`Shot Heard ‘Round World’ owes a debt to bit players

October 23, 2006
Chicago Tribune

It is a curiosity of baseball physics that a bunt in October travels farther than a home run in April. This the ballplayers know. Just ask Yadier Molina or Alex Rodriguez. Or better yet, ask the hero of heroes and the goat of goats: Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca.

It was 55 years ago this month, on Oct. 3, 1951, that a Spalding baseball flew northeast in Harlem, the eye of a perfect storm so powerful that today millions remember their exact coordinates when at 3:58 p.m. it slipped over a green left-field wall.

Many of those millions remember also the particulars of Thomson’s home run–that it gave the New York Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers, that it capped a furious comeback begun on Aug. 11 when New York trailed Brooklyn by 13.5 games, that it came to be known as the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff and the Shot Heard Round the World.

That shot remains unduplicated on the diamond, no team before or since winning a playoff or World Series game it trailed by three runs in the ninth. It’s a matter of course that the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated ranked it the greatest moment in baseball history.

But unknown by even the most ardent fan are those non-players who, that mid-century afternoon, affected play, participated in the game or preserved the home run. They include a statistician, an electrician, a fan, a batboy, a caption writer–the stock and trade of those lesser lights that orbit every great sporting sun. And as the Tigers and Cardinals prepare to face off in the World Series, and we ready to take in heroes and goats as yet unknown, let us take note of the anonymous lineup that 55 years ago stood behind Thomson, Branca and baseball’s greatest moment. Herewith, their starting nine:

Jack Carter: The Giant fan devised in 1950 two baseball statistics, “Equivalent Batting Average” and “Equivalent Batting Average Allowed,” and in the spring of 1951 he shopped his analysis to the New York club. Giant vice president Chub Feeney pitched Carter to manager Leo Durocher who hired him–$2,000 for a season of stats. By May, Carter had arranged for Durocher what he called a “Most Productive Batting Order,” the manager often rejiggering his lineup on the advice of Carter. On Oct. 3, 1951, he had Thomson batting sixth.

Abraham Chadwick: The Dodger fan worked for the Giants, an electrician operating the lights at the Polo Grounds. The team asked him to help them steal signs and he did, installing on July 19, 1951, a push button in the center-field clubhouse that sounded buzzers in the right-field bullpen and dugout. The system worked and helped New York scale the mountainous 13.5-game lead Brooklyn enjoyed on Aug. 11. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, Chadwick left the ballpark for good days after his handiwork. On Oct. 3 he watched the final playoff game on TV, horrified, aware that his buzzers were set to help defeat the team he loved.

Morty Rothschild: The Giants fan had a great seat at the ballpark, midway between third base and home. But his team was down 4-1 in the ninth and since driving in August to visit his daughter Diane at Camp Navajo in Honesdale, Pa., he had noticed that his beloved Giants never lost with him behind the wheel. And so, though it meant leaving his friend and the final inning of a deciding playoff game, Rothschild rose from his box seat, hurried to his Buick sedan parked behind home, turned the ignition and headed north on the Speedway. Giants Alvin Dark and Don Mueller promptly singled.

Steve Lembo: The backup Brooklyn catcher had on Sept. 5 joined the parent club, up from Mobile, Ala., in the Southern Association. And it was Lembo and coach Clyde Sukeforth who now squatted opposite Carl Erskine and Branca–the pitchers Dodger manager Charlie Dressen had throwing in the event starter Don Newcombe needed relief. Dressen phoned the bullpen and it was then that a pitch that Lembo called for but did not catch turned into an agent of history. “Erskine just bounced a curve,” reported Sukeforth, “but Branca’s fast and loose.” Giant Monte Irvin popped up.

Billy Leonard: The two-term Giants batboy was but two outs from retiring, set for an unencumbered senior year at Manhattan Prep. The redhead selected for Thomson a bat, Adirondack model 302, 34 ounces of northern white ash lacquered Giants orange. Thomson lifted the stick and left the dugout for the on-deck circle. Whitey Lockman doubled. The score 4-2, Branca came in to pitch to Thomson. On the mound waited the block of rosin Leonard had banged into powder and poured into a sock to be bounced on the sweaty palms of pitchers.

Henry Colletti: The Giants maintenance man, unseen in the overhang in left, kept up by pulley his scoreboard: A.B. 23, OUTS 1, BKLYN 100000030, N.Y. 00000010. Another run already in, Colletti decided to wait for the end of the inning to fill the ninth New York slat. Branca threw a strike and at the far left of the left field scoreboard, Colletti yanked with his 137 pounds a cable that lifted a 12-inch No. 1–white paint on black metal filling a scoreboard cavity.

Rudy Mancuso: The Giants fan sat high above the right side of play, fair of home. A die cutter who studied photography in night school, Mancuso had this morning brought to his seat in the upper deck at the Polo Grounds his Busch Press camera. He had spent the first of his two exposures on Hank Bauer, the Yankee seated close by. Branca now threw his second pitch, and, says Mancuso, “When I heard the crack of the bat, I snapped my picture.”

Lou Weber: The WMCA radio engineer watched as the ball flew toward left field. And as announcer Russ Hodges told his audience five times in 13 seconds that the Giants won the pennant, Weber was sure to record the call. Before stowing the vinyl record at his home at 4040 Harper Ave. in the Bronx, WMCA contracted Gotham Recording Corp. on 5th Avenue to make copies, an epochal call preserved.

Pete Coutros: The head caption writer at the Daily News stared down at six photographs. Spread out on a seventh-floor desk at 220 E. 42nd St., the shots of a home run and its celebration were to comprise the tabloid’s centerfold and needed a caption. Coutros thought suddenly of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Copy!” he yelled. A messenger boy came running. Read his banner headline: “The Shot Heard ‘Round the Baseball World.”