Baseball History: Thomson’s ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’

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.”

photo of New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson

Photo: New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson; image taken from a baseball card issued by Bowman Gum in 1948. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Drama in Baseball, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 4 October 1951

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 4 October 1951, page 12

Giants Make a Miraculous Comeback

Then the miracles started happening for the Giants and their fans.

Enter Last Name










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.’

photo of the New York Giants celebrating after Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run, Advocate newspaper article 4 October 1951

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 4 October 1951, page 20

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.

Enter Last Name










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.”

photo of the New York Giants celebrating after Bobby Thomson hit a pennant-winning home run, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 4 October 1951

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 4 October 1951, page 28

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.

Giants Top Dodgers and Win Flag on Thomson's Homer, 5-4, Springfield Union newspaper article 4 October 1951

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 4 October 1951, page 1

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.

Related Baseball Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron: Baseball Superstar, Humanitarian—& Gentleman

As regular readers of this blog know, GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives are a great resource to research your family history and fill in details on your family tree. These newspapers are also a terrific window into the past, letting us learn more about important people and events in our nation’s history.

For example, let’s see what these old newspapers have to tell us about one of the outstanding athletes in American history: Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, the superstar who played baseball in Milwaukee and Atlanta for 23 seasons, from 1954 to 1976. Aaron is famous as the baseball player who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714—and, as expected, there is plenty of newspaper coverage of his historic home run and other baseball exploits.

The newspapers also tell us much more about his life than this: in addition to being a rare and gifted American athlete, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron was a humanitarian—and a true gentleman.

The sports media and baseball fans were whipped into a frenzy as Hank Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s magical number in the 1973 Major League baseball season. Although 39 years old that summer (an age when most baseball players have retired) Hank Aaron was on target, hitting 40 home runs…but ended the year with 713 home runs, still short of the goal of 715. He had to wait all winter for another opportunity to break baseball’s home run record the next spring.

When the 1974 season began, Aaron wasted no time. He hit the record-tying 714th home run on his first at-bat that year, in Cincinnati. On April 8 the Atlanta Braves returned to Atlanta for their home opener, and 53,775 wildly cheering fans attended the game hoping Aaron would get the record that night. Hammerin’ Hank did not let the crowd down, hitting home run number 715 in the fourth inning. He received a thunderous standing ovation from the Braves’ baseball fans while fireworks lit up the sky above the stadium.

Hank Aaron hammers historic 715 homerun

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 1.

In addition to details of the baseball game itself and Aaron’s record 715th home run, the newspaper article provides this detail:

Aaron broke away from his mates and rushed to a special box adjacent to the Atlanta dugout where he clutched his wife, Billye, and parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Aaron, of Mobile, Ala.

“I never knew she could hug so tight,” Aaron said of his mother.

The following newspaper article tells us something about the character of Hank Aaron. Although he was one of the greatest American baseball players ever, he kept his ego in check; Aaron was widely recognized as a good teammate and a quiet, respectful man—a true gentleman.

Hank Aaron kept his word on the 715th homerun

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 2 May 1974, page 5, (African American Newspapers).

As this newspaper article relates, Hank Aaron was sensitive to the disruption his teammates had to endure while the press thronged around him night after night in 1973-74 covering his chase of the home run record. When it was finally over and the champagne celebration in the Atlanta locker room after the game was ready, Aaron thought immediately of his teammates:

The Braves had opened the champagne and were ready to pour, but Hank Aaron had something he wanted to say first to all his teammates.

“Thank you for being patient,” he said, his sincerity moving them. “Thank you for putting up with all that you have—the newspapermen, the photographers and all the other distractions. I know how difficult it was sometimes, and I appreciate the patience you’ve shown.”

Hank Aaron doesn’t make many speeches. Everybody in the room knew he meant this one.

Away from the spotlight and the glare of media publicity, Aaron had another career: he was a great humanitarian. He devoted countless hours to helping others, especially children, as shown in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron Goes to Bat for Easter Seals

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 9 August 1973, page 8, (African American Newspapers).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newspaper archives provide all sorts of surprising stories about the life of the person we’re researching. How many people know that Henry Aaron was once a mayor?

All Black Alabama Town Makes Hank Aaron Mayor

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 13 March 1975, page 1, (African American Newspapers).

Hank Aaron was born in Alabama, and in 1975 he was:

…sworn in as honorary mayor of Hobson City during ceremonies in which 75-year-old northeast Alabama all-black town dedicates new Town Hall.

There was a dark side to Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record—and the newspapers covered that as well: racism raised its ugly head. Throughout the 1973 Major League baseball season, during the offseason, and again in 1974, Aaron received hate letters mixed in with the supportive letters that were pouring into the Atlanta Braves’ mailbox. Some even sent him death threats.

What pursuit of baseball homerun record has meant for Hank Aaron: People listen

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 11.

In the above very revealing newspaper article, Hank Aaron opens up about the threats he’d been facing:

Aaron’s hero off the field is Dr. Martin Luther King. “He could walk with kings and talk with presidents,” said Aaron. “He wasn’t for lootings and bombings and fights but he wasn’t afraid of violence, either. He was 20 years ahead of his times.”

King’s death by assassination cannot, of course, be forgotten by Aaron. Sometimes Aaron wonders about that, too. He says that among the hundreds of letters he receives weekly, many are threats on his life.

“But I can’t think about that,” he says. “If I’m a target, then I’m a target. I can only worry about doing my job, and doing it good.”

This same newspaper article says of Aaron:

He has recently become identified with black causes. For example, he is now a close personal friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading young black spokesman. Aaron, in winter, now is the organizer of a celebrity bowling tournament in Atlanta with proceeds going to research on sickle cell anemia, a disease that afflicts black people.

And this:

Aaron is also outspoken on the progress, or lack of it, for blacks in baseball. He says that blacks are stagnating. “Whatever so-called progress there is—like blacks staying in the same hotels with the white players—this came about from civil rights legislation, not from any leveling action by baseball,” says Aaron.

“Why aren’t there even no black managers? Why aren’t there even no black third base coaches? There are token first base coaches—a few. But what does a first base coach do? He has no duties. No responsibilities. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’s not expected to have any intelligence.”

Aaron still feels some of the clichés of being black. He remembers that once blacks were considered “too gutless” to be able to take the pressures of day-in, day-out major league baseball.

“Jackie Robinson changed a lot of those beliefs,” says Aaron. “His courage and intelligence showed what the black man could be made of.

Hank Aaron’s stance on black rights is explored further in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron: Baseball Still Not Doing Enough To Give Equal Opportunities To Minorities

USA Monitor (Fort Worth, Texas), 1 March 1993, page 17, (African American Newspapers).

As you can see, newspaper archives are filled with stories you may never have heard before. You can discover little known facts, view pictures and learn more about the personal lives of famous people and your family members with newspapers.  Have fun searching our newspaper archives for details about celebrities and your own ancestors—you never know what you might find!