Bobby Thomson’s ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’ couldn’t have happened without a crafty Polo Grounds electrician—and Dodgers fanatic—named Abe Chadwick.
In May of 1947, my father, Nat Chadwick, was an official at Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in lower Manhattan. Revered for his tenderness and generosity—even when staggeringly drunk—he made sure his family and friends were well provided for. He sent my mother to her family with cash stipends to help them pay rent. A valuable vase in our summer home came from a heist at Gracie Mansion—it was collateral for a loan Daddy’d given an ex-con friend.
More than anything, Nat ensured that the men in our family stayed employed. So when his brother Abe, a journeyman electrician, ended his stint as a cab driver, my father set him up with a dream gig: operating the lights at the Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants.
On October 3, 1951, Giants head coach Herman Franks used a telescope to steal the pitching signs of Dodgers catcher Rube Walker, and then used a new, specially designed bell-and-buzzer system to signal his batters—one of whom was, of course, Bobby Thomson.
It took a determined Wall Street Journal reporter just one phone call to bring my father home for Thanksgiving in 2000—36 years after he died. I hadn’t thought much about him for 20 of those years, but when Joshua Harris Prager introduced himself and said he was looking for Abraham Chadwick’s children, memories came flooding back.
“You sure you have the right Chadwicks?” I asked Prager. “Why do you want to find Abe’s daughters?”
He said he couldn’t tell me much—his story would come out in January, on the 50th anniversary of the 1951 American League pennant race.
“The Abraham Chadwick I’m looking for died on November 3, 1951,” he said. “There’s a much larger baseball story behind that unexpected win, and if Abraham was your uncle, he figured largely in how it happened. Did you ever hear of the ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’?”
Of course I did. More than anything else, my dad and my uncle loved baseball; the Dodgers were their life. The Chadwick brothers, who lived briefly in Brooklyn before moving to the Bronx, were fanatics. So was my mother, so were all of my aunts; they screamed and stomped during every radio broadcast when the Dodgers were winning. And the losses were devastating.
I made plans to talk to Prager the following day. While I got Thanksgiving dinner back on track, I was lost in reverie: somehow, after all these years, my father’s favorite brother must have been discovered for performing some heroic deed. He had died young. Perhaps he’d left some extraordinary treasure.
Abe and Nat. The two brothers were rowdy Sunday storytellers, family powwow leaders, devoted friends who came to each other’s aid no matter what, no matter who. There were rumors in my family that my father had sired an illegitimate child before he married my mother; whether it was true or not, only Abe knew. There were rumors that Abe’s wife was a card player who bet away their grocery money; all I knew was I had overheard my father telling my mother why he was giving his brother cash: Abe was in love with his wife, he said, and her failings weren’t ours to judge.
Abe was a non-drinker and a family man once he settled down, but he had bravado. In his younger days, he challenged another man to a duel over a woman he had just seen. He brought a bat; his opponent had a gun—and as Abe ran away, he was shot in the back. He never went to the hospital; he nursed his wounds at home, with my father looking after him. It wasn’t until much later that the truth came out. I’d heard it whispered that that wound might have started the cancer that ravaged his body.
When Prager and I spoke the next day, I learned the real reason for his digging up Abe’s ghost.
As a stadium-lights operator, Abe had been a wiz. He installed a bell-and-buzzer system in the clubhouse and wired it to the phones in the bullpen and dugout; pressing the button once or twice would signal a fastball or an off-speed pitch. Abe became well respected among the other electricians, who kept his scheme a secret.
So when Bobby Thomson stepped up to the plate to face Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, it was Abe’s signal that told Herman Franks—who then signaled to a plant in the bullpen, who signaled to Thomson—when Branca’s fastball was coming.
“Ear pulling, crotch adjusting, foot thumping—that was all legal,” Prager explained. “But there really were no rules back then.”
I remembered sitting on my uncle’s lap at 5 years old, keeping him company as he was dying of cancer. The end of a Dodgers game was on. I’d never seen him look so depressed. “Abe’s whole life was the Dodgers,” his daughter Harriet would later tell me. It was, and still is, near incomprehensible that Abe could’ve betrayed his favorite team.
The greatest secret keeper in the old-boy network, said Prager, was my father. Nat was debonair, rich, powerful, and well liked. Abe, whom everyone assumed to be slow, wanted my father to respect him for his cleverness.
Nat must have known, of course, that Abe was the engineer behind the Giants’ upset win.
But my father never told a soul. For both brothers—one proving his mettle, the other proving his loyalty—the other meant more to them than a baseball team.
The night that Abe died, I had awakened to a flickering light sneaking into my bedroom from the kitchen. Although I was scared of the dark, I followed the light. It was Daddy, sitting alone. It was November and there was moon in the sky. He’d opened the window wide. He had a tumbler of scotch in front of him. I’d never seen him drink at home. In the middle of the table was a long cylindrical glass with burning candle. I knew it meant sadness. I knew that someone important to us was gone.
My father pulled me onto the seat. He kissed my cheek and pushed my hair aside. “Yesterday I lost my very best friend,” he said. His voice was trembling. “I hope that never happens to you.” Just when I was squirming and ready to go back to sleep, he took my face in his hands and said something I found peculiar even at 5 years old: “‘’Tis better to have loved and lost …’”
I knew he was talking about the Dodgers.
Joshua Harris Prager made Abe’s story public in 2001. His book on the heist, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, was released in 2006.