Ten-year old Robert, “Bobby B,” so-called, because there were two other Robert/Bob’s in his third grade class, was seated in the first row in Miss Fritz’ classroom. He was particularly fidgety that third day of October, 1951, so much to think about, so much to do, so soon. She was winding up whatever she was talking about as he looked up at the wall behind her where the Timex clock read 3:27PM. Why there was a clock in school classrooms he didn’t know, thought it a distraction, if he ever thought about it at all.
His two classmates, Carl and “Pinky,” the latter so-called because his hair was carrot orange but they couldn’t call him “Orangey,” or they didn’t, were seated two rows behind him and he knew they were fidgety too.
In three minutes the bell would ring, ending school for the day.
The three boys had planned exactly what they would do when the bell rang. Walk together, silently in line with their classmates, out of the classroom, slightly increasing their pace down the hall, and out through the front door. Then, removed from the school’s jurisdiction, they would run with all they had, the full block, to the intersection of Lincoln and 16th Street where they would have to wait for the crossing guard to halt incoming traffic and flag them across.
By then it would be maybe 3:35PM, and the game could be over. Bobby B thought it had a 1:30PM start time. Maybe it was two, he hoped.
Bobby B, a lefty, was carrying his first baseman’s mitt. The other two clutched their fielder’s glove. Crossing the street, the three raced another block, past the car wash, over the bridge of the rock-ladened creek, past Boopka’s barber shop, dodging a lady with two bags in her hands coming out the entrance of the tired IGA, and to their destination: the soda fountain at Wilson’s Pharmacy. To the kids at school, it was “Willie’s,” and for many, mostly the boys it was once or twice a week after school, the home of either a fizzy chocolate soda or the syrupy chocolate sundae with two scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with a maraschino cherry produced by the perky waitress, Madeline, behind the counter with her flaxen pigtails trailing her every turn of head and with her crooked smile. She always added a straw. Twenty cents. Mr. Wilson, the proprietor who, to the kids in school, looked a hundred years old, worked in the back section of the premises, filling prescriptions and counseling customers, but he was not hesitant to express his opinion with a scowled face, raised voice, if too many kids at the counter were clamoring for this or that.
It was important for the three boys that they get to Willie’s before other kids. And, they had an advantage, being third graders. The fourth through eighth grade kids—-it was the boys they worried about—didn’t get out of school until 3:45.
* * *
October 3, 1951. A Wednesday. The first time in Major League baseball history there would be a one-game playoff to decide the National League champion team. The season pennant race had ended in a deadlock between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The winner today would go uptown (the Dodgers) or cross town (the Giants) to play “The Damn (Bronx) Yankees,” as Carl’s father called them, in an all-New York City World Series. Today’s game would be on national television, on the CBS Television Network, which was lucky because their small city had but one TV station—and its programming was half CBS and half NBC. This afternoon, of course, was all CBS.
Baseball was the American pastime.
The boys’ favorite team, or at least Bobby B’s and Pinky’s favorite team, (Carl rooted for the American League Indians,) was the cellar-dwelling Pirates, whose night games could be heard on that clear channel Pittsburgh radio station. Didn’t matter anymore, the regular season behind them. This was a historic day and anyone who loved baseball would be watching, listening to today’s game. Having thought about playing hooky, the trio rejected it because where would they watch the game? Couldn’t sit here in Willie’s for a few hours while school was going on Carl argued and he was right.
If grades were given in school for baseball knowledge the three would be honor students. They diligently read The Sporting News, the weekly bible of baseball information, all year in fact. It included in-season box scores of every game the previous week as well as current batting and pitching stats. Even minor league team and player highlights. Carl’s dad subscribed. They were the third grade leaders in the popular activity of baseball cards collection. Arguably they would be the entire elementary school leaders since by the time boys reached seventh or eighth grade the card fad usually waned. Nonetheless, at least half the boys in the school were B-card collectors of some fashion. Many, like our boys here, collected vigorously because it was competitive to have the “best,” the least produced cards of any star player by its maker, The Topps Baseball Card Company. Others, usually little, short guys, collected just to show they weren’t fairies; and still others who faked baseball expertise, or tried to, because they thought it gave them an advantage with the girls when they wore a pouch containing a few dozen cards attached to their belt—a show of macho, maybe like what else could be in that pouch?
But it was only a dozen or so, including our three boys today, who throughout the season, like once a week, purchased for a nickel at the IGA store, a wrapped pack of Topps Double Bubble gum, three juicy hunks of a cavity-creating, chewy sugary substance with five baseball cards tucked within. It would take a week or so of handling, trading, and flipping before the cards would lose the sweetener smell from the wads of the bubble gum.
On one side of the card was a color picture of a Major League player in uniform. If he was a hitter, a good hitter, he’d be shown swinging a 44 inch Louisville Slugger, a mean “I’ll-kill-your-fastball look in his eyes.” If the face on the card was one of a weak hitter, a guy with a batting average under, say .225, he would be shown as a fielder, crouched, head down, eyes up at you, preparing to snatch a non-existent grounder. A pitcher, those God-blessed players who saw action only once every three or four days, would be pictured on the mound, leg stretched skyward, in windup motion, peering at the unseen catcher’s mitt, or maybe having just released the ball, in follow-through pose, leaning plate-ward. The all-star lefty, Warren Spahn’s picture showed the best windup of any pitcher in either league, the three boys agreed.
On the other side of each card was the player’s previous year statistics, as well as a career summary of everything he did offensively and defensively: number of at-bats, BA, hits, runs scored, stolen bases, RBI’s, BOB’s and K’s, and fielding chances, errors, assists, and put-outs. A pitcher’s stats would include Ks, BOB, ERA, complete games, innings pitched, W-L record. It was all there on a piece of cardboard 2.8 inches wide and 3.75 inches high.
The boys traded cards. “I’ll give you a Musial and a Kiner for a Mays.” They had a card game; the three boys, often joined by a few other collector players, flipped a card towards a wall, usually ten feet away on some kid’s front porch. The card closet to the wall won and its flipper took the other cards flipped. Cards were currency. Cards were hard facts, mucho data in your pocket nearly a century before the silicon chip. The boys had found leather pouches in which to house their card collection, and they attached it to their belt. Never know when a trade or game of flip might materialize.
Baseball, with its daily newspaper box scores, its nightly clear channel radio live game coverage, its nationally distributed baseball cards, and now a tad of television coverage was as much the American culture as the nightly railroad whistles, the outdoor drive-in movie theaters, and the Chevy fin-tailed convertibles. It had particular resonance that day because of the one-game playoff, the TV, and, in no small part, because combined, Bobby B, Carl, and Pinky owned a card or two of every starting lineup player on both the Dodgers and Giants. So many All-Stars too: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe on the visiting Dodger team. Willie Mays, Monte Irwin, Alvin Dark, Sal “The Barber” Maglie, and a third baseman named Thompson. History on deck for three third graders in Wilson’s Pharmacy, and with no TV sets in their homes, they could watch the game and look at the card of the player batting or pitching for more information than any announcer could possibly deliver.
* * *
At the door of the pharmacy Bobby B, Carl, and Pinky slowed their base-stealing pace, knowing a nonchalant, slow gait entrance would not attract attention from Mr. Wilson. To their concealed delight only two of the ten seats at the counter were occupied. Two elderly ladies were nibbling on toasted cheese sandwiches with a pickle on the plate and a glass of Coca Cola from the soda fountain.
The boys scored seats on the Naugahyde, revolving metal stools as close as possible to the TV set, which was neatly lodged on the wall behind and high above the counter.
What they saw on the black and white, thirteen inch screen, periodically populated by white dots, which were called “snow” in those early days of broadcast television, excited the boys. There was Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger shortstop, facing the camera in his white uniform with a large black number 1 on his uniform chest. He was standing on what appeared to be a chalked baseline, between home and first, Pinky said, speaking to a tall, paunchy man in a short-sleeve shirt. There were palm trees in the background. None of the boys had ever seen a palm tree, just photos in a magazine. Must be in Florida, Carl observed. A foot maybe taller than Pee Wee, which Bobby B commented was why he was called that. Pinky plucked the shortstop’s card from the batch in his pocket. Harold Peter Henry Reese, five-nine, 145, born in 1918 in some small unpronounceable named town in Kentucky.
Pieces of snow drifted past the towering man who, without holding a microphone, could have been your neighborhood plumber, or patrolman Duffy if he wasn’t wearing his policeman uniform. The audio from the TV was just loud enough for the perfectly positioned boys to hear the voice from above but not so loud to bother the two women several seats away, who, Carl noted enviously, were now “chowing down on a piece of pie with a scoop of vanilla on top.” Pinky said envy gets you nowhere. He’d heard his mother say that a hundred times.
Carl’s dreaded thought, which he could not refrain from sharing, was that this could be a post-game interview with Pee Wee, meaning sadly, horribly, they had missed any of the live action. Game over. Unknown National League Champion.
“No way,” said Pinky, “there’s no palm trees in New York City. Even I know that.”
The man with the mike, call him Announcer:
Announcer (A): Pee Wee, tell us about your activities with young boys in Brooklyn. The good work you do in the community.
PW: There are a lot of young boys who love baseball and don’t have the means to get any training. Gil and I have a clinic, actually several during the off-season here in Florida during which we give them advice on baseball, and yes, Al, on life.
A: Does that include grooming advice, Pee Wee? I think everyone knows the better you look the better your prospects in life are.
PW: You got that right, Al. I tell them to wear clean clothes, speak respectfully to all and tell them when they begin to shave be sure everyday to have a clean-shaven face. Your face is your calling card to the world.
A: And do you tell these young men to shave with the best razor in the world, the Gillette razor and its ultra-fine blades, Pee Wee?” It was a stretch to call it a question, Bobby B said. No kidding, said Carl, it’s an ad.
PW: You know I do, Al. I use the Gillette razor every day, sometimes twice. The best shave goin’. Major league shave. He used his gloveless hand to caress his face. Smooth as silk, Al.
The second half of the commercial featured a hard-sell pitch from A looking in the mirror of presumably his bathroom, shaving cream on half his chubby face; the razor looking like an extension of his hand, poised to snugly finish the job. Clean as a whistle, smooth as silk. Aren’t TV ads silly, mused Pinky to no one in particular.
The boys still didn’t know whether the game was over. No sense asking Madeline. She was the bobby-sox type, probably didn’t know the game was on. They’d know in an instant as A was wrapping up the Gillette pitch. The screen went black for a long second. Then—Oh, shit, Carl said—another ad, this one showing a couple—-young marrieds according to Pinky, like how the hell would he know—sporting satisfied grins on two well-fed faces, sitting on a living room couch watching a console TV. The jingle rang “With Zenith TV don’t bother to turn the lights off.” Pinky said that’s why he wouldn’t buy the set—ha, ha—what’s the point of not turning the lights off when watching moving pictures on a screen like in a movie theater?
Two chocolate sundaes with the cherry on top and Pinky’s chocolate soda arrived just as the screen brought into view the long lens shot of the Polo Grounds. Black and white specks in the upper decks some three hundred feet from home. Players in gray uniforms hustling to their field positions. A batter in the batter’s box taking practice cuts. Bobby B heard the melody in his head, the one played by the beer company that sponsored the Pirates on radio.
Take me out to the ballgame,
Take me out to the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks
I don’t care if I ever get back.
He knew the additional four stanzas and remembered it was Pabst Blue Ribbon, the beer that made Milwaukee famous, a point he was about to make when he heard the voice from above, “Bottom of the ninth. Dodgers lead 4-1.”
The boys slapped happy. “Game aint over, buddy,” said Carl to his two buddies. Pinky said no team ever comes back down three runs in the ninth. A half inning, three outs, said Pinky. Better than nothing, Carl said. Think if the game were at Ebbets Field, he added, we’d be out of here. Carl was one of the smartest kids in class.
The voice of the announcer from above. “Al Dark will lead off against Newcombe who has been virtually un-hittable—-three singles and a scratch double, one run for the home team.”
Carl said we gotta root for the Giants. Keep this game going.
The boys agreed on that as Alvin Dark ambled to the plate. “He’s a hitter,” Pinky said, already studying the Giants’ shortstop’s card which showed him grimacing in the batter’s box, .291 last season, twenty-two homers, thirty doubles.
The announcer says Newcombe waves off a catcher’s call. Crowd noise increasing, the boys up on their haunches.
One strike, one ball pitch. Dark makes the smooth swing, connects solidly. They watch the white dot sail though specks of snow over the second baseman’s glove, an opposite field single.
Pinky says, “Not so fast.” Carl says not a lucky soul has left the stadium.
Don Mueller follows with a first pitch single. Dark slows into second, not wanting to risk taking third, ending what could be a rally. Drum beats in the upper decks, says the announcer. Fans spewing new noise.
Monte Irvin pops up. A can of corn.
Whitey Lockman, known as a tough out, on an 0 and 2 count, lines a double to left that outfielder Andy Park momentarily bobbles. Dark steps on home. Mueller slides into third, injuring his leg and is removed for a pinch runner.
“Second and third occupied, one out, bottom of the ninth,” reminds the voice above. Carl, eyes fixed upon the screen, standing tip-toed now says, “Holy shit! What do you guys think?” He was thinking wouldn’t an extra inning game be great.
Bobby B says, “Look, the manager’s yanking Newcombe. Going to the bull pen.”
Behind them now is the sputter of late arrivals, the older boys streaming into Wilson’s for a view. Look at these lucky little shits, hogging the good seats, Bobby B thought they were thinking. What’s the score? What inning? Who’s up? Anyone on? Speak up, little shits.
Reliever Ralph Branca strolls out of the bull pen shadows. Pinky says “I don’t have Branca’s card. You guys?” Carl says he’s a reliever. Doesn’t pitch that much, not a hot card, you know. I traded him with a bunch of other non-starters after the All-Star game. That’s that.
The announcer, who the boys learned later was named Russ Hodges, had found his voice, come to life. “Two on, one out, down by two and Bobby Thompson coming to the plate. We’re still alive. The Polo Grounds has erupted. Branca’s got the call. Righty hurler versus righty hitter. People standing throwing paper, confetti of some sort from the left field bleachers spilling over outfielder Andy Pafko who looks distracted,” says the now-invigorated, Giants-rooting announcer.
“What the hell,” says Pinky, “throwing stuff on the field!”
The older boys behind them pushing, bodies on their backs, vying for the best possible view.
Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges, was a few steps off the base protecting, said Russ Hodges, against a game-tying double down the line. Couldn’t be brothers or cousins, could they, said Carl, not interested in anyone’s response. Not that anyone heard him.
“Branca stares at Campanella behind the plate. Gets the sign. No runner on first and he winds up, no stretch. Runners taking careful leads off third and second. The pitch.” The screen shows Thompson swing, but the TV transmission freezes at that instant, and no viewer knows whether he hit the ball or not. A long moment, maybe 1.5 seconds of silence and no visual movement, just Thompson’s bat on hold like it was on his baseball card, though now, here in black and white, fighting snow.
Then, it’s back, live. “There’s a long drive…I believe it’s…I believe it’s…..The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
Nothing but crowd roar, confetti streaming from every corner of the stands. The picture totally a snow blizzard. Fans hurtling over the fences onto the field. Hodges screams, “The Giants tackle Thompson at home.” Bobby B shoots a little fist at Carl. Carl, the larger of the two, returns the favor with a mini-Indian wrist burn. Pinky doesn’t even notice; he’s on the set, in the set, at the game.
Russ Hodges again. “The Giants win the pennant!” And again.
Gil Hodges drops his mitt on the bag and walks into the dead dugout.
The boys erupt, struggling out of their seats, big boys behind clamoring over and on them.
Chaos at the counter.
Mr. Wilson, at the other end of the counter wearing a confused look, unknowing Thompson has just hit a pennant winner, on his RCA TV set, in his pharmacy, four hundred miles away from the stadium in New York.
Out on the street, Pinky shouts,” I got three Bobby Thompson cards.” Carl says, “You lie,” and the boys chase each other, grabbing, hugging, happy as if they were there in the stream of happy and sad fans at the stadium. Thanks to baseball the boys knew Brooklyn and the Bronx were neighborhoods in New York City. Not that it mattered very much. Not like knowing George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River to beat the Brits out of America.
* * *
Bobby Thompson’s three-run homer became known in sports parlance as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Those millions of baseball fans who recited that assertion thought little about whether Thompson’s homer was heard around the world. Who wanted to think that hard.
Robert Bellinari knew the phrase was initially coined to describe a more important shot: the first musket fired in Concord, Massachusetts, the shot that ignited our War for Independence. But that was no reason to denigrate that moment forty years ago when he, Bobby B then, sat with two friends he had lost touch with after high school, forgetting to finish their sundaes and soda as the rain of paper and noise on the small TV screen was etched in his mind forever, the fervor and the fever of that day.
The day at Wilson’s pharmacy and soda bar, the game-winning homer, the joy and heartbreak it created in all America, had an importance to Robert Bellinari that was irrevocable. An eidetic memory. The sound of Russ Hodges repeating the concise declaration, The Giants Win the Pennant, in his mind when his mind went unconscious. Earworm forever.
Until he died last year Robert Bellinari had become a sort of “The Shot Heard ‘Around the World” baseball expert, scholar, researching everything that happened that day, not only on the field, in the stands, in New York, but reactions of fans throughout the country. He met with people who said they were at the game, got their memories down on paper. He interviewed nearly every player on both teams and many of their stories, narrated by him were published in a variety of newspapers and magazines. He was a frequent and popular radio talk show guest. He sought out several people who claimed they had the ball Thompson hit, were in the stands that day. Pocketed it and ran. “60 Minutes” did a segment with Robert on this story.
Most interesting, Robert learned from reading Don DeLillo’s acclaimed American novel, Underworld, that on that heroic day there was a group of four high-profile men who sat in an owner’s box along first base. Toots Shor, the proprietor of a legendary and eponymous saloon next door to the CBS building on 52nd Street; John Herbert "Jackie" Gleason, a Brooklyn-born brash comedian, actor, and TV star in the The Honeymooners series, who was supposed to be in his studio back in Manhattan rehearsing for the next episode; Frank Sinatra who was Toot’s best customer when he was in town and a hanger-out with Jackie who he referred to as “the missing Rat Pack rat.” All three had sudsy cups at their feet and one in hand. Incongruous as it may seen, the fourth member, a short bulldog mug of a man, was the widely-feared, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the man who Toots said “knows everything,” J. Edgar Hoover. Little known is the fact, confirmed by Bellinari forty years later via a document in the Freedom of Information Act, that during the seventh inning stretch an FBI agent arrived at the box, whispered something in Hoover’s ear and lead him to an isolated spot down a long ramp where the special agent recited the details of his message.
President Truman wanted Hoover to know that on this day, about the time the first ball had been thrown out by Acting New York City Mayor, Vincent Impellitteri, the Soviet Union had conducted an atomic bomb test at a secret location inside its border. They too now had the Bomb. The Cold War would become quite hot. This news would not become public for forty-eight hours. It was the unheard shot around the world on a day when America’s eyes were on the television screen; their hearts set on boys’ play. When Bobby Thompson slammed the three-run homer, called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” when Bobby B, Carl and Pinky grabbed the first row seats at Wilson’s Pharmacy, and when the best chocolate sundae in the world cost a dime and two nickels.