The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff: Or Was It?
The recent death of former Giants star Bobby Thomson, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history on October 3, 1951, has rekindled controversy regarding What Bobby Knew and When Bobby Knew It.
Specifically, did Bobby Thomson, who hit the game-winning home run that put the Giants in the World Series vs. the Yankees, know what pitch was coming before he hit it out?
Wall Street Journal writer Joshua Prager reported, back in 2001, that the Giants had utilized an elaborate system of sign-stealing during the latter half of the 1951 season in a desperate bid to try to catch the league-leading Brooklyn Dodgers in the standings.
Prager wrote that his investigation, which included interviews with many surviving Giants players including Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Bobby Thomson himself, had uncovered irrefutable eyewitness testimony that the Giants had, in fact, cheated their way into the playoffs.
They had done so by setting up a powerful telescope in center field at the Polo Grounds focusing directly on the opposing team’s catcher. The signs for pitch selection that he signaled to his pitcher were also being dutifully noted by the Giants player with the telescope.
Then an electronic device (ironically set up by an electrician who was a die-hard Dodgers fan), sent a buzz signal to the Giants bullpen to let them know what pitch would be delivered next. The players in the bullpen would then – using body language which a batter could easily see – indicate to him what the next pitch would be. And so, despite a 13 ½ game deficit in the standings, the Giants won 16 games in a row to force a three-game playoff with the Dodgers to decide the National League pennant.
The idea was reportedly hatched by Giants manager Leo Durocher. Apparently, about half of the Giants players agreed to participate in this obviously illegal activity, and about half wanted no part of it.
Of course, the Big Question regarding Bobby Thomson’s miracle home run in is, “Was Bobby Thomson one of those players who agreed to cheat? Did he know before he hit that homerun over the left field wall in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 that Ralph Branca was about to throw a fastball to him?”
If he knew, then the sheen of the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff loses its luster. Bobby Thomson, inevitably, becomes just another in a long line of cheaters inhabiting baseball history from its earliest days down to our present steroids controversy.
Or does it?
When Thomson was asked point blank by Prager if, in fact, he knew what pitch was about to be delivered by Branca, he at first demurred, stating ambiguously, “I’d have to say no more than yes.” When pressed further by Prager, Thomson said, “I don’t like to think of something taking away from [it].” He added, “It would take a little away from me in my mind if I felt I got help on that pitch. My answer is no. I was always proud of that swing.”
This is a truly remarkable answer.
Does he mean that he simply wants to believe he didn’t know what pitch was coming? Does he mean that he absolutely, positively denies possessing that fore-knowledge?
His answer is “no”, but what, precisely, is he denying?
But his answer is instructive in that the way he framed his response raises a question first posited by the Ancient Greeks 2,400 years ago: What is History?
The cynics and realists among us, shaped by an analytical, empirical Western world view, trace our ancestry back to the Greek historian Thucydides. Thucydides, who wrote the first truly modern work of history – the History of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta – used exactly the same techniques that Joshua Prager employed over two millennia later; he interviewed witnesses, favored eye-witness accounts over hearsay, displayed skepticism in the face of improbable tales, and revealed a hard-nosed narrative seasoned with carefully sifted evidence.
In short, Thucydides wanted “just the facts.”
But baseball, as with the Greeks, has an ancient mythology that in a sense supersedes objective truth. Baseball mythology has always been what we who love baseball need it to be, namely, a vehicle by which we reach outside our simple lives for the thing that allows us to be a part of a narrative both bigger than ourselves, yet entirely dependent on our unquestioning faith and loyalty.
This brings us to Herodotus.
Fifteen years older than Thucydides, Herodotus was regarded by the Roman Cicero as the Father of History (as a discipline.)
But Herodotus’ goal as a historian was not merely to record objective data, compile it into a book, and set it adrift into the banal Sea of Verification. He sought out, to him, a greater, nobler quest. Herodotus intended – in HIS History of the Peloponnesian War – to instruct his readers in the moral lessons of the war. His history is a tale full of gossip, tall tales of the giant ants of India (bigger than a fox), heroes and villains, and uncorroborated anecdotes.
Herodotus tried to do something not all that different than what we Americans generally experienced in our public school classrooms’ history curriculums for most of the twentieth century. Learning about American History was as much the story of what we needed to believe about ourselves as it was about what really occurred in our nation during the previous two centuries.
Thus, the Native-Americans were virtually nowhere to be found in our textbooks. The Reconstruction Era, during which the Federal Government reneged on its original commitment to ensure equality for the “negro” race, was covered in about six minutes. Charles Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi sympathies could not be allowed to cloud over his historic flight across the Atlantic.
Americans demand facts, but we need them to be couched in terms that do not shake our core belief in our country, our culture and ourselves.
The subset of Americans who call themselves Baseball Fans are no different.
Our Thucydides-selves want to know if Bobby Thomson was aware that a fastball was on its way. We want to know what substances Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (Achilles, Hektor and Agamemnon) put into their bodies to conquer their competitors. We want to know if Joe Jackson really did take that money after all.
But our Herodotus-selves need baseball to remain the pure mythical, morality tale that we collectively believe it has always been since at least the days of our halcyon youth.
Therefore, Satchel Paige told his infielders to go sit down as he proceeded to strike out the side. Pee-Wee Reese put his arm around Jackie Robinson in a mid-western ballpark to signal to the crowd that Jackie was alright by him. And an unholy asterisk pollutes the record-books next to the name Roger Maris.
It matters not if any of these anecdotes are literally true. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. What matters is our need to believe them.
Which brings us back to Bobby Thomson.
Did he know what pitch Ralph Branca was about to deliver in the single most important at-bat of either of their lives?
Thucydides would probably answer a definitive, clinical, “yes.” And we would be left with the spiritual and emotional fallout that would inevitably occur.
Herodotus, however, might respond, “A miracle occurred today in upper Manhattan. Robby Thomson hit a majestic homerun into the late afternoon sunshine, and the underdogs Giants, given up for dead just one month ago, have won the National League Pennant. The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!
- Bobby Thomson, Who Hit Epic Homer, Dies at 86 (nytimes.com)