Sixty years ago today, Bobby Thomson hit a three-run homer with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning to clinch the National League pennant, as the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in a three-game playoff for the right to face the Yankees in the World Series. Thomson’s walk-off — the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — became one of the most famous plays in baseball history, made especially memorable thanks to Russ Hodges’ call in the broadcasting booth: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!” More than 40 years later, that Game 3 between the Dodgers and Giants became a major part of American literary history when author Don DeLillo chose to set Pafko at the Wall, the prologue to his novel Underworld, at the game. The prologue recounts, as Luc Sante wrote in one review, “an event that can be retrospectively seen as marking the division between edenic and fallen worlds.” Eden, in this case, was America before the Cold War. The “fallen” world followed — life under the constant threat of nuclear war. Underworld is a sprawling account of that era, beginning with the Giants-Dodgers game in 1951 and stretching through the early 1990s. It is also one of a handful of books in the discussion whenever people try to identify the “Great American Novel.” To honor the 60th anniversary of The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, DeLillo and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, agreed to let Grantland republish an excerpt from Underworld‘s prologue, and DeLillo participated in an e-mail interview about Game 3 and the book. Click here to read the interview.
In the radio booth they’re talking about the crowd. Looks like thirty-five thousand and how do you figure it. When you think about the textured histories of the teams and the faith and passion of the fans and the way these forces are entwined citywide, and when you think about the game itself, live-or-die, the third game in a three-game playoff, and you say the names Giants and Dodgers, and you calculate the way the players hate each other openly, and you recall the kind of year this has turned out to be, the pennant race that has brought the city to a strangulated rapture, an end-shudder requiring a German loanword to put across the mingling of pleasure and dread and suspense, and when you think about the blood loyalty, this is what they’re saying in the booth — the love-of-team that runs across the boroughs and through the snuggled suburbs and out into the apple counties and the raw north, then how do you explain twenty thousand empty seats?
The engineer says, “All day it looks like rain. It affects the mood. People say the hell with it.”
The producer is hanging a blanket across the booth to separate the crew from the guys who’ve just arrived from KMOX in St. Louis. Have to double up since there’s nowhere else to put them.
He says to the engineer, “Don’t forget. There wasn’t any advance sale.”
And the engineer says, “Plus the Giants lost big yesterday and this is a serious thing because a crushing defeat puts a gloom on the neighborhoods. Believe me, I know this where I live. It’s demoralizing for people. It’s like they’re dying in the tens of thousands.”
Russ Hodges, who broadcasts the games for WMCA, he is the voice of the Giants — Russ has an overworked larynx and the makings of a major cold and he shouldn’t be lighting up a cigarette but here he goes, saying, “That’s all well and good but I’m not sure there really is a logical explanation. When you deal with crowds, nothing’s predictable.”
Russ is going jowly now but there are elements of the uncomplicated boy in his eyes and smile and in the hair that looks bowl-cut and the shapeless suit that might belong to almost anyone. Can you do games, can you do play-by-play almost every day through a deep summer and not be located in some version of the past?
He looks out at the field with its cramped corners and the overcompensating spaces of the deep alleys and dead center. The big square Longines clock that juts up from the clubhouse. Strokes of color all around, a frescoing of hats and faces and the green grandstand and tawny base paths. Russ feels lucky to be here. Day of days and he’s doing the game and it’s happening at the Polo Grounds — a name he loves, a precious echo of things and times before the century went to war. He thinks everybody who’s here ought to feel lucky because something big’s in the works, something’s building. Okay, maybe just his temperature. But he finds himself thinking of the time his father took him to see Dempsey fight Willard in Toledo and what a thing that was, what a measure of the awesome, the Fourth of July and a hundred and ten degrees and a crowd of shirtsleeved men in straw hats, many wearing handkerchiefs spread beneath their hats and down to their shoulders, making them look like play-Arabs, and the greatness of the beating big Jess took in that white hot ring, the way the sweat and blood came misting off his face every time Dempsey hit him.
When you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history.
In the second inning Thomson hits a slider on a line over third.
Lockman swings into an arc as he races toward second, looking out at left field.
Pafko moves to the wall to play the carom.
People stand in both decks in left, leaning out from the rows up front, and some of them are tossing paper over the edge, torn-up scorecards and bits of matchbook covers, there are crushed paper cups, little waxy napkins they got with their hot dogs, there are germ-bearing tissues many days old that were matted at the bottoms of deep pockets, all coming down around Pafko.
Thomson is loping along, he is striding nicely around first, leaning into his run.
Pafko throws smartly to Cox.
Thomson moves head-down toward second, coasting in, and then sees Lockman standing on the bag looking at him semi-spellbound, the trace of a query hanging on his lips.
Days of iron skies and all the mike time of the past week, the sore throat, the coughing, Russ is feverish and bedraggled — train trips and nerves and no sleep and he describes the play in his familiar homey ramble, the grits-and-tater voice that’s a little scratchy today.
Cox peers out from under his cap and snaps the ball sidearm to Robinson.
Look at Mays meanwhile strolling to the plate dragging the barrel of his bat on the ground.
Robinson takes the throw and makes a spin move toward Thomson, who is standing shyly maybe five feet from second.
People like to see the paper fall at Pafko’s feet, maybe drift across his shoulder or cling to his cap. The wall is nearly seventeen feet high so he is well out of range of the longest leaning touch and they have to be content to bathe him in their paper.
Look at Durocher on the dugout steps, manager of the Giants, hard-rock Leo, the gashouse scrapper, a face straight from the Gallic Wars, and he says into his fist, “Holy fuggin shit almighty.”
Near the Giants’ dugout four men are watching from Leo’s own choice box when Robinson slaps the tag on Thomson. They are three-quarters show biz, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, drinking buddies from way back, and they’re accompanied by a well-dressed man with a bulldog mug, one J. Edgar Hoover. What’s the nation’s number one G-man doing with these crumbums? Well, Edgar is sitting in the aisle seat and he seems to be doing just fine, smiling at the rude banter that rolls nonstop from crooner to jokesmith to saloonkeeper and back. He would rather be at the racetrack but is cheerful enough in this kind of company whatever the venue. He likes to be around movie idols and celebrity athletes, around gossip-meisters such as Walter Winchell, who is also at the game today, sitting with the Dodger brass. Fame and secrecy are the high and low ends of the same fascination, the static crackle of some libidinous thing in the world, and Edgar responds to people who have access to this energy. He wants to be their dearly devoted friend provided their hidden lives are in his private files, all the rumors collected and indexed, the shadow facts made real.
Gleason says, “I told you chumps, it’s all Dodgers today. I feel it in my Brooklyn bones.”
“What bones?” says Frank. “They’re rotted out by booze.”
Thomson’s whole body sags, it loses vigor and resistance, and Robinson calls time and walks the ball to the mound in the pigeon-toed gait that makes his path seem crooked.
“The Giants’ll have to hire that midget if they want to win, what’s-his-name, because their only hope is some freak of nature,” Gleason says. “An earthquake or a midget. And since this ain’t California, you better pray for an elf in flannels.”
Frank says, “Fun-nee.”
The subject makes Edgar nervous. He is sensitive about his height even though he is safely in the middle range. He has added weight in recent years and when he sees himself in the mirror getting dressed, thick-bodied and Buddha-headed, it is a short round man that looks back at him. And this is something the yammerheads in the press have reported to be true, as if a man can wish his phantom torment into public print. And today it’s a fact that taller-than-average agents are not likely to be assigned to headquarters. And it’s a further fact that the midget his pal Gleason is talking about, the three-foot seven-inch sportif who came to bat one time for the St. Louis Browns some six weeks ago in a stunt that was also an act, Edgar believes, of political subversion — this fellow is called Eddie Gaedel and if Gleason recalls the name he will flash-pair Eddie with Edgar and then the short-man jokes will begin to fly like the storied shit that hits the fan. Gleason got his start doing insult comedy and never really stopped — does it for free, does it for fun and leaves shattered lives behind.
Toots Shor says, “Don’t be a shlump all your life, Gleason. It’s only one-zip. The Giants didn’t come from thirteen and a half games back just to blow it on the last day. This is the miracle year. Nobody has a vocabulary for what happened this year.”
The slab face and meatcutter’s hands. You look at Toots and see a speakeasy vet, dense of body, with slicked-back hair and a set of chinky eyes that summon up a warning in a hurry. This is an ex-bouncer who throws innocent people out of his club when he is drinking.
He says, “Mays is the man.”
And Frank says, “This is Willie’s day. He’s due to bust loose. Leo told me on the phone.”
Gleason does a passable clipped Britisher saying, “You’re not actually telling me that this fellow stepping up to the wicket is going to do something extraordinary.”
Edgar, who hates the English, falls forward laughing even as Jackie takes a breathless bite of his hot dog and begins to cough and choke, sending quidbits of meat and bread in many directions, pellets and smithereens, spitball flybys.
But it is the unseeable life-forms that dismay Edgar most and he faces away from Gleason and holds his breath. He wants to hurry to a lavatory, a zinc-lined room with a bar of untouched oval soap, a torrent of hot water and a swansdown towel that has never been used by anyone else. But of course there is nothing of the kind nearby. Just more germs, an all-pervading medium of pathogens, microbes, floating colonies of spirochetes that fuse and separate and elongate and spiral and engulf, whole trainloads of matter that people cough forth, rudimentary and deadly.
The crowd, the constant noise, the breath and hum, a basso rumble building now and then, the genderness of what they share in their experience of the game, how a man will scratch his wrist or shape a line of swearwords. And the lapping of applause that dies down quickly and is never enough. They are waiting to be carried on the sound of rally chant and rhythmic handclap, the set forms and repetitions. This is the power they keep in reserve for the right time. It is the thing that will make something happen, change the structure of the game and get them leaping to their feet, flying up together in a free thunder that shakes the place crazy.
Sinatra saying, “Jack, I thought I told you to stay in the car until you’re all done eating.”
Mays takes a mellow cut but gets under the ball, sending a routine fly into the low October day. The sound of the ash bat making contact with the ball reaches Cotter Martin in the left-field stands, where he sits in a bony-shouldered hunch. He is watching Willie instead of the ball, seeing him sort of shrug-run around first and then scoop his glove off the turf and jog out to his position.
The arc lights come on, catching Cotter by surprise, causing a shift in the way he feels, in the freshness of his escapade, the airy flash of doing it and not getting caught. The day is different now, grave and threatened, rain-hurried, and he watches Mays standing in center field looking banty in all that space, completely kid-size, and he wonders how the guy can make those throws he makes, whirl and sling, with power. He likes looking at the field under lights even if he has to worry about rain and even if it’s only afternoon and the full effect is not the same as in a night game when the field and the players seem completely separate from the night around them. He has been to one night game in his life, coming down from the bluff with his oldest brother and walking into a bowl of painted light. He thought there was an unknown energy flaring down out of the light towers, some intenser working of the earth, and it isolated the players and the grass and the chalk-rolled lines from anything he’d ever seen or imagined. They had the glow of first-time things.
The way the runner skid-brakes when he makes the turn at first.
The empty seats were Cotter’s first surprise, well before the lights. On his prowl through the stands he kept seeing blank seats, too many to be explained by people buying a beer or taking a leak, and he found a spot between a couple of guys in suits and it’s all he can do to accept his good luck, the ease of an actual seat, without worrying why there’s so many.
The man to his left says, “How about some peanuts hey?”
Peanut vendor’s coming through again, a coin-catching wiz about eighteen, black and rangy. People know him from games past and innings gone and they quicken up and dig for change. They’re calling out for peanuts, hey, here, bag, and tossing coins with thumb flicks and discus arcs and the vendor’s hands seem to inhale the flying metal. He is magnet-skinned, circus-catching dimes on the wing and then sailing peanut bags into people’s chests. It’s a thrill-a-minute show but Cotter feels an obscure danger here. The guy is making him visible, shaming him in his prowler’s den. Isn’t it strange how their common color jumps the space between them? Nobody saw Cotter until the vendor appeared, black rays phasing from his hands. One popular Negro and crowd pleaser. One shifty kid trying not to be noticed.
The man says, “What do you say?”
Cotter raises a hand no.
“Care for a bag? Come on.”
Cotter leans away, the hand going to his midsection to mean he’s already eaten or peanuts give him cramps or his mother told him not to fill up on trashy food that will ruin his dinner.
The man says, “Who’s your team then?”
“What a year hey?”
“This weather, I don’t know, it’s bad to be trailing.”
The man looks at the sky. He’s about forty, close-shaved and Brylcreemed but with a casual quality, a free-and-easy manner that Cotter links to small-town life in the movies.
“Only down a run. They’ll come back. The kind of year it’s been, it can’t end with a little weather. How about a soda?”
Men passing in and out of the toilets, men zipping their flies as they turn from the trough and other men approaching the long receptacle, thinking where they want to stand and next to whom and not next to whom, and the old ballpark’s reek and mold are consolidated here, generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.
Man to his left shifts in the seat and speaks to Cotter from off his shoulder, using a crafty whisper. “What about school? Having a private holiday?” Letting a grin slide across his face.
Cotter says, “Same as you,” and gets a gunshot laugh.
“I’d a broken out of prison to see this game. Matter of fact they’re broadcasting to prisoners. They put radios in cell blocks in the city jails.”
“I was here early,” Cotter says. “I could have gone to school in the morning and then cut out. But I wanted to see everything.”
“A real fan. Music to my ears.”
“See the people showing up. The players going in the players’ entrance.”
“My name’s Bill Waterson by the way. And I’d a gladly gone AWOL from the office but I didn’t actually have to. Got my own little business. Construction firm.”
Cotter tries to think of something to say.
“We’re the people that build the houses that are fun to live in.”
Peanut vendor’s on his way up the aisle and headed over to the next section when he spots Cotter and drops a knowing smile. The kid thinks here comes trouble. This gatemouth is out to expose him in some withering way. Their glances briefly meet as the vendor moves up the stairs. In full stride and double-quick he dips his hand for a bag of peanuts and zings it nonchalant to Cotter, who makes the grab in a one-hand blur that matches the hazy outline of the toss. And it is one sweetheart of a moment, making Cotter crack the smile of the week and sending a wave of goodwill through the area.
“Guess you got one after all,” says Bill Waterson.
Cotter unrolls the pleated top of the brown bag and extends it to Bill. They sit there shelling the peanuts and rubbing off the tissuey brown skin with a rolling motion of thumb and index finger and eating the oily salty flesh and dropping the husks on the ground without ever taking their eyes off the game.
Bill says, “Next time you hear someone say they’re in seventh heaven, think of this.”
“All we need is some runs.”
He pushes the bag at Bill once more.
“They’ll score. It’s coming. Don’t worry. We’ll make you happy you skipped school.”
Look at Robinson at the edge of the outfield grass watching the hitter step in and thinking idly, Another one of Leo’s country-boy krauts.
“Now there’s a law of manly conduct,” Bill says. “And it states that since you’re sharing your peanuts with me, I’m duty-bound to buy us both some soda pop.”
“That sounds fair enough.”
“Good. It’s settled then.” Turning in his seat and flinging up an arm. “A couple of sportsmen taking their ease.”
Stanky the pug sitting in the dugout.
Mays trying to get a jingle out of his head, his bluesy face slightly puffed, some catchy tune he’s been hearing on the radio lately.
The batboy comes down the steps a little daydreamy, sliding Dark’s black bat into the rack.
The game turns inward in the middle innings. They fall into waiting, into some unshaped anxiety that stiffens the shoulder muscles and sends them to the watercooler to drink and spit.
Across the field Branca is up in the Dodger bullpen, a large man with pointy elfin ears, tight-armed and throwing easily, just getting loose.
Mays thinking helplessly, Push-pull click-click, change blades that quick.
In the stands Special Agent Rafferty is walking down the stairs to the box-seat area behind the home team dugout. He is a thickset man with a mass of reddish hair — a shock of red hair, people like to say — and he is moving with the straight-ahead look of someone who doesn’t want to be distracted. He is moving briskly but not urgently, headed toward the box occupied by the Director.
Gleason has two sudsy cups planted at his feet and there’s a hot dog he has forgotten about that’s bulging out at each end of his squeezed fist. He is talking to six people at once and they are laughing and asking questions, season box holders, old-line fans with their spindly wives. They see he is half swacked and they admire the clarity of his wit, the fine edge of insult and derision. They want to be offended and Jackie’s happy to do it, bypassing his own boozy state to do a detailed imitation of a drunk. He goes heavy-lidded and growly, making sport of one man’s ragmop toupee, ridiculing a second for the elbow patches on his tweed jacket. The women enjoy it enormously and they want more. They watch Gleason, they look at Sinatra for his reaction to Gleason, they watch the game, they listen to Jackie do running lines from his TV show, they watch the mustard slide down his thumb and feel too shy to tell him.
When Rafferty reaches Mr. Hoover’s aisle seat he does not stand over the Director and lean down to address him. He makes it a point to crouch in the aisle. His hand is set casually near his mouth so that no one else can make out what he is saying. Hoover listens for a moment. He says something to his companions. Then he and Rafferty walk up the stairs and find an isolated spot midway down a long ramp, where the special agent recites the details of his message.
It seems the Soviet Union has conducted an atomic test at a secret location somewhere inside its own borders. They have exploded a bomb in plain unpretending language. And our detection devices indicate this is clearly what it is — it is a bomb, a weapon, it is an instrument of conflict, it produces heat and blast and shock. It is not some peaceful use of atomic energy with home-heating applications. It is a red bomb that spouts a great white cloud like some thunder god of ancient Eurasia.
Edgar fixes today’s date in his mind. October 3, 1951. He registers the date. He stamps the date.
He knows this is not completely unexpected. It is their second atomic explosion. But the news is hard, it works into him, makes him think of the spies who passed the secrets, the prospect of warheads being sent to communist forces in Korea. He feels them moving ever closer, catching up, overtaking. It works into him, changes him physically as he stands there, drawing the skin tighter across his face, sealing his gaze.
Rafferty is standing on the part of the ramp that is downhill from Mr. Hoover.
Yes, Edgar fixes the date. He thinks of Pearl Harbor, just under ten years ago, he was in New York that day as well, and the news seemed to shimmer in the air, everything in photoflash, plain objects hot and charged.
The crowd noise breaks above them, a chambered voice rolling through the hollows in the underbody of the stadium.
Now this, he thinks. The sun’s own heat that swallows cities.
Don DeLillo is the author of several novels, including Libra, White Noise and Falling Man, and has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Jerusalem Prize. The prologue to Underworld also exists as a standalone novella under its original title, “Pafko at the Wall,” and his first collection of short stories, The Angel Esmeralda, will be released in November.
Previously in the Director’s Cut series:
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