Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Curse of the Flying Scot

     Sing Goddess! The wrath of Bobby Thomson!

     The Trojan War had its Homer and Iliad, the birth of Rome its Virgil and Aeneid, the Black Death its Boccaccio and Decameron, Medieval Florence its Dante and Divine Comedy, Islam's Golden Age its Scheherazade and A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Samurai Japan its Lady Muraski and Tale of Genji, a day in 1904 Dublin its Joyce and Ulysses, the V2 Rocket its Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow. So it should be that baseball's greatest game—nay, the all and everything and nothing, the sublime ecstatic agony that is baseball—have its Gordon McLendon and his transcendent flight of verbal fancy on the afternoon of October 3, 1951.

     We are, of course, talking about baseball's archetypal moment, the game of games with its end of ends, when Bobby Thomson sent Ralph Branca's fastball hanging just a little too high and not far enough inside into the Polo Grounds' lower left field deck, the New York Giants into the World Series and the hard luck Brooklyn Dodgers back to Mudville.

     The facts and legends and myths of this third and deciding playoff game that placed a no pun intended giant exclamation point at the back end of the fabled 1951 National League pennant race have been more than amply documented by any number of fine historians, writers, novelists, poets, and artists in the nearly sixty years since Thomson struck his fatal blow in the bottom of the home team ninth. Joshua Prager's monumental and endlessly revealing The Echoing Green stands on high not merely on the strength of its profound reportage (if sometimes quirky prose) which settled once and for all the dark secret that finally had to be told: the Giants stole signs. Armed with a 35 .mm Wollensak telescope shrouded in a window of the distant center field Polo Grounds clubhouse, a jerry-rigged buzzer in the right field bullpen and a simple hand signal, any Giant batter could (unbeknownst, of course, to the opposing team, umpires or fans) get a heads-up on the next pitch. And, by all accounts, Thomson was particularly liberal in accepting such inside poop starting when the Giants hatched their plot in late July and all the way on through their tremendous stretch drive when they climbed way out of a hole, winning fifty of their final sixty-two games in charging back from thirteen games off the first place pace and tying the Dodgers on the regular season's final game.

      Cheating or not, hitting Major League pitching in any era is a tall order and the Giants still had to contend with winning on the road where such surreptitious optical assistance was unavailable. And when Thomson smacked a homer to win the first game of the playoff series off Branca in Brooklyn, he was most certainly on his own.

     Baseball—it is well known—is a game of curses, superstition and ritual. "The Curse of the Bambino" was finally lifted when the Boston Red Sox ventured into the belly of the Beast and returned from a death-defying hero's journey with the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. God knows what the Cubs did to deserve a century-plus World Series championship drought though my bets are on the fast one Johnny Evers pulled on the Giants and umps on the very same Polo Grounds turf in 1908 in the infamous "Merkle's Boner" contest. That Barry Bonds wears no World Series rings is a no-brainer and I have every suspicion that the baseball Gods were not smiling when they spied Willie Mays sipping champagne on the San Francisco bench late in the sixth game of the 2002 October Classic before the Anaheims roared from behind to take the game and then the crown on the following eve. Am I waxing a little too mystical for you? Hearing the theme music for "The Twilight Zone?" Whatever, these and other quirks of diamond fate have been pondered and parsed and divined by generations of fellow baseball mystics with no definitive answers... yet.

     As for the "Curse of the Flying Scot" consider this: the Giants never again won a World Series he could truly enjoy. When they finally did once again capture baseball's crown this past season it was just a couple of months after Thomson had died on the 62nd anniversary of Babe Ruth's death. Yeah, the Giants captured baseball's crown in 1954 but Thomson had been dealt to the Milwaukee Braves the previous off-season. Ironically, an injury that sidelined him in his first of three-plus seasons with Milwaukee gave Henry Aaron entree for a career that needs no further descriptive ink here. Thomson started the Braves championship 1957 season but he had dealt back to the Giants mid-season and never did get to dance with Gods or wear a Series ring though he was there, somewhat fittingly, when the Giants played their final game at the hallowed horse shoe of a baseball barn nestled at the foot of Coogan's Bluff at season's end.

     Along with Prager's history of the season, the game has been celebrated in fiction with the opening chapter of Don DeLillo's Underworld masterwork justly acknowledged as the class of the field though Alan Foster's underappreciated bildungsroman, Goodbye, Bobby Thomson! Goodbye, John Wayne! worth something more than an honorable mention as well. And Miracle Ball, Brian Biegel's personal odyssey in search of the lost home run ball (it has never been officially accounted for), is a recent, quite fabulous addition to the 10/3/51 canon. Oh, and guess what Sonny Corleone was listening to on the car radio right before he was slain at the toll booth in the premier Godfather film? All told, I would venture that the Thomson advent has easily produced more tomes and cultural reference than any other game.

Joshua Prager's website:

     Even those who know little about Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" have heard a recording of Russ Hodges' iconic home run call:

Bobby Thomson... up there swingin'... He's had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line... One out, last of the ninth... Branca pitches... Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner... Bobby hitting at .292... He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center... Brooklyn leads it 4-2...Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances... Lockman with not too big of a lead at second, but he'll be runnin' like the wind if Thomson hits one... Branca throws... [audible sound of bat meeting ball]

There's a long drive... it's gonna be, I believe...THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they're goin' crazy, they're goin' crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!'' [ten-second pause for crowd noise]

I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson hit a line drive into the lower deck of the left-field stands and this blame place is goin' crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it... by a score of 5 to 4 and they're pickin' Bobby Thomson up and carryin' him off the field!

     What most don't know is that very little of Hodges' broadcast (on WMCA 570 AM) was even captured on tape and its mere existence is something of a small miracle unto itself. As the story goes, Larry Goldberg a Giant fan living on 12th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, set the microphone his reel-to-reel tape recorder up in front of his bedroom radio and asked his mother to keep an ear to the game and push the record button at the ninth because he was still going to be at work when the game was due to end. Within a day or so of the game, Goldberg got the tape to Hodges who then set the wheels in motion for its release on vinyl and global dissemination.

For more on the saga of the Larry Goldberg tape, click here:

    Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber's call of the fateful blow on survives too, but whether the balance of his broadcast has stood the test of time remains, at least to me, unclear. By contrast to Hodges, the Ol' Redhead remains true to character, his call of the home run betrays some excitement yet remains as formal as his demeanor as he lets the howling crowd sing, knowing that anything he would say might diminish the moment's gravitas.

     Other legends of baseball broadcasting were on hand and at work that afternoon as well. Ernie Harwell was doing the NBC-TV chores, Al Helfer manned the mic for the Mutual Broadcasting System and the lionized team of Buck Canel and Felo Ramirez (the deans of Spanish language radio béisbol) called the game for all Latin America. Sadly, not a scrap of any of these survives if recorded at all but what a find if a kinescope of the television feed were to surface much like the recent unearthing of the 1960 World Series seventh game!

     I sincerely doubt, however, that any of these great voices of the game could match the kaledeidiscopic verbosity of Gordon McLendon and his word painting tour de force on that particular day. For not only has a full game recording survived, it stands as perhaps the pinnacle of the genre for all its qualities as artistry, entertainment and prophecy.

     While the whole game no longer appears available on for free streaming or download, his Thomson home run call and those of Hodges and Barber can be found by clicking here (or by a reasonably priced purchase through

     McLendon (coincidentally nicknamed "Old Scotchman") was one of the more intriguing figured in the early history of electronic media, the extant recording of the Thomson game a testament to the medium's possibility as a high art form. McLendon did not merely hold forth behind the mic for the Liberty Broadcasting System, he literally owned it. Even before he founded Liberty, the then-thirty-year-old entrepreneur had already lived a whole lotta life and would go on to live a whole lot more. A Yalie who had served as editor of the college's esteemed literary magazine and member of Skull & Bones, WWII veteran and intelligence officer, McLendon later made tens of millions in Texas oil,  buddied with the likes of Clint Murchison, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, and even factored into the JFK assassination as a minor player in Jack Ruby's circle. And we haven't even touched on his stint at Harvard Law School or career as a radio pirateer, author, film producer, Top 40 maverick, and Ho'wood PR guy. Somewhat predictably, the conservative democrat did, at one point, make a couple of unsuccessful stabs at elected office but parted ways with the party and electoral politics so it somehow figures that he would be in the thick of things at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951 the same day that another shot heard 'round the world—the Russians' testing of a nuke—was announced.

Gordon McLendon's Wikipedia entry:

And a link to Ronald Garay's biography of the man:

     Prior to the Thomson game and as a broadcaster and network chief, McLendon's claim to play-by-play fame was, like so many of his era, as a recreator of games, embellishing on Western Union feeds and enhanced by studio sound effects (bat striking ball, crowd noise, etc.) all produced in reportedly very convincing fashion on Liberty's short-lived "Game of the Day."

     But McLendon was in the Polo Grounds broadcast booth as Sal Maglie hurled the first pitch of third 1951 playoff game, poised to deliver his masterwork. His winning voice—a mellifluous, resonant baritone—combined with a seemingly innate and intuitive ability to deliver his coverage in elongated, alliterative allusion-rife paragraphs consistently challenge the audience not merely to listen but to think. While never exactly betraying the intellectual 'tood he may have thought his his Ivy League sheepskin bestowed upon him, McLendon manages to straddle both the rarified airs of the Ivory Tower and the Newtown Creek coming off as at once a man of the academy and the people. And this cat never—and I mean never—quits yakking, unleashing his spiel for nine taut innings of solo flight that would make any long form improviser (John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, Lord Buckley, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, included) proud, indeed. Lenny Bruce, it is said, dug cracking up the band and, at times, it even sounds like McLendon is blowing his own mind merely to get a rise out of his engineer and producer if not just himself. Yet he never loses focus of the game, clearly seeing its shifting shades and capturing the ever-mounting drama pitch-by-ulcer-inducing-pitch.

     One of these days some truly pathetic obsessive baseball noodnik will transcribe the recording of McLendon's entire broadcast and create a zippy website with sort of whistles and bells. Until then, try a sampling of these McLendon mind breaths on for size to get an idea of his Homeric handle on the epic afternoon.

     During his pregame set up, McLendon sounds fairly grounded: "...and after a hundred and fifty-four regular season games and an additional two playoff contests, the Giants from Harlem and the Bums from Brooklyn have come down to the wire where it is all or nothing."

     But we soon get a hint that his cinematic and prophetic sense of things are beginning to merge: "A demented Hollywood scriptwriter in the throes of delirium tremens would not have dared pen anything so completely fantastic as this dizziest of pennant races... fifty years from now fans will be talking about this afternoon’s hero as yet unknown... but the man and the hour are about to meet."

     And, as an observer of pennant fever, he reveals himself to be accurate diagnostician: "This is it, boys and girls. And it’s about time because a few more days of nerve-shattering suspense that has the town in a frenzy would fill all the hospitals, booby-hatches and hoosecows and provoke a civil war."

     An example of his crisp play calling is evidenced on the game's first pitch when he intones: "raked outside—ball one and this climactic game of the 1951 season is on the fire!"

     Those intimate with the events of the game know that, before he was a hero, Thomson committed an egregious base running blunder, never looking up after lashing a hit to left and getting himself thrown out at second in the second inning. Knowing well the history of both franchise's goof-up in days of yore, McLendon takes center stage: "Well, the New York Giants, pulling a skull in the second inning—a real boneyard play—memories are brought to mind of the ol’ daffy Bums whose shades still grow green in the Limbo of Brooklyn... that one hasn’t been seen since the Snodgrass Muff or Merkle’s Boner in years gone by!"

     Much of the joy of the recording is derived from McLendon's off-the-cuff riffs such as this nugget describing a city obsessed with a baseball game: "From Flatbush Avenue to Sheepshead Bay, from the Savoy Ballroom to the YMCA, from Jacob Riis Beach to Hamburger Heaven,   this series has got the joint jumpin’... eight million New Yorkers are really moving today..."

     At times his mythic waxings reach a whole new strata of lyricism: "Here at the ancient cricket crease below the bluff next to the black waters of the Harlem River... churning like the River Styx to the great Atlantic Ocean."

     And how about this for alliterative, pre-rap when he describes the game as "a double-dodge deep dish doozer in the Polo Grounds."

     Thomson again factored into the game's box score when he drove in the Giants first run in the bottom of the seventh and McLendon deftly mixed his shtick with spot-on reportage: "... and Bobby Thomson up at bat—just as dangerous as a Great Dane behind a meat counter... Bobby calls time and steps out of the batter’s box... Thomson, born in Glasgow... boy, over on the Gowanus, the lilies must be drooping... bodies must be floating down the canal like water... the infield is in to play for a play at the plate... they want to cut off that tying run... the black shadow of calamity hanging over the Brooklyn Dodgers... and, like the great Phoenix, the never-say-die Giants rise from the ashes yet once again!"

    And when Maglie struggles late in the game, McLendon unleashes an amazing tribute to the hard knocks of life and baseball that to somehow recall images of the wily Odysseus strapped to the mast of his boat as the Sirens call: "Maglie was the logical choice for the big one of the big ones. An old hand at thirty-five years, he’s pitched under the most difficult possible circumstances. Banned from baseball for jumping to the Mexican League, Sal Maglie worked in Drummondville, he worked in Tampico, he pitched in heat, in drizzle, in driving rain, broiling sun, riding buses, riding mules, riding everything... he’s one of the toughest pitchers in the game and certainly one of the most taciturn..."

     No, McLendon's call of the game's climax doesn't hold a candle to Russ Hodges' out-of-body experience, but it nonetheless captures all that the moment could be: "Bobby swings, there's a long one out there out to left! Going, going, GONE and the Giants win the pennant!"

     It's probably a little cliché but of all the words written about this great game,  sportswriter Red Smith's words introducing his New York Herald Tribune article still ring through the decades: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

     Yes, it all fades into a sepia mist. But take a walk across the Macombs Dam bridge from Yankee Stadium and across the Harlem River to where Thomson's shot landed. Poke around Edgecombe Avenue and you will spy an old concrete staircase leading to the foot of where an old ballpark once stood. Look a little closer and notice some words laid in metal, lingering vestige of a lost time: "The John T. Brush Stairway Presented By the New York Giants."

     This is a secret thing. A talisman of the soul to be passed under the table through the ages to fellow believers. Old civilizations will fall to the sword. The monuments of their legacy will vanish but the glory of their times will live on. Penn Station, Schrafft’s, the Biltmore Clock, Nedicks, Birdland, the Third Avenue El, the Friday Night Fights, Sunday doubleheaders, a nickel ride on the Staten Island Ferry, a decent egg cream... kiss ‘em good night. Same goes for the Polo Grounds—that hollowed, hallowed ground, that rusted horseshoe, that green cathedral wedged beneath craggy Coogan’s Bluff.

     Men will laugh and children will shout. Mudville is Mudville where the Mighty Casey pouts. And miracles can still cause seas to part. But this game called baseball is designed to break your heart.

    For the Box Score the October 3, 1951 Giant-Dodger playoff game, click here:
or here:

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