The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America. Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.
It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel. With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever. The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence. “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence. Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer. After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.
Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him. It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced. His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.
We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country. I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees. The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying. Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy. Sadly, we’ll never know. Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.
While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside. Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues. On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake. We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.
The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast. In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans. The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game. These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss. Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting. We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business. Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball. It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning at the Polo Grounds in New York on 3 October 1951. The Giants trailed the Dodgers 4-1. Alvin Dark and Don Mueller each got on base with singles to start the inning. Monte Irvin fouled out. Whitey Lockman hit a double to drive in Dark and send Mueller to third. Mueller, however, hurt his ankle sliding into the base and was replaced by a pinch runner, Clint Hartung. With two runners in scoring position, only one out in the inning, and the scoreboard now reading 4-2, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen decides to replace pitcher Don Newcombe with Ralph Branca.
The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers had been an intense battle for the hearts of the fans of New York. It was also a rivalry that had been broadcast across the country, through television and radio. The Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13.5 games in August, and yet managed to tie them on the last day of the season by going 37-7 in their remaining games. The tie resulted in the three-game playoff that would determine who would advance to the World Series. The teams split the first two games of the series, 1-1. It all came down to Game 3.
Outfielder Bobby Thomson now stepped up to the plate for the Giants. If Branca could close out the game, the Dodgers would be World Series bound, and the Giants’ miracle comeback season would come to an end…
This dramatic play-by-play by radio announcer Russ Hodges pretty much secured the moment’s legacy as one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history. Thomson described the experience, “I can remember feeling as if time was just frozen. It was a delirious, delicious moment.”
It is a moment that would also live forever in the memory of pitcher Ralph Branca:
“I wanted to say it was a cheap Polo Grounds home run. I wanted to say that in any other ballpark it’d be an easy out. I wanted to believe that I was dreaming. I didn’t want to believe that it was really happening. I wanted the pitch back.
“But the ball was gone and the game was over. The series was over. The pennant was lost.
“There was pandemonium. There was hysteria. There was Thomson rounding the bases. There was Durocher jumping up and down from the third-base coach’s box like a crazy child. There was confetti flying.”
Unfortunately for the Giants, the magic wouldn’t be enough to sustain them through the World Series. They would lose the championship to the New York Yankees in six games.
Nevertheless, “the shot heard ’round the world” is a moment that remains embedded in the heart of American culture. In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp celebrating Thomson’s homer. In ESPN’s SportsCentury, the moment ranked #2 in the list of the Ten Greatest Games of the 20th Century (behind the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants).
“Now it is done,” wrote Red Smith in The New York Herald Tribune. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Branca, Ralph. A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Goldstein, Richard. “Bobby Thomson Dies at 86; Hit Epic Home Run.” New York Times 18 August 2010, New York ed.: A16.
MacCambridge, Michael, ed. ESPN SportsCentury. New York: Hyperion ESPN Books, 1999.
“Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Baseball Reference. Sports Reference LLC, 26 January 2013. Web. Accessed 30 April 2013. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Shot_Heard_’Round_the_World
On 13 March 1954, Braves outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle sliding into third base during an exhibition game against the Pirates. Unfortunately for Thomson, this meant that he was out of the lineup until July 14. Fortunately for baseball history, this event opened up a starting spot for a young man named Hank Aaron. Nobody’s ever heard of him, have they?
“As far as I’m concerned, (Hank) Aaron is the best ball player of my era. He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him. He’s never received the credit he’s due.” – Mickey Mantle in Baseball Digest (June 1970)