Great rivalries have great moments. This one, in the greatest rivalry in the National League, may have been the greatest.
The Brooklyn Dodgers had lost the NL pennant the previous year on the last day of the season.They were determined not to have it happen again.
Their crosstown rivals, the Giants, hadn't won a pennant in 14 years. But they had some good young talent in former Negro League star Monte Irvin, Dodger killer Sal Magile, and a young center fielder called up in May after beginning the season hitting .477 in Minneapolis named Willie Mays.
The Dodgers started the season looking like they were not going to lose this pennant. In July, they went 21-7, including a sweep of the Giants over the fourth of July weekend and a 10 game winning streak to end the month. Another sweep of their rivals August 8-9 put them 12.5 games ahead. The lead grew to 13 two days later.
Then the Giants caught fire. After being shut out by the Phillies on August 11, they won the next 16 games, including a sweep of the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. By the time they lost again the lead had already been cut to 5.
Between August 12 and September 30, the Giants went 35-7, an .833 tear. While the Dodgers played over .500 ball during this period, they could not hold off the Giants and the two teams ended the season with identical 96-58 records.
This necessitated only the second three game playoff in NL history. In 1946, the Dodgers had lost to the Cardinals.
The Series began at Ebbets Field with 16 game winner Jim Hearn facing 13 game winner Ralph Branca. Both pitcher pitched well, giving up 5 hits each. The difference was a two run homer in the fourth by Giant 3bman Bobby Thomson in a 3-1 win for the Manhattaners. It was their 8th straight win.
The next day, Dodger manager sent Clem Labine out to even the Series. The rookie, who later would be known as a bullpen ace, scattered 6 hits while his mates hammered Sheldon Jones and two relievers for 13 hits in a 10-0 rout. Four Dodger homers paced the attack, including Gil Hodges' 40th of the season.
That set up arguably the most famous playoff game in history.
Dodger ace Don Newcombe, who had become the first African American 20 game winner this year, got the nod to start game 3. Giant manager Leo Durocher countered with 23 game winner Magile.
The Dodgers struck first in the top half of the first inning with two walks and an RBI single by Jackie Robinson.
It remained 1-0 until the 7th when Thomson hit a sac fly to drive in Irvin with the tying run.
The Dodgers answered in the 8th with a single by Pee Wee Reese and another by Duke Snider followed by a wild pitch to plate Reese. Jackie Robinson was intentionally walked. Singles by Andy Pafko and Billy Cox added two more runs to make it 4-1.
22 game winner Larry Jansen relieved Magile in the 9th and retired the Dodgers with the Brooklynites still up by 3.
Needing only three outs for the Pennant, Newcombe went out in the ninth. But he appeared tired. Alvin Dark led off with a single. Don Mueller followed with another single. After Irvin fouled out. Whitey Lockman doubled to make it 4-2 with Thomson coming to the plate.
At this point Dressen had seen enough. He came out and got the tired Newcombe and brought in Branca to face Thomson.
We all know what happened next. After taking the first pitch for a strike, Thomson lined Branca's second offering into the left field seats for a pennant winning homer, leading Giants announcer Russ Hodges to go bananas in the booth and Giant fans to storm the field and mob their hero.
The Giants went on to face the Yankees for a then record sixth time in the World Series. The Yankees featured their own rookie sensation in Mickey Mantle, who suffered a season ending injury during the Series that would haunt him the rest of his life.
In the Series, Irvin had 11 hits and a steal of home to pace the Giants. But Yankee pitching led by Ed Lopat prevailed with the help of a grand slam by Gil McDougald in six games. This was also the last World Series for Joe Dimaggio, who announced his retirement afterwards.
But Giant fans could always look back at the dramatic pennant race where they came back from 13 games behind in August and won on one of the most dramatic homers in history 59 years ago today on October 3, 1951.
As for the Dodgers, they had lost the pennant on the final day for the second straight year. All they could do is wait til next year.