The best game I ever saw was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, 2½ years after the unforgettable game won by Bobby Thomson's home run. Again it was in the Polo Grounds, again Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie were the starting pitchers, and again it decided the pennant. This game, however, was played not at the end of the season but in the middle of 1954.
The Dodgers and the Giants had pulled far ahead of the pack and were playing blazing baseball as they fought for the league lead. When the Dodgers came into the Polo Grounds on Tuesday night, June 29, they had won 21 of 27 games; the Giants had won 22 of 26. The fabulous old ballpark was packed with 51,000 Giant and Dodger fans sitting elbow-to-elbow, taking turns cheering and booing. The noise from the stands suggested an amiable civil war.
Early in the game Brooklyn's Duke Snider hit a 440-foot triple to deep right center that might have been an inside-the-park home run but for an astonishing throw by Willie Mays that kept Snider at third base. Later Mays made a great running catch near the centerfield bleachers, and on another play he raced in to grab a little squib behind second. A Brooklyn fan, a black woman sitting in front of me, said, "Is there any way we can get that little man out of there?"
The Giants held a 2-0 lead through eight innings despite several hard-hit balls by the Dodgers. After Brooklyn made out in the eighth, a middle-aged man came down the aisle in our section, followed by a boy maybe 12 years old who was complaining, "Why do we have to go?" "Come on, son," the man said. "Come on."
A Giant fan sitting on my left stared incredulously as the pair disappeared down a runway. "How could he take a kid home at a time like this?" he demanded.
In the top of the ninth, with two outs and Jackie Robinson on first, Maglie was one strike away from ending the game when Roy Campanella hit one over the roof in left to tie the score. In the bottom of the inning, on a 3-and-2 count, Monte Irvin hit into an inning-ending double play. In the 10th the Dodgers filled the bases with two out; Robinson flied out. In the Brooklyn 11th, with Campanella on second, reliever Marv Grissom got two strikeouts—both on full counts—to end the threat. In the New York 11th the Giants loaded the bases with two out; Ray Katt, a substitute catcher, crushed Giant fans by swinging at the first pitch and grounding out. With the winning run on third in the Dodger 12th, Robinson hit into a double play.
Whoosh. The crowd sat back, getting its breath. In the relative silence the Giant fan on my left, remembering the boy who'd left earlier, suddenly blurted, "If that was my father, I'd cut his heart out."
With two outs in the top of the 13th, Don Hoak, one of the weaker Brooklyn hitters, lifted a looping line drive to rightfield that carried into the stands for a stunning home run. Brooklyn was ahead 3-2. The woman in front of me, the Dodger fan, turned and said sweetly to the Giant fan next to me, "Where was Willie Mays on that one?"
In the bottom of the 13th the Giants were down to their last out. Mays walked, on a 3-2 count; Irvin walked, on a 3-2 count. The bases were loaded. "My god," a Dodger fan said. "How far can they drag this thing out?"
Giant manager Leo Durocher sent in Dusty Rhodes to pinch-hit. Rhodes took a called strike and glared at the umpire. He took a second called strike and began yelling at the ump. Durocher raced from the dugout and gently pressed Rhodes away from the plate until he calmed down. For the third time in the inning Brooklyn needed one more strike to win the game. Rhodes hit a grounder past second into short centerfield. Mays, sprinting from second, beat the throw home to score the winning run.
The Giants had triumphed 4-3. The woman in front of me disappeared quickly. So did the Dodgers. They lost to the Giants the next day and again the day after that; a week later in Ebbets Field the Giants routed Brooklyn three more times to establish a solid lead that held up the rest of the way. The season wasn't over for another three months, but Brooklyn lost the pennant on the 29th of June.
TONY BERNATO/UPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOS