Who Won the Pennant? Inside the Shot Heard ‘Round the World

 In Hall of Fame, Stories

The year was 1951. Having emerged victorious from World War II, America, despite finding itself in the middle of another war, this time in Korea, was in the midst of a period of unbridled optimism. The economy experienced record growth. Baby Boomers were being born at an unprecedented rate. Televisions were entering American homes faster than any technological innovation in history, according to NYU researchers, who found that from 1946 to 1951, the number of television sets in use rose from 6,000 to 12 million. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes had one.

It is therefore no coincidence that that ‘50s produced some of the most iconic sports moments ever recorded. Drama aside, they were the first that the country had ever seen — not just heard — collectively and in real time. From Brockton, Massachusetts, to Burbank, California, the nation followed the careers of Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown and Willie Mays on television sets in new settlements called “subdivisions.” They watched in rapture as Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott to win the heavyweight title. But, one moment captured the nation’s attention before all the others, and this is it.

There once existed a time when the National and American leagues did not have three divisions apiece. Instead, there were two: the NL East and West and the AL East and West, respectively. Now, prepare to have your mind whipped about as if inside a tornado: Before there were only two divisions in each league, there were no divisions in each league. That’s right. The NL and AL pennants were decided by best regular season record.

No, you shut up.

By August of the 1951 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers had amassed a 13.5-game lead over the New York Giants. It was unsurprising, considering the loaded Dodgers’ lineup, which included future hall of famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Dick Williams and Roy Campanella. By contrast, the second place New York Giants had two future hall of famers on their roster: Monte Irvin, who had played the first half of his career for the Newark Eagles in the Negro leagues, and a young rookie named Willie Mays. An AP writer observed that “unless the [Dodgers] completely fold in their last 50 games, they’re in [the World Series].”

Undaunted, the Giants caught fire and reeled off a 16-game winning streak. By September 20, with 10 games left in the season, the Dodgers’ lead had shrunk to 4.5 games. Still, the general feeling among the punditry was that, while gallant, the comeback would fall ultimately short. But, as they say, that’s why they play the games.

The Dodgers lost six of their last 10 while the Giants closed out the campaign with a seven-game winning streak, and the regular season ended with both teams tied at 96-58. The NL pennant would be decided by a three-game playoff.

The Dodgers won a coin flip to set the three-game schedule and opted to play the first game inside the home confines of Ebbets Field, and the second and third (if necessary) games at the Polo Grounds.

As it turned out, a third game was necessary. As it also turned out, Game 3 would be the first nationally televised game in history. Millions would be watching, and those who did saw the Dodgers take a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

Giants shortstop Alvin Black led off the bottom half of the frame with a single and would later come around to score on a Whitey Lockman double. Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen pulled starter Don Newcombe and — somewhat controversially — brought in Ralph Branca, off whom Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson hit a game-winning homer in the first game of the series.

Thomson describes the moments before his at-bat: “As I was walking up to home plate, [Giants manager Leo] Durocher came up and put his arm around me, which was the first time he’d ever done that, and said, ‘Kid if you ever hit one, hit one now.’”

As a utility player for the Giants, Thomson had experienced a career year at the plate, batting .293 with 32 home runs and 101 RBIs. There were few players, if any, the club would have rather had at the plate.

Still, and Durocher’s pep talk notwithstanding, Thomson later admitted that he had “no thoughts of hitting a home run,” but with two on, down by three runs,and with millions watching around the country, he did it anyway.

After the game, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Preacher Roe went to the Giants locker room to congratulate them, and Robinson reportedly told the team, “I just want you to know we that didn’t lose the pennant. You guys won it.”

Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges confirmed as much right after the home run by saying, “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!”

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