It was the greatest pennant race of all time. The Giants vs. the Dodgers was probably the best rivalry in sports for a while. The 1951 NL Pennent Race was epic. On Aug. 11 the Dodgers had a 13.5 game lead on the Giants.
The Giants would then take first place and Brooklyn would end up tying New York, forcing a three game playoff. Brooklyn won the coin toss to decide home-field advantage in the series.
Controversially, manager Charlie Dressen opted to play only the first game at home, rather than the last two; he reasoned that if the Dodgers won their only home game, they would need to win only one out of two on the road.
The Giants won the first game 3-1 at Ebbets Field, with Thomson spearheading the New York offense with a two-run home run off Branca.
When the series moved to the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers won the second game 10-0 on a complete-game shutout by the rookie hurler Clem Labine. For the third game, the Giants' 23-game winner Sal Maglie would face Brooklyn's Don Newcombe in a battle of aces.
In the first inning, Jackie Robinson singled home Pee Wee Reese for the first run of the game. In the bottom of the seventh, Thomson tied the game with a sacrifice fly, scoring Monte Irvin.
In the eighth, the Dodgers touched the exhausted Maglie for three runs and headed to the bottom of the ninth with an apparently secure 4-1 lead. Newcombe, however, was showing the effects of overuse in the season's final days.
He had pitched a complete game the previous Saturday, then thrown five-and-two-thirds innings in relief the next day in the season finale. Pitching on only two days' rest and tiring badly, he attempted to take himself out of the game, only to have Robinson talk him into trying to finish the inning.
The Giants shortstop Alvin Dark singled to start the rally. As Bud Greenspan pointed out in Play It Again the Dodgers may have made a crucial strategic mistake.
First baseman Gil Hodges was playing close to the base. But with a three-run lead, the normal strategy would have been to position for a possible double play.
With a large gap in the right side of the infield, Don Mueller placed a single through that gap, past the diving Gil Hodges, and Dark ran from first to third base. Instead of a possible rally-killing double play, the Dodgers found themselves facing the potential tying run with no outs.
But with a chance to drive in a run, Irvin, who led the National League that year with 121 RBI, chased the first pitch and popped out (Greenspan argued that could have been the season-ending third out).
However, Whitey Lockman followed with a double down the left-field line, scoring Dark and advancing Mueller to third.
Mueller slid awkwardly into the bag and broke his ankle, forcing the Giants to send in Clint Hartung to pinch-run for him. Dressen, the Brooklyn manager, finally pulled the spent Newcombe and sent Ralph Branca into the game.
The move has bewildered baseball historians to this day (and, combined with the positioning of Hodges, was possibly at least the second questionable decision by Dressen that inning).
Branca had pitched and lost Game One of the tiebreaker on a Thomson home run (something Dodgers' fans were painfully aware of at the time) and had given up several home runs that year to Thomson, who had hit 31 during the season.
However, in Dressen's defense, he had few decently rested pitchers available; in the last regular-season game alone the Dodgers had sent seven men to the mound.
Branca's first pitch was a fastball down the middle for a strike. His second pitch was a fastball up and in to Thomson, intended as a setup for his planned next pitch, a breaking ball down and away.
But Thomson yanked the fastball down the left-field line and toward the invitingly close outfield fence, with a foul line a mere 279 feet from home plate (unmarked), and a roll-up door in the 17-foot wall with a 315 marker posted, some 30 or 40 feet out from the foul line.
Andy Pafko, the Dodgers' left fielder, rushed toward the fence, thinking the rapidly sinking line drive might bounce off the wall. Instead, the ball disappeared into the stands for a game-ending three-run homer, just above the 315 marker.
With one swing of Thomson's bat, the Giants had turned near-certain defeat into sudden victory and a pennant. Seeing the ball disappear over the fence, Thomson hopped crazily around the bases, then disappeared into the mob of jubilant teammates that had gathered at home plate.
The stunned Dodger players trudged off the field - all except Robinson, who watched to be sure Thomson touched every base before he, too, headed for the clubhouse.