It's 30 years since Bobby Thomson of the Giants hit his famous game-winning home run off Ralph Branca of the Dodgers in the last of the ninth inning of a playoff game, the one that denied Brooklyn the National League pennant. Like millions of Dodger fans, I was heartsick at the time. I had been a manic rooter since early puberty and that home run hit a nerve down deep—only partly because Branca's hometown, like mine, was Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Thomson's homer opened up an old wound, a wound that was self-inflicted in the summer of 1942 when, like most passably healthy males of my age who weren't already in uniform, I was waiting to be called into the service. Understandably, I was breaking training a lot, even for a sometime sandlot athlete.
One Sunday in the middle of that summer the phone rang at 8 a.m. I had arrived home somewhere between four and five. "The Moose broke his leg last night," a voice said. "You got to help us. We start a game at 10 o'clock."
The voice was that of a friend named Fred Opper, who was player-manager of a hardball team rapidly being drafted out from under him. The Moose was a good ballplayer named McCreery who was Fred's third baseman.
September 13, 1981
"You know I can't make the throw from third to first with less than two bounces," I said. "Besides, I haven't swung a bat since May." When you're all of 19, two or three months can seem like a long time.
"You can play second base," Opper said. "I'll move over to third."
"I've never played the infield in my whole life. Couldn't you stick me out in rightfield?"
"We already have our handicap out there," Opper said. Fred wasn't being insensitive, but it appeared sometimes that our entire friendship since childhood had been founded on the insults we traded back and forth about physical skills.
"Listen, in this league your grandmother could play second base," Fred said.
"She sleeps late on Sunday," I said.
But I must have been flattered. I was wanted. Somebody needed me. I ate some breakfast, found my glove and spikes and stumbled out to the car.
The game was at Hutchinson Field, way over on the other side of Mount Vernon, but I got there in time for batting practice. As I remember it, I looked good in BP. I usually did. But after the game started the first ground ball hit to me went through my legs.
"Bad hop," I yelled over at Opper. He answered by spitting into his glove. There were two outs at the time and a man on third, but he didn't score because I held on to a pop fly to short right, after a spastic juggling act. My spikes kept catching in something that felt like seaweed.
Walking with dignity, I passed Opper on my way to the bench. "You can't lose 'em all," he said.
There was no such thing as a good hop on any ground ball hit to me all morning, and I had Opper closing his eyes whenever I got under a pop fly. I exulted when I did make the pivot to complete one inning-ending double play, but the opposition had a seven-run lead at the time and my catlike moves went unapplauded.
When I had a bat in my hands my ignominy scraped bottom. Pitching against us was a big, loose, heavy-boned young righthander who had his growth but not his control. Every time he threw his sweeping curveball, it appeared to be coming right at me and I would lie down. I had hoped that the kid would be awed by my age and evident experience, my manifest confidence and my 5'9" sinewy frame, but he wasn't. I struck out swinging, popped to short, and on my third time up fouled one off the handle into the groin area. While I was performing a slow pinwheel on the ground next to the plate, Opper voiced no sympathy.
"I should've called your grandmother," I heard him yell through cupped hands. He was right. My grandmother couldn't have hit anything more ladylike than the gentle line drive I eased into the first baseman's glove after I got back up to the plate.
In the ninth inning we loaded the bases on a double by Opper followed by two walks. Fred had gotten two of our three hits off the big righthanded kid, both of them long drives to left center. There were two outs when I came to bat. I was coldly aloof during the first two pitches, which were at least a foot on the outside. I lay down quietly on the next two, which were curveballs in my general vicinity. I stepped into the next pitch, an inside changeup, and heard the sound of the bat splintering as I caught the ball solidly on the handle.
I saw the ball rolling between third base and the pitcher's mound and heard Opper yelling, "Run it out, DiMag, run!" I dug hard and was thrown out by 15 feet.
The final score was either eight or nine to nothing, I forget which. While driving Opper home I asked him who the big young pitcher was.
"Johnny Branca's kid brother," Fred told me. I knew who Johnny Branca was. A heck of a pitcher, but small, no taller than I was. "I think this boy's name is Ralph. Big as he is, if this kid ever gets his control, we'll be hearing about him."
We did. And the fact that Thomson's heroic home run—catastrophic home run, from where I sat—came off Ralph Branca compounded my despair. It brought that healed-over memory of my futility against Branca achingly alive.
It was one thing to lose to a pitcher who turned out to be Ralph Branca; it was quite another that it was Branca who let us Dodger fans down that day. What that home run really did, I guess, was add injury to insult.