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The Echoing Green


The Echoing Green

Five of the most recognizable words in sports history are the hysterical cries of announcer Russ Hodges celebrating the game-winning home run of Bobby Thomson in the Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants playoff game in 1951. "The Giants win the pennant!" hollered Hodges after Thomson stroked his winning hit off relief pitcher Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third and deciding game of the National League playoff. In more than 1,150 postseason baseball games, no team except the New York Giants has overcome a three-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth. The Thomson home run, "the shot heard round the world," is etched in the memory of any baseball fan of the '50s. At the end of the twentieth century, journalist Martin Arnold asked three questions seeking to convey the power of alternative history. The third question was "What if Bobby Thomson had struck out in 1951?"

An historical event as momentous as the Thomson home run should be chronicled in a book of equal distinction. THE ECHOING GREEN by Joshua Prager is more than a story of a baseball game and the players who participated; it is a wonderful work of history that happens to chronicle the 1951 National League pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants. It reminds readers that sports are more than games played by men and women. The athletes are individuals with personal lives, families and dreams. Their successes and failures affect many, and leave an impact that can still be recalled decades after the event.

THE ECHOING GREEN commences as a tale of intrigue involving a non-ballplayer, Abe Chadwick. An electrician, Chadwick's primary responsibility was to make certain that the lights at the Polo Grounds operated when needed. In July, the floundering Giants decided they needed some additional help and installed a telescope in center field in order to steal signs from opponents' catchers. Chadwick was assigned the task of relaying the information to the Giant bench. No one, not even his wife, learned of his assignment.

Throughout the saga of the Thomson home run, the issue of sign stealing is an important theme. While Prager gives considerable attention to the topic, he never resolves for the reader what impact it had on the playoff game. Perhaps this is as it should be; stealing signs is as old as baseball itself. The moral debate about its propriety and the lengths to which teams may go to steal signs is debated even today without any real answer. In any event, even if Thomson knew Branca's pitch would be a fastball, Thomson still had to hit the ball over the fence. The gap between knowing and doing in this case was the distance that Thomson's homer traveled as it cleared the 315-foot marker in the left field bleachers of the Polo Grounds.

Prager has given readers a rousing account of the teams, the players and the times that surrounded the 1951 baseball season. Ultimately, the story boils down to the tale of two men --- Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca --- entwined together for life as hero and goat. Both forever would be linked, like baseball Siamese twins, appearing together on "The Ed Sullivan Show," singing songs that recounted the magic baseball moment. In later years they would appear together in old-timers' games and work at autograph shows. For Thomson, the hero, it must have been an easy chore. Branca became resigned to his fate as the man who surrendered baseball's most notorious hit. Perhaps his grace in defeat may be the true story of victory in ECHOING THE GREEN.

It's difficult to write about an event when readers know the outcome, but perhaps it's even more difficult to read about the same event. In masterful fashion, THE ECHOING GREEN reminds us that sports is played by actual people, like us, with hopes, aspirations and occasionally devastating disappointments. Prager has given us more than a book about baseball --- he has captured the essence of an important era in American life.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 16, 2006

The Echoing Green
by Joshua Prager

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2006
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375421548
  • ISBN-13: 9780375421549