Baseball is more than entertainment. It has the power to lift your spirits or crush your soul. But only if you let it.
I was born in San Francisco and grew up a Giants fan. Willie Mays was my hero. I got to meet him when I was about 10 years old. My dad and he had a mutual friend and one Saturday afternoon when the Giants were visiting Los Angeles to play the Dodgers that same night, we went to his room at the old Ambassador Hotel. It was like meeting a god. A god lounging on a king sized bed in a bathrobe.
Years later, I moved to New York and went to Yankees games because I loved baseball. It was 1977. Reggie Jackson had just come to the Yankees and it was a wild, rollicking season -- the Bronx Zoo year -- and I got sucked in. I became first a Yankees fan and then a fanatic. There is a difference. But the Giants were my first love and I maintained an allegiance to them even as I formed a new one.
Unlike pro basketball or football, baseball is steeped in history. For as long as I could remember, I have known about one of the greatest moments in that history. The New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game in 1951 that was decided by Bobby Thomson's 9th inning game-winning home run, the fabled Shot Heard Round the World, at the Polo Grounds, the Giants home ballpark. But it was only many years later that I discovered that the Polo Grounds was right across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. It was razed in 1964 because that's the fate of old ballparks. But once I knew where it was -- where I had been -- I was determined to see the site. What I found was a massive public housing project. The Polo Grounds Projects, of course.
For some reason, I kept coming back. Some days, on my way to a Yankees game, instead of going directly to the stadium, I take the subway to 157th Street and walk down 155th Street past the Polo Grounds site. I came to think of it as the Pilgrimage Walk. If I was early, I would take a detour into the slender park -- Coogan's Bluff -- where there is a staircase built in 1913 to honor John T. Brush, the owner of the Giants who had died the year before. That staircase descends steeply to Harlem River Drive, on the other side of which was the entrance to the sacred temple that was Polo Grounds.
When I reached Harlem River Drive, I cross over and would walk along the sidewalk beside the dense foliage and urban refuse back to 155th Street and then turn toward the Bronx. On the left, beneath 155th Street was the Polo Grounds housing project. In the right mood, I would let my mind wander and imagine.
I would imagine it is October 3rd, 1951. Seventy years ago this week.
John T. Brush staircase, 2021
Walter Dubler was 17 years old then, an undergraduate at Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan. He was born, raised in Brooklyn so he was a Dodgers fan, an ardent Dodgers fan (was there any other kind?). He was at school that day, a Wednesday.
"It was a perfect day for a group of us to say 'screw this. Why don't we walk down to the Polo Grounds?' and we did," he told me a few weeks ago.
Walter and his college pals bought tickets -- it seems astonishing now, but the game was not sold out -- and claimed their seats in the upper deck of left field.
Fifteen-year-old Pat Kannar had a better view. She was the girlfriend of the Giants bat boy, Bill Leonard, so she got to sit with the Giants players' wives in the lower deck behind the home team dugout. Pat lived in the Bronx but was a Giants fan long before she met Bill at a high school dance.
One of her favorite players was infielder Bobby Thomson.
"Not only was he handsome, " Pat told me, "but he was one of my heroes."
For years. the Dodgers had been hapless, either mired in mediocrity or just falling short of the National League pennant or, rarely, winning it and then losing the World Series. Disappointment and doom seemed inevitable, yet their fans were fiercely loyal. That is a terrible burden for any fan to carry. Ask a Mets fan today.
Walter said he went to the Polo Grounds that day with a feeling of dread.
"All you could see was sorrow ahead," he said. "They were going to find a way. Adversity was going to overtake them."
Pat Kannar felt "nervous, anxious" but "hopeful."
What happened that cloudy autumn day is part of baseball lore.
The Dodgers took an early 1-0 lead and held it until the Giants scored a run to tie in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Dodgers answered in the eighth with three runs. They carried a 4-1 into the bottom of the ninth. The baseball gods or, depending on your perspective, demons, were just getting started.
The Giants scored a run, then got two runners on base with one away. The Dodgers brought in Ralph Branca to relieve. Third-baseman Thomson came to bat. Branca threw a strike. His next pitch was up and in. Thomson swung -- it's been described as a tomahawk chop -- and connected.*
Thomson rounds third base around Stanky and Durocher credit: Getty Images
"Just the crack of the bat," Pat said, looking back through the prism of seven decades. "I can't say I knew immediately. But I hoped. I hoped."
It was one of the many architectural eccentricities of the Polo Grounds that the stadium's second deck extended out as far as the lower deck. Walter saw the ball heading in his direction but had no idea whether it would be caught or clear the left field wall below him. It arced toward him and then disappeared from view. He listened and waited and hoped. He knew the noise of the crowd would tell him what happened.
An instant later, the crowd erupted. It was a home run. Thomson loped around the bases. He said later it felt like he was in a dream. Fans and press photographers raced onto the field. The Giants announcer Russ Hodges shrieked into the microphone: "The Giants win the pennant!! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" It was the first ever nationally televised baseball game.
Thomson mobbed his teammates at home plate Credit: Getty Images
Walter watched Giants coach Eddie Stanky run onto the field and embrace Giants manager Leo Durocher who was coaching third. Durocher was spinning deliriously as Thomason made a wide turn around the two.
"I didn't know what happened until after it happened," said Walter. "It was like a Faulknerian experience."
Pat thinks she and the other players' wives hugged each other but she isn't certain.
"The whole Polo Grounds went crazy. I can remember being so happy, brought to tears. It was all a blur."
I have seen the old video clip of the Thomson home run many times. It always gives me chills. But there is another indelible image from that moment in time. Thomson mobbed by home plate by his teammates. Ralph Branca, number 13, heading by himself back toward the locker room behind center field. Jackie Robinson still standing near second base after watching to make sure Thomson had touched all the bases. It is frozen in time forever. The power of baseball to lift your spirits and to crush your soul.
Polo Grounds Housing Project, 2021
After the game, Pat Kannar went home to the Bronx, bathed in the giddiness of triumph.
Walte Dubler headed home to Brooklyn, despondent
Walter told me, "At some point, Iater that day, I came home and my mother, a very sweet lady, said to me, 'Why do you keep rooting for that team when they make so unhappy?" and in those days you were not unkind to parents, so I said to her: 'Mom, you don't know anything."
Pat (Kannar) Leonard, at Mets game, September 2021
Many years later, Don Delillo would write a magical short story, entitled Pafko At The Wall that takes place at that famous game. Andy Pafko was the Dodgers left fielder who chased Thomson's fly ball until he ran out of room and stood at the wall tracking it as it passed over his head and into baseball history.
Polo Grounds, 1923 World Series NY Giants vs Washington Senators
In the story, the narrator observes. "The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.”
*It has been alleged that the Giants had a player spying with binoculars from the outfield who signaled to Thomson what pitch was coming next when he hit the home run.