Glory Days in the Polo Grounds: Part One – 1951

by John Delach

High drama did not return to the Polo Grounds until 1951. It was a bit improbable. First of all, the hated Leo Durocher became the Giants manager. Hated, because he had previously been the Brooklyn Dodgers manager before his mouth, that was beyond being colorful and his antics got him into trouble with the baseball commissioner, Happy Chandler, and Dodger General Manager, Branch Rickey. Chandler had suspended Durocher for the 1947 season for “an accumulation of unpleasant incidents.”

His nickname was “Lippy” and the incidents included having a big security guard beat-up an obnoxious fan, allegedly letting the actor, George Raft, run crooked card games out of his apartment and associating with Lucky Luciano during spring training trips to Cuba.

Durocher led the Giants back from a next to impossible deficit of 13 ½ games tying the Dodgers and forcing a three-game playoff. The teams split the first two games bringing the third and deciding game to the old ball park beneath Coogan’s Bluff.

Don Markey reflected on the ordeal of being a Dodgers fan in 1951:

The Dodgers had a 13 ½  game lead in August yet managed to self-destruct. True, the Giants had something like a 16-game winning streak, but the Dodgers gave them a big shot in the arm by doing things like losing back-to-back doubleheaders to Cincinnati and having Roy Campanella thrown out of a close game in Boston for arguing a play at the plate in the last week of the season.

On the final Sunday, with the teams tied, the Giants won their game early. The Dodgers won in the 14th inning on a home run hit by Jackie Robinson. That blast followed a diving stop he made behind second base in the prior inning. Robinson made the throw to first for the final out to end the top of that 14th inning. Robinson’s lightning quick reflexes and his power saved the day. Had he not made the perfect dive, the Dodgers would have lost the game.

I don’t remember much about the first game of the playoffs that the Giants won in Ebbets Field. The Dodgers won the second game 10-0 behind Clem Labine, their top relief pitcher who had to pitch because there were no starters available. Labine pitched a great game, but his effort made him unavailable to relieve in fateful game three.

I was a senior at Grover Cleveland High School, but I played hooky so I could watch Game Three on television at my family’s apartment on the first floor of 1881 Cornealia Street in Ridgewood, Queens. The Dodgers had, Don Newcombe, their best pitcher, on the mound. He was probably pitching on only two-day’s rest, but this was the same guy who, the year before, pitched a complete game in the first game of a Twi-night doubleheader then pitched into the 7th inning of the second game. 

Newcombe pitched the Dodgers to a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Alvin Dark hit a single between first and second. Don (Mandrake) Mueller followed with a single to the exact same place putting runners on first and second. Newcombe then forced Monty Irvin to pop out before allowing Whitey Lockman, a double that scored Dark. Mueller hustled to third sliding in with such a force that he broke his ankle on the play. Clint (Hondo Hurricane) Hartung came in to run for the injured Mueller.

With the score, 4-2, Chuck Dressen, Brooklyn’s manager brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thompson with a very nervous rookie, Willie Mays, on deck. Thompson, born in Scotland, was nicknamed the “Flying Scott” after a fast train in Great Britain. He responded by hitting, “the shot heard round the world,” a three-run homer into the lower deck of the left field grandstand leading to utter joy on the part of Giants’ announcer, Russ Hodges, who shouted over and over again: “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant…” In his excitement, Hodges never completed his scorecard, his entries ending with Lockman’s double.

One can only imagine Branca’s despair as he walked that long, long walk back to the center field clubhouse. The next day’s sports pages carried a photograph of Branca sitting on the clubhouse steps lost and, apparently, sobbing.

These dramatics gave the Giants the right to play the Yankees in the last subway World Series between those two teams, four games to two.

Brooklyn won the pennant in 1952 and 1953 with the Giants finishing second and fourth respectively. But the Giants had one last time of glory in store for their fans. Durocher had not quite worn out his welcome as he led the 1954 Giants to a 97-57 record; five games ahead of Brooklyn. Johnny Antonelli was added to the pitching staff in a trade that sent Bobby Thompson to the Braves. Willie Mays’ return from the Army did not hurt their cause either.