Thirteen. It’s a number too large in Dodgers history. The superstitious may think the number might yet bring the Dodgers down; those who shake off superstition the way a man flicks away an annoying fly may think it’s their lucky number now. May.
The thirteenth inning of World Series Game Three was both the Dodgers’ and the Red Sox’s comedy of errors. The Dodgers almost let the Red Sox win the game with a wild throw allowing a tiebreaking run; the Red Sox let the Dodgers re-tie the game with a wild throw.
But when Max Muncy wrestled very stout Red Sox righthander Nathan Eovaldi for a Game Three-winning home run leading off the bottom of the eighteenth early Saturday morning, his uniform number looked as though it was blasting off in neon.
And before Muncy rounded the bases and into a throng of celebrating but absolutely drained Dodgers, after Eovaldi walked off the mound and into a dejected Red Sox clubhouse, number thirteen was once the Dodgers’ tragic number. Enough so that the team refused to issue it for what seems like generations.
It was Ralph Branca’s uniform number.
It was the number plus a half of games behind the first-place Dodgers from which the 1951 Giants made their stupefying comeback to force a pennant playoff in the first place.
And it was on Branca’s back the day he threw the fastball Bobby Thomson clobbered for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, the pennant-winning homer lined into the Polo Grounds’ left field stands.
The home run that may or may not be tainted since 2001. The Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.
That’s when Joshua Prager—first for The Wall Street Journal, and in due course in the splendid if occasionally too scholarly-dry The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Ralph Branca, Bobby Thomson, and the Shot Heard‘Round the World—exposed once and for all time that, as Thomas Boswell phrased it reviewing the book, The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!
And that was the brainchild of Leo Durocher, whose posthumous Hall of Fame enshrinement was seen by some (like Bill James) as proof that being a sleazebag can keep you from accepting Cooperstown canonisation in your lifetime.
Maybe if Pete Rose can be kept out of the Hall of Fame for violating Rule 21(d) — you know, the one that prohibits betting on baseball in very plain language—Durocher could be removed for the 1951 pennant race. There’s no question but that Durocher’s signature moment as a major league manager was the 1951 Giants’ comeback. And there’s that little matter of his then-high tech sign-stealing scheme to enable the comeback in the first place.
Stealing signs on the field usually involves baserunners catching onto catchers’ hands and relaying the signs to their men at the plate. It’s slightly unethical but purely petty crime, dismissable as old-fashioned gamesmanship. Deploying a Wollensak spyglass to the clubhouse and offices behind center field in the Polo Grounds and activating a buzzer wired under the field and sounding the stolen signs off in the Giants’ bullpen? That’s grand larceny.
The Giants got the Wollensak thanks to reserve infielder Hank Schenz, who’d come to the Giants in a deal with the Pirates and who’d used the spyglass to steal signs for the Cubs from Wrigley Field’s hand-operated scoreboard for a few prior seasons. Schenz acquired the spyglass during his World War II military service. He wasn’t exactly immune when Durocher suggested a perfect new use for it.
You can discover a doctored bat, sometimes embarrassingly, as once happened to Graig Nettles when his bat broke and half a dozen miniature Super Balls poured out of it bouncing wildly. You can learn Babe Ruth wasn’t allergic to corked bats when you see one during a traveling exhibit of historic baseball lumber, as the late Dave Henderson once did. You can discover a load of cork in a broken bat the moment it expires and has to leave the game.
You can catch Mudcat Grant’s soap ball on a very warm day, when the heat softens the soap rubbed inside his jersey on a hot day and makes it too easy to see through the traveling gray. You can catch Rick Honeycutt—now the Dodgers’ pitching coach—with a thumbtack taped to his finger, and laugh in sad amusement when Honeycutt leaves the game sheepishly, absentmindedly reaches to mop some sweat off his brow en route, and cuts a gash across his forehead with the thumbtack.
You can even catch the home team’s groundskeepers sculpting the baseline into an incline to keep deftly-dropped slow bunts from rolling foul, as the early 1950s Phillies grounds crew did on behalf of Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn. Or the Giants’ grounds crew turning first base into a swamp in Candlestick Park while re-wetting the infield dirt, in bids to stop Maury Wills stealing any more bases than he’d heisted against the Giants already.
But good luck discovering something like Durocher’s technological pilferage. It’s damn near impossible to catch in the moment — and the ’51 Dodgers tried. Over two decades before Prager marshaled the once-and-for-all evidence, Dodger coach Cookie Lavagetto told Peter Golenbock (for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers), “I shouldn’t tell you this because it’s no use to stir up old bones, skeletons, but if you ever get around Leo, ask him if he ever had a message sender in center field in the Polo Grounds.”
That’s how those guys won all those games in the last six weeks. They had a wireless. Then they had word signs from the [bullpen] bench. Hell, we knew they were getting them. I talked about it with [Dodger manager] Charlie Dressen. I said, “Charlie, you notice when we come here we never fool anybody? We throw a guy a change of pace, he seems to know what’s coming?” And one day we took binoculars out on the bench to observe center field, then the umpire seen us, and he ran over and grabbed the damn binoculars. There was nothing I could do. We were just trying to observe center field. Whatever [Durocher] had out there, he had a good system.
As Boswell eventually cracked, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”
Branca bore the weight of surrendering Thomson’s pennant-winner with such fortitude, despite obviously exhausting of the subject now and then in the years to follow. No less than Vin Scully said after Branca died in 2016, “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace. I was grateful for his friendship and I grieve at his death. He was a great man.”
“I lost a ballgame, but I gained a friend,” Branca often said of the bond he forged with Thomson in the years that followed. But the Prager revelations put a small crimp into that friendship, the two men not speaking as often in the decade before Thomson’s death in 2010 as they formerly had. Even so, Branca couldn’t always bring himself to talk explicitly about the ’51 Giants’ cheating and blame Thomson.
“He still had to hit the pitch,” Branca rationalized, well enough aware that a hitter who knows what’s coming has a far better chance to hit it than a hitter who doesn’t.
Prager revealed that half the Giants said yes when Durocher asked who wanted stolen signs, and that Durocher was incredulous when discovering Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was one who didn’t. Thomson himself said he refused to take a stolen sign during the playoff. If nothing else, it’s a damn shame that exposing the plot soiled Thomson’s sweet friendship with Branca while it didn’t come in time to keep Durocher out of the Hall of Fame.
Branca blamed Durocher and his accomplices (coach Herman Franks, wielding the spyglass in the elevated Polo Grounds clubhouse/office structure; reserve Sal Yvars, who relayed the signs buzzed to the bullpen to the hitters) more pointedly for forcing the playoff in the first place. He first learned of the possibility of the plot when he was a Tiger later on and heard it from a former Giant also on the team.
We’ll never know whether those Giants could have mounted their comeback without the espionage operation. The 1951 Giants were a good team before the second half. (44-36; .550.) They shot the lights out in the second half. (54-23; .701.) They were 16-6 against the National League’s first-division teams in August-September and 17-7 against the league’s second-division clubs. Their 40-14 August-September bested the Dodgers’ 33-26 over the same span, and it included a sixteen-game Giants winning streak.
But in the World Series, the Giants won only one of the three games in the Polo Grounds after winning Game 1 and losing Game 2 in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees took Game 4 through Game 6, including a 13-1 blowout in Game 5. So crime didn’t pay, after all.
It won’t remove the stain of Leo Durocher’s espionage operation, but it may sweeten classy Ralph Branca’s memory even more. Especially after Max Muncy did in their shared uniform number what he couldn’t, and secure maybe the most important win of a Dodger season.