Shots Fired But Not Heard ‘Round the World

Fans coast-to-coast got to see Joe DiMaggio win his ninth and final World Series ring. (via Prelinger Archives)

Fans coast-to-coast got to see Joe DiMaggio win his ninth and final World Series ring. (via Prelinger Archives)

Recently, I encountered a picture that lingered in my memory long after I had turned the page in the book. I found myself thinking about the picture a lot and occasionally retrieved the book for another look. Little by little, I figured out why the picture had fascinated me so.

The picture in question shows the costumed cast members of High Noon watching the first game of the 1951 World Series during a break on the set in Hollywood. The upstart medium of television was a threat to Hollywood in those days, but as the picture clearly showed, the goggle box did have its uses.

The people in the photo embody a wealth of pop cultural relevance. They include Lon Chaney Jr., not the talent his father was, but an actor who did carve out a distinctive niche for himself as the Wolfman, a member in good standing of Universal’s horror hall of fame; Grace Kelly, whose well-chronicled storybook life had progressed from Philadelphia socialite to Hollywood movie star to Monaco royalty and Thomas Mitchell, the veteran character actor who, among numerous memorable roles, played Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind and Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. Last but hardly least, we have the laconic, iconic, Montana-born Gary Cooper. He was the archetypal screen cowboy dating back to the silent era, yet he had played Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees less than a decade earlier. Was he a long-distance Yankee fan? There were a lot of them out there in those days.

The 1951 NL playoff games from Oct. 1-3 were the first games televised coast to coast, so the subsequent World Series was the first one seen nationwide, though television had not yet penetrated every household. Major league ball was the province of the northeast quadrant of the country, but if viewers in flyover country didn’t know better, from what they saw the first 10 days of October, they might have deduced that it was strictly a New York phenomenon.

Of course, with three of the 16 major league teams (in other words, 18.75 percent) making their home in the media capital of New York, it is not a surprise that New York would have a head start on garnering headlines.

And of course, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff usually appears in big, bold letters at the top of the page when the topic of the 1951 season in New York is broached. Not to belittle that moment, but many other things were going on baseball-wise in New York that year. Even without that climactic end to the NL season, it was a season unlike any other in Gotham. To prove that, I will not mention Bobby Thomson again till the end of this article.

In 1951 both leagues were celebrating benchmark anniversary seasons (75 years for the NL; 50 years for the AL). Before the season started, the Yankees and the Giants had decided to swap spring training sites for one year. In those days, spring training was more informal, but even so, this was an unusual move. So the Yankees went west to Phoenix and the Giants went east to St. Petersburg.

The swap was the brainchild of Yankees owner Del Webb, and the reason was obvious. He wanted to show off for his buddies in Phoenix. Webb was not a native of Phoenix but he had moved there at age 28 to recover from typhoid fever. His construction company got a lot of military contracts during World War II, and he remained busy after the war.

In 1945 Webb, Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail bought the Yankees from the Jacob Ruppert estate for $2.8 million. By 1951, MacPhail was gone and Webb was the majority owner.

Webb had many big projects in western states. Also, he was well-connected, numbering Howard Hughes, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Barry Goldwater among his friends.

Sun City, the retirement community northwest of Phoenix, was perhaps Webb’s best known project. He was also involved with gaming, owning the Mint and the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Sahara in Tahoe. You won’t find Del Webb in Cooperstown, but you will find him in the Gaming Hall of Fame.

The Yankees had trained in St. Petersburg since 1924 (except for three years during World War II). This was just one season after Yankee Stadium opened, so Webb’s uprooting the Yanks and plunking them down in the middle of Arizona was not a move to be taken lightly.

Topping’s motivation may have been obvious, but the mystery is why Giants owner Horace Stoneham went along with the swap. The Giants had trained in Phoenix for only four years, so they were not exactly entrenched there. They had trained at various locations in Florida before, but they didn’t have anywhere near the tradition there the Yankees had in St. Petersburg. What was in it for the Giants? Did Stoneham just want to go to sport fishing or what?

I have to believe that Stoneham got something in return, but I couldn’t begin to speculate on what. Either that or Stoneham, known to knock back a few on a regular basis, agreed to the deal when he wasn’t in full possession of his faculties.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Then again, Stoneham making a shocking move was not without precedent. In 1948, he had fired beloved manager Mel Ott (who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1951) and replaced him with the hated Leo Durocher – from the Dodgers – a man who had been suspended for the entire 1947 season for unsavory behavior. That move was far more controversial than the spring training switcheroo.

In a sense, Durocher’s presence in St. Petersburg was fitting. It had been the Yankees’ spring home during his rookie year of 1928. As he presided over the Yankees at Huggins Field, formerly their home park but now demoted to a practice facility, he couldn’t help but recall the eponymous Miller Huggins, the Yankee manager who had mentored the brash young Durocher and passed away at age 50 at the tail end of the 1929 season.

For sure there were some fans in St. Petersburg who would be disappointed, as they were hoping to get what would likely be their last look at Joe DiMaggio. The Clipper had strongly hinted that the 1951 season might be his last, but he did not make it official until after the season. If Florida fans were disappointed, the swap provided a rare opportunity for baseball fans in the West to see Joltin’ Joe in action. In a sense, it was a homecoming for the former Pacific Coast League star.

Curiously, the man who would replace Joe DiMaggio was also making his sole spring training appearance in Arizona. A highly touted prospect (just 19 years old), Mickey Mantle had turned a lot of heads the previous season when he hit .383 (199 hits in 519 at bats) with a .638 slugging percentage (26 home runs, 331 total bases), and 136 RBIs with the Class C Joplin Miners of the Western Association. He was originally a shortstop, but the Yankees planned to convert him to a center fielder.

Even before his first majhor league at-bat, the legend of Mickey Mantle started to take shape. On March 26, 1951, the Yankees were in Los Angeles for an exhibition game against Southern Cal. Not surprisingly, the Yankees prevailed 15-1. The 3,000 or so in attendance might have come out to see DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize and the other veteran Yankees. But when they left the ballpark, they knew who Mickey Mantle was. He was a bomber before he had set foot in the Bronx.

Mantle had a phenomenal spring training in 1951 (.402, nine homers, 31 RBIs), but he really outdid himself at USC. In that game, Mantle hit not one, but two tape measure home runs (one from each side of the plate) at Bovard Field (replaced by Dedeaux Field in 1974).

Batting from the left side, he launched a Tom Lovrich pitch 656 feet over the right-center field wall. Oftentimes these estimates are suspect, but in this case, a football field was immediately adjacent to the right field wall. Given the fixed dimensions of the football field, it was possible to compute the distance with more accuracy than usual, especially since right fielder Tom Riach and coach Rod Dedeaux had agreed on where the ball landed.

The second homer was not so easily measured but the minimum estimate was 500 feet. For the day, Mantle was 4 for 5 (adding a triple and a single) and drove in seven. After a day like that, baseball fans (especially those who had sons serving in Korea) might have found it hard to believe that Mantle’s draft board had classified him 4-F. But thanks to osteomyelitis (the result of a football injury), that was indeed the case.

In those days, switch-hitters were less numerous and, for the most part, they were contact hitters. A man who could hit tape measure home runs from either side of the plate was rare indeed. And one who also had the speed to beat out grounders and bunts was definitely sui generis. As manager Casey Stengel put it, he had “more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster.”

One can imagine that the USC players (one of them was Bob Lillis, who signed with the Dodgers later in the year) were impressed with the established players on the Yankee roster. Mantle, however, was about the same age as a college sophomore, so the USC players must have marveled at such a performance – not from a bona fide major league star but from a peer! (If pitcher Lovrich was shell-shocked, however, he got over it, as he went on to pitch five years for various minor league teams in the West.)

After barnstorming around California, the Yankees made their way back to New York, playing at various cities along the way. The last exhibition game was against Brooklyn at Ebbets Field on April 15. Mantle finished the day (and the exhibition season) with four hits. It is a curious piece of trivia that the first home run he hit within the New York city limits was not at Yankee Stadium (his first dinger at that edifice came on May 16) but at Ebbets Field.

Speaking of pre-season Brooklyn, on Friday the 13th, several days before the season opener, Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca posed for a picture. Wearing his usual No. 13 and holding a black cat, Branca’s picture would have resonated at a very high frequency six months later. (I promised not to mention Bobby Thomson till the end of the article, but I made no promises concerning Ralph Branca – but now he too will vanish till the end of the article.)

After his hitting feats in the final exhibition game in Brooklyn, Mantle not only made the Yankee roster, he was in the starting lineup on Opening Day (against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on April 17). For the most part in 1951, he played right field and was told to watch and learn from Joe DiMaggio, since the center field position would likely be Mantle’s in 1952. Also, injuries had hobbled DiMaggio, and the speedy Mantle could cover for him in the gap.

Mantle’s first home run did not come till May 1 in a contest against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Batting left-handed, Mantle clubbed one 450 feet in an 8-3 Yankee victory. Also of historical interest, Minnie Minoso made his debut with the White Sox, becoming the team’s first black player. At day’s end, Minoso was 2 for 4 with a two-run homer (not his first career homer, as he had hit one for Cleveland in 1949). He would hit .324 for the year and finish behind Gil McDougald in the Rookie of the Year sweepstakes.

A couple of days later, McDougald tied a record for RBIs in an inning when he hit a triple and a grand slam in an 11-run ninth inning en route to a 17-3 pounding of the Browns at Sportsman’s Park. (Fernando Tatis, hitting two grand slams in one inning on April 23, 1999, now holds the major league record with eight; Alex Rodriguez has the AL record with seven). The fact that the mighty Yanks could only draw 1,612 fans to Sportsman’s Park clearly shows that the franchise’s days in St. Louis were numbered.

After an abundance of strikeouts, trouble with sliders, and some rookie immaturity, Mantle was sent down to Triple-A Kansas City on July 15 but returned to complete his rookie season with respectable stats of 13 homers, 65 RBIs and a .267 batting average (based on 91 for 341). A curious footnote to his rookie year: It was the only season he wore a number (6) other than 7. After Derek Jeter’s No. 2 is put out to pasture, No. 0 will be the only single-digit Yankee number left.

Arguably, the most memorable first impression made by an AL rookie in 1951 was by Eddie Gaedel, but the Yankee rookie crop that season also attracted a lot of attention. Casey Stengel had emphasized youth during spring training, and it paid off. In addition to Mantle and McDougald, the rookie review included Jackie Jensen, Bob Cerv, Tom Morgan and Clint Courtney.

“Scrap Iron” Courtney was a memorable player, though not because he put up any big numbers. He appeared in just one game for the Yanks (the second game of a meaningless Sept. 29 double-header) before he was traded to the Browns, but in that one appearance, he became (as near as historians can tell) the first bespectacled catcher in major league history. Later in his career, he made history by hitting the first major league home run at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and by employing the first oversized catcher’s mitt for knuckleballs. As if to cement his peculiar status in baseball history, he died of a heart attack at age 48… while playing Ping Pong.

Then there’s the rookie who got away. On Aug. 29, the Yankees traded Lew Burdette, then with the Triple-A San Francisco Seals (the Yankees had two Triple-A affiliates that year), to the Boston Braves to acquire Johnny Sain for the stretch drive. Sain did his part in September 1951, and was still on the Yankees staff through the beginning of the 1955 season. But the Yankees must have had second thoughts about the deal after Burdette became a double-digit winner for the Braves during their first 10 years in Milwaukee (1953-1962), and racked up 203 victories by the time he retired in 1967. Burdette is a textbook example of why general managers are loathe to trade prospects for veterans.

Mention should also be made of another Yankees “rookie,” albeit one who never toed the rubber or dug in at the batter’s box. That would be Bob Sheppard, the P.A. announcer whose dignified, restrained announcements were part and parcel of the Yankee Stadium experience till 2007. Sheppard worked more than 4,500 Yankee games in his career. His starting salary in 1951 was $15 per game ($17 for double-headers). As if his career with the Yankees wasn’t enough, he was also the P.A. voice of the NFL Giants from 1956 to 2006, and also worked numerous college contests.

The Yankees youngsters may not have been familiar to the Arizona fans, but the same goes for Florida fans vis-à-vis Willie Mays, who, like Mantle, was only 19. But Mays did not train with the Giants’ major league teams. He was at minor league camp with the Minneapolis Millers, with whom he would start the season. It should have been obvious that he was not going to stay there long, but Horace Stoneham found it necessary to apologize for bringing up the popular Mays (he was hitting .477) by buying advertising space in the Minneapolis newspapers.

Mays made his major league debut on May 25 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia against the defending NL champions. Famously, Mays started off 1 for 26, then hit his first home run off  Warren Spahn, and got his act together in time to hit .274 with 20 homers and 68 RBIs, good enough to win him the NL Rookie of the Year award. And to think Mays had once been scouted by the Dodgers but found wanting. Reportedly, he couldn’t hit the curve ball.

And if you’re wondering about the third member of the “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” trio, Duke Snider got there four years ahead of Mantle and Mays. In fact, he first appeared in a major league box score on April 17, 1947, but he returned to the minors for more polishing. By 1951, Snider was an established player and a two-time All-Star.

Snider and his veteran teammates were carry-overs from the Branch Rickey regime; 1951 was the first year of Walter O’Malley’s reign. Though former manager Burt Shotten had kept the Dodgers in contention to the last game of the 1950 season, that was not good enough. Worse than that, he was a Rickey man, so O’Malley chose Charlie (sometimes Chuck) Dressen to manage the Dodgers. Given the talent level of the Dodgers (Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Snider and Dick Williams eventually made the Hall of Fame), it was certainly a plum assignment. Dressen had formerly managed the Reds and had served as a coach for both the Dodgers and the Yankees, so his credentials were in order. On top of that, he had moonlighted as a quarterback in the early days of pro football during his offseasons as a minor league baseball player.

Dressen’s 1951 team led the league in just about every offensive statistic — batting average (.275), doubles (249), hits (1,511), home runs (184), OBP (.352), runs (855), slugging (.434), OPS (.786), and stolen bases (89). As impressive as the Dodgers were at the plate, they were also adept in the field. They led the league in double-plays with 513 and finished second in errors (129) and fielding percentage (.979).

And then there’s the pitching staff. The Dodgers led the league in strikeouts, and Don Newcombe tied Spahn for the individual lead with 164 and finished with a 20-9 record. In doing so, he became the first black 20-game winner and strikeout leader. After his outstanding 1951 season, Newcombe was rewarded with a two-year sabbatical, courtesy of the U.S. military.

Among Dodgers pitchers, however, the most extraordinary season belonged to Preacher Roe, who finished with a 22-3 record, which gave him the highest winning percentage ever (.880) for a 20-game winner. That was not quite good enough for the league lead in wins, however, as the Giants’ Larry Jansen and Sal Maglie had 23 apiece.

The Giants’ staff led the league in ERA with 3.48 – as they should have, since their opponents had very few base runners. The Giants gave up just 1,334 hits and 482 walks for the season – both tops in the NL. It is surely no coincidence that this performance occurred while minor league legend Frank Shellenback (295 wins in the PCL) and New York fixture Freddie Fitzsimmons (217 wins for both the Giants and the Dodgers) were on the Giants’ coaching staff.

Despite the talents of the pitching staff, the Giants got off to a woeful start. After splitting the first four games of the season against the Braves at Boston, they lost 10 games in a row. They defeated the Dodgers in Brooklyn on April 30 to finish the month at 3-12. They did not win their first game at the Polo Grounds till May.

As bad a start as the Giants had, they had plenty of time to right the ship. They did so, but there was still lots of daylight between them and the first-place Dodgers. “The Giants is dead,” was Charley Dressen’s oft-quoted assessment of his rival.

Even so, the Giants season had not been uneventful. For example, on June 3, 1951, Hank Thompson, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin were on base simultaneously during a game against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. This was the first time in baseball history that the bases had been loaded with black players. Irvin, by the way, went on to lead the league in RBI with 121, and thus became the first black player to do so in the majors.

But just when also-ran status appeared assured, the Giants embarked on a long winning streak. From Aug. 12 to Aug. 28, they won 16 straight, the longest NL win skein since 1935. Their record went from 59-51 to 75-51. The Giants, who had been 13-1/2 games out, were back in contention. Even after the streak ended (thanks to a shutout by Pittsburgh’s Howie Pollett), the Giants went 37-7, closing out the season with seven straight victories. Clearly, the NL playoff in 1951 was necessitated by a Giants surge, not a Dodgers collapse.

During the stretch drive, the Giants managed to make history in ways big and small. On Sept. 13, they played a supporting role in an unusual double-header, as they played the Cardinals in a makeup game at Sportsman’s Park before a regularly scheduled Cards-Braves night game. The Cardinals did the heavy lifting that day, but all they had to show for it was two losses.

On Sept. 27 at Braves Field, at the height of the Dodgers-Giants duel for the pennant, the Braves handed Roe a rare loss, his last (No. 3) of the season. That 4-3 win for the Braves was unlikely, but the game contained not only the unusual but the unique.

In that contest, the entire Dodgers bench was thrown out of the ball game for excessive criticism of the officiating. Included in that mass ejection was a player who had just been called up from the minors, had not played in a major league game before, and never returned to the big leagues. So he went into the books as the only major league player ever to be thrown out of a game who had never played in a game.

Even more distinctive, the player in question was Bill Sharman. Arguably, the lowest point of his pro career in Boston was his debut at Braves Field. Afterward, of course, it was onward and upward with the Boston Celtics, all the way to the basketball Hall of Fame.

Though the Dodgers’ 1951 season eventually ended in disappointment and disbelief, the Dodgers had seven members of their squad (Campanella, Hodges, Newcombe, Reese, Robinson, Roe, Snider) named to the 1951 All-Star Game in Detroit. Throw in the three Giants (Alvin Dark, Jansen and Maglie, the winning pitcher) on the team and that brings the Gotham contingent on the squad to 40 percent. The American League squad had just four Yankees (Berra, DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Phil Rizzuto), but the manager (Casey Stengel) and coaches (Bill Dickey, Tommy Henrich) were all Yanks. In fact, the NL brain trust also included two former Yankees (Benny Bengough and Dusty Cooke).

During the regular season, the Yankees were their usual competent selves, but the pennant was not exactly a foregone conclusion. They finished the season at 98-56, five games ahead of the formidable Cleveland Indians, who were serious rivals in those days, as they had won the AL pennant three years before and would do so again three years hence.

The key to the Yankees’ success in 1951 was their 15-7 record against the Indians. Lopat was particularly tough on the Tribe. They had not defeated him in almost two years, so they scheduled Beat Ed Lopat Night on June 4 (when Lopat sported a record of 8-0), and handed out 15,000 rabbits’ feet, among other stunts. At first, it appeared to be for naught, as the Yankees tallied two in the top of the first, but the Indians answered with five in the bottom of the inning, and Lopat was gone after giving up another run in the second. Mike Garcia gave up 10 hits and walked four but kept the Yankees scoreless the rest of the way. The mojo-enhanced final score was 8-2.

Lopat went on to win 21 games, as did Vic Raschi (for the third straight year). Allie Reynolds kicked in 17 wins. Whitey Ford, by the way, spent 1951 (and 1952) in the military after a promising 9-1 rookie season in 1950.

With a young, healthy Ford, the Yankees might have had an easier time of it in 1951. The Yanks did not clinch till Sept. 28. That the Indians were on the road from Sept. 7 to Sept. 25 all but doomed the Tribe to second place, far beyond the help of any number of rabbits’ feet.

The Yanks led the league in slugging percentage with .408 and tied the Indians in home runs with 140, even though Yogi Berra, the team leader, had hit just 27. The runner-up, a distant second, was Gene Woodling with 15, but he had five teammates right behind him in double figures.

The Indians and the Yankees were pitching-rich. The Indians led the league in complete games (76) and ERA (3.39), while Bob Feller led the league in victories (22). For their part, the Yanks led the league in strikeouts with 664, and Raschi was the individual leader with 164. The Yanks also led in shutouts (24) and Reynolds was the individual leader with seven.

Among those seven shutouts were two no-hitters, which placed Reynolds in very select company, as only Johnny Vander Meer (who was with the Indians in 1951) had ever notched two no-hitters in a season (1938), and only Virgil Trucks, Nolan Ryan and Roy Halladay did it afterwards. (Curiously, Trucks’ double nought for the Tigers in 1952 meant that an AL pitcher had thrown two no-hitters in one season for two consecutive seasons.)

Reynolds’ first no-hitter was on July 12 (1-0 over the Indians),when he out-dueled Feller, who had thrown a no-hitter (his third) just 11 days before. The second and more memorable occurred on Sept. 28 during the first game of a double-header against Boston. It enabled the Yankees to clinch a tie for the pennant (and by winning the second game, highlighted by DiMaggio’s 361st and final regular season home run, they won the pennant).

Reynolds’ second no-hitter had a memorable conclusion, as Yogi Berra dropped a foul pop off the bat of Ted Williams with two outs in the ninth inning. Williams swung at the next pitch, popped it straight up, and this time Berra was up to the task.

Throughout the 1951 season, the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers had enjoyed robust attendance. More than four million people had attended games in New York that season. The Yanks had led baseball in attendance with 1,950,107. Games against the Indians were understandably popular, with total attendance at two games (May 14, Sept. 16) drawing more than 60,000. (The Indians actually had the best single-game attendance for the season series with 71,768 on Aug. 24.)

Meanwhile the Dodgers led the pack in the NL with 1,282,628, and the Giants were right behind with 1,059,539. At the end of the 1951 season, if the famed 1950s psychic Criswell had predicted that both teams would be gone six years hence, it would have been dismissed as an especially goofy prognostication – even for him!

It was a dreary autumn in Brooklyn, but even then, baseball history was being made in Kings County – though not on the field. The Topps Chewing Gum company was not born with baseball cards, but that is how it achieved lasting fame. In 1951, Topps produced its first baseball card sets. These cards were actually reminiscent of playing cards; the two sets were issued with 52 cards each and included “single,” “ground out,” “home run,” etc., with player pictures but no statistics – and no bubble gum.

But change was not far away. In the fall of 1951 Sy Berger and Woody Gelman designed Topps’ first full baseball card set at the former’s apartment in Brooklyn. That first set of 407 cards would debut in 1952, and that Mickey Mantle card (No. 311) is the preeminent collectible of modern era cards (even though Bowman had put out a Mantle rookie card in 1951).

Brooklyn also figured in a 1951 movie, Rhubarb, about a cat who inherited a baseball team called the Brooklyn Loons. Rhubarb was the second baseball pic for Ray Milland, who had starred in It Happens Every Spring two years before. So when it comes to Welsh-born actors who starred in baseball-related movies, Milland owns the record.

During the World Series, however, Brooklyn fans were really out of the loop. Whom would they root for? Dodgers fans were not fond of the Giants or the Yankees. The two teams who had swapped spring training sites on opposite sides of the continent were now playing out the postseason on opposite sides of the Harlem River, with each ballpark easily visible from the other.

Though the World Series (won in six games by the Yankees) was not among the more memorable Fall Classics, there was one moment in Game Two (Oct. 5) that would have repercussions for years afterwards. That was when Mantle ripped up his knee while tripping on a drain while trying to catch a fly ball to right center field off the bat of Mays. There were no angels in the outfield to assist Mantle that afternoon, but DiMaggio, the first responder after Mantle’s mishap, had a cameo in the movie of the same name that was released two weeks later.

Mantle’s 1951 season ended with his World Series injury, but more importantly, it was the first of many that would hinder him for the rest of his career. So the legend of the world class slugger that was born in spring training was joined with the legend of the wounded warrior during the postseason. Essentially, the rough outline of the Mantle legend was in place, but it would take 17 more seasons to fill in the details.

Neither Mantle nor Mays set the world on fire during the World Series. Mantle was just 1 for 5, Mays 4 for 22 (and he hit into three double plays in Game Four). In his 10th (tying Babe Ruth’s record) and last World Series, DiMaggio was 6 for 23. His home run in the fifth inning of the fourth game was the last of his career. It is ironic that his last home run in New York came not in Yankee Stadium but in the Polo Grounds. Off the record, he did go deep at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 5, but that was during some pre-game horsing around with Al Schacht (the “clown prince of baseball” was a native New Yorker who owned a popular steakhouse in Manhattan) on the mound.

An interesting footnote to the 1951 World Series occurred in the bottom of the first inning of the first game when the Giants took the field. The same trio (Irvin, Mays, Thompson) who had become the first all-black bases-loaded runners four months earlier now comprised the first all-black outfield. Irvin also starred on offense, batting .458 (11 for 24), with four hits in the first game and a steal of home in the first inning. This was the first steal of home in a Series since 1934, and the first that was not the front half of a double steal since 1921.

For the Yankees, the offensive stand-outs were McDougald, who knocked in seven runs and hit the third grand slam in World Series history in Game Five, and Rizzuto, who hit .320 (8 for 25) and won the Babe Ruth Award as MVP of the Series.

An equally curious form of parity was the number of future managers who played for the Giants and the Yankees in 1951. The Yankees could boast of Hank Bauer, Berra, Jerry Coleman, Ralph Houk, Lopat and Billy Martin. Not to be outdone, the Giants also had six future managers: George Bamberger, Wes Westrum, Dark, Whitey Lockman, Bill Rigney and Eddie Stanky. Also, coach Herman Franks eventually became a Giants manager after the team moved on to San Francisco.

The World Series was well attended by New Yorkers; attendance for the six game series came to 341,977. This was not a record for a six-game series, as the Indians-Braves match-up three years earlier had drawn 358,362, thanks to Cleveland’s cavernous Municipal Stadium. That record would fall in 1959 when half the games were played in the even larger Los Angeles Coliseum.

If they had a preference as to whether they played the Giants or the Dodgers, the Yankees likely favored the former, as the Polo Grounds held far more people than Ebbets Field, and would make for a fatter paycheck, win or lose. The payout turned out to be $6,446 per man to the Yankees and $4,951 per man to the Giants.

In fact, the Game Three crowd (52,035) on Oct. 6 at the Polo Grounds was the largest at any NL park to that point in baseball history (appropriately, John McGraw’s widow was there to throw out the first pitch). The three games at Yankee Stadium all drew more than 60,000 with the largest (66,018) being Game 2 on Oct. 5. The games at the Polo Grounds were the last subway series games played there.

During the postseason, in addition to the aforementioned rookie awards to McDougald and Mays, the MVP awards were also all-Gotham – and all-catcher: Campanella was NL MVP, while Berra was his AL counterpart.

Another autumnal occurrence of interest was Life magazine’s publication of the scouting report Dodgers scout Andy High had compiled on the Yankees in anticipation of a World Series match-up. The report on DiMaggio was less than flattering, to put it mildly, and if he had any inkling of returning in 1952, this report likely put to rest any such notions. So he walked away from the $100,000/year contract the Yankees offered him in the offseason.

Six weeks after the World Series ended, on Nov. 25, an event occurred that would prove as important for Yankees fans as it was for Red Sox fans. That was the date Bucky Dent came into the world in Savannah, Ga.

Now that we’re nearing the end of the article, it is permissible to mention Bobby Thomson again and the events of Oct. 3, 1951 (and I’m not talking about the birth of future Yankee Dave Winfield in St. Paul, Minn.). Thompson’s pre-Oct. 3 stats tend to fade into the background, but he was enjoying a very good season before he achieved immortality.

After Thomson hit the home run, he eclipsed the 100-RBI mark for the second time (he would do so twice more). It also tied him with Stan Musial for fourth place in the NL in home runs with 32 (Thomson’s career high). He also finished fourth in slugging (.562) and seventh in total bases with 291. Also, his two-run homer in the first playoff game had been the difference, so he had the game-winning hits in both Giants victories.

Even if Thomson had hit into a game-ending, season-ending double play on Oct. 3, he still would have enjoyed an outstanding season. Even if Red Barber or Vin Scully (then in his second season with the Dodgers) had shouted “The Dodgers win the pennant, the Dodgers win the pennant!” or something to that effect, it still would have been a season to remember. (Russ Hodges’ partner, by the way, was Ernie Harwell, who got his first major league experience with the Dodgers.)

Still, it’s easy to see why the long shadows of Thomson and Branca obscure all the other noteworthy events pertaining to New York baseball in 1951. First of all, you didn’t have to be a serious seamhead to appreciate the drama. You have two local boys (Thomson from Staten Island, Branca from Mount Vernon) playing on two local teams; one team will be a winner and the other a loser, one man will be a hero and the other a goat. In 1951, a coast-to-coast TV audience could understand this one-on-one, mano-a-mano archetypal conflict, whether they were hundreds or thousands of miles away. It was a showdown right out of a Gary Cooper movie!

While the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees dominated proceedings in 1951, it was hardly a flash in the pan. This was just the third year in an 18-year stretch when every World Series included at least one of the three teams, and sometimes two. Even the cross-country migration of the Giants and Dodgers didn’t change that.

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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8 years ago

Awesome article. Thank you so much.

Had no idea that Jackie Jensen, the 1958 MVP (breaking the Yankees streak of Berra, Berra, Mantle, Mantle) had come up with the Yankees.

Joe Phillips
8 years ago

Frank Jackson does his usual splendid job of pulling together this transitional and poignant year in baseball.
1. Ironic in that one week before Thomson’s “shot”, that the highly popular movie released Sept. 28 was “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”
2. 1951 World Series Managers had associations as either a player or manager of the three New York teams. Giants Manager Leo Durocher and Yankee Manager Casey Stengel all spent time with the three New York teams. Stengel played for the Dodgers and Giants and managed the Yankees. Durocher played for the Yankees and Dodgers and managed the Giants.
3. Mays, DiMaggio and Mantle were all interlinked for their only time in that World Series when, in the fifth inning of the second game Mays hit the fly ball that DiMaggio wound up catching and Mantle went for but stumbled wrecking his knee. All three center fielder incidentally came up (began their careers) as shortstops.
4. Thomson, in the dramatic third game playoff with the Giants, appeared to be the “goat” up until his last at bat. He ran up on Teammate Whitey Lockman at second base, not realizing that Lockman is camped out there and Thomson is tagged out, stifling a possible rally.
5. Supposedly Frank Gifford was at the USC football field when mantle hit the homer there and picked the ball up. From reports, Frank was never a big fan of Mantle.
6. All within a few days Joe DiMaggio announces his retirement and Joe Jackson has just died.
7. Eight of the 12 or 13 black players who were active in major league baseball in 1951, were either on the Giants or the Dodgers.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

Great article and great comments from Joe. It’s hard to fathom now, with the rise of the NFL, just how important baseball was in 1951, which made the Bobby Thomson home run just that much more dramatic.

Bob May
8 years ago

I remember watching on TV with my two brothers the dramatic Bobby Thomson Home Run. My mother nearly paniced when my middle brother and I began throwing our one year old brother up toward the ceiling. I had the honor of meeting Monte Irvin with my grandson in Houston TX in 2011 and 2012. Monte is one of twenty-one Negro League Stars in my first book “The Best Season – The First Ninety Games honoring Black Ball (Negro Leagues) through baseball game simulation. Bob May

Cliff Blau
8 years ago

Mays started his career 1-26, but that hit was a home run off Spahn. It didn’t come in his 27th at bat.

Bill Sharman and the other Dodgers on the bench were not ejected from that game. The umpire just cleared the bench, but they were still eligible to play.

Jim Roebuck
8 years ago

Mr. Jackson writes above, in part,

“… on June 3, 1951, Hank Thompson, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin were on base simultaneously during a game against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. This was the first time in baseball history that the bases had been loaded with black players.”

Quite obviously, that is far from correct. Perhaps he meant that it “was the first time in” _mainstream major league_ “baseball history that the bases had been loaded with black players.”

I wonder if it had happened before that in any of the minor leagues?

(Incidentally, in case it matters any, I’m white. I just want to set the record straight.)