Sunday, October 3, 2010

October 3, 1951: The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff

NEW YORK - I had the chance to meet Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca several years ago. They were on an autograph tour, capitalizing on the fame that came with being the main protagonists in the most famous play in baseball history. They were nice, engaging, and funny, and I got the sense that they always had trouble figuring out what the big deal was. Why were people waiting in line to get their autograph? It was just fate that called their names and put them in the spotlight for that moment.

Fate has always been a funny thing in baseball. While the pitching team has a reasonable opportunity to choose who they want trying to get those crucial last outs, the hitting team's fate is left up to chance. There's a 1 in 9 shot that their best player will be the one batting with the game on the line. On October 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson's number was called.

Not that the Giants were worried about Thomson. 1951 was his best season in the majors, and he had established himself as a good and trustworthy hitter for them. He probably would have been their second choice to bat in that situation. But Thomson is not a Hall-of-Famer. Aside from his home run, his second most famous baseball moment came when he broke his ankle in spring training in 1954, allowing the Milwaukee Braves to call up a rookie outfielder named Hank Aaron.

But there were five Hall of Famers playing in that game who had little to do with the final outcome. Monte Irvin was on base when Thomson hit the home run, so he was involved somewhat prominiently, and of course Willie Mays was famously on deck when the ball was hit. Brooklyn had Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Jackie Robinson batting consecutively in their batting order, but in the end, they could only watch helplessly as someone else decided the game for them.

That's another thing about the picture Thomson and Branca signed for me. It shows Thomson just as he's stepping on home plate as a dejected Branca walks away. But in the picture you can also see Mays, waiting for Thomson at home plate, and you can see Robinson, standing near second base, having waited to make sure Thomson touched all the bases. Two of the most famous players in baseball history, and they were mere spectators for the most famous home run ever hit.

So maybe Thomson and Branca had trouble figuring out why people still wanted their autographs 40 years later. But maybe they were a bit sheepish, a bit embarrassed that of all the great players on that field, the fates picked them for baseball's greatest moment.


I wrote that anecdote because there's no way I could have written the story any better than Red Smith did for the next day's edition of The New York Times. It is undoubtedly the best baseball story ever written, composed by the best sportswriter who ever lived:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshalled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head on into a special park cop who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is away, weaving out toward center field where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants' clubhouse.

At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again, the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers' flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coat tails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.

And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League....The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October....On the final day of the season when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight....Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when — Oh, why bother?

Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds....Or perhaps this is better:

"Well," said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday's playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.

"Ah, there," said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. "How've you been?"

"Fancy," Lockman said, "meeting you here!"

"Ooops!" Thomson said. "Sorry."

And the Giants' first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged him out. Up in the press section, the voices of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: "Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games." Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.

It wasn't funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren't going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn't hit Newcombe and the Dodgers couldn't do anything wrong. Sal Maglie's most splendorous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.

The story was winding up, and it wasn't the happy ending which such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.

Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up with runners on first and third, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.

He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson's fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ball game.

Wait a moment, though. Here's Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here's Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here's Maglie, wild — pitching a run home. Here's Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here's Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.

So it was the Dodgers ball game, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers' pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn't mean anything.

A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin's pop-up. Lockerman's one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz — stretcher bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.

There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who's at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. would Charlie Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca's first pitch was called a strike.

The second pitch — well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

The famous home run call can be found here.

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