December 3, 2023

Charlie Dressen’s Worst Day at the Office (Part II): To Walk or Not to Walk Thomson, Was That Ever the Question?

August 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

What if, surely knowing that Bobby Thomson was not a good match-up for Ralph Branca, Dodger manager Charlie Dressen decided to walk him with first base open, putting the potential pennant-winning run on base, and have Branca take on Willie Mays instead? What factors might have led Dressen to make such a decision–the emphasis on “might” since there’s no way to know–instead of the one he did? This is the second of two Insights offering possible explanations for Dressen’s decisions made (or not made) in that fateful ninth inning leading up to Thomson’s home run and “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” 

Bobby Thomson (right) and Leo Durocher

Bobby Thomson (right) and Leo Durocher

When last we left Charlie Dressen, he had just brought in Ralph Branca instead of Carl Erskine to relieve starter Don Newcombe and protect what was now a 4-2 lead (after Whitey Lockman’s double) with the dangerous Bobby Thomson coming to bat for the New York Giants in the bottom of the ninth of the third playoff game to decide the 1951 National League pennant.

The Dodgers needed just two more outs to advance to the World Series, where the Yankees were waiting. Although quite controversial, certainly in the historical retelling, his decision to bring in Branca was reasonable given the alternative, if Dressen was indeed concerned with Erskine’s inability in his recent appearances to pitch consistently within the strike zone, as I argued he had every reason to be (although we don’t know if he actually was) in my previous post

With Branca toeing the rubber, Dressen had one immediate decision to make: whether to pitch to Thomson with the tying runs in scoring position, one out and first base open, or intentionally walk the veteran slugger and the Giants’ leading home run hitter (31 at the moment) to pitch to the rookie on deck, Willie Mays. And after Mays was another rookie, Ray Noble, who had come into the game in the top half of the ninth as a defensive replacement after Giants’ manager Leo Durocher pinch hit for starting catcher Wes Westrum (probably because Westrum’s .199 average against right-handers in general and .167 against Newcombe in particular were more compelling as weaknesses than his 20 home runs on the season were as a strength).

A key factor for consideration was certainly that Bobby Thomson was on a roll with a hot hand. He already had two hits in this game, extending his hitting streak to 15 games, and Thomson had now hit safely in 22 of 23 games. (Most of these were on the road, by the way, where Thomson would not have benefited from knowing what pitches were coming, courtesy of the spy operation set up in the Giants’ clubhouse beyond center field at the Polo Grounds, where coach Herman Franks sat behind a powerful telescope stealing opposing catchers’ signs.) Thomson was batting a torrid .457 (37 hits in 81 at bats) in those 23 games, including six home runs. And let’s not forget he was 3-for-6 in the last three games Branca had pitched against the Giants, all since September 1st, including two home runs, the second of which beat Branca in game one of this pennant-race playoff.

Willie Mays, waiting on deck, by contrast was a 20-year old rookie with tremendous promise who was in a batting funk. Not only did he have just one hit in ten at bats so far in this playoff against the Dodgers. Not only did he have just three hits in his last 32 at bats (.094). Not only had he struck out in 10 of his last 32 plate appearances. Not only did he have just seven extra-base hits since September 1st, only one a home run. But Ralph Branca totally owned Willie Mays. Mays had come up to bat 19 times against Branca, and Branca had gotten him out 17 times. Finally, although perhaps unbeknownst to the Dodgers, the kid was scared to death waiting in the on-deck circle, thinking the Giants’ season might come down to him.

In his manager’s mind, parsing the situation, thinking through the possible outcomes of his various options, Dressen could have decided he would rather intentionally walk Thomson to load them up than risk Branca pitching to him–especially given the game-winning two-run home run Thomson hit just two days before–even if Mays were to drive in a run while making an out–an important caveat–which would make it two outs with Noble up next  and the Dodgers’ lead now possibly down to one run, 4-3. What are the odds, Dressen might have asked himself, that a backup catcher, and a rookie, could win this thing for the Giants? Ray Noble had only 141 at bats for the season (and in his career) with a .234 batting average, was hitting only .207 against right-handers and had never faced the right-handed Branca.

Although deliberately putting the potential winning run on base, as an intentional walk to Thomson would have done, was certainly not an optimum move–and few managers, especially in Dressen’s time, would think to do so–discretion in this case may have been the better part of valor.  After all:

Thomson was hot.
Mays was not.

And Durocher had no viable pinch hitting options to bat for Noble. He had used both Bill Rigney and Hank Thompson, his best players on the bench, to pinch hit in the eighth inning and then been forced to put Clint Hartung into the game as a pinch runner for Don Mueller, who broke his ankle sliding into third base on Lockman’s double.

Walking the lock-in veteran to pitch to the struggling rookie (and then, if necessary, another rookie after that) would have been a move worthy of a manager who prided himself on his baseball genius, on his ability to out-think the guy in the other dugout (or, in this case, the third base coach’s box, where Durocher now stood). It would have been risky, to be sure, but Dressen–whose mantra is said to have been, “Keep it close, I’ll think of something”–was a believer that taking risks, doing the unexpected, the unconventional thing, often made the difference in winning close games. Of course, if the unconventional move backfires–say, Willie Mays breaking his slump with an extra-base hit to drive in three runs to win the game and the pennant–the relentless second-guessing that is the bane of managers’ existence begins.

Charlie Dressen went with the more conventional wisdom of not putting the possible winning run on base, especially not in the bottom of the ninth–a defensible move to be sure. He allowed Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thomson. And we all know how that turned out for him. He has been relentlessly second-guessed to this day, although for bringing in Branca instead of Erskine to pitch to Thomson.

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