Fifty years ago on Oct. 3 what most sports fans consider the greatest baseball game ever played took place in New York. It was played between two bitter rivals on a national stage. For one of those rivals, it ended in bitter defeat. But for another, it was a surprise and dramatic victory.
On that day in 1951, when the "Bums", the colorful nickname for the professional team known as the Brooklyn Dodgers, and their longtime bitter crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, faced each other for the baseball championship of the National League.
The winner would move on to face the New York Yankees, champions of the American League. At that time, the two eight-team leagues constituted the North American professional Major Leagues, the pinnacle of baseball competition. A best-of-three playoff began on October 1 in the Dodgers' home park of Ebbets Field. The Giants won that game, 3-1. The next day, the scene shifted to the Giants' home park, the Polo Grounds, where the Dodgers won, 10-0. Then came the third and pivotal game at the Polo Grounds on October 3.
New York City and much of the nation ground to a standstill. Local radio stations and national networks were on hand to broadcast the game. Stock tickers reported the score along with the ups and downs of the market, and the playoff was the first baseball series to be broadcast live coast-to-coast on the new medium of television.
It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the country was watching or listening to this deciding game, played on a dark, overcast day with a constant threat of rain.
The Dodgers grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Behind pitcher Don Newcombe, they held that lead until the seventh inning when the Giants tied it at 1-1.
In the top of the eighth, the Dodgers forged ahead, 4-1. The score stayed that way until the Giants' last turn at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.
It appeared to most fans as if the Giants' surge would come up short, and the Dodgers would win the pennant that they thought was rightfully theirs.
But Giants' manager, Leo Durocher, who once managed the Dodgers, told his team that they had come a long way; they still had one chance left to bat, let's give them a finish.
The Giants' captain Alvin Dark led off and took two strikes from Don Newcombe. Red Barber, the Dodgers' radio broadcaster, describes what happened next. "Newcombe deals. Dark swings and grounds it towards Hodges...off of his glove...for a base hit and Dark opens up the last half of the ninth with a single."
The next batter to face a tiring Don Newcombe was the Giants' Don Mueller. Again, Red Barber with the call, "Swinging, there's a bounding ball into right field for a base hit, so Dark goes around second on his way to third, and Mueller holds up at first, and the tying run steps to the plate for the Giants…and so quickly…"
That brought up the Giants' best hitter, Monte Irvin. But Irvin fouled out. Following Irvin, Whitey Lockman, the Giants' first baseman, strode to the plate against Don Newcombe and fouled the first pitch back. The Giants' radio broadcaster, Russ Hodges, calls the action: "The pitch to Whitey, a line-drive base hit to left field, here comes Alvin Dark scoring! Don Mueller tries for third, Lockman tries for second, Lockman is in there, he represents the tying run, and the Dodgers now lead, 4-2!"
Ralph Branca came into pitch for the Dodgers. He would now face the Giants' Bobby Thomson. The tying runs were on base and the winning run was at the plate. Branca threw one strike past the Giants' batter.
Then at 3:58 PM October 3, 1951, Branca threw his next pitch into sports history, as described by the Giants radio broadcaster, Russ Hodges. "Branca throws...there's a long drive, that's going to 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 hit a line drive into the lower deck of the left field stands, the Giants win the pennant and they're going crazy, they're going crazy, whoa-whoaaa!"
Thomson was mobbed by players and fans alike as he brought home the winning run. Thousands poured out of the stands and onto the field. The New York Telephone Company reported record overloads on their phone system; businesses literally shut down for the rest of the day. Giants fans celebrated and Dodger fans mourned. The radio call by Russ Hodges became the most celebrated play-by-play in American sports history, "And there used to be a ballpark here."
Even though there were charges that the Giants had stolen signs from their opponents in 1951, and both teams left New York for California in 1958, 50 years has done little to diminish the game that baseball fans consistently vote the most dramatic in the sport's history, and which took place in a ballpark which no longer exists between two teams whose names have changed…50 years ago on October 3, 1951.