Sorry for being away for so long.
The 1951 World Series was the forty-ninth year overall and forty-eighth played of the modern World Series, which began in 1903. It wasn’t a terrible Series, but it paled in comparison to the lead up to it.
(The 1951 World Series program – photo courtesy of http://www.catalog.spauctions.com)
1951 World Series
New York Yankees (AL) over New York Giants (NL), 4-2
Managers: Casey Stengel (Yankees); Leo Durocher (Giants)
Hall of Famers
Yankees: George Weiss (executive), Casey Stengel (manager), Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto
Giants: Leo Durocher (manager), Monte Irvin, Willie Mays
Umpires: Al Barlick
In a certain sense, the National League pennant race was the “real” World Series that year. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, old arch-rivals, were locked in neck-and-neck coming into the final week of the season. Led by Chuck Dressen, the Dodgers had been leading by 13.5 games in August, but slowly began to fall apart, while the Giants won 37 of their final 44 games. They were led by former Dodger manager Leo Durocher, and had a future Hall of Famer as a rookie – Willie Mays. Many believe that Mays is the greatest all-around ballplayer of all time. This first year, he would hit .276.
The two teams finished tied at the end of the season – there would be a three-game playoff. A coin flip was used to determine who would get home-field advantage. The Dodgers won the toss, but shockingly decided to open at home and play the final two games in the Giants home of the Polo Grounds. The Giants won the opening game at Ebbets Field, 3-1. Bobby Thomson hit a home run against pitcher Ralph Branca. The Dodgers took the second one at the Polo Grounds, setting up a decisive clash for the NL pennant. Sal Maglie of the Giants faced off with Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson drove in Pee Wee Reese in the first inning. The Giants tied the game at one when Thomson hit a sacrifice fly off of Newcombe. Brooklyn rallied for three runs in the top of the eighth, including a ball that ricocheted off of Thomson’s glove at third base. Newcombe was handed a three-run lead with three outs to go, but his arm was tired. He told Jackie Robinson that he was having trouble. Robinson told him, “Keep pitching until your arm falls off!”
Alvin Dark led off the ninth with a single. For whatever reason, the Dodgers made a huge defensive blunder – first baseman Gil Hodges held Dark close to the bag. Don Mueller followed with a a single, inches past a diving Hodges at first base. Had Hodges been off the bag, there likely would have been a double play. This took on extra importance because Monte Irvin popped up on the next at-bat. The Dodgers could have won the pennant right then and there. As it was, the Giants were still alive. Whitey Lockman doubled, scoring Dark and sending Mueller to third. Sliding hard into the bag, Mueller had to leave the game with a broken ankle. Clint Hartung was sent in to pinch-run for him. Up came Bobby Thomson. At long last, Dressen went to the bullpen. Warming up in the bullpen were Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. Erskine would have better to face Thomson, but he had bounced his final warm-up pitch in the dirt, something he would do regularly with catcher Roy Campanella. Unfortunately, “Campy” wasn’t available for this game with an injury, and Rube Walker was taking over that day. Dressen signaled for Branca.
Branca got a strike on Thomson. From the broadcast booth, broadcaster Russ Hodges described what happened next:
Branca throws . . . There’s a long drive . . . It’s gonna be, I believe . . . The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits it into the lower deck of the left field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy . . . They’re going crazy! Whoa-oh! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”
I can’t do the call justice, so here’s the actual call of it:
The Giants had shockingly won the pennant. But rumors later came out – and were proven true – that the Giants had cheated. Stealing signs from the dugout is considered okay, but the Giants were doing it from deep in the bullpen in center field. Backup catcher Sal Yvars was the one who usually made the signal. Nevertheless, it would be a Subway Series again, and Branca was vilified as the goat. Thomson’s home run became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and the lesser-known “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”
This post’s title comes from Red Smith’s opening in the next day’s papers at the New York Herald-Tribune: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Given the buildup surrounding the NL pennant race, it’s a little easy to see why the Yankees weren’t the story this year (I’ve already written 800 words and haven’t talked about the Series yet). They won their third straight pennant, in what would prove to be Joe DiMaggio’s final season. They had a rookie of their own waiting in the wings – Mickey Mantle. The coal miner’s son from Oklahoma burst in during the 1951 season and would quickly become a terrific player in his own right, challenging Mays and Duke Snider for the title of the best center fielder in New York in the 1950s.
The Series opened at Yankee Stadium. Playing off of their momentum of Thomson’s home run, scoring twice in the first inning when Whitey Lockman doubled in a run and Monte Irvin later stole home. The Yankees got back to within 2-1 when Jerry Coleman singled in Gil McDougald in the bottom of the second. The Yankees loaded the bases later in the inning, but Dave Koslo snuffed them out, and wouldn’t allow any more runs. Alvin Dark finished the scoring with a three-run home run, giving the Giants a 5-1 victory. Allie Reynolds had been shockingly beaten.
But the Yankees were still the Yankees. Eddie Lopat would pitch the Yankees to a 3-1 victory over Larry Jansen, the winner pitcher when Thomson’s home run was hit. Jansen had won 23 games, but single runs in the first two innings, including a solo home run from Yankee first baseman Joe Collins, gave Lopat an edge he wouldn’t surrender. After allowing the Giants to within 2-1, Lopat drove in a run to give the Yankees their margin of victory. A sad moment occurred in the fifth inning. Mays hit a fly ball to right center. DiMaggio and Mantle both approached the ball. DiMaggio called for it, and Mantle prepared to back off. But as he did, he lost his footing, catching his cleat in a drain pipe cover, wrenching his knee in the process. (For what it’s worth, DiMaggio did catch the ball.) He was done for the rest of the Series. Various stories have Mantle never forgiving DiMaggio for that incident.
The Giants took a 2-1 Series lead with a 6-2 victory at the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays drove in Thomson with a single in the first. The big blow came in the bottom of the fifth – Alvin Dark drove in Eddie Stanky (one of the players who initially refused to play with Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers), and later in the inning, Whitey Lockman hit a three-run homer. Because Yogi Berra had dropped the ball on the previous at-bat, allowing a run to score, all three runs were unearned. The Yankees would rally in the last two innings – a bases loaded walk got them on the board, and Gene Woodling hit a solo home run to end the scoring.
By the same score, the Yankees evened the Series. The Giants scored first on a Monte Irvin single in the first inning, but Joe Collins tied it one inning later. After Allie Reynolds drove in a run in the fourth, Joe DiMaggio made it 4-1 with a two-run home run in the fifth. The Yankees got two more runs on a botched pickoff play and a single by Gil McDougald. Reynolds allowed only one more run in the ninth, when Bobby Thomson drove in Hank Thompson (no relation – notice the spelling). It was tied in games, two each.
The Yankees showed their mettle in Game 5, winning 13-1. Once again, the Giants scored first, on a Monte Irvin sacrifice fly. But the Yankees broke it open, scoring five runs in the top of the third. DiMaggio singled in a run and advanced one base on an error. Johnny Mize was intentionally walked, and then McDougald followed with a grand slam. In the top of the seventh, DiMaggio got his final career hit, a two-run double making it 13-1. Hank Bauer hit a ground ball, and DiMaggio was forced out at third base.
Heading back to Yankee Stadium for Game 6, the Yankees looked to close in on their third straight championship. Gil McDougald got the scoring started for the Yankees with a first-inning sacrifice fly. The Giants tied it the same way in the fifth, with Stanky sacrificing in Mays. The big blow came in the bottom of the sixth. After Berra singled, DiMaggio was walked intentionally. Johnny Mize walked later in the inning, and Hank Bauer cleared the bases with a triple. All three runs scored, and it was 4-1 Yankees. The Giants had the tying run at the plate with nobody out in the seventh, but couldn’t score off of Vic Raschi. In the eighth, the Giants loaded the bases again, but still couldn’t come through. There could have been a Game 7 with less blown chances. With three outs to go, the Giants mounted one final rally. Three straight singles loaded the bases. Consecutive sacrifice flies brought the Giants to within a run at 4-3. It was up to Sal Yvars against Bob Kuzava. With the tying run on second base, Yvars lofted a fly ball to right, which Bauer caught. The Yankees had their three-peat. And there was still more to come.
Joe DiMaggio was actually revealed later as a less-than-likable figure. He was rumored to have Mafia connections, neglected his brothers and son, and was rumored to have a violent relationship with Marilyn Monroe.
In the famous tollbooth scene in the legendary film The Godfather, Sonny Corleone is listening to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World on the radio.
On October 3, 1951 – the day of Thomson’s home run – future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was born.
Willie Mays’ first hit was a home run, coming off of Warren Spahn. When asked what happened by reporters, Spahn said, “For the first sixty feet, that was a hell of a pitch.” For frame of reference, it’s sixty feet, six inches from the mound to home plate.
Mickey Mantle was known for wearing jersey number 7, but for the first few weeks, he wore number 6 instead.
Mantle was demoted to the minors early in the 1951 season. He despondently called his father, who he thought was going to give him some words of encouragement. Instead, his father came to his hotel, began packing his bags, and said he was taking Mickey home. His father said, “I thought I raised a man, but you’re nothing but a coward.” This convinced Mantle to plead his case to stay, and he was up for good later in the season.
Mantle was named Mickey after Mickey Cochrane, one of his father’s favorite players. According to Mantle, he loved telling this story, because Cochrane’s real first name was Gordon.
Russ Hodges’ famous call of the home run by Bobby Thomson was actually recorded by a Brooklyn fan, who wanted to hear Hodges give a losing speech. Originally, the fan thought to destroy the tape, but gave it to Hodges, and the rest is history. Famously, Hodges’ scorecard is marked with a giant smudge mark from the graphite of the pencil when Thomson hit the home run.
Were it not for some ribbing by Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen, the three-game playoff wouldn’t have been necessary. During the Giants started their winning streak, he had Jackie Robinson steal home in a game where the Dodgers already had a significant lead. They were playing the Braves, and they came out angrier the next day, and upset the Dodgers. Had Dressen followed the old maxim “Let sleeping dogs lie,” the Dodgers wouldn’t have needed the playoff.
This was the final Subway Series between the Giants and Yankees.
Not a bad series, but nothing could compare to the emotional high of the NL pennant race. As a result, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The next two years would also be Subway Series, between the Yankees and Dodgers.
References and Sources
100 Years of the World Series (Eric Enders)
The Baseball Hall of Shame: The Best of Blooperstown (Bruce Nash, Allan Zullo)
Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns
When It Was a Game (HBO Sports)
61* (Billy Crystal film)
Yankees Suck! (Jim Gerard)
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders (Rob Neyer)
It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings (Howard Peretz)
The Ultimate Book of Sports Lists (Andrew Postman, Larry Stone)
The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame….Ralph Branca (ESPN Classic) (link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5i413DkwU)
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (Richard Ben Cramer)
Summer of ’49 (David Halberstam)
Red Smith. The New York Herald-Tribune. October 4, 1951.