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LATE SHOT

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic baseball moments in one of the most historic games. Old-time Giant fans recall it with a nostalgic titillation. Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run, hit off Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951. The so-called Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. “The Shot Heard Round the World.” A debilitating shot to the heart of old-time Dodger fans.

With it, the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of a three-game playoff for the National League pennant.

Clyde Sukeforth was the Dodgers’ bullpen coach, and it was he who reputedly “chose” to send Branca into that now historic game. He hadn’t talked much about the game afterward, but, really, he rarely talked much about anything. In the summer of 1976, however, the reticent, stereotypical New Englander allowed me to “come on ahead” from my Vermont home for a visit with him. I’d explained that I wanted to talk about that “shot"--about that game --since we were closing in on its 25th anniversary.

“I also heard a little something I wanted to run by you,” I said during our phone conversation.

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He asked, “What might that be?”

I read a line to him from my notes. “The past may be seemingly irrevocable,” I recited. “But truth itself has no deadline.”

His response was barely audible: “I guess we can have a little chat.”

*

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The morning vapors enveloping Back Cove in Waldoboro, Maine, lifted slowly and indifferently. Driving cautiously around a bend, I fancied myself moving through a haze of impressions, trying to navigate toward some historical clarity.

What soon became visible was a small house, nestled in a rocky and solitary corner. The man of the house had already been up and out--out after bird on the wing, his Brittany spaniel at his side. He was returning to the house as I arrived. He greeted me. We went into the house; his wife greeted each of us with a cup of coffee.

“Let’s chat,” he said, pointing to where he wanted me to sit.

Clyde Sukeforth had been a man for many seasons. A right-hand man in Brooklyn for baseball’s legendary Mahatma, Branch Rickey, Sukeforth became a trusted scout, coach and emissary. It was Sukeforth who made the initial personal contacts with Jackie Robinson when the sport’s color line was broken. It was Sukeforth who accompanied Rickey to Pittsburgh in later years, and who was instrumental in procuring that city’s immortal, Roberto Clemente.

And it was Sukeforth at whom Dodger Manager Charley Dressen directed the heat for sending Branca into the game. Sukeforth took the heat, and he never disputed, never disavowed what eventually became history, the proverbial fable agreed upon.

He wore his age remarkably, even into his 90s. He wore his memories comfortably, like a favorite fishing hat.

Let’s set the stage for his recollections:

On Aug. 12,1951, the Dodgers held a commanding 131/2-game lead over their hated archrivals, the Giants, who had opened the season ignominiously by losing their first 11 games.

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On that August day, however, the Giants began an astounding reversal by recording the first of 16 consecutive victories. New York Manager Leo Durocher--a former Dodger manager--and his 20-year-old rookie wonder, Willie Mays, inspired them to 39 victories in the final 47 games. The Giants climbed into a first-place tie with Brooklyn by winning their last seven regular-season games.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, played with their eyes over their shoulders, their bats under the ball and their butts scraping the ground. And they were forced into a three-game playoff with the Giants to determine the pennant winner.

The first two games were split, and the stage was set for the dramatic finale. Hundreds of thousands have claimed witness to the event, but only 32,320 paid to sit in the Polo Grounds on that overcast October afternoon.

The Dodgers scored in the first inning. Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider walked, and Robinson singled in a run.

Thomson doubled in the fifth, which had Branca stirring in the bullpen. Branca and Carl Erskine were warming up seriously by the seventh inning.

Brooklyn’s starting pitcher, Don Newcombe, had complained to his catcher, Roy Campanella, and to Robinson. He claimed he had nothing left in his arm. In this most difficult and crucial game and situation, Robinson, as he typically did, asserted himself .

“Go out there and pitch until your ... arm falls off,” he’s said to have commanded.

Newcombe responded, and through the eighth the Dodgers had built their lead to 4-1. Brooklyn did not score in the top of the ninth. The Giants, in their last turn at bat, were faced with the prospect of having their gallant August-September heroics blown from Coogan’s Bluff into the Harlem River.

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*

“Well,” Sukeforth began, “it was quite an inning. We were leading, 4-1. Alvin Dark led off the ninth for them and hit a little ball to the right side that just managed to be a single. Don Mueller, a lefty, hits to the same place and the ball goes into right field. Men on first and second.

“Funny thing, nobody’s ever found out why [Gil] Hodges was holding the runner on close at first base with Mueller up. Dark wasn’t going to steal in that situation--and even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. Mueller’s ball would have been handled if Hodges was in normal position. I’m surprised Gilly didn’t think of that without Dressen.”

As a footnote, after a thoughtful pause, Sukeforth added, “A little thing like that meant a lot.”

Was this a subtle “payback shot” from Sukeforth? Dressen, the Dodgers’ egotistical manager, was known to have told his teams, “Just stay close; I’ll think of something.” He apparently didn’t think about moving Hodges.

Former big league manager Dick Williams was a player on the Brooklyn bench that fateful day. He and other Dodgers--Robinson, Reese and Snider, most notably--had seen what they thought was a manager losing control in a big game.

“By losing control of himself ... he lost control of the team,” Williams said.

Robinson had shouted in the dugout for someone to tell Dressen to stop pacing, he was making everyone else edgy.

Sukeforth had noticed Dressen’s edginess as well.

“He started calling [the bullpen] in the eighth inning and kept right on into the ninth,” Sukeforth said. “He sounded frantic. ‘Who’s ready? Who’s ready?’ He’d always have a plan for who would relieve, when he would come in, if such-and-such happened, and so on. Not that day.

“Well now, out he comes to talk to the fella pitching [Newcombe]. He talked to him and went back to the dugout. Monte Irvin then popped up to Gilly. One out.

“But [Whitey] Lockman doubles to left; Dark scores, Mueller goes to third. He hurt himself sliding, remember, and was carried off the field. Hartung--remember that name?--Clint Hartung ran for him. So it’s 4-2, men on second and third. Bobby Thomson was up next. Branca was ready in the bullpen, so Dressen calls him in to pitch. The rest everybody remembers.”

‘Not everybody,” I said. “Anyhow, I’d like you to take your account to the very end.”

Sukeforth’s tone was bittersweet, his account succinct: “Well, it was just a 260-foot home run.”

Actually, it was measured at 320 feet. In any case, somewhere in the inviting left-field stands of the Polo Grounds, a National League ball landed. Branca had thrown it; Thomson had hit it. The world has talked about the “shot,” and baseball historians have revered the moment. The Giants won the game, 5-4, and with it, baseball’s most spectacular pennant race.

*

But the matter does not--did not--end there. After the abrupt and painful loss, Dressen was asked a number of direct and difficult questions by sportswriters. An acknowledged, if not beloved, baseball tactician, he had an understandably tough time of it.

But he never had been known as a possessor of grace under spotlight. Rather, he could claim some infamy for self-praise in high moments and buck-passing in low ones. Someone once made the claim that Dressen’s ego could fill an otherwise empty ballpark.

One writer asked, “Why did you bring Branca in to pitch?”

The buck was presented.

Dressen’s response: “Sukeforth said he was ready.”

The buck was passed, and it has been in Clyde Sukeforth’s pocket ever since.

Forty-nine years later, George Will, in the Dec. 25, 2000, issue of Newsweek (“Y2K--You Must Remember This”), closed his column by “reminding” readers: " ... Sukeforth answered the Polo Grounds bullpen phone and recommended that Ralph Branca rather than Carl Erskine pitch to Bobby Thomson. Oh, well.”

Oh, well, indeed.

*

A German proverb says, “Justice is a nose of wax.” On that summer morning back in 1976, I encouraged Clyde Sukeforth to twitch his Alsatian nose.

“Shoot,” he said, smiling again, “that answer never really bothered me. Charley did things like that sometimes. It doesn’t matter. Everybody knows the manager is responsible for decisions. But I’ll tell you something amusing.” He meant: the real story. This smile was less benign than the previous one.

“Branca started loosening up earlier in the game, never thinking he’d be pitching that day. He was hoping to be picked as the starting pitcher in the first game of the World Series, against the Yankees. So he was firing that ball after a while--showing off, you might say--probably thinking I’d tell Dressen how good he was throwing, and give him a recommendation.

“Then when the trouble starts to develop in the game; Erskine gets up. Now, everyone knew that Erskine was troubled by arm problems. Sometimes he was OK, but sometimes he could hardly throw the ball. That day he couldn’t even reach the catcher with some of his warmup pitches. Here’s Branca poppin’ and Erskine the way he was. Branca was the only one who could come in when that big guy [Newcombe] couldn’t go any further.”

He paused, and said, without expression in his face or voice, “It didn’t matter what anybody said, he was the only one.”

*

Oh well, this “final shot” is not meant to resound “round the world.” On this momentous baseball anniversary it barely qualifies as a shot. Still, justice should also be the right of the silent.

In this case, Clyde Sukeforth--a constant man, a faithful Dodger--who died in that little Maine cove last year. He was 98 years old.

*

H.A. Dorfman is the author of three books on performance enhancement and is a columnist for Pro magazine. He is also a consultant in sport psychology for the Scott Boras Corp. He lives in North Carolina.


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