From Publishers Weekly
October 3, 1951, 3:58 p.m., Polo Grounds, New York City: "Branca throws. There's a long drive. It's gonna be, I believe—the Giants win the pennant!" That's the way New York Giants' announcer Russ Hodges described what is arguably the greatest moment in American sports, the shot "heard round the world," as the Giants defeated the Dodgers to win the National League pennant. Prager, a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal
, has written a brilliant narrative not only about the most famous homerun in baseball history but also about the mystery that haunts it. Americans love a conspiracy, be it the grassy-knoll variety or perhaps a more innocuous one, like the stealing of baseball signs. For that is at the crux of this book: did the Giants know what the Dodger pitchers were going to throw before they threw it? (It should be pointed out that there is no baseball rule prohibiting stealing the opposing team's signs.) Prager, who first broke this story for the Wall Street Journal
in 2001, tells a tale worthy of a "Deep Throat." The sign heist was ingeniously simple—all that was involved was a telescope, a buzzer and an isolated bullpen catcher.The baseball story is exciting, but Prager concentrates on what happened to the protagonists: Ralph Branca, the pitcher, forever branded a loser; Bobby Thomson, the phlegmatic gentleman, equally haunted by his heroics. We see the change in Branca when he learns the truth years later from Sal Yvars and the bitterness it engendered toward Thomson, a God-fearing man uncomfortable with his legal cheating. Finally we see a reconciliation between old adversaries, who became business partners, lucratively exploiting their infamy, becoming friends along the way.Although Prager does have a tendency to overpsychoanalyze both ballplayers, he paints a marvelous portrait of New York City baseball in the tradition of The Boys of Summer
and Summer of '49
, bringing to life once again a genuine piece of Americana.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Don DeLillo wrote a novel about it (Underworld
1997); public figures of every stripe, from Frank Sinatra to Harold Bloom, have shared their memories of it; and an entire borough never recovered from it: Bobby Thomson's home run, the "shot heard round the world," won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, besting their crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, in a three-game playoff, but in the end the home run became not only baseball's most-remembered moment but also the ultimate expression of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (Thomson's triumph was paralleled by the dejection of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, immortalized by a photographer after the game, hands on head, moaning, "Why me? Why me?"). The story of the 1951 Giants has been told many times before, of course, but Wall Street Journal
reporter Prager brings to the tale both a revealing focus on the entwined lives of Thomson and Branca and the first in-depth examination of the scandal that lurked beneath the surface of the Giants' victory: throughout their remarkable comeback, the team had been using a centerfield telescope to steal the opposing catchers' signs. Did Thomson know beforehand that Branca's second pitch would be a fastball? He says no--his mind was on the moment, not the sign--but the widespread disclosure of the telescope gambit in the 1990s did much to tarnish a nation's near-sacred memories of the event. Prager rides the sign-stealing hobbyhorse a bit too hard here--ladling on heavy-handed foreshadowing--but he does expose multiple layers of fascinating backstory to the drama within a drama, and his psychobiographies of Thomson and especially Branca are unfailingly compelling. Only his convoluted and overblown prose style ("the sportswriter had mined for gold dust the tedium of spring training") keeps this from being one of the best baseball books in decades. But content finally trumps form in what is still the biggest sports story of the last century. Bill OttCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved