Some days—they come rarely—are charged with public events so unexpected, so shocking, so far beyond the limits of belief, that the events are not really public at all. Their impact thrusts them into the private lives of millions of people, who forever after remember these events in personal terms.
Pearl Harbor day was like that. ("I was listening to the radio, a football game, when I heard about the bombing.") There was the day President Roosevelt died. ("I was riding the subway and the conductor told me. He was crying.") Such impinging days are not always tragic; one, in particular, was joyous and heroic for many people, though tragic for some. It was the day, in the most exciting of all baseball seasons, when Bobby Thomson hit his home run....
The night before nearly everyone slept well. Bobby Thomson was troubled because he had struck out with the bases full, but after a steak dinner and a few beers, he relaxed. Ralph Branca fell asleep quickly. He had pitched on Sunday, the last day of the regular season, and on Monday in the first game of the playoff. Tomorrow, October 3, 1951, would be Wednesday, and Branca did not expect that he would be called on to pitch again so soon.
Sal Maglie, who knew he was to start for the New York Giants, spent a comfortable night in his room at the Concourse Plaza Hotel. For all his intensity, Maglie had learned to control his nerves. So, to a degree, had Don Newcombe, who was to start for the Brooklyn Dodgers. "I can always sleep," Newcombe said, a little proudly. "I don't need to take pills like some guys do the night before they pitch."
Charley Dressen, who managed the Dodgers, went out to an Italian restaurant called Rocco's and ate a dinner of clams, mussels, lobsters and spaghetti with hot sauce. A few people asked him how he felt about tomorrow's game and Dressen told them he wasn't worried. "Our ball club is ready," he said.
One man who did feel restlessness was Andy Pafko, the Dodgers' new left fielder. The Dodgers had traded for Pafko at midseason, in a move the newspapers called pennant insurance, and Pafko, reading the papers, was impressed. Now he felt that the pennant was almost his personal responsibility. Lying in his room at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, he thought of his wife, Ellen, in Chicago. He had sent her a ticket to New York so she could watch him play with the Dodgers in the World Series. Next year there would be time to find an apartment together in Brooklyn, but for the moment Andy Pafko was alone. Perhaps it was loneliness as much as pressure that depressed him.
Although New York City was bright with the quickening pace of autumn, none of the ballplayers went out on the town. Everywhere, harboring their energies, they went to bed at about 11 o'clock, and soon, everywhere, they slept.
These were two tough and gifted baseball teams. The Dodgers had been built around such sluggers as Duke Snider and Gil Hodges, and in Jackie Robinson they had the finest competitor in baseball. For months that year the Dodgers won big and won often. On the night of August 11 they had been in first place, a full 13 games ahead of the Giants, who were their closest competitors.
Under Leo Durocher the Giants were combative, strong in pitching and opportunism, concentrated in themselves. Bobby Thomson, like the other Giants, knew none of the Dodgers socially; the teams did not fraternize. He thought that Gil Hodges was a pleasant man but that the rest of the Dodgers were unpleasant. This was a sermon Durocher had preached ceaselessly throughout the last months of the season until finally the ballplayers came unquestioningly to believe their manager.
Durocher's Giants, jelling slowly, spent some of May in last place. It was only when Willie Mays was called up from Minneapolis and Thomson became the regular third baseman that the team began to show fire. Then, from August 11 on, the Giants blazed, winning 37 games and losing only seven under demanding, unrelenting pressure.