New York's Polo Grounds
by Stew Thornley
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THE FINAL YEARS
By June of 1950, Mays was in the Giants organization and working his way back to the Polo Grounds. He spent the rest of the season with the Trenton Giants in the Interstate League before progressing to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1951 but didn't stay long before making the final jump to the major leagues. After 35 games with the Millers, Mays had a batting average of .477 and was leading the league in a number of other offensive categories while performing brilliantly in center field. He was too good to keep in the minors any longer, and on May 24 he received the call to join the Giants.
New York was playing a weekend series in Philadelphia when Mays made his debut, which wasn't a memorable one. He was hitless in five at bats against the Phillies and drew the collar again in the next two games.
But then the Giants came home. Mays made his first Polo Grounds appearance as a member of the New York Giants, and this time it was memorable. Facing Warren Spahn of the Boston Braves in the last of the first inning, Mays connected for a towering fly ball that landed on top of the left-field roof, the first of 660 home runs Mays would hit in the major leagues. Mays played well enough to be named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1951, but the season will be remembered better because of the tremendous pennant race, possibly the best since 1908. As before, the Polo Grounds was a focal point in the battle.
For much of the season, it didn't look like there would be any race in the National League. On August 11, the Brooklyn Dodgers held a 13 1/2 game lead over the Giants. But from there, New York went on a 16-game winning streak and closed out its schedule with 37 wins in 44 games. When the regular season ended, both the Giants and Dodgers had records of 96 wins and 58 losses. A three-game playoff was necessary to determine the 1951 league champion.
The Giants and Dodgers split the first two games; the decisive third game was at the Polo Grounds on Wednesday, October 3. Brooklyn carried a 4-1 lead into the last of the ninth inning, but the Giants rallied. Alvin Dark and Don Mueller singled. After Monte Irvin fouled out, Whitey Lockman doubled to left, bringing home Dark and sending Mueller sliding into third. Mueller was safe on the play, although he severely injured his ankle. The tension mounted during the delay as Mueller was carried off the field. Clint Hartung came in to run for him while the Dodgers changed pitchers, Ralph Branca relieving starter Don Newcombe.
Finally, play resumed. Branca's first pitch to Bobby Thomson was a strike. Thomson turned on the next pitch and lifted a fly toward left. In many, if not all, of the other stadiums in the major leagues, it likely would have been nothing more than a fly out. But this was the Polo Grounds. As Brooklyn left fielder Andy Pafko stood at the fence, the 315-foot marker near his feet, he stared up helplessly as the fly settled into the lower grandstand, a three-run homer to give the Giants the game, 5-4, and the National League championship.
In the broadcast booths, while Ernie Harwell described the play for television viewers, on the radio side Russ Hodges was shouting into the microphone his rendition that would become a classic in the annals of sports announcing: "The Giants win the pennant. ...The Giants win the pennant."
Although the Giants couldn't carry the momentum into the World Series -- they lost, four games to two, to the Yankees -- Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" remains one of the most famous ever hit and has often been cited as the most memorable moment in baseball history. Baseball historian John McCormac -- who attended many games at the Polo Grounds between 1924 and 1953, including the 1951 playoff finale -- disputed the claim that Thomson's drive was nothing more than a "Polo Grounds home run." After a writer said Thomson's homer "looped into the shorter lower left field stands," McCormack responded:
Neither Bobby Thomson nor anyone else "looped" a homer into the lower left field stands at the Polo Grounds. Thomson hit a line drive, the only type drive that could get into those stands. There were a lot of cheap home runs hit at the Polo Grounds. But none went into the lower left field stands. Why? Because of the Polo Grounds' curious configuration. The upper left field stands jutted out over the lower stands perhaps 15 to 20 feet. As a result, any looping drive that didn't get into the upper stands would hit the facade for a home run or be caught by the left fielder. There was no way it could fall into the lower left field stands. ...Thomson's drive would have been a home run at Ebbets Field or most of the National League parks of the time. It was no cheap drive.John Pastier, the expert on stadium geometry, said the distance on the home run could have been as short as 340 feet (the spot of the field-level landing point had there been no obstructions) and as much as 355 feet, although he stated the latter figure is "stretching it." Had the distance been 350 feet, Pastier claimed, it would have been an out in most other ballparks:
That [the 350-foot distance] would make it catchable in Ebbets Field [Brooklyn], Shibe Park [Philadelphia], Sportsman's Park [St. Louis], Forbes Field [Pittsburgh], Wrigley Field [Chicago], and most likely even Crosley Field [Cincinnati] and Braves Field [Boston], where, if it weren't caught, it would have been a double off the fence. That's the whole National League. In the American League, it would have been an uncatchable double at Fenway Park [Boston] and catchable in St. Louis, Cleveland, Comiskey, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, and Yankee Stadium in New York.No matter. Regardless of whether Thomson's fly ball would have been a home run nowhere but the Polo Grounds, it was the Polo Grounds where it was hit.
Used by permission of Temple University Press from "The Final Years" as it appears in Land of the Giants by Stew Thornley.
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