Finding Flaws In The Homer Heard Round The World

Richard Sandomir
October 5, 2006
The New York Times

Joshua Prager has spent six years discovering what happens when lives transform in an instant, when the crack of a bat alters destiny.

What is it like, he wondered, to be the hero who hit the home run, so humble he acted as if he had struck out? And what is a half-century’s purgatory like for a sensitive pitcher turned classic goat?

More important, Mr. Prager, 35, needed to know how the hitter and the pitcher — one from an abstemious Scottish family, the other from a boisterous Italian clan — lived with a shared secret that recast their moment in a sinister glow?

Those questions propelled Mr. Prager through the research and writing of his new book, ”The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World” (Pantheon).

Thomson hit a three-run home run off Branca, on Oct. 3, 1951, that sent the New York Giants to the World Series and consigned the Brooklyn Dodgers to one more winter of waiting till next year.

Ever since, the two men have been a couple wedded by a single pitch, wary friends, each feeling like a burden to the other. Being around Mr. Thomson reminded Mr. Branca of the home run no one would let him forget; being around Mr. Branca reminded Mr. Thomson that his feat caused suffering to his friend. And for more than 50 years, each has known a truth he dared not speak of: that the Giants had concocted an elaborate sign-stealing scheme in mid-July 1951 that was in effect when Thomson whacked his homer.

”For Thomson it capped his enjoyment of the home run because the secret was always gnawing at him,” Mr. Prager said. ”It made Branca an angry person. For one it was an ache, for the other a pain.”

The secret had oozed out over the years but was fully exposed and confirmed by Mr. Prager’s 4,700-word article in The Wall Street Journal in early 2001. It raised the critical question that remains inadequately answered in the book: Did Thomson know the sign for Branca’s fateful fastball?

”Ralph suffered three traumas,” Mr. Prager said recently, his legs folded as he sat in his living room on the West Side of Manhattan in one of two green box seats from the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ long-ago-razed home in northern Manhattan. ”First the home run. Then, in 1954, he found about the stolen signs. And in 1962 the story came out, but he learned that no one cared.”

When Mr. Prager first called him, Mr. Branca said in a telephone interview, ”I wouldn’t talk about it; I told him I hadn’t talked about it for 46 years.” Eventually, he said, he spoke to Mr. Prager and felt some vindication, though he still expected some would prefer the myth of ’51.

”Josh loosened my tongue,” he said. ”I can talk about this now.”

Today Mr. Prager shares an easy camaraderie with the two retired ballplayers. He says he views Mr. Thomson, now 83, with grandson-like affection, and Mr. Branca, now 80, razzes the writer as if he were a rookie teammate.

A few years ago, Mr. Prager said, a rabbi friend of his noted that he had an affinity for stories about events that alter lives in a flash.

Mr. Prager himself survived one such event: in 1990, studying in Israel after high school, he was in bus that was hit by a truck, and he broke two neck vertebrae. He was hospitalized for four months and spent much of his time in college at Columbia University in a wheelchair. He is partly paralyzed on his left side but walks with a cane and an ankle brace, his left leg dragging.

”I’m in pretty good shape,” he said. He hikes and plays softball, but someone runs the bases for him. ”Most people think I have a bum knee.”

Nonetheless, during a recent interview, he moved rapidly from his living room to his bedroom office, where one of the 836 lights that once lighted the Polo Grounds lay on the floor. Nearby were seven packed accordion files, one of which contained a copy of the White House calendar for Oct. 3, 1951, showing that J. Edgar Hoover was meeting with President Harry S. Truman, disproving the tale that Hoover attended the historic game.

Mr. Prager displayed a powerful telescope identical to the one that Herman Franks, a Giants coach, peered through to steal signs. Mr. Prager said he believed he had proven that the espionage perch was a particular window in the office of Leo Durocher, the manager, above centerfield.

But Franks could not have relayed the signs without the help of a character whose role was unknown until Mr. Prager discovered it: a New York cabbie-turned-electrician named Abraham Chadwick, who died in November 1951.

Mr. Chadwick’s job was to switch on the lights at the Polo Grounds, and he devised the buzzer system that alerted Giants batters to the signs seen in the telescope.

”Abe takes the reader off the field, which is what I love,” Mr. Prager said. ”I was incredibly lucky just to find him.” (The only photo in Mr. Prager’s wallet is from Mr. Chadwick’s taxicab ID card.)

Mr. Chadwick’s daughters had known nothing of his part in the scheme. They were unaware, they said, as he grew sicker in the summer of 1951 of their Dodger-loving father’s mixed emotions or regrets.

Harriet Mesulam, one of his daughters, said Mr. Prager called often to seek minor details, which they provided, but she demurred once at his insistence that she provide the name of the aunt who drove Mr. Chadwick to the hospital during the season.

”I said, ‘No, you’re a pest,’ but he found out anyway,” she said. ”I’d get annoyed, but it was like therapy. And the book turned out so poetic.”