On a gray and rainy Friday, May 9, teacher Gary Mintz hosted an SRO crowd of several hundred students, teachers, and other supporting players including Wall Street Journal senior special writer Joshua Prager and Daily News columnist Vic Ziegel, at a mock trial staged by the Future Lawyers Club of The Seneca School, also known as P.S. 88, in the Ridgewood section of Queens.
Gary is the founder and driving force behind the New York Giants Preservation Society, of which I am a charter member. We are a loosely organized but dedicated group that meets informally several times a year, our members bound to one other by a fierce and forlorn love of the long-departed baseball Giants. At one such gathering, Gary told me about a trial he was staging with the help of his students and colleagues at P.S. 88 in which the Brooklyn Dodgers were petitioning the court to have the New York Giants' 1951 National League pennant rescinded and their championship season repudiated as a result of the disclosure, fifty years after the fact, of a cheating scandal involving sign-stealing from opposing teams at the Polo Grounds, aided and abetted by the use of a telescope and buzzer system. The trial was Gary's concept born of the investigative skills of Josh Prager, who learned of the sign-stealing scheme eight years ago and wrote about it in a groundbreaking article for the Journal, then turned it into a full-fledged blockbuster non-fiction baseball classic, The Echoing Green, whose paperback edition has just been published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House. I was immediately intrigued and asked Gary if I could monitor the trial for this blog. To my surprise and delight, he invited me not only to attend but to serve as one of three judges who would issue a decision concerning this weighty matter after hearing evidence and testimony delivered by respondents from both camps. 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers v. New York Giants: for a baseball aficionada such as I, it was certain to be a hearing made in heaven! It would also be a chance for the formerly voiceless to be given back their voices, for those whose hearts and souls were forever lifted or crushed by the late-season reversal of both teams' fortunes to finally have their say. This was an offer I could not refuse.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am as passionate a devotee of the defunct New York Baseball Giants as there is on this planet. My hero is Christy Mathewson, a Giant for most of his career and the greatest pitcher ever to hurl a baseball, in my estimation. At 373 lifetime wins, "Matty" still shares the National League record for career victories with Grover Cleveland Alexander almost a hundred years after he established it. He pitched three shutouts in the 1905 World Series, and won thirty or more games four times in his career. In 1908 he won thirty-seven games - if not for the infamous Merkle game, it would have been thirty-eight - while sporting an unreal ERA of 1.43, a mind-boggling convergence of statistics showcasing his durability and savvy on the mound. In short, I may be a bit biased in favor of the Giants, but Gary's invitation propelled me into total impartiality mode, the one I employ in my alter ego of umpire during spring training games for the New York Mets and for which the accuracy and fairness of my calls are all that matters, not the fact that I happen to love them and want them to win. I suppose I could have recused myself from sitting in judgment over the other team I adore, but I wasn't about to let a matter of the heart preclude me from participating in something so extraordinary. I promised Gary (and myself) that I would set aside my feelings and make my decision based on the evidence, not my emotions.
The trial began with masterful opening statements delivered with appropriate verve and conviction by Hailey Faltin, Natalie Murawski, and Kamila Pawelec, followed by stirring, credible testimony offered by starring and supporting players from both sides. They're all right there in Prager's Echoing Green, the tales told at last by members of the Giants and Dodgers who unburdened themselves to him of their onerous secret after more than fifty years of silence and subterfuge, but his stories were infused with new vitality and meaning by the adorable, amazing kids portraying the various characters involved in or affected by the sign-stealing scandal. The attorneys for both sides more than capably represented their clients, cross-examining witnesses with focus and finesse: they were Angelica Hernandez, Paola Maliza, Adna Zejnilovic, and Gabriel Alvarez for the Dodgers, pictured at left (Gabriel is standing at the microphone with his back to the camera,) and Krystal Molina, Shannon Shea, Julio Almonte, and Victoria Osuchowski on behalf of the Giants. And what witnesses took the stand! Delorian Mateas as Ralph Branca, who rightfully felt he was unfairly tagged as the scapegoat who took the fall for Brooklyn in the third and final playoff game when he gave up the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to Bobby Thomson that catapulted the Giants into the World Series and sent the Dodgers home. It never would have happened if the Giants had been on the square all season, Branca contended; there never would have been a playoff series, because Brooklyn would have won the pennant during the regular season. There was Mazen Abu Ghazaleh as Leo Durocher, king of the whatever-it-takes-to-win school of managing and architect of the sign-stealing scheme that sucked in the entire Giants roster regardless of whether individual players were willing co-conspirators or unwitting participants. Kamila Pawelec, doing double duty as both moderator and Jackie Robinson, protested that the Dodgers' plummet from first place in the last weeks of the season was less attributable to their own defensive and offensive shortcomings than to the Giants' duplicitous, cheating ways. Russ Hodges, in the person of Richard Torrenegra, was deposed. His famous call ("The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left field stands... the Giants win the pennant, and they're going crazy! They're going crazy! WHOOO OOOO!") forever immortalized that moment, but Hodges averred that the Giants caught fire when Thomson was moved from centerfield mid-season, replacing the injured and ill-fated Hank Thompson at third base and paving the way for his replacement in center, young Willie Mays, to etch his own name in the history books. There sat Jakub Kenig as the proud and remorseful Abraham Chadwick, faithful Dodgers fan and coincidentally to his great sorrow, the electrician called upon to rig the buzzer system at the Polo Grounds that alerted Giants hitters to the different types of upcoming pitches. Chadwick's conflicted participation in the scheme was rendered all the more poignant for his having been diagnosed with a virulent stomach cancer that denied him the chance to ever see his beloved Bums win the pennant he felt they deserved that year. And Ryan Smith enchantingly channeled author Joshua Prager who, when questioned about his motives for writing The Echoing Green, thereby unsealing a secret so closely guarded it had evaded detection for half a century, rebutted the hilarious assertion that he wrote it just to make money and convincingly made his case for wanting only to shed light on a mystery that had remained unsolved for five decades until his perseverance and purity of interest in it compelled formerly reticent participants to loosen their tongues and confess their deepest, darkest thoughts to him. The list of witnesses was long and strong, but under the experienced and efficient stewardship of my fellow judges the testimony proceeded apace, with the gallery as well as the witnesses and judges totally absorbed by the drama unfolding before our eyes.
When all the witnesses had been heard and concluding statements made, we trio of judges retired to our chambers, donated temporarily through the generosity of the more usual occupants of the Seneca School's teachers' lounge, and a lively discussion ensued during which each of us offered our interpretation of the different threads and themes tying the testimony together into a cohesive, coherent narrative that guided us to our decision. The facts are these: the Giants' pitching and defense improved markedly during the last month of the 1951 season, while the Dodgers' pitching went south under the admitted mismanagement of manager Charlie Dressen. The Giants' late season surge cannot be attributed solely to the fact that hitters may have known what pitch was coming, as their September road record illustrates the same disparity between summer mediocrity and autumn greatness as their home won/loss record does. We took as many factors into account as were presented by both sides during the trial, and concluded that the Giants won their pennant if not blamelessly, at least undeniably and irrefutably. Therefore, it was our opinion that the Giants should not be stripped of their title and the Dodgers awarded same, but that the record books be maintained to reflect what had stood for half a century, with no qualification or asterisk inserted after the fact to sully the Giants' championship. Judgment in favor of the New York Baseball Giants, with a big shout out to the Brooklyn Dodgers and all participants, especially Gary Mintz, whose script and execution of it were labors of true love; to the kids of P.S. 88, wonderful, enterprising, and inquisitive youngsters all; to their fabulous, committed teachers, who have the most important job in the world; and to author Joshua Prager, pictured here with his father, whose tenacious investigatory skills and luminous writing provided the template for Gary's uniquely memorable tribute to two teams and a time that are no more. This was one trial that truly had no losers, only winners, and turned out to be a great day in American jurisprudence for all.
Keep this in mind: a verdict of "Not Guilty" is not the same as "Innocent." There are eminently reasonable doubts concerning the Giants' innocence; we sought only to reach a fair and lawful verdict concerning their guilt in the matter. Was the 1951 National League pennant stolen? You decide. That is the beauty of baseball and the magic of Gary Mintz's imaginative and inspiring teaching tool, Dodgers v. Giants: The Miracle or The Mirage at Coogan's Bluff.