The Man Who Shot ‘the Shot Heard ‘Round the World’

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On Oct. 3, 1951, in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, a little man with a big camera snapped a portrait of Yankee outfielder Hank Bauer seated nearby. Rudy Mancuso had just one more exposure. And so, as the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants waged their final playoff game in Harlem, the amateur photographer let pass 77 balls and 142 strikes, at last clicking his Busch Pressman at 3:58 p.m., a split second after Giant Bobby Thomson pulled an 0-1 fastball from Dodger Ralph Branca with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

Unbeknownst to him, the 31-year-old Mancuso had just taken what is arguably the most famous photograph in the history of baseball (see nearby). “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” coalesced hours later in a tub of dektol on East 79th Street. Mancuso had stilled a Spalding some 280 feet before it cleared a green wall, won the Giants the pennant (won the Giants the pennant!) and commenced inspiring so much prose as to imperil, wrote Daniel Okrent, “great stretches of Canadian pulpwood forest.”

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The next morning, recalled Mancuso, he tried to sell his photograph to the Daily News and the New York World-Telegram and Sun. The papers passed. Mancuso soon gave a print of his photo to Garry Schumacher, public relations director of the Giants, who hung it in the team’s midtown office. But when on Oct. 24 the Giants used the black-and-white photo in an ad in the Sporting News and again in their 1952 yearbook, they didn’t pay or credit Mancuso. Neither did Adirondack Bats in a January ad.

In May 1952, Sylvania Electric Products Inc. put the photo on the cover of its company newsletter and credited it to “Rudolph Mancuso.” (He had, from time to time, used Sylvania flashbulbs.) But he lost the newsletter. The next year, after he met another woman and his marriage dissolved, the four-by-five-inch negative that had preserved a 5-4 win was missing too. Mancuso suspected it had gone upstate to Poughkeepsie with his estranged wife Mildred and two young sons.

And so, tragically, the man who shot “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was entirely forgotten.

Many years passed. Mancuso’s pencil moustache turned from black to white as newswires and then vendors and then Web sites hocked an inexhaustible supply of his photo. He made no money from his shot and held no proof that it was he, an embosser and die cutter living in a Lower East Side walk-up, who’d most famously preserved baseball’s greatest moment.

“It was one of those family legends,” says his nephew Peter Vincent. “You wondered if it was true or not.”

Then, in January 2001, I wrote an article for this newspaper describing how the Giants stole the signals of opposing catchers in the months leading up to Thomson’s homer. Messrs. Thomson and Branca discussed it with me that fall at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Montclair, N.J. Mancuso, 80 years old and pink-faced, approached me and told of his supporting role in their mid-century drama. He had no proof. But Hank Bauer confirmed that he’d sat where Mancuso alleged and I eventually found that Sylvania ad. And so, I put Mancuso in “The Echoing Green,” my 2006 book about the home run.

Mancuso carried the book about his neighborhood for months — from Rosario’s Pizza where Salvatore Bartolomeo let angel hair pasta go limp so that his friend with few teeth could more easily chew it, to the Hotel Rivington bar where the young and hip called Mancuso Mayor or King of the LES (Lower East Side). There His Majesty flirted with cocktail waitresses, dipped into his Social Security for sweet vermouth and cheesecake, and told of his missing negative.

A few months ago, on Jan. 23, Mancuso’s wife’s sister Jeanne Lambiasi died. Her nieces Joy and Theresa sorted her possessions until March 28 when they phoned Mancuso to say they’d found — in the top drawer of a bedroom dresser — an envelope that’d been sent by his wife Mildred. Mancuso was at home blocks away on Rivington Street. Four days shy of 89 years old, slowed by arthritis in his buttocks, hip, back and neck, he walked with his aide down three flights of stairs and proceeded to Eldridge Street where his son Robert met him on the sidewalk and handed him the opened envelope.

On the front of the envelope, Jeanne had crossed out her name and address, and written the words “Baseball,” “Put negative in here,” and “Over.” On the back of the envelope, in its three lower quadrants, she’d described that negative: “1951 NY GIANTS & BKLYN DODGERS NATIONAL LEAGUE PENNANT,” “9th INNING SCORE 5 to 4,” and “Bobby Thompson Home Run PITCHER RALPH BRANKER.”

Mancuso opened the envelope and the glassine envelope inside it and the fold of tissue paper inside that. He lifted the negative. He kissed his family. He was unable to speak. “I put my finger on the edge to feel the notch,” he said, referring to the nick in the upper right border of the Kodak film that marked its base side from its emulsion. “It took me back to the Polo Grounds.”

There, 57 years after an epochal swing, miniature Giants and Dodgers still had not reacted to a batted ball. The old man took his negative home, the provenance of perhaps baseball’s most famous image at last authenticated.

On April 29, Mancuso sat on his sofa with his nephew Peter and Michael Santo, a lawyer and baseball fan offering advice pro bono, and discussed what to do with his precious negative. “What’s money going to do for me?” he asked. “If the money would help my body, I would say alright. What am I going to do — buy a car?” And so, true to his namesake Rodolfo, the poet in La Bohème, Mancuso bequeathed ownership of his negative to his sons, content that it could provide for them. The trio discussed copyright, licensing and prints.

On Saturday, May 9, Mancuso felt short of breath. Paramedics took him to St. Vincent’s hospital. He died on Sunday, May 10, at 1 a.m.

When Justin Gonzalez, a former manager at the Hotel Rivington, heard that the King of the LES had died, he started a page on Facebook for him. Dozens mourned their beloved old friend online and then on Bleecker Street where, on May 16 at the Guidetti Funeral Home, Mancuso shared his open casket with roses, rosary beads, his gray straw hat, the crook of his tiny cane, my book and two prints of his famous shot.

Mancuso’s elder son Rudy remembered to the assemblage through tears what, a few months prior, a friend had told him after speaking to his father: “Pop was worried that he had no legacy to leave me and my brother.”