On an early October afternoon in 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ great Jackie Robinson stood alone in the infield, hands on hips as New York Giants slugger Bobby Thompson circled the bases. Most interpreted this as dejection, maybe a sign of his competitive nature, unsettled with the idea of loss. Dejected, maybe. Competitive, yes. Competing to win, and competing for one of many spots in sports and American history.
That year, the New York Giants (yes, the same Giants who are now in San Francisco—or really the same business entity) won the National League Pennant. This may mean little to many of the readers who are not connoisseurs of baseball history. Apart from the drama of the season being decided on its last pitch with a home run and that it was the first baseball moment to be dubbed “The Shot Heard 'Round the World,” there is enough American history buried in that moment to describe more about us as Americans than the celebration of a home run.
If you know baseball history—or are even a 1950s nostalgia buff, you may be familiar with sports broadcaster Russ Hodges' famous call, “The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant!” heralding baseball's first “shot” the call that told baseball fan's around the globe of Bobby Thompson's home run that won the game and the National League pennant for the Giants.
What Thompson did is the ultimate in game-ending drama. This event particularly marks baseball history because that season, the Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, the same Dodgers who would sneak out of town to Los Angeles) by 13½ games going into the last month of the season. They tied the Dodgers in the standings on the last day of the season, winning their last 16 games. But this is little more than a prologue for the story.
A field day could be had by anyone student of statistics and probability. Unfortunately, attention to statistics was not particularly de rigueur in sports at that time, and came a little late for the Dodgers.
The Dodger's Charlie Dressen managed by the seat of his pants, more so than most in this era without number crunching. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thompson with two runners on base and the Dodgers leading by two runs.
If Dressen had paid attention to statistics, he would have known this; Branca had given up few home runs that season, a plus. He also would have known that even though he had given up few home runs, most of the home runs he gave up were to the Giants, and none more than to Bobby Thompson.
But Bobby hit a looping fly that, in any other stadium than the Polo Grounds of New York City, would have fallen harmlessly into the left fielder's glove for an out, or would have curved into the seats as a foul, leaving another chance for either a hit or an out. Instead, it was history and the crowd went wild.
I said, though, that this was an event of SOCIAL significance, that brought a single joy to some New Yorkers and a hefty playoff bonus to the guys in black and orange instead of instead of the Dodger Blue.
Jackie Robinson, who a few years before, broke the color line in modern baseball was just one of a host of baseball greats on each team.
The Giant's team included great players like Monte Irvin, among the first of the African American players in the major leagues. Ray Dandridge was not playing for the Giants. He was playing for the Minneapolis Millers, a Giants farm club at the time. He was playing in the minor leagues even though he was widley recognized as the best third baseman in the Giants organization, and maybe in all of North American baseball.
Why did the Giants not have Ray Dandridge with them with the big club?
The Giants ownership said that they never gave Dandridge a shot at the big leagues because they did not want to deprive the good fans of Minneapolis of such a great talent. Was it better to deprive the world? Was it better to deprive the greatest compilation of baseball players in the world of one of its finest talents? Was it better to deprive a great player of the ultimate dream of playing in the Major Leagues?
Dandridge was a star of not only the American Association, with which the Minneapolis Millers were associated. He was also a star in the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League. While the color barrier was broken years earlier by Jackie Robinson, the wall was not totally broken. The National League of Major League baseball was more aggressive than the American League in enlisting the talents of Black players. This included the Giants and, of course, the trend-setting Dodgers. What tends not to be spoken of is the reason Dandridge was not with the Giants in New York; at the time, the Giants had five Black players with the Major League club, an unspoke "gentlemen's agreement betwen owners and executivesof the quota allowed, and five was all they would have.
Dandridge would not be called up.
What would the season look like if the Giants had the best third baseman with the squad for the entire season? It likely would have saved the baseball world from the last-pitch-of-the-season dramatics. Maybe. A different relief pitcher. A “normally” configured ball park. Maybe.
As Russ Hodges called out "The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant! The Giants won the pennant!" as the crowd went crazy, as hundreds of thousands erupted in pandemonium in the streets, homes, schools and bars of New York City—everywhere except Brooklyn and the pockets of fans devoted to the Blue (like little Doris Kearns [Goodwin] and her dear father), Jackie Robinson stood as an island of quiet and composure.
The photos are famous. Jackie Robinson, standing in the infield, hands on hips, somehow sensing that in the middle of the pandemonium, the story was not over.
Some fans jumped out of the stands and onto the field in celebration. Most of the Dodgers ran off of the field to avoid the assault of celebration. Ralph Branca walked slowly, trying not to get run over by the gleeful Giant traffic. In the tornadic frenzy, Robinson stood at his post, watching to be sure Thompson touched each base.
Inside baseball fans and players know the drill. If Thompson misses a base, the home run is nullified. If he touches all the bases, the game is over and the Giants win. What Robinson realizes is that even if he does not touch all the bases, and if all the Dodgers leave the field, effectively conceding the game, it is also over and the Giants win.
Thompson is mobbed as he touches home plate. Russ Hodges' voice rings out from the broadcast booth and over the airwaves. Robinson waits, watches, attends to the last hope for the Dodgers and leaves the field only after the last punctuation at home plate.
Moments of quiet dignity: something required of most Black players of the era. It is why Henry Aaron will always command a kind of respect that Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds will never achieve. It should remind us that Babe Ruth , (Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback) Ben Rothlesberger, and Ty Cobb continue to receive relatively big passes for their behavior and Barry Bonds, (NFL quarterback) Michael Vick and Manny Ramirez will not.
But no one was thinking of the social significance, the fate against probabilities or the disappointment of little Doris Kearns and her father in the Brooklyn borough as Bobby Thompson rounded the bases to beat the Dodgers, 5-4, and ignited Russ Hodges' famous call. The Yankees would go on to win the World Series in six games, the other of the three New York teams, to much less fanfare and hoopla. It would be their third in a row, another notch in their entitlement of purchased sense of superiority.
Today, we do not talk about the 1951 World Champion Yankees. We talk about that October day in 1951 and Bobby Thompson and “The Shot.” And we should. We should also remember all the heroes of that day and those who toiled conspicuously and in obscurity and dignity—and who made history as surely as the stars of the show.
*For more historically and socially significant information about this event, see Past Time: Baseball As History, “The Shot Heard 'Round the World,” by Jules Tygiel, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Special thanks to David Unowsky and Mel Duncan for helping me (and countless others) form the thoughts around this event.