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Ashway: Recalling baseball’s fabulous ’51 season
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

“The Giants is dead.”

This has long been one of my all-time favorite baseball quotes. It’s succinct, early smack, grammatically incorrect, and dead wrong. What more could you want out of a four-word declaration?

Monday marked the 70th anniversary of that famous utterance. I couldn’t let the occasion pass without a comment or several.

On July 5, 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers had just completed a three-game sweep of the New York Giants. They had swept the traditional Fourth of July doubleheader, during which manager Chuck Dressen managed to get ejected from both games. Fireworks indeed.

In the first game, Preacher Roe ran his record to 12-1 with two innings of relief. He also knocked in the winning run on a bunt single in the 11th inning, scoring Jackie Robinson. Ralph Branca won the nightcap, a complete-game 4-2 win.

The next day, the Dodgers won easily, 8-4, behind their ace, Don Newcombe, who ran his record to 12-4.

The sweep left the Giants seven games behind the Dodgers exactly halfway through their season. The Dodgers were 47-26, a blistering .644 winning percentage. So Dressen couldn’t resist sticking the needle into his wounded rival.

“The Giants is dead,” he crowed after the third game. “They won’t bother us again.”

It appeared that Dressen’s assessment was spot on, as the Dodgers built a 13-game lead by Aug. 11.

Over in the American League, the Yankees held off an early charge by a resurgent White Sox team and survived a late rush by the Indians to win the pennant by five games.

But baseball fans had plenty of other diversions 70 summers ago. That was the year that Bill Veeck, the owner of the dreadful St. Louis Browns, signed 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel. Sent to the plate as a pinch hitter, his miniscule strike zone caused Tigers pitcher Bob Cain to walk him on four pitches. Gaedel would never make another appearance and retired with a 1.000 on-base percentage.

On July 1, Bob Feller threw his third career no-hitter. But he failed to pitch a shutout, as a pair of errors, and stolen base, and a sacrifice fly enabled the Tigers to score in the fourth. Feller won, 2-1.

After July 4, Preacher Roe would go 10-2, finishing the season with a 22-3 record. That would be the highest winning percentage posted by a 20-game winner until Ron Guidry went 25-3 for the ’78 Yankees.

One year after setting an American League record low with only 19 stolen bases, the Go-Go Sox arrived. Behind Minnie Minoso [31] and Jim Busby [28] the White Sox topped the American League with 99 steals. They will lead the league in steals for the next 10 seasons.

Steals weren’t the only thing manager Paul Richards cooked up that season. On May 15, Richards moved relief pitcher Harry Dorish over to third base, and brought in lefty Billy Pierce to pitch to Ted Williams. The strategy worked; Williams popped out, and Richards then moved Dorish back to the mound.

The White Sox would win, 9-7, in 11 innings on the first career home run by future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox. Over his 19-year career, Fox would belt only 35 homers.

How bad were the Browns? They finished with baseball’s worst record [52-102]. On Sept. 14, Bob Nieman became the first player to homer in his first two major league at-bats. The Browns still lost, 9-6.

And on Sept. 24, future NBA Hall of Famer Bill Sharman got a call-up from the Dodgers. He got thrown out of the game for yelling from the bench, thus becoming the only player in history to be thrown out of a game without ever playing in one.

With so much going on, no one paid much attention when the Giants swept a doubleheader from the Phillies on Aug. 12. Or that they were still winning a week later. But by Aug. 27, they had everyone’s attention — including the Dodgers.

They had won 16 straight and cut the Dodgers’ lead down to five games. They finally caught them on Sept. 29. Still tied on the season’s final day, the Giants beat the Braves. Later, Jackie Robinson made a great defensive play, and then homered in the 14th inning to help the Dodgers beat the Phillies, 9-8.

That set up the first playoff series in National League history. Jim Hearn beat the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, 3-1, in the opener. The Dodgers waxed the Giants, 10-0, at the Polo Grounds in the second game.

And that set up the final game, with the Giants trailing in the bottom of the ninth, and the most famous home run in baseball history. Cue Russ Hodges:

“There’s a long drive, it’s gonna be, I believe … the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands. The Giants win the pennant! And they’re goin’ crazy. Whaaahaaa!”