The Dodgers, playing .500 ball as some of their sluggers slumped, were nonetheless uncatchable by all the traditions of baseball. But the Giants, establishing a new tradition, caught the uncatchable, forced them into a playoff and won the first game 3-1, defeating Ralph Branca at Ebbets Field. Then Clem Labine, a Dodger rookie, shut out the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The score was 10-0, but the game was close for some time and seemed to turn when Thomson, with bases full, struck out on a 3-and-2 pitch, a jumping curve that hooked wide of the plate.
No one expected the deciding game of the playoff to be easy, but no one, not Thomson, or Branca, or Durocher, or Dressen, felt any dramatic foreshadowing of what was ahead. The game would be tense, but they'd all been tense lately. That was all. It was against this background of tension, which the players accepted as a part of life, that everyone slept the night before.
Robert B. Thomson, brown-haired, tall and swift, said goodby to his mother a little before 10 a.m. and drove his blue Mercury to the Staten Island Ferry. The Thomsons lived on Flagg Place in New Dorp, once an independent village, now a community within the borough of Richmond. As he drove, Thomson thought about the game. "If I can just get 3 for 4," he mused, "then the old Jints will be all right." The thought comforted him. He'd been hitting well, and 3 for 4 seemed a reasonable goal.
Ralph T. Branca, black-haired, tall and heavy-limbed, said goodby to his mother in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y., the town where he had grown up, and drove off in his new Oldsmobile. He felt a little stiff from all his recent pitching. It would take him a long time to warm up, should Dressen need him in relief.
It was a gray day, darkened with the threat of rain. The temperature was warm enough—in the high 60s—but the crowd, waiting for the gates of the Polo Grounds bleachers to open, was smaller than the one which had waited in bright sunshine the day before.
Most of the players arrived by car, but Andrew Pafko came by subway, an hour's ride from downtown Brooklyn. "I'll beat the crowd," he decided, "so there's no sense wasting money on a cab." The crowd, it was to develop, was scarcely worth beating; 34,320, some 15,000 under standing-room capacity.
As a ball park, the Polo Grounds was unique; oddly shaped and with clubhouses 600 feet from the dugouts. It was, actually, a football horseshoe and as such made strange demands upon pitchers. The foul line in right field ran only 250 feet until it reached the lower deck of the grandstands. The left-field line ran slightly longer, but in left a scoreboard was fixed to the facade of the upper deck, a facade that extended several yards closer to the plate than did the lower stands. A short fly, drifting down toward a fielder, could become a home run merely by grazing that projecting scoreboard.
Both walls fell away sharply, and the fence in center field was 485 feet out. The pitching rule was simply to make the batter hit to center, where distance didn't matter. The outfielding rule was to crowd the middle. The right and left fielders conceded drives down the line and tried to prevent hits from carrying into the deep alleys in left and right center. At the Polo Grounds, outfielders stood in a tightly bunched row, all seemingly about the same distance from home plate.
Back of center field stood an ugly green building which contained the clubhouses, a dining room for the press and an apartment for Horace Stoneham, the Giants' owner. Since both Durocher and Dressen believed in intensive managing, each team was gathered for a meeting in that green building shortly before noon. The announced purpose was to review hitters, although the two teams had played each other 24 times previously that season and there was nothing fresh or new to say about anyone.
"Jam Mueller on the fists," Dressen told Don Newcombe. "Keep the ball low and away to Thomson. Don't let him pull it." Dressen concluded, with more warmth than he customarily displayed: "Look, I know it's tough to have to play this game, but remember we did our best all year. So today, let's just go out and do the best we can."