1951 was supposed to be the Dodgers’ year, a vengeance-filled riposte of burgeoning against the baseball fates that determined the previous year’s National League pennant go to the Philadelphia Phillies on the last day of the 1950 season. The paradigm repeated as 1951 ended on the last day of the season thanks to a three-game playoff, a Ralph Branca pitch, a Bobby Thomson swing, and a baseball legend.
The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers began the season breathing fire. The vernal ritual of Opening Day held promise for the denizens of Ebbets Field routinizing the Dodgers’ efforts as part of their everyday lives. Children especially anticipated the beginning of the baseball season for estival afternoons would soon be a reality with freedom from homework, term papers, and all other school obligations.
The fire-breathing Dodgers huffed and puffed as they sloughed toward the 1951 finish line, yielding to a tie with the New York Giants that forced the three-game playoff. Roy Campanella hit career-high numbers in batting average (.325), doubles (33), and hits (164). Carl Furillo hit a career-high 197 hits. Pee Wee Reese hit a career-high 176 hits. Gil Hodges had a career-high 40 home runs.
To the uninformed observer, statistics are trumpery not to be given attention. To the baseball fan, however, they are more than mere numbers. They comprised the lifeblood of baseball arguments from Canarsie schoolyards to Brooklyn Heights conference rooms to Manhattan night clubs. But the achievements underlying the statistics held little potency against a secret weapon more potent than Jackie Robinson’s base running, Carl Furillo’s fielding, or Carl Erskine’s fast ball — a telescope in the Center Field stands of the Polo Grounds.
A Giants spy conveyed Campanella’s sign to the bullpen staff through an electrical relay. Then, the Giants bullpen signaled the imminent pitch choice to Manager Leo Durocher, strategically placed in the Third Base coaching box. Durocher then instructed the Giants batter what to expect.
Joshua Prager broke the telescope story in The Wall Street Journal in 2001 and followed with The Echoing Green, a contribution to baseball literature that defines investigative journalism. In his book, Prager penetrates to the core of an omerta that baseball yentas dismissed in limited circles by telling tales that, for fifty years, the public might have ignored as baseball legends, like Babe Ruth actually calling his home run in the 1932 World Series.
Bobby Thomson’s 9th inning swing on October 3, 1951 became a moment frozen in time, played again and again in countless baseball documentaries with Russ Hodges’ voice as a backdrop. “The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!” While Thomson’s heroics contrasted with Ralph Branca’s suffering, the telescope legend hovered above the moment. Branca believed the legend. Thomson dismissed it.
Prager filled a lacuna in the story of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World by tracking down details of alleged chicanery like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. Of course, it fomented the eternal ire of Dodger fans and Giant fans alike – Dodger fans because the Thomson home run was arguably fraudulent and Giant fans because the biggest moment in franchise history was arguably fraudulent. Branca could not shrive the Giants, particularly Thomson, of the guilt inferred by Prager’s revelation of Durocher’s telescope scheme. Thomson denied until his death in 2010 that he had the sign of Branca’s pitch.
Baseball fans disagree, however, on whether Prager’s story should have ever seen the light of day, feeling perhaps that the mystery of the moment was better left alone, so much the better to inspire shock and awe throughout generations. They’re wrong. Prager’s revelations add to the moment rather than subtract from it.