The Most Dramatic Moment in Major League Baseball History

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres of Eugene, Oregon, was sports information director at Northwestern University, before moving to the same position at the University of Oregon.

As the years pass, an Oregon octogenarian grows more secure in his place as a key figure in the most dramatic moment in Major League baseball history. Forest Grove's Larry Jansen was winning pitcher in the "game of the 20th century," when the Giants came from behind in the bottom of the ninth inning to win a playoff series against the Dodgers and get into the World Series against the New York Yankees.

How long ago was that for the boy born in little Verboort, Ore.? Consider that the Giants then were in New York, playing in the Polo Grounds, while the Dodgers were crosstown in Brookyn, at home in Ebbets Field. Neither of the legendary ballparks survives as both teams chose to move to the West Coast, the Giants to San Francisco and the Dodgers to Los Angeles. Jansen was the top starting pitcher of the Giants under Manager Leo Durocher. Going into that final playoff game of 1951, he led the National League with 22 victories. In desperation, the Giants used Larry in relief in the top of the 9th inning in a "must-win" game in which they trailed, 4-1. He got the Dodgers out without giving up a run, but things looked bad as the Giants came to bat for the last time.

Approaching disaster turned into spectacular triumph when Outfielder Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run to win the game, 5-4, and give the Giants the pennant.

I was in my first year of college. As I walked the campus that afternoon, I kept a small portable radio to my ear to follow the game. When the Giants came to bat for the last time, I passed a school recreation room where I heard a buzz of excitement.

I stepped inside and found students crowded around something new: a TV set. It showed black and white images on a 12-inch screen, and was a marvel, revealing what was happening as it happened on that baseball field a thousand miles to the east. Stopping in to watch turned out to be the luckiest choice of my lifetime as a baseball fan.

Basehits by Al Dark, Don Mueller and Whitey Lockman-- the names ring out today as if they were my old friends-- had cut the lead to 4-2, and brought to the plate Thomson, the potential winning run with two runners on base. As we watched, Brooklyn replaced its starting pitcher, Don Newcomb, with Ralph Branca. He pitched, and Thomson swang the bat. Then it was nothing but bedlam as Bobby blasted the ball into the bleachers to win the game.

With that one swing of the bat, Thomson became the man-of-the-hour, the player-of-the-season, and for some, the player-of-the century. I still can see that unforgettable moment on the tiny TV screen with Thomson circling the bases as if he were in a daze. As he approached third base, his teammate, little second baseman Eddie Stanky, dashed onto the field to leap on the back of an ecstatic Durocher. He had to restrain the manager from grabbing Thomson with joy until Bobby stepped on home plate to make official this most exciting moment in the history of our national pasttime.

Decades later, Jansen shared with me his memories of that moment: "I was on the bench with the rest of my teammates, just hoping against hope," he told me after we'd listened to a recording he had of the game's end, with the voice of announcer, Russ Hodges, screaming over and over: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

Oregon's Jansen had a place in that historic game second only to Thomson. "That victory in relief was my 23d of the season," he recalled. "That was something. But since then it has become nothing but a sports footnote to Bobby's home run, the biggest hit in the game's history."

Jansen needed no footnotes for a career that saw him win 122 games and lose 89 during nine seasons in the big leagues. But he got one more. In the World Series, which the Yankees won, he was the last pitcher ever to face the great centerfielder of the Yanks, Joe DiMaggio, before the great hitter retired. "DiMag" doubled off him.

"No problem," said Jansen. "Just another footnote."

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Michael Meadows - 10/1/2006

Couldn't help but add that Jansen more than likely was sitting on the bench saying to himself "it's a fastball Bobby, hit it out." In 2001 a revelation made by an ex-Dodger, signed by the Giants midway through the season, stated he was stealing the signs and having them relayed to the hitters. Of course, stealing pitches wasn't made illegal in baseball until 1961, but I'd say it puts a bit of a damper on that historic swing.

Nathan M. Corzine - 9/26/2006

I never tire of hearing (or reading) recollections of the 'Shot' game. Not only was it one of baseball's most dramatic moments, but the author's mention of TV (even 1,000 miles west of the Polo Grounds) is particularly striking to me. That Oct 3 game was the first coast-to-coast telecast of a Major League baseball game.

Ernie Harwell was on the tube while Russ Hodges handled the radio chores for the Giants that day. Funny how the Hodges call has become iconic (thanks to a Brooklyn family with a tape recorder), some people recall the Gordon McLendon call on Liberty Radio, but Harwell -- whose broadcast was the real landmark event -- is not usually connected to the event at all.

Gary Ostrower - 9/25/2006

I was eleven years old and a Dodger fan, getting out of a sixth grade class just in time to see the ninth inning. Clem Labine's 10-0 win over the Giants the day before had lulled me into a sense of false victory. For some Americans, Pearl Harbor ended their innocence; for others, JFK's assassination. For me, it was that damn Bobby Thompson.