Guest Book Review: The Echoing Green by Joshua Prager
by Bob Timmermann
Since das411 is a frequent commenter here and a recent college graduate, I've given him the chance to write one last book report. I don't have to grade him even though he's reviewing a book from 2006. I didn't give him a firm deadline in the syllabus.
We've all heard the call. (For those who haven't heard the call, click here)
"Bobby Thomson up there swinging... He's had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line... One out, last of the ninth... Branca pitches... Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner... Bobby hitting at .292... He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center... Brooklyn leads it 4-2... Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances... Lockman without too big of a lead at second, but he'll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one... Branca throws...
There's a long drive, 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! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they're going crazy, they're going crazy! Ohhhhh-oh!!!'' "
But how did the Giants, written off by most after falling as far as 13 1/2 games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11th, get to this point? What events, background, personal histories, led to the lives of two men, the humble Thomson and the brash Branca, being locked together in history by one high fastball, to be locked together so tightly?
And who else, famous (Leo Durocher) or otherwise (Sal Yvars) helped shape what is perhaps Major League Baseball's most memorable home run?
Prager, using interviews with most of the participants, explains in The Echoing Green the elaborate system used to alert Giant batters to what pitch was enroute, fastball or curve. The book details how reserve infielder Hank Schenz (acquired in a barely-noticed deadline deal) brought to New York a telescope, how Polo Grounds electrician Arthur Chadwick ran a wire from Durocher's office in center field to the Giant bullpen and dugout, how coach Herman Franks was stationed by manager Durocher behind that telescope, reading opposing catchers' fingers and buzzing them to the bullpen and dugout, and how bullpen catcher Yvars, among others, would stand or sit in view of Giant hitters to alert them of the incoming pitch.
While the writing itself can be a little over-wordy, and Prager seems to have included every single first-hand account he has ever heard of the game and reactions to it, the final product somehow works. The first half of the book is an extremely deep and detailed series of stories, telling the personal histories of Thomson, Branca, Durocher, Schenz, Yvars, and Chadwick and explaining what events, factors, and values in their lives led them to accept the sign-stealing scheme in the summer of 1951. In doing so, Prager examines in passing the history of the Dodgers/Giants rivalry, the effects of World War II on many of the main characters, and paints a vivid picture of the lives of Thomson and Branca as each headed towards the fateful at-bat.
After the game itself, which seems oddly underdescribed after reading the rest of the book, the focus then tightens to more of a focus on the lives of Thomson and Branca, and how each was affected by the Shot Heard 'Round The World. Prager follows the two through the rest of the decade, as both of their playing careers slowly wind down, and combines accounts from the two ballplayers of their post-baseball lives with the disclosures and public awareness of the sign-stealing conspiracy. This is where Prager truly shines, as he describes how Thomson lived with the secret of the signal system for years and yet never sought to cheapen the moment in the public memory, while Branca's initial bitterness and sorrow immediately after the game gradually turned into defiance, then with time acceptance, and ultimately liberation upon learning that the Giants, perhaps including Thomson, knew what pitch was coming.
The best part of the book, in my view, is the final few chapters, as the two men whom history joined together in 1951 slowly learn to accept, then like, and eventually rely upon each other. The two men, both well aware of their place in history and of the impact they have had on other lives, in time realize that their lives both changed for the better with that fateful pitch also. Both went on to lead fulfilling lives after their playing days ended, raised families, and danced around the secret both eventually shared, that of the secret sign-stealing system. On the way, however, we learn not only about the lives of Thomson and Branca, but also of all of the others whose lives influenced, or were influenced, by the Shot Heard 'Round The World.
Oh yes, and even the footnotes are fun to read! (ed. note, they really are!) Giant fans, Dodger fans, and just plain ol' baseball fans will all definitely enjoy this book as much as I did!