Monday, May 28, 2012
From the shelves of the Paco library
It was one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history, a story of a remarkable comeback that, in late summer and early fall turned into a stomach-churning neck-and-neck run for the finish line, and it ended in the bottom of the 9th inning in the last game of a best-of-three playoff with a dramatic three-run homer. Thomas Kiernan magnificently captured the magic of that season in his book, The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, published in 1975. I imagine it’s out of print now, but if you can find it online or in a used bookstore, it’s well worth the money.
Kiernan brings a unique perspective to the story of the 1951 New York Giants and their dogged pursuit of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a hopeful tryout, himself, at the beginning of the 1951 season; however, he was underage, and his father seems to have secretly communicated the message to the team that, under no circumstances, would he give his permission for his son to play even if the Giants did offer him a contract, so the boy wasn’t asked back after that first day. Kiernan didn’t immediately find out about his father’s involvement, and when he did, he proved himself a better man than I in being able to forgive him. But the author realized that he never would have been able to consistently hit major league pitching, so he went on to college, as his father wished, and finally settled down to being a fan.
And a fine baseball historian and writer. The Coogan’s Bluff of the title is, of course, a rocky cliff that loomed over the Polo Grounds, the home of the Giants (the cliff is still there, but, sadly, the baseball stadium is long gone). In 1951, the Giants were in their fourth season under the management of the mercurial Leo Durocher, who had originally come over from the Main Enemy, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Durocher had been carefully rebuilding the team, executing a number of strategic moves, including promoting Willie Mays from the minors, and was bragging about 1951 being the year of the Giants. The team promptly lost 12 of its first 14 games, and not only the sportswriters, but even die-hard fans, figured that it was going to be another long, disappointing season.
But the Giants never gave up, and in August they began seriously cutting into the Dodgers’ 13 1/2 -game lead. Day after day, week after week, Durocher’s boys pulled together, rooting for each other, working like a well-oiled machine, constantly peeling another game or half-game off the Dodger lead, until both teams ended the regular season tied. They split the first two games of a three-game playoff – and then came that magical last contest, on October 3. The Dodgers took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning, and saw it whittled down to 4-2, as Whitey Lockman doubled home Alvin Dark. There were now two men on base – including Clint Hartung, who had come in as a pinch runner for the injured Don Mueller.
That’s when Bobby Thomson came to the plate. He had been the goat earlier in the game – unsuccessfully trying to stretch a single into a double, only to find his teammate, Whitey Lockman, standing on second base; he also misplayed a couple of hits as third baseman – but, in a self-described daze, he stepped into the batters box, took the first pitch (right down the middle), and then whacked the second pitch into the lower deck of the left field stands, a home run that came to be known as the “shot heard ‘round the world”.
The first half of the book covers, in absorbing detail, the story of that memorable season, practically game by game; the second half consists of fascinating interviews with many of the principals, including Sal Maglie, Willie Mays and Bobby Thomson. Miracle stands as the definitive book on the 1951 National League pennant race, and is, in my opinion, one of the essential works of baseball history.