Now do you understand serendipity?
—horace walpole, letter to
Horace Mann, January 28, 1754
The sky above brooklyn darkened in seconds, a borough plunged into dusk five minutes after noon. It was July 18, 1951, and in offices downtown, people turned on lights and peered out windows. A squall in Brooklyn Heights toppled a tree on Willow Place onto three parked cars. A bolt of electricity cracked, hailstones big as marbles pelting Borough Hall. Gusts of wind rocked Sheepshead Bay, small boats radioing distress. The temperature freefell from a balmy 80 to 69 degrees and it began to pour, sheets of rain flooding Prospect Park, empty garbage cans afloat in Flatbush, eighteen inches of water cascading onto the tracks of the Grand Army Plaza subway station. Service halted.
The blitzkrieg stopped abruptly at 12:40 p.m. And born of a cold front in Canada, it all but sidestepped Manhattan, the IRT leading to the Polo Grounds just fine. Still, it was the second-to-smallest crowd of the season that wended this Wednesday to the Harlem field, just 3,538 folks come to watch Giants versus Cubs.
Turnout would no doubt have been smaller still were it not for Willie Howard Mays Jr. Mays was a rookie. The child of an Alabaman railroad porter, he had joined the Giants just twenty years, eighteen days old, the youngest black ever called to the major leagues. And on that May day had all New York excited. For in thirty-five AAA games, the center fielder had hit a startling .477.
Harlem had pulsed with pride when Jackie Robinson turned Dodger, Larry Doby Indian, Monte Irvin Giant, Sam Jethroe Brave. But it was the great black ballplayers in Brooklyn to whom Harlem gave its 700,000 hearts. Wrote poet Langston Hughes in 1950:
On sunny summer Sunday afternoons in Harlem
when the air is one interminable ball game
and grandma cannot get her gospel hymns
from the Saints of God in Christ
on account of the Dodgers on the radio. . . .
It was however a black Giant who now bunked at the corner of St. Nicholas and 155th Street, Mays renting the first floor of a boarding house owned by a woman named Ann Goosby. And quickly did Harlem take to Mays as it had to no Giant before. For the pheenom brought to the north end of Sugar Hill not only three 34-ounce bats but humanity. Willie, not William, was his given name. He weighed just 170 pounds, stood two inches shy of six feet. His black wool cap flew off mid- gallop. He scolded his Rawlings mitt when it dropped a ball. One hitless night in Philly, well along an anemic 1-for-26 start at bat, Mays sobbed. But oh that first hit—a home run off Warren Spahn that left its mark on both the left-field roof of the Polo Grounds and Leo Durocher. Cooed the Giant manager, “I never saw a fucking ball get out of a fucking ball park so fucking fast in my fucking life.” Harlem was in love.
Mays was the sure antidote to a proud organization’s thirteen-year pennant drought. It seemed no coincidence that with his arrival, New York won three straight to slip above .500. And so a manager protected him, teammates marveled at him and fans adored him, bestowing by summer a nickname on he who greeted all with a chummy “Say hey!” Just one person in fact had reason not to celebrate the Say-Hey Kid—the man manning center field before the kid arrived.
Bobby Thomson was in his fifth full season. Twice an all-star, he possessed power at the plate and skill afield—fast enough to play shallow yet still cover the enormous expanse that was center field at the Polo Grounds. But Thomson had neither the arm of young Mays nor his preternatural glove. And the day Mays turned Giant, Durocher alerted the papers (even before his center fielder) that Thomson was shoving over to left.
“Every time a kid comes up and takes your job, you’re not going to like it,” says Mays. “But I never heard Bobby complain. Actually, Bobby and Al Dark helped me how to play the hitters.” Dark went so far as to wag behind his back before most every pitch of the remaining 1951 season one or two fingers to alert the baby-face in center to what was upcoming.
Thomson, twenty-seven, received no such care. Batting just .229 when Mays arrived, yielding his position further bled his confidence. Over the next month, Thomson hit but three home runs and lost his spot in the starting lineup, Durocher using him only as pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. And as baseball’s June 15 trade deadline approached, the manager sought to unload him. Dangling Thomson and infielder Jack Lohrke, Durocher contacted Cub skipper Frankie Frisch to see if he might trade for Andy Pafko. Pafko was perfect, a left fielder who in 1950 had hit .304 with 36 home runs and a .591 slugging percentage. The slugger was off flying again with 12 home runs through 49 games. But when midnight struck on June 15, Pafko was a Brooklyn Dodger.
The deal was engineered by Emil Bavasi, a rookie general manager who had in the minors assembled five pennants. Just thirty-five, the wunderkind had wangled Pafko in person, flying to Chicago the day before to meet Cub general manager Wid Matthews at Wrigley Field. The trade was Bavasi’s first for Brooklyn and most in baseball felt it assured the club the pennant. When it was completed—eight players and $25,000 changed hands—Brooklyn senior scout Ted McGrew telegrammed the young Catholic general manager all called Buzzie. Read his note: “And a little child shall lead them.”
Desperate for help, Durocher picked up Earl Rapp, a minor league outfielder in Oakland. But in thirteen games in New York, the lefty contributed one single. Durocher would have to live and die with Thomson.
Thomson began July on a home run binge, belting six in eight games. But hitting just .231 at the all-star break, his .944 fielding percentage the worst of his young career, Thomson continued to sit more than he played. The fans did not seem to miss him—when in the ninth inning on July 15 he spelled Don Mueller in right, they booed.
And so now two days later at the Polo Grounds, Thomson was but a spectator, number 3,539 left this afternoon to watch Giants versus Cubs, to ooh when Mays hit a solo shot deep to left field, to aah when righty reliever George Spencer loaded the bases down 4–3 in the eighth.
It was a wonder Spencer, twenty-five, could pitch at all. For mid- game he had learned that wife Billie was in labor and rushed to the hospital. Cub pitcher Frank Hiller extended his lead off third and Spencer fired to Hank Thompson a pickoff throw. Hiller slid in ahead of the tag. Safe, his spikes pierced Thompson’s right foot, a black shoe welling with blood. Eleven outs later the game ended: Chicago 6, New York 3.
As after every Giant loss, a maintenance worker named Henry Colletti raised high above the clubhouse in center field a red flag. And in the green concrete below him, Anthony Palermo sewed a stitch into Thompson’s right big toe, the Giant doctor estimating the lefty hitter would sit at least ten days. New York needed another third baseman. And in Minneapolis, they had one.
Ray Dandridge was a minor league star. Property of New York, the bowlegged third baseman was batting in AAA .317 with 8 home runs and 53 runs batted in. He possessed a glittering glove besides. Dandridge in fact had but one drawback. He was black.
On February 28, a group of NAACP lawyers had walked into the federal district court at 424 South Kansas Avenue and on behalf of thirteen parents filed a class-action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The parents wished for their twenty children entrance to a nonsegregated elementary school. As just one of the thirteen parents was a man, a black welder named Oliver Brown whose daughter Linda was eight, the suit bore his name. The trial of Brown versus the Board of Education began on June 25, and the national pastime, having wrestled with segregation, awaited its verdict.
Though four seasons had passed since Jackie Robinson trotted onto a diamond, the black major leaguer remained very much a statement, a conspicuous reflection of team policy. Just five of sixteen clubs had seen fit to employ a black player. And the major league owner who did, finger held to the wind of public opinion, remained careful to pussyfoot about the matter of race. He knew that many shook their heads when on July 7, in a Southwest International League game at Hidalgo Park in Mexicali, a man named Emmett Ashford was arbiter of foul and fair, the first black umpire in the twentieth century not in the Negro leagues. He knew that many bristled when on June 3, with two out in the second inning of a game at the Polo Grounds, Irvin, Mays and Thompson got aboard, white bases flush for the first time with black men. And he knew that many approved when on May 24, having called Mays up, New York at once sent down another black player, infielder Artie Wilson.
That unwritten quotas continued to hamstring black players was widely known. And it was certainly known by Dandridge. When in 1949 New York signed Dandridge, the son of a semipro catcher, it mattered not that in nine seasons in the Negro National League he had hit an estimated . 315, an estimated .343 in an additional nine seasons in Mexico. It mattered not that his mitt was renowned, that he was en route to the Hall of Fame. He was black and thirty-five, and so off not to New York but Minneapolis. And when there in 1949 Dandridge promptly batted .362 with 6 home runs and 64 runs batted in, still New York did not call him up. And when the next season Dandridge was named his league’s Most Valuable Player, still New York did not call him up. And when he continued to shine after his roommate Mays was promoted in May 1951, still New York did not call him up.
That Mays would become the fourth black in five years to be named Rookie of the Year did not matter. Since signing its first black player, fastballer John Ford Smith, on January, 27, 1949, New York had been careful to field only so many Negroes.
But Hiller had now spiked Thompson. And owing a stitched toe, the New York Giants were at last on July 18, 1951, primed to overlook race—if only until Thompson mended.
Dandridge, though, was suddenly unavailable. Three days prior, before a doubleheader at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, the third baseman had felt an acute pain in his side and been relieved in Asbury Hospital of his appendix. Dandridge would not play again until August 19.
Thus did a bloody digit and enflamed appendix now convene Durocher and Horace Stoneham in New York’s center-field clubhouse. And minutes after their 6–3 loss, so desperate were Giant manager and owner to scrounge up a third baseman that they settled on Bobby Thomson.
Thomson had not played third base in five years, had not played any infield position since April of 1947. But serendipity had smiled on Thomson. And Stoneham and Durocher had now three pronouncements for the New York press: Thompson would be optioned to the Ottawa Giants of the International League, Ottawa pitcher Al Corwin would fill his roster spot, and Thomson would take over for Thompson at third.
The lineup, though, needed more than to add Corwin and shed a P. For the 1951 season was half gone and the orange and black trailed the Brooklyn blue by seven and a half games. Durocher was exasperated.
The fiery manager had come to New York from Brooklyn in July of 1948 and vowed to rebuild the team in his image. He had. Gone were sluggers Johnny Mize, Sid Gordon and Walker Cooper. In were scrappers Alvin Dark, Eddie Stanky and Wes Westrum.
The new Giant warp and woof had meshed under Durocher in little more than a season, the team running up baseball’s best record in the second half of 1950. And on February 19, 1951, the very first day of the spring training that followed, Durocher chirped to the media that his boys would grab the pennant.
The press agreed, ninety-nine members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America fingering as pennant-winners New York. (Brooklyn, with sixty-nine votes, was runner-up.) “A new era has dawned,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times on April 20. “The hustling Leo Durocher finally has assembled a team of hustlers, and hope actually is blazing in the lee of Coogan’s Bluff.”
The Giants lost 12 of their first 14 games.
The team righted itself—winning 21 of 33 to pull within 4 games of first-place Brooklyn on July third. But their loss to Chicago on July 18 was their ninth in 14 games. The team was heading south.
Facing reporters after the game, Durocher fumed. He ripped his team for its poor play, umpire Dusty Boggess for tossing second baseman Eddie Stanky, clubhouse-man Eddie Logan for not confiding that he had told Spencer that his wife, Billie, was in labor. Durocher then stamped from the clubhouse, a trail of Fabergé cologne behind.
With evening, the rains returned. They forced the DC-3 flying Corwin from Ottawa to Manhattan to land at 1:00 a.m. in Albany. They slicked Spencer’s drive to Jewish Memorial Hospital, where Billie gave birth to a baby that was dead. And at 46 East 61st Street, they rapped the windows of Durocher’s apartment where a terrier named Briney Marlin and a boxer named Slugger greeted the manager at his door. Durocher always went straight home after a loss, stepped onto the baseball diamond etched into his linoleum floor, put on silk pajamas and his RCA television. And always, as Perry Como or Milton Berle entertained, he scavenged for any edge to win the next damn game.
“As long as I’ve got one chance to beat you,” Durocher later wrote
in his autobiography, “I’m going to take it. I don’t care if it’s a zillion