By Bill McGoun
The recent death of Bobby Thomson brought back memories of The Year I Discovered Baseball.
Oh, I had been aware of the national pastime, but I didn’t get really interested until the late summer of 1951, when I was housebound with what probably was a cold. I found the Game of the Day on radio (this was before Palm Beach County had television) and soon was hooked.
It was a great time to be hooked. On Aug. 11 the Brooklyn Dodgers had a 13 1/2-game lead over the New York Giants. Then the Giants made their move. The Dodgers won more games than they lost during the rest of the season, but the Giants won 50 of their last 62. On the final day of the regular season the Giants pulled even, forcing a best-of-three playoff.
The Giants won the first game, the Dodgers the second. In the final game, Brooklyn took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds. With one out, one run in and two runners on base, Ralph Branca came in to pitch for the Dodgers. He threw two pitches. Thomson hit the second one into the left-field seats, the so-called Shot Heard Round the World.
I can still remember the announcer saying, “Thomson hits a fly to left. No, wait, it might be, it might be … ” and the rest was pandemonium. Never before, or since, has a team come from so far back to win the pennant. It was a spectacular finish then, and it still is considered one of the greatest moments in the history of the game.
New York Giants players and fans converge on Bobby Thomson to reward him with a mauling after his pennant-winning, three-run home run in the ninth inning of the third playoff game with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in New York Oct. 3, 1951. Running in left, is Ed Stanky. Trying to get to Thomson is Manager Leo Durocher (hatless, third from left). In center background is Freddy Fitzsimmons, coach. ‘The Giants won, the Giants won, the Giants won,’ 5-4, to clinch the National League Pennant. (AP file photo)
That winter I went out for the junior-high basketball team. I may not have been the worst player ever to set foot on the court in the old gym at what then was Lake Worth Junior-Senior High School, but I’m sure I was in the Bottom 10.
I was relegated to the B team and only got in when we were 20 points ahead or 20 points behind. The best thing that happened to me that season was at the end when coach John Golden, who also was the high-school baseball coach, asked me if I would like to keep the scorebook for the baseball team. I would and did.
I didn’t fully appreciate what a special season that was because I had nothing with which to compare it. The Trojans rolled through a 16-game regular season with a 15-1 record. Six times the opponents were held hitless, twice each by Herb Score, Gene Kuhar and Gene Wheeles. They disposed of South Broward in a best-of-three regional series to advance to the state Class A tournament in Fort Pierce.
Score, a left-hander with a blazing fastball, was the headliner. A lot of major-league scouts would show up for his games, though it was the worst-kept secret in Lake Worth that he was going to sign with the Cleveland Indians. He had been recruited by Cy Slapnicka, the legendary scout who had found Bob Feller in Iowa 15 years earlier.
Interestingly, Score wasn’t much of a factor in the state tournament.
Though ill, he pitched the first game against Bronson, and it was one of his worst starts of the year. He gave up three runs in the first two innings before settling down for a 4-3 victory, on occasion throwing up behind the dugout between innings.
From then on it was up to the Trojans’ other left-hander, Don James. A seven-run Trojan second inning set the stage for a rout of St. Paul’s of St. Petersburg in the semifinals. Golden pulled James after four innings and let Kuhar finish up a game that ended 12-1.
James gave up two runs to Cocoa in the first inning of the finals, then pitched nine shutout innings. Lake Worth tied the game in the sixth and pushed across what would be the winning run when Joe Mason singled Jack Bailey home in the top of the tenth. It was a nail-biter all the way and I cheered myself hoarse from the Trojan dugout.
Lake Worth lost to the Class AA champions, Miami Edison, in Lakeland the next night but, like the Giants’ loss to the Yankees in the 1951 world series, it was anticlimactic. The Trojans had played the best in their class and had prevailed.
Score signed with the Indians the day after the Edison game. He would go on to set the major league record for strikeouts by a rookie in 1955 and win 20 games in 1956. Then, on May 7, 1957, a line drive from the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald hit him in the right eye.
He was out for the season and never regained his form. He retired in 1962 and became the Indians’ radio announcer. He died in 2008, a decade after an automobile accident from which he never fully recovered.
I have witnessed some thrilling sports events since that June night in 1952. I was in the Orange Bowl in 1969 when Joe Namath made good his boast that the Jets would beat the Colts in Super Bowl III, and in what now is Sun Life Stadium when the Florida Marlins won their first world championship in 1997. That also was Score’s last game as an announcer.
But nothing ever has equaled the excitement of that June night in Fort Pierce that capped The Year I Discovered Baseball.
Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of four history books, including Lake Worth High School: A History and Southeast Florida Pioneers, which tells the history of Palm Beach County, the Treasure Coast and the Lake Okeechobee region through the lives of noted individuals. He is working on a history of the Palm Beach County school system.