It was nearing four o'clock and growing dark on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951. There were 34,230 paying spectators, some 20,000 short of capacity, in New York's old Polo Grounds, at 157th Street and Eighth Avenue, hard by Coogan's Bluff and the Harlem River. It was the ninth inning of the third and final game of a playoff series between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant, a series made necessary when the two teams finished a heart-stopping regular-season race with identical 96-58 records. The winner of this game would play the Yankees the next day in yet another subway World Series. This was the Golden Age of baseball in New York: From the end of World War II to the mid-'50s, all three of the city's teams annually contended for the championship. These were the years of Mickey, Willie and the Duke, not to mention Jackie, Big Newk, Campy, Pee Wee, the Brat and the Barber.
There was one out in the last of the ninth, and the Dodgers were leading 4-2. The Giants had Whitey Lockman, who had just doubled in a run, on second base and Clint Hartung, a onetime postwar "pheenom" reduced now to bench-sitting, on third as a pinch runner for Don Mueller, who had injured his ankle half-sliding into the base on Lockman's hit. Bobby Thomson, a late-season hitting sensation, was at bat. Ralph Branca, who had given up a home run to Thomson as the Dodgers lost the first playoff game 3-1 at Ebbets Field, was pitching in relief of starter Don Newcombe. In the on-deck circle was Willie Mays, a 20-year-old rookie who was fearful that if Branca intentionally walked Thomson, Giants manager Leo Durocher would send in a veteran to pinch-hit.
Mays glanced down at Durocher, who was coaching at third, in search of some clue to the manager's plans. But Durocher was busy bellowing encouragement to his hitter, for it was obvious now that Branca was going to pitch to Thomson to avoid putting the winning run on base. "If you've ever hit one," Durocher had pleaded with Thomson seconds earlier, "hit it now."
In the Dodger bullpen, in left centerfield, coach Clyde Sukeforth, 49, was puzzling over the unexpected authority suddenly thrust upon him. Ordinarily, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen told him before a game which pitchers to use that day and in which order. This time, Dressen had telephoned "Sukey" from the dugout and asked, "Who's ready?" Sukeforth had had no trouble answering that one. Clem Labine was there, but he had pitched nine innings the day before. And Carl Erskine, who had been warming up alongside Branca, had been troubled all year by a sore arm, even while courageously winning 16 games. This day, Sukeforth remembers, "I didn't see the real good curveball Erskine was noted for." In fact, says Erskine, "I was bouncing it in the dirt. Considering what happened next, that was a good pitch to have." Branca, meanwhile, was "loose and firing the ball," says Sukeforth. He told Dressen that Branca was ready. "Then send me Branca," came the reply.
"That was the first time I picked the pitcher all year," Sukeforth says.
Giants infielder Bill Rigney, who had helped carry the injured Mueller to the Giants' clubhouse in centerfield, was watching the action through the window there, some 500 feet from home plate. "Here we are playing our 157th game," he said to himself, "and nothing has been decided yet." But it looked so bad for the Giants that owner Horace Stoneham, who almost never came to the clubhouse, had left his office upstairs to come down and commiserate with starter Sal (the Barber) Maglie after he was lifted for pinch hitter Hank Thompson in the eighth. Upstairs, Stoneham's 30-year-old nephew and general manager, Chub Feeney, sat staring bleakly out the office window with scouts Tom Sheehan and Carl Hubbell and several of his boss's cronies from the business and entertainment worlds. There was Dewar's White Label Scotch to drink and hot dogs to eat, but these normally robust men were in no humor for refreshments after the Dodgers forged ahead, 4-1, in the eighth. Dodger traveling secretary Harold Parrott had already dropped by to pick up Brooklyn's World Series tickets, which Stoneham had kept in the office with his own now apparently worthless Giants tickets.
"You could cut the gloom in that place with a knife," says Feeney. "I kept thinking to myself, All this effort for nothing. And then we rallied in the ninth. There was hope at least."
In the stands the tension was palpable as Branca took his warm-up throws. Buzzy Bavasi, the Dodgers' new general manager, was seated next to owner Walter O'Malley's teenage daughter, Terry, and just in front of the renowned gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who, in keeping with his reputation, chattered relentlessly. October 3 was the 70th birthday of Bavasi's mother, Susan, a die-hard Dodger fan, and Bavasi had pleaded with some of his players to give her a National League pennant.
Branca was 25 years old at the time. In 17 days he would marry Ann Mulvey, whose mother, Marie (Dearie) McKeever Mulvey, was a 25% owner of the Dodgers. Branca and Thomson, then 27, were both New Yorkers, Branca from suburban Mount Vernon, Thomson from Staten Island. Both came from immigrant families. Branca's father, John, was born in southern Italy; his mother, Katherine, in Hungary. Thomson was himself an immigrant. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and moved 2½ years later with his mother, Elizabeth, four sisters and a brother to Staten Island after his father, James, a cabinetmaker building a start in the new country, sent for them. If Thomson came from a large family, Branca's was enormous. Ralph was the 15th of 17 children, two of whom had died before he was born.
Branca and Thomson were tall men with generous noses, and both at one time or another had been nicknamed Hawk. They were extraordinarily intense competitors. Thomson had walked to the plate muttering to himself, "C'mon, you s.o.b., do a good job. Watch and wait, you s.o.b. Watch and wait." Branca, pitching with only one day's rest, wanted to get this pennant won as quickly as possible. If he had a fault, he admits now, it was that no matter how tired he was, he "always wanted the ball."