Shot Heard 'Round the World

It was exactly sixty years ago today — October 3, 1951 — that a high-and-tight fastball from Ralph Branca was turned around by Bobby Thomson and deposited in the left-field Polo Grounds seats. It sent the Giants to the World Series and capped a run that saw them erase a thirteen-game deficit to Branca’s Dodgers in about six weeks and then win a three-game playoff for the pennant, setting Russ Hodges into a fit of repetitive euphoric screaming.

It was about 10.7 years ago today — January 31, 2001 — that an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joshua Prager (who subsequently published a book on the same topic) called the “Shot” and the Giants’ whole season into question. He confirmed decades-old rumors of an elaborate sign-stealing system that had been employed by the Giants since mid-July of ’51, involving a high-tech military telescope, an electric buzzer, and a series of visual or verbal signals from the bullpen catcher and the dugout to let their hitters know what type of pitch was coming.

This game and its world-famous ending has been one of my favorite baseball stories for years, not so much because of the considerable drama as for the unlikely aftermath it created for its two major players. Branca — a three-time All-Star who probably would’ve won the Cy Young Award in 1947 if there had been such a thing — became history’s ultimate goat, Bill Buckner but worse, remembered only because he threw one single (presumably) bad pitch. Yet at least outwardly, he kind of shrugged his shoulders and embraced it; as early as that offseason or the next, he did a little vaudeville act with Thomson where he sang a song making fun of himself, and from the 1980s through the first decade of this century, Branca made a small fortune (by the standards of a ballplayer from his era) by touring sports cards and memorabilia shows with Thomson and signing autographs like the one pictured above, all while cracking jokes, with a big smile on his face.

Thomson passed away last year, but Branca’s still going strong at 85, and has just released a memoir, timed with the 60th anniversary of The Shot, A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace, in which he reveals much more of his true feelings about his big moment, including his deep resentment of the sign-stealing (of which he learned shortly after the event, but kept quiet for nearly fifty years). I’ve read the book, and I’ll have a review up on the home site sometime this week (I’m holding out hope for a companion interview with Branca himself), but for now, here’s your metaphors post:

Bobby Thomson is Sir Mix-a-Lot.

This is a weird one, but bear with me. You know how artists tend to take themselves too seriously? How bands you loved twenty years ago hate playing that old stuff and are always trying to shove new stuff down your throat, and how performers who are particularly famous for one thing will come to resent that thing eventually? Yeah, Sir Mix-a-Lot is (at least publicly) nothing like that at all. He’s still working, recording and producing new music, twenty-plus years after he got started. Most of it is weighty stuff (to say nothing about the quality of the music itself, just the subject matter), too, dealing with troubling social issues rather than the female anatomy.

But if you hear an interview with him (and I can’t imagine why you would unless you happen to live in Seattle, as I used to), and he’s asked about “Baby Got Back,” he’ll completely level with you — that song paid the bills, continues to pay the bills, and is the reason he still gets to work in the field he loves. He’s eternally grateful for that song. He doesn’t tire of the song, it doesn’t embarrass him in any way, and he doesn’t try to push the conversation back to whatever his exciting new project might be. He’s always going to be associated with that song, and for the most part, he seems okay with that. It’s a pretty refreshing attitude.

Bobby Thomson was a good player, for parts of fifteen seasons in the Major Leagues. He hit 20 or more homers eight times, made three All-Star teams, led the league in triples once, got MVP votes twice. His 32.9 rWAR is about on par with more recent stars Juan Gonzalez, Travis Fryman and Bobby Bonilla. But he was always fully aware that his whole life has been defined by one swing, and he seemed completely at peace with that, saying: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. … It may have been the best thing that ever happened to anybody.”

It’s not that you’d expect an athlete to distance himself from his most famous accomplishment, the same way a recording artist might distance himself from a pop song that’s decades removed from being cool. But you might expect him to tire of the excessive focus on it eventually, and to be motivated to remind people of his many other accomplishments. (Jack Morris, for instance, is perfectly content being lauded for Game 7, but also can’t wait to tell you about all those other games he won.) Bobby Thomson was never like that, as far as I could tell. He knew the Shot Heard ‘Round the World was his calling card and always would be, no matter what else he ever said or did, and, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, he embraced that.

Leo Durocher is Pete Rose.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a baseball-to-baseball simile. But hey, these are metaphors: different figure of speech, different rules! For people who continue to worship at the altar of Pete Rose, the operative words are Competitive, Drive, Desire, Gamer, etc. Charlie Hustle just wanted to win, dammit, and he’d do absolutely whatever it took to beat you. It was this desire to win at all costs (they’d have you believe; I’m inclined to think it was more like a chemical imbalance in his brain, but I digress) that spilled over from baseball to gambling, a need to always be competing that drove him to pile up debt, eventually bet on his own baseball games, and so forth.

Durocher had the same sort of personality. He’s famous for saying “nice guys, finish last,” which was later taken out of context and repeatedly cited without the comma because (like the Rickey Henderson story last week), it just tells a much better story of who Durocher actually was than any true story ever could. Durocher was a tough little bastard, in the managerial mold of a John McGraw, who would do absolutely anything to win.

He managed the Dodgers, and he bled Dodger blue, gave absolutely everything he had to bring glory to Flatbush. He had a falling-out with Branch Rickey, jumped from the Dodgers to the Giants in the middle of a season, and immediately devoted absolutely everything he had to bring glory to the Polo Grounds and beat those same Dodgers. And, I mean, this isn’t just doing one’s professional duty here; this is love of your own team and pure hatred of its enemies, even the enemies you were passionately devoted to just a short while earlier. Durocher, like Rose, could probably have benefited quite a bit from a cruise control setting.

And like Rose, that drive manifested itself in some pretty unsavory ways (though he was lucky enough not to get caught doing anything horrible during his lifetime, and is in the Hall of Fame). When one of his players returned from the army with a fancy telescope, Durocher was very, very happy to put it to work stealing opposing catchers’ signs. Anything at all to win, because winning was everything.

Ralph Branca is Bruce Wayne.

Ralph BrancaForget, for just a moment, about the face-exploding awesomeness that is Batman.

Bruce Wayne himself is an irreparably tortured soul. As a child, he got bored at a movie theater and prevailed upon his parents to leave the theater early, and on the way out, his parents were murdered before his eyes. It’s a completely innocuous choice that just happens to have disastrous consequences, but Wayne just can’t help but blame himself for his parents’ death. His self-loathing ultimately has tremendously beneficial effects, of course. Batman, namely — that’s pretty cool. But Wayne himself is never really satisfied or fulfilled, and his whole life is basically a quest, mostly unsuccessful, to quell that sense of shame and loathing.

Branca has had to live for sixty years now with being a guy who, despite an impressive collection of feats as a professional athlete and later a businessman, is known only for throwing a single pitch. And he’s handled it, as discussed above, with incredible grace, and has become, along with Thomson, an excellent ambassador for the game. He’s never seemed to shy away from talking about The Pitch, and has always seemed friendly and approachable (he said, impatiently waiting for that interview to come through). But on the other hand, Branca’s new book gives readers a pretty thorough sense of the disappointment, embarrassment, and, ultimately, resentment that Branca felt about The Pitch and the direction his career took. And without giving away too much of my review, there’s plenty of resentment to go around — not just Thomson (who really, genuinely became his friend) and the Giants, but also certain coaches, executives, team doctors, and even at least one teammate. You’d never have known it from looking at him or talking to him, but for six decades now he’s been carrying around all this baggage (one piece much bigger than the others, of course) and letting it eat him up inside. Which isn’t to say he’s lived the kind of tortured, lonely existence Bruce Wayne does — he seems quite the happy family man, really — but there’s definitely some dark stuff under the surface.

Like Batman in his world, Ralph Branca has been a really, really good thing in this one. In both cases, though, it might be best not to look under the hood.

The Giants’ comeback is the Moon landing.

Humans first walked on the Moon in July of 1969, and since at least 1974, some people have allowed themselves to become convinced that it never happened. Conspiracy theories abound, the first, most famous, and most hilarious one being that the whole thing was funded by Walt Disney and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The Giants’ incredible 13-game comeback in 1951 is like the Moon landing in this way: both were definitely, wholly real.

There’s something kind of shady about sign-stealing, obviously, especially the off-the-field variety, but there was no rule on the books against it in 1951 (and I don’t believe there is now, but I’m not certain). Beyond that, though, there’s not much evidence that the system actually helped them. The All-Star Break that year went from July 9-11, and the sign-stealing system was implemented on an off day on July 19. The Giants hit .259/.349/.421 in the first half, and .262/.345/.415 in the second, with virtually identical walk and strikeout rates, and actually saw a pretty significant drop in their home run rate. Thomson saw a big bump in his numbers (.237/.337/.482 pre-July 19, .357/.441/.652 post-), but that was offset by big drops elsewhere, like with rookie Willie Mays (.280/.371/.570 before, .269/.341/.398 after).

The big surge didn’t actually start until almost a month after the system was put in place — the Giants were just 7.5 games back of the Dodgers on July 19, and then went 12-10 while the Dodgers won 17 of 21 and found themselves 13 back on August 11 — and seems to have been driven mostly by pitching. The Giants’ staff put up a 3.96 ERA in the first half, 3.07 in the second. From August 12 on, the team’s two best starters, Sal Maglie and Larry Jansen (both of whom also made occasional relief appearances), combined to go 17-3 with a 2.26 ERA in 187.1 innings. The 1951 Giants may not have played fair, exactly, but there’s nothing illusory or fake about their incredible comeback. It was very, very real.

Of course, the season ultimately came down to one swing, and one could argue that all that really matters is whether or not Bobby Thomson got help with the second pitch of his fourth trip to the plate on October 3. And though Thomson denied it, other Giants have flatly stated that he knew a fastball was coming, and if Dodgers fans and Branca want to feel vindicated by that, I think they’re entitled to.

On the other hand, it was a high fastball thrown to a power hitter, vitally important runs were on second and third, and we’re talking about a young pitcher who had finished in the league’s top ten in walks and HBPs three times each, and wild pitches five times. It wouldn’t have been crazy to guess that a fastball was coming from Branca (actually, I’d say it would have been crazy not to), and Thomson having so guessed, it wouldn’t be crazy for us to expect him to do with it exactly as he did. In fact, Thomson had hit a similar home run off of Branca two days earlier, and at Ebbets Field, the one place where the Giants were not able to steal signs.

So there’s some room to debate, if you want to. I’m inclined to think it’s all just as legitimate as the moon landing, and fully deserves its place as one of the two or three greatest moments in baseball history. But then, I don’t care about PED use at all, either, so your mileage may vary.

Image courtesy of Gothamist.

Comments (2)

  1. This makes me feel old. I remember when the 49th anniversary was marked on Sorkin’s “Sports Night.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcvorgRTCDA

  2. One of the best clips from my favorite show of all time. Thanks for posting that.

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