It’s arguably the most famous call in sports. The recording has been replayed countlessly for half a century.
On Oct. 3, 1951, Russ Hodges, the radio announcer for the New York Giants, put his stamp on history with an avalanche of verbal hysteria. His heartfelt call on “The Shot Heard Round the World” captured what the grainy black and white film couldn’t, the emotion of one of the city’s most dramatic baseball moments:
“Branca pitches and Bobby takes a strike called on the inside corner. Branca throws, there’s a long fly. 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! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits it into the lower deck of the left-field stands. The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! Waaa-hooo!”
Broadcasts weren’t routinely taped in 1951. WMCA, the Giants’ station, didn’t record Hodges’ paroxysm. The only tape that surfaced belonged to a Brooklyn resident, Lawrence Goldberg. The home-made production--the microphone of an early-model tape recorder was held against the radio speaker--yielded the hollow sound and tinny echo audible today.
In his autobiography, “My Giants,” Hodges maintains that Goldberg was a Dodger fan who, anticipating a Dodger victory, planned to gloatingly send the tape to a dispirited Hodges. If so, the scheme, of course, backfired. Instead of lamenting the loss Goldberg supposedly had anticipated, Hodges emptied his lungs, exulting as the Giants shocked the baseball world. Hodges claims that the soothing powers of time prevailed, passions receded and Goldberg sent him the recording anyway.
There was always something a little off about Hodges’ explanation, though. Why would a Dodger fan not have tuned in to Brooklyn’s broadcast on WMGM, where he could listen to the esteemed Red Barber? After all, the debate on the baseball-crazy streets of New York in the early 1950s extended beyond who was the best center fielder; Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Duke Snider. New York fans also argued over who was the best play-by-play man; the Yankees’ Mel Allen, Barber or Hodges.
Hodges’ account of the origin of the recording became legend until Goldberg himself recently shattered it. He says he became a Giant fan in 1933, when he was 8, and was rooting against the Dodgers that fateful Wednesday afternoon. Because he had to work that day, Goldberg had asked his mom to tape the end of the game for him at home.
Hodges took Giant losses hard. While the team was making its improbable run from 131/2 games behind on Aug. 11, he was a bag of nerves and superstitions. In fact, he wore the same yellow shirt each day, washing it each night.
Barber, though, was openly critical of Hodges’ famous call, labeling it “unprofessional.” On National Public Radio, Barber lambasted Hodges, calling him an “out and out rooter. He just started hollering, ‘The Giants win the pennant!’ I think he said it seven or eight times. I don’t think that’s reporting.”
Years later, a tape circulated of Barber’s account of Thomson’s home run. Not unexpectedly, Red’s description was emotionally guarded. He hardly raised his voice, treating the theatrical turn of events with laconic indifference. But his economy of emotional expression belied the frenzied crowd and the haunting and galvanizing impact it had on Dodger and Giant fans, respectively.
In his wrap-up after the game, Barber insouciantly put the baseball day into perspective. He told his listeners that American lives were being lost every day in the Korean conflict and reminded disconsolate Dodger fans that Brooklyn would have a shot at redemption next season.
On the air, Barber had an evenness of disposition, maintaining his equanimity in defiance of all outward circumstances. The closest that Barber came to baring any emotion was in 1947, when he was broadcasting Game 6 of the World Series. As Brooklyn’s Al Gionfriddo robbed Joe DiMaggio of the potential World Series-clinching hit, Barber gently intoned, “Oho, Doctor.” The words left Barber’s lips just as DiMaggio himself kicked the dirt disgustedly. It might have been the only occasion when either one was even somewhat publicly demonstrative.
In 1961, when Roger Maris hit his then-record 61st home run, Phil Rizzuto gave the radio call the visceral treatment the accomplishment deserved. On television, Red Barber, ostensibly unmoved, never raised his voice.
“That’s the one they’re looking for,” he reported matter-of-factly as the ball sailed into the right-field seats.
Play-by-play announcers rarely raised their voices or openly rooted the day that Hodges erupted. Yet his unforgettable inscription might have permitted others who followed to emote. Later in the ‘50s, Rizzuto came along and screeched, “Holy cow!” In the 1960s, Marv Albert’s “Yess!” underscored a Knick basket and in Boston, Johnny Most squealed as “Havlicek stole the ball!”
Six of the first 12 baseball announcers given the annual Ford Frick award by baseball’s Hall of Fame were in the Polo Grounds that memorable day in ’51. Besides Hodges and Barber, Ernie Harwell, still on the air after 54 major league seasons, called Thomson’s shot on television. But the audio is long gone.
Vin Scully, a sophomore broadcaster with the Dodgers in 1951, was not on the air in the ninth inning, but his head sank mournfully when Branca, his double-dating buddy, was tagged into infamy.
Harry Caray, a young play-by-play voice of the Cardinals in 1951, announced the game back to St. Louis. Because of the confined space along broadcast row, Hodges had to hang a blanket across the Giants’ booth to accommodate Caray.
The sixth Hall of Famer was Bob Prince, there as Hodges’ guest.
On its recent special, “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” HBO had a clip of Gordon McLendon’s “live” broadcast on the Liberty network. McLendon re-created many baseball games and was known to occasionally embellish scant facts sent by ticker tape.
“Branca enters the game,” he is heard to say. “He wears No. 13. Will that be lucky for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the last of the ninth inning?”
On a snippet that was not used on the HBO program, McLendon also added, “Branca is making this historic walk to the mound.”
Did McLendon have premonitions or was the tape subsequently dubbed?
David J. Halberstam writes on the broadcast medium and is the author of “Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.”