The Brooklyn Dodgers were driving toward another pennant in the summer of 1951, with Jackie Robinson leading the way. He had a .356 batting average and .453 on-base percentage on the morning of July 21.
Brooklyn hosted the St. Louis Cardinals that afternoon at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers had moved into first place on May 13 and hoped to avoid their fate from a year earlier when Brooklyn was two games back of the Phillies for the league lead with two games left at the end of the season. Two Dodgers wins would have forced a tiebreaker playoff, but Philly’s Whiz Kids managed to hang on, winning one of the last two games. The season’s results provided strong impetus for the Dodgers to make a comeback in 1951.
In his fifth season since breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball in 1947, Robinson was part of a potent Dodgers offense that included Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Carl Furillo. But he still found himself the target of hostility from the opposition.
Early in the season, Robinson became embroiled in a public war of words with Giants manager Leo Durocher. The friction between them stemmed from a situation in 1948 when Durocher, then the Dodgers manager, humiliated his young star for being overweight coming into spring training. While they sparred through the press, their feuding also spilled onto the playing field. In one game, Durocher instructed his Giants pitcher to knock down Dodgers batters. Robinson, in turn, intentionally bunted toward Giants pitchers so that he could bump them while racing down the basepath. The bickering between the two fiery, headstrong men continued through the end of the regular season. At one point Durocher’s wife, actress Laraine Day, got into the act, referring to Robinson and his teammates as “a bunch of sissies.” Robinson denied that he hated Durocher, who had backed Jackie’s entry into baseball. Robinson said of his feelings toward Durocher, “I just don’t like to be called big-headed and I don’t care to be knocked down.”1
Despite all the distractions, Robinson still posted outstanding numbers. He had won the batting championship in his MVP season of 1949 and now in 1951 was in a race with the Cardinals’ Stan Musial for another crown. Musial was batting .370 for the Cardinals, who were in third place, nine games behind the Dodgers.
A pregame ceremony held by the Dodgers commemorated the 75th anniversary of the National League. Dazzy Vance, a former Brooklyn pitching star, threw batting practice to several of the current Dodgers sluggers, none of whom could tag him with a hit out of the park.
Newcombe, the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1949, started for the Dodgers. He was one of the hottest pitchers in the league, having posted six straight wins for manager Chuck Dressen. His record coming into the game was 12-4. He was opposed by right-handed pitcher Gerry Staley, who also had 12 wins but nine losses.
Furillo got the scoring started for Brooklyn in the bottom of the first when he hit Staley’s third pitch for his 11th home run of the season. Robinson singled for his first hit of the game later in the inning.
In the bottom of the third, Snider doubled with two outs, and Robinson drove him in with his second single of the game. When Hodges’ pop-fly single bounced off the tip of shortstop Solly Hemus’s glove in left-center, Robinson daringly tried to score from first base. However, he was tagged out at the plate by catcher Del Rice on a throw from Wally Westlake.2 Robinson didn’t slide on the play at home and wound up falling after he crossed the plate. His skinned knee had to be bandaged by the trainer before he could resume his position at second base.
Newcombe gave up hits in his first three innings but remained in control. He appeared headed for trouble in the top of the fourth, when the Cardinals led off with two singles. However, he recovered by striking out the next three batters to end the Cardinals’ spurt.
Robinson added his third single off Staley in the sixth frame, but the score remained 2-0 through the seventh inning as both Newcombe and Staley battled hard to contain their opposition. Staley was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh and Al Brazle continued to hold the Dodgers in the bottom of the inning.
Some of Newcombe’s luck ran out in the eighth. After walking Musial, he gave up a game-tying home run to Hal Rice.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers were unsuccessful in manufacturing a run. Reese singled, but the inning was ended when he was thrown out trying to steal second with Robinson at the plate.
Robinson led off the bottom of the ninth with his fourth single, off Tom Poholsky, the third Cardinals hurler. After trying a sacrifice bunt, Hodges singled, advancing Robinson to third, and took second on an errant throw from outfielder Hal Rice. Campanella was intentionally walked to load the bases. Harry Brecheen was brought in to face .216 hitter Wayne Terwilliger, who pinch-hit for Don Thompson. With no outs and the infield pulled in for a play at the plate, Terwilliger responded with a walk-off single, scoring Robinson, to win the game, 3-2.
Newcombe recorded his seventh straight win, as he yielded 10 hits. He allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in six of the nine innings. But the 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler struck out nine to extend his National League-leading total to 93. Newcombe finished the season with 20 wins and topped the league with 164 strikeouts. Poholsky took his third loss of the year against the Dodgers.
Robinson’s perfect day at the plate gained him 8 percentage points on his batting average, after which he trailed league-leader Musial .364 to .370. Musial wound up winning his fifth title, .355, to Robinson’s third-place finish at .338.
The Dodgers’ win was their eighth straight against St Louis and the 10th of their 12 games against each other for the season. They led the second-place Giants by 7½ games. The victory was the second of what would eventually be 10 straight and part of an overall string of 19 wins in 23 games. The Dodgers had good reason to believe they would march on to win the pennant.
Yet the baseball gods turned against the Dodgers, as they faltered at the end of the season, posting a 27-24 record after August 11 (when they held the 13-game lead). Durocher and his Giants turned the tables on the Dodgers, beginning their own 16-game winning streak on August 12 and finishing the season with 39 wins and 8 losses. The regular season ended in a tie. In a best-of-three tiebreaker series, Bobby Thomson hit his historic walk-off “Shot Heard Round the World” home run in Game Three, and the Giants won their first pennant since 1937.
Despite any ill feelings Robinson still harbored for Durocher, he was one of the few Dodgers who congratulated the Giants on their victory. In his book Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher said, “I knew Jackie was bleeding inside. I knew he’d rather have been congratulating anybody in the world but me. And still Jackie had come in smiling.”3
The 1951 season was the third straight in which the NL race came down to the last few games of the season, and the Robinson-led Dodgers were involved in each of them. Robinson was spectacular during those three seasons, posting an average slash line of .336/.428/.519.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and the following:
Broeg, Bob. “Cards Lose in Ninth to Bums, 3-2,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 22, 1951: 4,1.
1 Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 235-238.
2 Roscoe McGowen, “Brooks Top Cards in Ninth, Newcombe Taking 13th, 3-2,” New York Times, July 22, 1951: 5, 1.
3 Leo Durocher and Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 16.