It is a cliché to say that a ballclub is a “team of destiny,” but if anyone deserves that title it would be manager Leo Durocher’s 1951 New York Giants baseball team. That’s the club that won the National League pennant in the last inning of the last playoff game on Bobby Thomson’s three-run homer on 3 October 1951, the famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
As dramatic as it was, however, Thomson’s heart-stopping home run was simply the climax of a long string of miraculous events for the Giants and their fans that season.
Long Run of Disappointing Seasons
The New York Giants were a long-suffering franchise when the 1951 season began. For many years a powerhouse in the National League (the Giants’ 15 pennants were second only to the Chicago Cubs’ 16), the Giants had fallen on hard times. They had not won the pennant—the league championship—since 1937, and with the powerful Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers on the scene it did not look like 1951 would end the Giants’ pennant drought, even though in May of that year the Giants brought up a scintillating 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays.
As expected, the Dodgers were a great team in 1951, and on August 11 the forlorn Giants trailed their first-place rivals by a seemingly-insurmountable deficit of 13½ games.
Giants Make a Miraculous Comeback
Then the miracles started happening for the Giants and their fans.
Astonishingly, the Giants reeled off 16 straight victories to begin their charge, and never let up. They won 37 of the season’s final 44 games, but even this incredible level of play almost wasn’t enough to catch the Dodgers. On the last day of the season they desperately needed a win, but faced the Philadelphia Phillies, the reigning pennant winners. It was a tense game, but the Giants finally prevailed in the 14th inning to tie the Dodgers atop the standings with identical 96-58 records. That brought on a special best-of-three-games playoff, with the winner earning a place in the World Series against New York’s third Major League baseball team, the American League’s New York Yankees.
The first playoff game was in the Dodgers’ ballpark, Ebbets Field. The sun shone brightly and the Giants won 3-1, thanks to Bobby Thomson hitting a two-run homer off the Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca—a hint of things to come.
The next game was at the Giants’ ballpark, the Polo Grounds. The Giants fans’ misery matched the foul, wet weather as the Dodgers thrashed the home team 10-0 to tie the playoff and set up the climactic third and final game, also at the Polo Grounds.
And what an epic baseball game it was! Two of the game’s preeminent pitchers, the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe and the Giants’ Sal Maglie, squared off against each other in a taut pitcher’s duel. After seven innings under gray, threatening skies the game was knotted up 1-1. Then in the eighth the Dodgers pushed across three runs to take a commanding 4-1 lead, and when Newcombe held the Giants scoreless in the bottom of the eighth it looked like the Dodgers were World-Series bound.
Bobby Thomson Hits Legendary Home Run
But the Giants had one more miracle left in this incredible comeback baseball season. Before the first batter stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, manager Leo Durocher said to his players (as he later told a reporter):
I told the boys we had three big outs left. You haven’t given up all year so don’t give up now. Let’s get some runs. And the reply, almost in a chorus, was, ‘we’ll get the bums.’
The Dodgers’ ace Don Newcombe was still on the mound, but pitching on only two days’ rest—and he was tired. The first two Giants batters singled, putting runners on first and third. But then the third batter harmlessly popped out, and the Giants’ hopes were flickering. The next batter doubled, driving in a run to make the score 4-2. Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen then pulled Newcombe and made the controversial decision to replace him with Ralph Branca—even though the next batter was Bobby Thomson, who had homered off Branca in Game 1.
Branca fired a fastball past Thomson for strike one.
Then it happened. The overcast skies lightened and the sun broke through. Branca threw a second fastball, but he did not get this one past Thomson. Instead, the Giants’ slugger hit his 32nd homer into the left-field stands, a dramatic, three-run bottom of the ninth home run to win the pennant, a shot forever immortalized as the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
Thomson was mobbed at the plate by his jubilant teammates while frenzied Giants fans poured onto the field. The Giants, given up for dead just weeks before, had won the National League pennant with one of the greatest comebacks and most exciting finishes in sports history. Though they would go on to lose the World Series to the Yankees in six games, that almost seemed inconsequential—nothing could diminish the excitement and satisfaction of the Giants’ 16th National League pennant.
According to this old newspaper article, written by Dutch Robbins:
“Polo Grounds, New York, Oct. 3—Everybody said it couldn’t be done but the New York Giants did it. They said it all during the month of August and they said it again today after 8½ innings of play here at the Polo Grounds before a crowd of 34,320. Then in the most dramatic finish that baseball will ever know, Bobby Thomson stepped up to the plate and hit a three-run homer that made the rags-to-riches Giants the National League champions of 1951. Thomson’s smash, which will go down in history as one of the greatest clutch wallops of its kind, gave the Cinderella Kids of Manager Leo Durocher a 5-4 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the deciding game of the three-game series to decide the National League flag and it sent them skyrocketing into the World Series against the New York Yankees.
“The Giants have let nothing become a hopeless cause this season. They refused to let their plight going into the last of the ninth inning become one today. They were a seemingly beaten team moving in for their last and final great bid to complete the national pastime’s comeback of all times. The Dodgers were leading 4-1 and only three Giants stood between them and what they had fought their hearts out for. Don Newcombe, Brooklyn’s big Negro mound ace, had things well in hand. Al Dark walked up to the plate. He hit one toward the hole between first and second. Gil Hodges raced over from first and knocked the ball down but it rolled away and Dark was on with an infield single. Don Mueller walked up to the plate and slashed one of Newcombe’s pitches right through first base for a clean single that sent Dark racing to third. The Giants were threatening but Monte Irvin fouled out to first base. Two outs to go for Newcombe and the Dodgers. Whitey Lockman took his place in the batter’s box. Newcombe gave him the pitch he liked and he belted it into left for a double. Dark hustled home and Mueller went sliding into third.
“It was a costly slide for Mueller for he twisted his left ankle and had to be carried from the field on a stretcher. Clint Hartung took his place as a base-runner. Now the tieing runs for the Giants were on second and third. Newcombe was on the ropes and Manager Charley Dressen called in Ralph Branca to try to save the day.
“Thomson was to be Branca’s first victim but instead the Brooklyn hurler became the victim. Branca’s first pitch got by Thomson for a strike but not his next one. Thomson swung. The ball went soaring toward the left-field stands. The huge throng rose to its feet breathlessly and then up went the greatest roar the Polo Grounds has ever heard as the ball dropped into the lower deck of the stands.
“The place became a madhouse as first Hartung crossed the plate, Lockman crossed the plate and last and greatest of them all, Thomson crossed the plate to be literally murdered by everyone even slightly interested in the Giants.”
Historical newspapers are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did you or anyone you know witness Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World”? Please share your stories with us in the comments.
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