Monday, September 25, 2006

The Echoing Green by Joshua Prager

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" [written by Joshua Prager] 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.

Comments from Dave Smith, Retrosheet:

From: "David W. Smith"
Subject: New book by SABR member Josh Prager

I write this message with a strong endorsement of Josh Prager's new book, "The Echoing Green", which was published this week by Pantheon Books. The subject is ostensibly the home run that Bobby Thomson hit off Ralph Branca to win the 1951 National League pennant over the Dodgers in their playoff series.

However, this book is much, much more than just a story about a home run.

It is an incredibly thorough examination of the lives of these two men, both before and after the moment which defines them for most baseball fans. But Josh makes it clear that these players are not just cardboard cutouts frozen in a single moment. He draws the reader in and the drama builds as he painstakingly explains how their lives came to intersect on October 3, 1951.

Their personal stories are compelling and set against the backdrop of the 1940s and 1950s, we can get a special appreciation of the role that baseball played in the society at large and New York in particular during this era.

Josh has written on this topic before, with a bombshell of an article in the Wall Street Journal in January of 2001, detailing a sign-stealing scheme that the Giants implemented in July of 1951. In reconstructing that part of the story, Josh not only talked to all the surviving players and family members of some of the deceased, he also brings us in contact with the utility infielder with the telescope (Hank Schenz) and the electrician (Abraham Chadwick) who installed the the buzzer system that was used. There can be no doubt that the sign-stealing took place and that it happened just as Josh describes.

The sign-stealing is an undeniably important and exciting part of the 1951 picture, but it is truly secondary to the real story, which is the people.

And it is more than Branca and Thomson. It is their teammates, the fans, and the managers, Charlie Dressen of the Dodgers and Leo Durocher of the Giants who had a bitter and long-standing rivalry. Thanks to the exhaustive interviews Josh conducted, we have a remarkably full picture of that storied season from a wide variety of viewpoints. Thomson and Branca were generous to Josh with their time and we should all be grateful. Throughout the story Josh provides detailed and accurate statistical data, but always for the purpose of advancing the larger story.

I must close with a comment on the quality of Josh's writing. There is not much baseball writing that can be described as erudite, except perhaps the work of the late Leonard Koppett. Josh clearly belongs in that company, a compliment I do not offer lightly. It is a pleasure to read a well-constructed narrative that has genuine literary quality with sophisticated references and vocabulary. In summary, I can't improve on what SABR member Rob Neyer writes on the dust jacket: "This is a great baseball book, of course. But it's also a great book."

Dave Smith
Courtesy of SABR-L Digest - September 23, 2006

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