The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Bobby Thomson”

“A Moment In Time” – A Baseball Book Review

“A Moment in Time:  An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak and Grace,”  By Ralph Branca, with David Ritz.  Published by Scribner, New York.  2011.

How long could you live with a secret? Not just any secret, but the secret about how your life changed forever due to a conspiracy of epic proportions?

An image of Major League Baseball manager Leo ...

Image via Wikipedia

And suppose you knew that the man who benefited from changing your life forever, for the worse, would benefit from doing so for the rest of his life?

Could you keep that a secret?

Remarkably, that’s what Ralph Branca did, until the recent publication of his brand new book, “A Moment In Time,” (coauthored with David Ritz.)

As one would expect, there is a thread of bitterness throughout this fascinating inside look at the Dodger’s clubhouse in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s.  Ralph Branca, who grew up a Giants fan watching Mel Ott play at the Polo Grounds, enjoyed his greatest triumphs pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He would suffer his greatest defeat, however, at the hands of the team he once rooted for as a child.  In fact, the manager who orchestrated the sign-stealing scandal (which did not come to light until decades later), Leo Durocher, was Branca’s manager, whom Branca respected and admired, while Durocher managed the Dodgers before being sent packing to the Giants by Branch Rickey.

But long before Giants slugger Bobby Thomson hit what became known as ‘The Shot Hit ‘Round the World,” on the last day of the 1951 baseball season, Branca was a successful young pitcher with a cocky attitude playing on a legendary team in a historic era.  Branca relates early on in this heartfelt story about how the Dodgers as individuals, for example, treated Jackie Robinson.

We learn that PeeWee Reese, who would grow into one of Robinson’s staunchest defenders, was at first ambivalent and cool towards Robinson.  Branca himself, along with Gene Hermanski, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider, treated Robinson with respect, but several other players in the Dodger’s clubhouse did not.

Branca, of Italian heritage, (he was later surprised to learn that his mother was actually a Jew who converted to Catholicism because she thought her children would be better off) relates a moment early in his life when an educator dissuaded Branca from applying for college because of Branca’s ethnic heritage.

In those days, working class Italian-Americans were not considered college material.  No doubt this moment highly influenced his future empathy towards Robinson and the other “negro” players coming into the Majors in the late 1940’s.

Branca’s style throughout the book is direct, proud, articulate, and perceptive.  He has a knack for remembering all kinds of details, especially his own personal statistics, and how much money he got paid throughout his years as a baseball player.  But also, the details of conversations he had with Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, with his own brothers, and with the woman he courted and would later marry, Ann Mulvey.

Occasionally, it is obvious that he is his own biggest booster, but given the magnitude of the baseball scam played against him and his teammates by the Giants in 1951, one has to feel that he has every right at this point in his old age to say whatever he wants to say.

Branca relates, in almost excruciating detail, how the Dodgers slowly watched the 13 1/2 game lead they’d had on August 11th, slip away as the Giants made an incredible run to catch them on the last day of the season.  Now one outside of the Dodgers clubhouse, of course, knew at the time about the telescope the Giants had set up in center field at the Polo Grounds, which they would bring with them on the road as well.

But Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who replaced Leo Durocher, was so obsessed by Durocher’s reputation (as portrayed by Branca), that he made several dumb moves throughout the season.  The dumbest move of all has to be that when the Dodgers won the coin-toss to decide if they would open the three-game playoff series at home or on the road, Dressen chose to play the first game at Ebbett’s Field, thus allowing the Giants to have home field advantage for Game Two, and if necessary, Game Three as well.

Without going into the surprising details of how Branca first learned about the Giants cheating scandal a few years later in 1954, the final quarter of the book covers Branca’s reaction to this shocking revelation, how it affected his surprisingly long relationship with Bobby Thomson over the next few decades, and why he never chose to come forward with the information about this scandal himself.

Suffice to say that Branca is a man of tremendous personal integrity, amazing generosity of spirit and deep religious faith.

Branca’s baseball career did not last long, and he will be forever remembered as the pitcher who served up the Thomson home run in the playoff game in ’51, thereby handing the Giants the pennant that year.

But “A Moment In Time” also shows that a man is much more than the one episode he is fairly or unfairly remembered for. Baseball was lucky to have had a Ralph Branca as its “goat.”

Because any man who chooses to live with a dark secret so as not to hurt the other people in his life is truly a hero.

The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff: Or Was It?

Thomson hits the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World'

Image via Wikipedia

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!

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