The Miracle at Coogan's Bluff
by Mel R. Allen
|This story originally appear in the Old Farmer's Almanac|
If they had not faced each other on that cold, dark afternoon in the Polo
Grounds, if it had not been their fate to be involved in the single most
dramatic moment in American sports, perhaps Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson
would have been friends all along.
Branca grew up in a large, close-knit Italian family in Mount Vernon, New York; Thomson in a large, close-knit Scottish clan in Staten Island. Tall, dark, strongly built--physically they might have been brothers. Indeed, at one time both bore the nickname "Hawk" for their wide-spaced eyes, high cheekbones, and prominent noses. But one man was a slugger, and the other was a fireballing pitcher, and 40 years ago one pitch and one swing joined them forever in our memory.
For a few minutes now, go back to that Wednesday afternoon, October 3, 1951, in the Polo Grounds beneath Coogan's Bluff along the Harlem River. Rain threatened, and by two o'clock the lights shown on the field. The old ballpark, home of the New York Giants, held 60,000. But many fans were certain the final game of the National League playoffs between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers would be cancelled. When the historic game began, only 34,000 seats were filled.
The two teams were the most bitter rivals in baseball. During the season, fights would break out between the opposing players and the rival fans would battle in the stands. The 1951 pennant race had already proved perhaps the most exciting in history. Giants manager Leo Durocher had hoped his team would contend, but they began the season miserably, losing 11 in a row during April. In May they brought up a minor-league sensation named Willis Mays to play center field, shifted Bobby Thomson from center to third base, and the Giants started to jell. But in mid-August they still remained 13½ games behind the Dodgers. Then it seemed as if magic dust had been sprinkled on the team. Suddenly the Giants could not lose. They won 16 straight, and in the season's final week they caught the Dodgers to force the play-off. It had been the greatest comeback in baseball history.
The two teams split the opening two games of the play-offs, the Giants winning the first 3-1 behind Bobby Thomson's first inning home run off Ralph Branca, and the Dodgers the second 10-0.
Now the pitchers on both sides were worn down. Throughout the final, grueling month of the season, they had often pitched on only two days' rest. The Giant's starting pitcher was 23-game winner Sal "The Barber" Maglie. He was opposed by Don Newcombe, winner of 20 and possessor of one of the strongest arms in baseball.
In the first inning Maglie, normally a control pitcher, was wild, walking two. When Jackie Robinson singled, the Dodgers took a 1-0 lead. The Giants threatened in the second when Thomson followed a Whitey Lockman single with a smash to left. The speedy Thomson tried for a double without noticing that Lockman had stopped on second. Too late, Thomson realized his mistake and was an easy out.
In the seventh a Monte Irvin double, a Lockman bunt, and a Thomson sacrifice fly tied the game. But in the eighth the Dodgers combined four hits, a wild pitch, and some sloppy Thomson fielding at third to take what seemed an insurmountable 4-1 lead. When Thomson came off the field, boos cascaded from the stands. He was clearly the goat in the biggest game of the year.
In the ninth inning the Dodgers and their rooters began releasing the pent-up emotions of a furious pennant race that finally seemed securely in their grasp. The Dodgers hooted at their hated rivals, "Where are you going to play tomorrow?" The Dodgers went out easily, but no matter. Only three more outs to go. And if Newcombe faltered, two-time all-star Ralph Branca and 16-game winner Carl Erskine were firing in the bullpen. Gordon McClendon on the Liberty Radio Network told America: "Now the Giants, strangling, struggling for breath, three outs away from extinction, come up..."
Has there ever been a single inning in baseball to match the drama that built, batter after batter, in the Giants half of the ninth? Al Dark led off with a single to right. Don Mueller followed with a grounder just beyond the reach of diving first baseman Gil Hodges. Runners on first and second, no out. The Giants cleanup hitter, Monte Irvin, at bat.
Charlie Dressen, the Dodgers manager, considered removing Newcombe, but the big right-hander got Irvin on a pop-up. One out. But Whitey Lockman lined a double down the left field line, scoring Dark, while Mueller slid hard into third. The Polo Grounds erupted. The comeback Giants had the tying runs in scoring position.
Then a disturbing omen silenced the crowd. Don Mueller had caught his ankle sliding into third base, and it was turning a horrible blue. As the crowd waited for a stretcher to carry Mueller off the field, Charlie Dressed picked up the phone in the dugout and spoke to Clyde Sukeforth, his Bull-pen coach.
"How do they look?" Dressen asked.
"Erskine just bounced a curve," Sukeforth replied. "Branca's sharp." So it would be 25-year old Ralph Branca. No matter that he had pitched eight innings two days before. No matter that when he first warmed up in the sixth inning, his arm had been so stiff he could not throw 50 feet. Now he was ready. "I relished the chance to be the hero," he would say years later. "I wanted the ball."
He wore number 13 and delighted in proving the number held no bad luck for him. He had been a star for five years wearing that number. Once he posed for a photograph with a black cat draped around his shoulder, his "13" jersey turned toward the camera.
He passed the exhausted Newcombe at the edge of the infield grass and they embraced. When he reached the mound, Branca turned to his grim-faced teammates and cracked a joke. "Anybody nervous?" he smiled.
As he warmed up, he thought of how he would pitch to the dangerous Bobby Thomson, who had hit safely in 15 straight games and homered in two of the past three.
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