. "I believe!"
The ball reached as high as the fašade of the upper deck, then, dipping slightly, careened leftward toward a seventeen-foot wall. Pafko backpedaled -- back, back, back -- his blood pressure rising, the hypertensive outfielder stopping a step to the right of the tin 315 FT. marker, his right side touching green concrete. He looked up. The ball disappeared overhead. Umpire Larry Goetz signaled home run and, after five distracted stride, Thomson, running toward first, leapt into the air.