They call it the Little Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, a tribute to the section of Manhattan where the Polo Grounds once stood. And truth be told, a little miracle occurred in that ballpark in October in 1951.
The players are almost all gone now, all except Willie Mays, the mercurial center fielder and the best player of his generation, who was a scared rookie when two fierce rivals fought for the National League pennant.
It was a simpler time, a time before 16 teams made the playoffs, a time when the New York Giants completed a magical summer with one of the most dramatic finishes in baseball history.
The Giants had wiped out a 13½ game Brooklyn Dodger lead to force a playoff. They were led by Sal Maglie, who pitched with a menacing five-o’clock shadow and lantern-jawed Larry Jansen, both 23-game winners. Both gone now. Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark, imported from Boston, manned the middle of the infield. Both gone now. Whitey Lockman at first base and Monte Irvin in left field, who swapped positions during the season. Both gone now. Don Mueller in right field, a professional hitter. Gone now. Wes Westrum, a defensive genius catcher. Gone, too.
They split the first two games of the playoff and it all came down to one last game. The Dodgers carried a 4-1 lead to the bottom of the ninth inning. Dark and Mueller had important hits and Lockman’s double made it 4-2. At the plate: Bobby Thomson. On the mound: Ralph Branca. They had crossed swords in the playoff opener when Thomson homered.
Now Branca threw a strike and on the Giants bench, the players moaned. Branca had given Thomson a pitch to hit and Thomson had not swung. He would not get another chance, his teammates thought.
And then he did.
Branca’s next pitch landed in the lower left field stands at the Polo Grounds for a three-run homer that won the game and settled, once and for all, one of baseball’s most memorable pennant races.
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’’ broadcaster Russ Hodges howled. “They’re going crazy!’’
The Giants carried Thomson off the field that day, on the shoulders of Maglie and Jansen, Dark and Stanky, Irvin and Lockman, Mueller and Westrum.
Mays was in the on-deck circle when Thomson connected and he is the last of those Giants still around. The others live on in the memories of those fortunate enough to remember that magical summer and the electrifying home run that completed the Little Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.
Photo: The Rucker Archive/Icon Sportswire