Should the outcome of the 1951 National League season be described as a Dodgers’ choke or a Giants’ comeback?
We’ve all seen the highlight of Bobby Thomson’s famous, walk-off home run in 1951, but have you ever pondered what led up to that historic moment.
I saw the highlight for the umpteenth time in my life (I was not alive when that occurred) and it struck me, “Did the Dodgers choke that season or was the Giants comeback so overwhelming that nothing was going to stop it.”
It takes two to tango, so to speak. One team surges while the other falls back to set up these historic rallies. How did the Giants pull it off, what went into that famous comeback that culminated with Thomson’s historic blast? Did the Dodgers play that badly down the stretch? Thanks to baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org, I was able to research that thought.
Take into account that this was a 154-game season that was extended to 157 because the playoff against the Dodgers was a best-of-three series.
After the Giants were shutout by Hall of Famer Robin Roberts and the Phillies on August 11th, they were 59-51 and trailed the high flying Dodgers by 13 games. Brooklyn split a double-header with the Boston Braves and was 70-36.
On August 12th, the Giants began a 16-game winning streak that would pull them to within five games of the Dodgers. The streak ended on August 28th when the Giants lost to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates (7th place in an 8-team National League) and fell seven back when they dropped two of three against Pittsburgh while the Dodgers swept the Cincinnati Reds in a three game series.
On September 1st and 2nd, the Giants won two huge games from Brooklyn to cut the deficit to five in the final month. The Giants were not only chasing the Dodgers, they would also face an obstacle in the schedule. After Labor Day, the Giants had a slate that began with a crucial 14-game road trip and had them playing 18 of their final 21 games away from the Polo Grounds.
That stretch would’ve buried most teams. The Giants went 10-4 on the road trip, and followed that up with a blistering September by winning 20 of 25 games, including the final seven in a row. Due to a quirk in the schedule, Giants were off on Thursday, 9/27 and Friday, 9/28 while the Dodgers played 7 games in the final six days.
The Dodgers went 14-13 in September and had a three game, weekend series in Philadelphia to finish the regular season. The Phils walked off with a 4-3 win in the first game on Friday night and that left the Dodgers and Giants tied.
Both teams were tied going into the final day. On September 24th, Giants beat the Boston Braves, 4-3, to go to 96-58. Dodgers came from behind to beat the Phillies in 14 innings on Jackie Robinson’s home run.
Starting on August 12th, the Giants won 37 of their final 44 games, while the Dodgers were 26-23 in that span so the intra-city playoff was set. (On the two days off that the Giants had in late September, the Dodgers lost both of those games. Giants played four doubleheaders in September, Dodgers played two)
Here is a little interesting tidbit from earlier in the regular season. The Dodgers played a 12-inning, 5-5 tie with the Boston Braves at Braves Field on May 12th. The game was called because of curfew and was eventually replayed in its entirety. It’s a good bet that the Dodgers lost the replay. Why do I say that? They played two doubleheaders in Boston after that tie. One was probably scheduled and one featured the replay for the tie. In those two twin bills, the Dodgers lost three of four. Braves ended the season in fourth place, under .500. You could argue, when it was all said and done, that tie was costly for Brooklyn. If they had won that game and not have had to play a 158th game, who knows. Maybe there is no famous homerun. (BTW: Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo never missed a game in the regular season and are listed as having played 158 games. The personal stats from the tie counted towards a player’s record. Brooklyn’s record after the season reflected 157 games, 97-60)
The rest is history. The Dodgers won a coin toss and chose to have the first game at home, while games two and three would be played in upper Manhattan. Giants won the first game of the playoff series at Ebbets Field, 3-1, as Thomson homered off of Ralph Branca, an omen of things to come. The Dodgers captured game two, 10-0 at the Polo Grounds to even the series and set up the historic third game.
Choke or comeback? Take your pick. Any way you slice it, it was historic.
Karpin’s Korner appears every Friday on nysportsday.com