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The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the Worldby Joshua Prager
Synopses & Reviews
The 1951 regular season was as good as over. The Brooklyn Dodgers led the New York Giants by three runs with just three outs to go in their third and final playoff game. And not once in major league baseball's 278 preceding playoff and World Series games had a team overcome a three-run deficit in the ninth inning. But New York rallied, and at 3:58 p.m. on October 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca. The Giants won the pennant.
The Echoing Green follows the reverberations of that one moment — the Shot Heard Round the World — from the West Wing of the White House to the Sing Sing death house to the Polo Grounds clubhouse, where a home run forever turned hitter and pitcher into hero and goat.
It was also in that centerfield block of concrete that, after the home run, a Giant coach tucked away a Wollensak telescope. The spyglass would remain undiscovered until 2001, when, in the jubilee of that home run, Joshua Prager laid bare on the front page of the Wall Street Journal a Giant secret: from July 20, 1951, through the very day of that legendary game, the orange and black stole the finger signals of opposing catchers.
The Echoing Green places that revelation at the heart of a larger story, re-creating in extravagant detail the 1951 pennant race and illuminating as never before the impact of both a moment and a long-guarded secret on the lives of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca.
A wonderfully evocative portrait of the great American pastime, The Echoing Green is baseball history, social history and biography — irresistible reading from any angle.
"October 3, 1951, 3:58 p.m., Polo Grounds, New York City: 'Branca throws. There's a long drive. It's gonna be, I believe — the Giants win the pennant!' That's the way New York Giants' announcer Russ Hodges described what is arguably the greatest moment in American sports, the shot 'heard round the world,' as the Giants defeated the Dodgers to win the National League pennant. Prager, a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal, has written a brilliant narrative not only about the most famous homerun in baseball history but also about the mystery that haunts it. Americans love a conspiracy, be it the grassy-knoll variety or perhaps a more innocuous one, like the stealing of baseball signs. For that is at the crux of this book: did the Giants know what the Dodger pitchers were going to throw before they threw it? (It should be pointed out that there is no baseball rule prohibiting stealing the opposing team's signs.) Prager, who first broke this story for the Wall Street Journal in 2001, tells a tale worthy of a 'Deep Throat.' The sign heist was ingeniously simple — all that was involved was a telescope, a buzzer and an isolated bullpen catcher. The baseball story is exciting, but Prager concentrates on what happened to the protagonists: Ralph Branca, the pitcher, forever branded a loser; Bobby Thomson, the phlegmatic gentleman, equally haunted by his heroics. We see the change in Branca when he learns the truth years later from Sal Yvars and the bitterness it engendered toward Thomson, a God-fearing man uncomfortable with his legal cheating. Finally we see a reconciliation between old adversaries, who became business partners, lucratively exploiting their infamy, becoming friends along the way. Although Prager does have a tendency to overpsychoanalyze both ballplayers, he paints a marvelous portrait of New York City baseball in the tradition of The Boys of Summer and Summer of '49, bringing to life once again a genuine piece of Americana." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"All baseball fans have at least one perfect memory of a game seared into their brains. The mere mention of a player's name can bring the event back to full life. The names Kirk Gibson, Mookie Wilson, Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson all evoke those moments that fans replay in their minds with undimmed joy, season after season. Probably no name has more evocative power than Bobby Thomson's,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and no play more resonance than his home run in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants. Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who surrendered the hit, is forever cast as luckless goat to Thomson's shining hero. In 'The Echoing Green,' Joshua Prager tells the story of their lives and of the home run that earned both a measure of baseball immortality. The two ballplayers are framed in contrasts. Thomson is a shy, humble, superstitious man, told by his father to keep his head down and not seek glory. Branca is brash, outgoing, cheekily wears uniform number 13, and is convinced from childhood that his athletic gifts make him special. Hours after Thomson launched the homer that would forever be known as the Shot Heard Round the World, he was lionized on a TV talk show while Branca received the first of hundreds of telegrams urging him to 'drop dead.' Both men labored on in the big leagues for years, trying to outlive the home run — Branca because he felt defined by his failure, Thomson because he knew he could never achieve a feat so marvelous again. After baseball, Thomson sold paper bags and Branca sold insurance. The two are friendly now, making a good living appearing together and signing sports memorabilia. But Thomson and Branca had resented each other for years because of a secret they both knew: The Giants had been using a concealed telescope to steal catchers' signs during their unlikely 1951 resurgence from 13 1/2 games back to a first-place tie in only 48 days. What's more, the Giants were stealing signs during the playoff game, and Thomson probably knew Branca was throwing him a fastball. (Prager's Wall Street Journal article that established the truth of this long-standing rumor was the genesis of 'The Echoing Green.') The book's early chapters plumb the lives of the players and technicians central to the scheme. Electrician Abraham Chadwick ran the lights at the Polo Grounds. When asked to help the Giants cheat, Chadwick, a lifelong Dodgers fan, followed orders. He rigged a buzzer system to relay the upcoming pitch — fastball or curve — from the center field spy to the coaches in the Giants dugout. Stricken with stomach cancer, he watched the fateful playoff game on TV, knowing that his ingenuity had helped the Giants beat his beloved Dodgers. The story of how Thomson and Branca came to oppose each other on Oct. 3, 1951, and how each dealt with the aftermath gives 'The Echoing Green' shape. But the brisk, detailed account of the playoff game and the home run that ended it gives the book pop. Prager contends that Thomson's home run resounds in the American consciousness more persistently than the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR's death or Kennedy's assassination. To those who would argue that a home run, even the most famous home run ever hit, doesn't signify in the way that grand historical events do, Prager has the perfect rebuttal: With novelistic detail and cinematic sweep, he situates Thomson's home run amid the daily lives of ordinary fans and against the backdrop of the Korean War and Soviet atomic tests. Prager tends toward a showy style that crowds the reader. His inverted syntax puts verb before subject, as in 'Thus spent Yvars his afternoons.' He has a fondness for words found only in a thesaurus (e.g., 'avoirdupois') and stages flashy, alliterative pileups ('A larrup to left long landed lingered'). Small beer, perhaps, but these quirks of style and pace are distracting. Thankfully, when he recounts the day of the home run and its immediate aftermath, the prose cracks along. At 3:58, the moment Thomson's drive entered the left-field stands, Prager stops time, and the narrative whips around the country to show us that Thomson's mother has just collapsed, George Carlin has accidentally tossed his cat toward an open window, a boy in New Jersey has hurled his peanut butter toast at the TV, and a Brooklyn Girl Scout troop has collectively burst into tears. In thrilling passages like these, Prager captures the enduring impact of the memorable moments that mark our lives." Reviewed by Elliott Vanskike, a writer living in Silver Spring, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The Echoing Green is an intriguing, groundbreaking and always riveting story of one of the greatest games ever played and its aftermath. A terrific read." Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley
"Down-slope from Coogan’s Bluff, the hollowed, hallowed ground on which Thomson bested Branca, the intrepid and indefatigable reporter Joshua Prager has revealed the dark side of the miracle." Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was a Spy
Joshua Prager is a senior special writer at The Wall Street Journal. He lives in New York City.
"A masterful blend of journalism, sports history, social history and even literature: one of the best baseball books to appear in a long time." Kirkus Reviews
Prager presents the full, fascinating story of one of the most famous moments in baseball history: Bobby Thomson's home run which won the pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
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