Thomson's legendary HR is timeless
Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.
Aug 18, 2010
You don’t have to be an old-timer to understand why Bobby Thomson’s home run still matters, almost 60 years after the fact. Then, as now, October was baseball’s gift to America and this one, a war between the Giants and Dodgers, was a beauty.
You think the walk-off is a modern-day invention? How about leaping into a waiting mob at home plate — you really believe Prince Fielder owns the patent?
Take a look at the grainy black-and-white video from Oct. 3, 1951, back from an era when fans got dressed up to watch a ballgame; men actually wore fedoras that day. Study the crowd, the cops, the players. The clothes and cigars might’ve been different, but the code of conduct hasn’t changed all that much when a home run rocks someone’s world.
Then, as now, there was elation and sorrow on the field, as Ralph Branca began that million-mile walk back to the dugout, Jackie Robinson standing behind him in a daze. The Giants’ screams were grown men’s substitute for tears, only a rung or two above primal. Everyone was at home plate, head-slapping, hugging, more hugging, a scene that could’ve been time-tunneled into any new-millennium ballpark.
Meanwhile, announcer Russ Hodges had stamped the "shot heard 'round the world" with this receipt:
"Branca throws. There's a long drive. It's going to be — I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands. The Giants win the pennant! And they're going crazy! They're going crazy! Oohhh-oohhh!"
This call is so rich, so honest, we’ve all memorized it. Even Hollywood loved it: In “The Godfather” Sonny Corleone was listening to this broadcast on his car radio when he was murdered at a toll booth.
Of course, Thomson’s home run off Branca wasn’t just historic, it was majestic. Shoot, it was surreal — so shocking that within seconds of the blast two spectators at the Polo Grounds suffered heart attacks. Within minutes, Dodgers fans were taking their revenge on Branca, hanging him in effigy from street lights and telephone poles.
So said the Wall Street Journal, whose description of The Game was affixed with a stunning asterisk: Thomson sent the Giants to the World Series not just on his skill and bat speed, but with help from his teammates in the dugout who were routinely stealing the Dodgers’ signs that day.
It took 50 years for the true story to come out, and even then no one was ready to confess to all of it. Before he died, Thomson cryptically told the newspaper, “Stealing signs is nothing to be proud of. Of course, the question is, did I take the signs that day?”
There were 21 surviving players interviewed in 2001, all of whom outlined the scheme that allowed the Giants not just to spy on Branca, but every pitcher they faced in the final 10 weeks of the season. Pitcher Al Gettel said, “Every hitter knew what was coming. Made a big difference.”
That might’ve explained how the Giants made such a dramatic comeback that summer, after having fallen 9 1/2 games out as late as Aug. 8. But they’d already begun working on an unique way to make things right, at least at the Polo Grounds. According to the Journal’s research, the Giants used a telescope to steal the opposing catcher’s signs from their own clubhouse, which was located 483 feet away in straight away center field, high above the wall.
That was one of the reasons the Polo Grounds were so unique; players exited the field through centerfield, not the first and third base dugouts as they do today. And that clubhouse peered directly in toward home plate. With a powerful telescope, a sharp-eyed player could see everything.
That responsibility belonged to Henry Schenz, a utility infielder who didn’t hit or play the field much. His job was to pilfer those signs. Once Schenz realized he could distinguish between the catcher’s index and middle fingers, “He asked each person if he wanted the signs,” said Monte Irvin. “I told him no. He said, 'You mean to tell me if a fat fastball is coming, you don’t want to know?' “
It was estimated that half the Giants actually declined Schenz’s offer, although no one was sure how Thomson voted on Oct. 3. But the system was nevertheless fool-proof. Schenz would relay a message to the ballpark’s scoreboard operator, Abraham Chadwick, who installed a bell and buzzer system in the bullpen and dugout telephones.
Chadwick would press a button and the phones would ring accordingly: one ring for a fastball, two for a breaking pitch. The tip would then be relayed to the batter by a pitcher sitting in the bullpen, which was directly in home plate’s line of sight. Crossed legs might mean a fastball, uncrossing them might be the breaking pitch.
It was too good to be true, too easy for the Giants not to have used it. But what of Thomson? Did he? Would he?
Thomson said in an ESPN interview, “The guys wanted to kill me when I took that first strike (from Branca).”
Was that because Thomson — and the rest of the Giants — knew it was coming?
The only certainty is what happened next, as Branca tried to power another fastball by Thomson, this one up and in. Thomson swung and said, “I saw a flash.”
It was the ball leaving the infield as if it’d been shot out of cannon, on its way over the wall, clear around the world. Somehow, somewhere, it’s still traveling.