This article was written by Greg Erion
It would have been a wonder had the New York Giants not felt dismal the morning of August 11, 1951. They had just lost three straight to Brooklyn at Ebbets Field and were a distant 12½ games out of first place. Now they had to face Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts who, at 15-8, was tied with four others for the most wins in the National League. Philadelphia, the 1950 pennant winner, was in third and closing in on the Giants
Mocking the Giants and their manager, Leo Durocher, Brooklyn’s crew yelled through the thin wall separating the two clubhouses after the sweep, “Leo, Leo, you in there? Eat your heart out. Leo! Yeah, that’s your team! Nobody else wants it!” A few raucous songs and Jackie Robinson pounding a bat on the door while swearing at the dejected Giants generated helpless outrage. Having lost 12 of 15 contests to their crosstown rivals at that point in the season, there was little in the way of retort New York could offer.1
Now, on August 11, the only bright spot for New York seemed to center on their having beaten the Phillies seven straight times and the fact that Jim Hearn, 10-6 so far, was their starting pitcher.2 Hearn, the 1950 ERA leader,3 had a career 10-1 record against Philadelphia’s Roberts, on the other hand, was just 2-6 against New York. If nothing else, these factors boded well for the Giants.
The game at the Polo Grounds began before a paying crowd of 8,160. After the Phillies went down without scoring in the top of the first, the Giants leadoff batter was second baseman Davey Williams, playing in place of Eddie Stanky.4 Williams’s start was a telling story on the Giants at that point in the season.
He came up from the minors in mid-July, even though the 35-year-old Stanky was performing capably. The Giants were eight games out at the time and seemingly going nowhere. Durocher, feeling the pennant race was all but over, wanted to see how Williams might fit into his plans for the 1952 season. Now, a month later, they were deeper in the hole – a double-digit deficit to Brooklyn. Neither Williams, shortstop Al Dark, nor right fielder Don Mueller distinguished themselves against Roberts in the first, going down in order.
The game was scoreless until the top of the third, when Roberts coaxed a one-out walk off Hearn (Jim’s only walk of the game). Eddie Waitkus and Richie Ashburn singled, loading the bases. Third baseman Willie Jones flied out to Monte Irvin in left, and Roberts scored. The game remained 1-0 the next 3½ innings as the Giants could not get a runner past second.
Philadelphia’s offense was equally impotent until the top of the seventh, when catcher Andy Seminick slammed his tenth home run of the campaign, a solo shot, giving Roberts a bit of a cushion. The Giants continued having trouble with Roberts, with no semblance of a rally, and runners unable to get past first.
Hank Thompson pinch-hit for Hearn in the bottom of the eighth and popped out. Dark singled with two outs, but Mueller grounded to first, ending the threat. 5 George Spencer, the Giants’ chief reliever (he would appear in 57 games in 1951), replaced Hearn.
In the ninth Phillies second baseman Putsy Caballero greeted Spencer with a home run, Caballero’s first (and as it turned out his only) home run of the season, to make the score 3-0. Seminick followed with a single, and eventually scored on Waitkus’s second single of the game.
With New York now down 4-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Willie Mays singled with two outs. The Giants’ last hope to extend the game rested with Bobby Thomson. But Thomson popped up to Jones, ending the contest. Roberts won his 16th game, and got his league-leading 17th complete game and fifth shutout. He gave up seven hits, did not walk a batter, and struck out three, a rather low amount for one who would lead the league in strikeouts several times during his career.
The loss pushed New York 13 games behind Brooklyn, which split a doubleheader with the Boston Braves that day. The Giants were now a game and a half ahead of Philadelphia with 44 games left on the schedule. New York’s loss, its fourth straight, represented the lowest point of the season for the Giants. None of their fans leaving the Polo Grounds that day could dream what was in store the rest of the season. The next day, the New York Times story on the game began: “Knocked completely out of sight as a pennant contender by the Dodgers earlier in the week …”6
The fortunes of New York and Philadelphia as well as Hearn and Roberts went in decidedly different directions after the August 11 contest. Roberts ended up with 21 victories in 1951, the second of six seasons the future Hall of Famer reached the 20-victory plateau. However, his record after beating Hearn on the 11th, was just 5-7, reflecting Philadelphia’s late-season slump, which dropped them from challenging the Giants for second to a fifth-place finish.
Hearn, after losing to Roberts, went 7-2 down the stretch, ending with a career-high 17 victories. New York swept a doubleheader from Philadelphia the next day to begin a 16-game winning streak that pulled them within five games of Brooklyn. After losing to Pittsburgh on August 28, the Giants reeled off 21 victories in their remaining 27 scheduled games. After 154 games they were tied with Brooklyn despite the Dodgers’ having played over .500 during the same period.
A three-game playoff to determine the pennant winner began on October 1 in the Polo Grounds. Splitting the first two games, the teams went into the bottom of the ninth with the Dodgers leading 4-2. As was the case on August 11, Bobby Thomson came to bat in the last frame. This time, he did not disappoint.
This article appeared in “The Team That Time Won’t Forget: The 1951 New York Giants” (SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and C. Paul Rogers III.
1 James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend, (New York: Scribner, 2010), 123.
2 “Durocher Men Blanked, 4-0, By Roberts of the Phillies,” New York Times, April 12, 1951, 14.
3 In 1950 Hearn pitched only 134 innings in the 154-game season but was the National League leader in ERA based on a minimum of ten complete games. (He had 11.) Since then, eligibility for the ERA title requires that a pitcher have as many innings pitched as there are scheduled games.
4 Hirsch, 122-123.
5 The New York Times erroneously reported that Dark’s single gave him an 18-game hitting streak, when in fact it was only his the 12thth straight game with a hit. “Durocher Men Blanked, 4-0, By Roberts of the Phillies,” New York Times, August April 12, 1951, 131, and Retrosheet, http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1951/Idarka1010051951.htm.
6 New York Times, August 12, 1951, 1S.