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The Giants were met at Grand Central Station by more than 5,000 cheering fans. The entire city was caught up in playoff fever. The Giants had already performed a miracle by closing such an enormous gap in a month and a half. While the Dodgers had played at a respectable 26-22 won-loss pace from Aug. 12, the Giants had won 37 of their last 44 games, 12 of their last 13 and seven in a row. They seemed to be the reincarnation of manager George Stallings's "Miracle Braves" of 1914, who came from dead last on the Fourth of July to win the pennant and sweep the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.
Dressen won the coin toss to determine the playoff schedule. He elected to play the first game at home and, if three games should be required, the next two at the Polo Grounds. He was playing a hunch that left him open to much second-guessing. In the first National League playoff series five years earlier, Durocher, then managing the Dodgers, had taken the opposite course, choosing to play the Cardinals in St. Louis in the opener so as to have the home-field advantage for the rest of the series. As it turned out, the Cardinals negated the strategy by winning two in a row. Dressen was convinced he was in the right this time, and Bavasi supported him. "Charlie's reasoning was that we'd win the first one at home and then have to win only one of two in their park," says Bavasi. "And Charlie was convinced we had the type of team that could win in the Polo Grounds."
History did not seem to be on Dressen's side, however. Branca, who had lost the playoff opener in '46 by a score of 4-2, lost the first game in '51 by 3-1. Hearn, then 17-9, was the winner. All of the Giants' runs came on homers: a two-run shot by Thomson, a solo by Irvin. But the next day the Dodgers made their manager a genius by winning 10-0 in the Polo Grounds behind Labine's six-hit pitching and behind home runs by Robinson, Gil Hodges, Pafko and Rube Walker, who was catching in place of an injured Roy Campanella.
So now it came to a final game between these increasingly bitter antagonists. Indeed, the rivalry between the teams had never been more intense. "The Dodgers were known then for rubbing it in," says Thomson. "They'd be up seven or eight runs in a game, and then Robinson would steal home. When they swept us back in early August at Ebbets Field, Jackie and some of the others pounded on our clubhouse door. I wouldn't want to call them hot dogs, but let's say they were more exuberant than they had to be. What they did was the complete opposite of the way Durocher wanted us to play. He wanted us to let sleeping dogs lie and then beat them on the field. Of course, Leo himself wasn't always like that."
Durocher, in fact, was a ferocious heckler and umpire-baiter, and he was despised in Brooklyn because, after managing the Dodgers from 1939 to midseason of '48, he had made the unthinkable cross-borough jump to the Giants. Dressen, who had been Durocher's teammate with the Reds in 1931 and one of his coaches with the Dodgers until Durocher defected to the Polo Grounds, was seen as a properly obnoxious successor to the Lip. After managing Oakland to a Pacific Coast League pennant in 1950, Dressen had been hired by the Dodgers' new owner, O'Malley, to replace the soft-spoken Burt Shotton, a manager who, like Connie Mack, had refused to wear a baseball uniform. Dressen was not above boasting of his acumen, a trait that many of his players, notably Branca, did not find endearing.
"I was not a fan of Charlie's," Branca says now. "I think he blew the pennant for us that year, because in the last seven weeks of the season, he used only five pitchers [Branca, Roc, Erskine, Newcombe and Labine], and he wore a couple of them [Roe and Erskine] out."
Both starters in the decisive third game were pretty much worn out. Newcombe had pitched 14⅔ innings over the previous weekend and was coming back with only two days' rest. Maglie had had three days off, but he was 34, and he had pitched more innings that year (298) than any pitcher on either team. He had promised Durocher he would go as far as he could, but he figured that wouldn't be too far. Always a slow starter, Maglie gave up a run in the first on walks to Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider and a single by Robinson. The Giants tied the game in the seventh when a sacrifice fly by Thomson scored Irvin from third.
As early as the fifth inning, Giants second baseman Eddie Stanky thought he detected telltale signs of fatigue in Newcombe. "All we have to do is stay close," he told Rigney. "The big guy is losing it." Newcombe must have felt the same way. Several times during the game he complained to Robinson of impending exhaustion, and each time Jackie rallied him with threats and curses. Then, when the Dodgers scored three in the eighth, Newcombe gathered new strength. Rigney led off the bottom of the inning, pinch-hitting for catcher Wes Westrum. "I took the first pitch, and Newk just roared it through there," says Rigney. "I looked over at Stanky and said, 'Yeah, right, he's really losing it.' " Rigney was gone on four pitches. Hank Thompson, batting for Maglie, grounded back to the mound, and Stanky himself struck out to end the inning.
Jansen, pitching the ninth for the Giants, retired the Dodgers in order. Durocher, trotting over to the third base coaching box for the last of the ninth, called back to his charges, "Well, you've gone this far. Now let's give 'em a finish."
Shortstop Alvin Dark led off with a single past Hodges's glove into rightfield. And then Hodges, an ordinarily impeccable first baseman, did an odd thing: He played directly behind Dark, apparently trying to hold the runner on base, even though a steal attempt at this stage of the game was unlikely, and the next batter, Mueller, was a lefthanded hitter. Dressen made no move to position his fielder correctly. "I think Charlie was just too excited to notice," says Bavasi. "He must have been on cloud nine."