The year 1950 hadn’t been great for the New York Giants. They’d done their best, but ended up in third place out of eight teams in the National League tournament, behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in second place and the Philadelphia Phillies in first place. Their win-loss record was 86-68. Not bad for an average team, but the Giants wanted to win. They wanted to move on to the World Series, the most hallowed set of games in baseball. They were determined to win no matter what it took. 1951 was going to be their year, they’d win the National League pennant, and then they’d move on to play in the World Series, something every little boy with a bat has ever dreamed of doing. On this team of underdogs was Clint Hartung, the “Hondo Hurricane.”1
There are many boys who hope to earn a place in the baseball hall of fame, and Clint was no exception. Clinton Clarence Hartung Sr. was born in Hondo, Texas in 1922. His parents, Robert and Thekla, were both of German descent and did their best to raise their family in the small Texas town. He grew up with an older brother, Harold “Jack,” and may have had an older sister, Emma, who died the same year his parents were married, 1917. Both Jack and Clint worked in high school and loved to play baseball together. He led his high school baseball team, the Hondo Owls, to the state championship and caught the eye of many baseball scouts who admired his pitching technique and his ability to play multiple positions. His throws were so forceful that his catchers had to wear extra padding in their gloves so they wouldn’t hurt themselves catching for him. “The Giants signed Hartung in 1941…After a solid season in Class C in 1942, his first year in Organized Baseball, Hartung was promoted to Double-A (today’s Triple-A) Minneapolis for 1943. He was on track to make the majors by 1944, but in 1943 he was drafted and assigned to the Army Air Corps.”2 In pictures from around this time, Clint can be seen wearing Army surplus pants, as there were no baseball uniform pants that would fit him due to his extreme height. He married his first wife, Mary Hutchins, in 1946 and seemed to be on his way to greatness.
Clint, also known as “Floppy,” due to his large ears, was born to play ball. Standing at six and a half feet tall, he excelled as both pitcher and outfielder. He preferred to play in the outfield only because it meant that he’d be able to play in more games and was known for his lanky frame and strange pitching form. He was recruited in 1947 by the Giants fresh out of the Army, where he had won twenty-five consecutive games as an enlisted player. He was stationed in Hawaii and enjoyed his time in the tropical climate. It was said that Clint was a quiet, easy going guy who got along well with his teammates and didn’t cause much trouble. His favorite pastimes were talking about hunting and fishing with his roommate, Don Mueller, and eating good food, such as prime steak.3
Clint was supposed to be the next Babe Ruth, hitting a homerun at his first at bat during spring training. In fact, the Giants had paid the Minneapolis Millers $35,000 and traded away four players just to get Clint Hartung on their team. This was made even more astounding because of the fact that they hadn’t even seen him play yet. Even today this would be an oddity in the baseball world. Clint was set up to become the most renowned baseball player in history and the newspapers wondered if he should just skip spring training and head straight to Cooperstown, the baseball hall of fame. The New York Daily News columnist Bill Gallo said, “In all my time in sports, I had never seen a ballplayer so heralded before he had played game one in the major leagues. Not DiMaggio… not Mantle… not Williams nor A-Rod or any of them. … (T)his guy, at first look, was Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ruth and Bob Feller all rolled up into one.”4 But, over time, his talent seemed to cool and falter. Despite this, he was determined to pick up the pace, to help his team get to the World Series and beyond.
By late 1950, Clint was on his second marriage to a woman named Ginny Cross, and he was getting over the loss of his second son, James, who died after living for only four days in the Hondo hospital. With his family still in his hometown, he played his heart out on his own in the big city and worked hard to support his wife and his eldest son, Clinton Jr. During the 1950 season, he’d done his best to contribute to the third place the Giants achieved in the National League. Clint hit .302 at 43 at-bats, his slugging average was .605 and he hit 3 homeruns, and when he wasn’t hitting, he was used as backup for first base and for both left and right field. It ended up being impossible for him to usurp the starting lineup of Don Mueller, Bobby Thomson, or Whitey Lockman but nevertheless he did what he could to help bring victory to his team. They all knew that third place wasn’t where they belonged. 1951 would be a whole new season, and this time, they’d make history. For Clint, this would be his last grasp at a stronghold in professional baseball.5
1951 marked the sixty-ninth season for the National League and the first season that the Giants trained at the New York Yankees’ spring training site in St. Petersburg, Florida. The team worked harder than ever, acquiring two more team members and trading another away. Despite laborious practices and scrimmages the season started out slow for the Giants. However, after using a telescope to steal signs from the other teams, the Giants began a comeback that would become one of the most famous in MLB history. Sign stealing isn’t technically illegal, but many have moral issues regarding its use. It is important to note though, that sign stealing has been a part of baseball since it began, and the Giants were certainly not the only ones to steal signs to get an advantage.6
The 1951 season started off slow for the Giants, but over the course of the summer it became apparent that they were a force to be reckoned with. In their final-62 games, the boys went 50-12 and achieved one of the biggest comebacks in the history of the Major League. Despite only playing in 21 games that season, Clint acted as a pinch runner and pinch hitter, doing his best to ensure that the Giants would make it to the World Series in October. During this season, his batting average was .201 and he earned a double. Clint had been moved from the pitching position and into the outfield for the 1951 season. He was one of only eleven people who hit a homerun as both a pitcher and position player. The last person before him was Babe Ruth, the person after him was Rick Ankiel, who matched his record in the 2000s.7
The end of the regular season resulted in a tie between the New York Giants and their biggest rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Giants were 13 games behind the Dodgers but they managed to come back and force a stalemate. Their records were identical: 96-58. The only solution was a special three game tie-breaker that would prove who was the best in the National League. The games were scheduled for October 1, 2, and 3, 1951. The World Series was to start on October 4, so this tie-breaker was for all the marbles and Clint and his teammates wanted to win desperately. They’d been underdogs this whole time. This was their chance to take it all the way and inscribe their names in the halls of baseball history forever.8
The first game took place at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn at 1:30 pm, with over 30,000 people in attendance. Baseball giants on both teams took to the field. Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin: these baseball legends each had a major role in a series of games that would decide the fate of the teams. Ralph Branca, pitcher for the Dodgers, retired the first three batters he came up against. The bottom of the first inning resulted in no runs for either team. During the second inning Carl Furillo scored the only point the Dodgers would earn that game, with a home run to left field. Inning three resulted in no runs. In the fourth inning, Monte Irvin was struck by a pitch and claimed a base. Bobby Thomson stepped up to bat and hit a home run, putting the Giants up 2-1. The next three innings resulted in no tally marks being added to either side. It was in the eighth inning that the Giants scored again. Irvin hit the third home run of the game to up the score to 3-1. Two more Giants struck out, but no Dodgers managed a hit during the bottom of the eighth. The Giants didn’t score again but managed to win a complete game once they allowed five at-bats.9
Game two took place at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan at 1:30 pm with over 38,000 people in attendance. Wanting to save their best pitcher for game three, or better yet, the World Series, the Giants started Sheldon Jones on the mound, despite his win-loss ratio of 6-10. The Dodgers used Clem Labine, a rookie, as they had no one else ready to play. The New York Yankees were in attendance, eager to see the match-up. Jackie Robinson homered in the first inning, earning two runs and solidifying the lead for the Dodgers. There were no runs earned in the next three innings, but Jackie Robinson brought in the third run with a single. The Dodgers scored two runs in the sixth but the game was forced to delay due to rain; it continued later that evening. When the game resumed, the Dodgers got two more runs and the Giants still had none. The eighth inning stopped the gap from becoming wider for only a little while, as the ninth inning saw two more runs and a final score of 10-0 in favor of the Dodgers.10
Determined to recover from the embarrassing second game, the Giants readied themselves for the fight of a lifetime on the ball field. The third game was also held at the Polo Grounds and began at 1:30pm on Wednesday, October 3, 1951. Attendance had dropped from the second game but over 34,000 roaring fans filled the stadium, yearning for an ending to the tie-breaker of the century. The game began as a battle between the two teams’ best pitchers, Sal Magile for the Giants and Don Newcombe from the Dodgers. In the first inning Jackie Robinson earned the Dodgers a run, but due to a base running error by Bobby Thomson, the Giants didn’t score. He attempted to turn a single into a double, not realizing that teammate Whitely Lockman had not advanced to third base. With both base runners stuck at second, an easy out was made.11
There were no runs in the second inning and the game became a pitcher’s duel, neither allowing any hits for the third and fourth innings. The score remained the same for the fifth and sixth innings, despite a few singles and doubles. The Giants earned a run in the seventh inning thanks to a sacrifice fly by Thomson, making the score 1-1. With the scored tied, the game became even more heated and the Dodgers scored three runs off of Magile in the top of the eighth.12
In the bottom of the ninth, Giants Manager Leo Durocher was coaching at third base. All night long he had been talking trash to Don Newcombe, the Dodgers’ pitcher. He was hoping to inspire Newcombe to start a fight with him, even if Durocher himself got thrown out, at least their rival’s star pitcher would be out too. “The Giants, down 4-1, started a rally off an exhausted Don Newcombe. Alvin Dark and Don Mueller singled. After Monte Irvin popped up, Whitey Lockman doubled down the left-field line, scoring Dark and sending Mueller sliding into third. Mueller slid awkwardly and broke his ankle.”13 So Durocher pulled the biggest member of his baseball club (and Mueller’s roommate) to be his pinch runner, Clint Hartung, just in case he managed to tick Newcombe off enough to provoke a fight. Newcombe did, in fact, advance on Durocher a bit but turned away after Hartung said “just keep coming.”14
Bobby Thomson was up to bat. Ralph Branca had relieved an exhausted and irritated Newcombe in an attempt to end the game and earn a World Series visit for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In an earlier game, Thomson had hit a homerun off Branca and manager Durocher was sure that he would specifically avoid throwing him a similar pitch. Instead, he’d do a fastball right down the middle. Thomson looked at the first pitch, strike one. Then the second fastball came down the pipe and Thomson swung, connecting to hit a walk-off home run that would go straight into the lower deck at the Polo Grounds, something that was not an easy feat to accomplish. The line drive home run would come to be known as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” The crowd erupted, the announcers screaming themselves in excitement to be heard over the roar of the crowd. The Giants had won the pennant.15
The pure happiness that exudes from the gaggle of players swarming home plate is still palpable to this day. A film clip shows Clint sprinting home and swinging his arms in windmills, a grown man celebrating with the zeal of a child. No one knew that this would be the last moment in the sun for Clint. At that moment, nothing could bring the team down. As Thomson crossed home plate and launched himself into the arms of his grateful comrades, all that mattered to Clint and everyone on the field that day, was the love of the game.
The “Shot Heard Round the World” has had an enormous impact on baseball and on those who enjoyed it. A piece from NPR describes the devastation Dodgers’ fans felt after their loss to the Giants. “Julius Rosenberg was listening to the game in the death house at Sing Sing. And after the Giants won the game, he wrote a note to his wife Ethel at Sing Sing. He wrote ‘gloom of glooms, the dear Dodgers lost the pennant.’ Steinbeck described it as the greatest ballgame ever played. Willie Sutton, the bank robber, wrote about how he, after the home run, said he was so depressed that he thought of turning himself in. He was around the corner from the police headquarters on Bergen Street in Brooklyn.”16 Never before in history had such a craze raced through the entirety of the baseball world. New York City lost it’s mind and America followed suit. It’s one of the best comeback stories of the century, so much so that it even overshadowed the actual World Series for 1951.
For some sports writers, it was impossible to chronicle the pure joy that resounded throughout the Polo Grounds that autumn afternoon. Thousands roared in ecstasy and anguish, tears were shed and dried among those who witnessed history in the making. Nothing could compare to the sheer artistry and drama the tie-breaker series had provided. The country was still recovering from World War II and the “Shot Heard Round the World” acted as an outlet for the emotions of Americans everywhere. I believe the words of Red Smith, sportswriter for the New York Herald Tribune said it best, “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”17