Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 19, 2010

Thomson And Branca, Together Forever

And now only Ralph remains.

It is one of the Great Game’s most famous moments. Though it took place before I was born, I have seen the old black and white footage more times than I can possibly count, as have all true fans. People with scarce familiarity of the game have heard radio broadcaster Russ Hodges’ repeated celebratory shout.

Ralph Branca on the mound. A successful starting pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branca was thrust into a relief role in the ultimate game of a three game playoff against the New York Giants for the National League pennant. Opposing Branca at the plate was the Giants slugging outfielder Bobby Thomson, whose 32 home runs would prove to be his career high and ranked him 5th best in the majors in 1951.

The Dodgers had led the Giants by as many as 13½ games in August of that year. But thanks to great late season play under manager Leo Durocher, including a sixteen game winning streak, the Manhattan squad caught their rivals from the neighboring borough with each team having two games left to play. When both won those final two games to remain tied, a three game playoff was ordered to decide the National League representative to the World Series.

The Giants won the first game, 3-1. But the next afternoon the Dodgers romped 10-0 on the strength of Clem Labine’s six-hitter. And so it came down to one last game at the Polo Grounds, the old stadium on the Upper West Side. For most of the afternoon, it was a taut pitcher’s duel between two aces, the Giants’ Sal Maglie and the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe. But Maglie tired in the eighth inning and Brooklyn broke through for three runs, snapping a 1-1 tie.

The Dodgers carried their 4-1 lead into the last of the ninth, by which time Newcombe was exhausted as well. He wanted to come out of the game, but second baseman Jackie Robinson prevailed upon Newcombe to head to the mound. Shortstop Alvin Dark rapped a leadoff single for the Giants. With Gil Hodges holding Dark at first, Don Mueller drove a single through the hole between Hodges and Robinson, with Dark racing to third. After Monte Irvin popped out, Whitey Lockman doubled down the left field line, scoring Dark to make it 4-2.

Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen finally went to his bullpen, signaling for Branca, who had started and lost the first game of the playoff. His first pitch was a called strike. His second was a fastball, up and in on Thomson. The slugger turned on the ball and drove it over the 17-foot high wall in left field for the winning three run homer. It was 3:58 in the afternoon.

The Game’s long history is replete with famous and dramatic home runs. Ruth’s called shot. Maris’ 61st and Aaron’s 715th. Bill Mazeroski’s drive to win the 1960 World Series. Light-hitting Bucky Dent’s fly ball over Fenway’s Green Monster that broke the heart of Red Sox Nation in 1978. Hobbled Kirk Gibson’s blast into Dodger Stadium’s right field stands to stun Dennis Eckersley and the A’s in Game One of the 1988 World Series.

But as famous as those and many others are, there is and always will be only one Shot Heard ‘Round The World. Perhaps it’s because it took place in New York, with the added media attention that goes with all things Gotham. Perhaps it’s because of the arch rivalry between the two teams. Perhaps it’s because the result was as improbable as the game itself, given the deficit the Giants faced in the ninth and the one they had faced in the standings with six weeks to play. Perhaps it’s because it took place in the early days of television. Shown on NBC, the game was the first ever to be broadcast nationally, giving a vastly greater audience the chance to see as well as hear the proceedings. Whatever the reason, it stands as a singular moment in the annals of the Game.

Certainly no other home run ever so permanently intertwined the two combatants at the heart of the story. Long, long after the playing careers of both had ended, they appeared together at card shows and charity events, to recall and recount that day. Of course, Thomson always acknowledged that doing so was probably more enjoyable for him.

Earlier this week Bobby Thomson, age 86, passed on. Now only Ralph Branca, age 84, remains. But in the mind’s eye, they will always both be there. Two young men facing each other on the diamond at West 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, just before four o’clock on an October afternoon. The second pitch, a fastball just a bit higher than intended. The bat meets the ball. In a blink, the horsehide is into the stands, and the Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.

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Responses

  1. In the annals announcer caterwauling, right up there with “Havlicek stole the ball!”

  2. Great post, Mike. It would be interesting to compile a Top Ten list of greatest home runs in baseball history. Thomson’s could very well be #1.
    Nice job, Bill


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