Baseball, Blog

A Shot I Still Hear

My dad was barely eight years old when the ball cleared the fence, but Bobby Thomson’s ‘Shot Heard ‘Round The World’ in 1951 was a moment that stayed with him his entire life, one that ended earlier this year.

For Thomson, he too died this past Monday, ironically in Savannah, Georgia where HE lived and I was married.

That fact really has no relevance other than, growing up and hearing about this home run over and over, I felt a connection to Thomson and his home run even though it predated my existence by ten years.

In a somewhat eulogic statement I wrote about my father immediately after his death, I noted the following:

My father was always mesmerized by Bobby Thomson’s home run to win the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants. It was an improbable event, and still ranks among the top moments in baseball history. When we would talk about his book ideas, that moment always dominated the conversation, as he wanted to incorporate that moment into the book’s storyline. Whenever I see that moment replayed on television or written about in a newspaper, I immediately think of my dad, and I hope those of you that knew him best will now share that reaction as a tribute to his legacy.

Dad co-authored one book, and had the storyline for a second in his head – a group of kids hanging out at an old barn listening to baseball stories told by a former major leaguer that formerly played with Thomson.  Against Mantle.  With Mays.

He was so committed to his ideas that the last time we spent any significant time together, we drove around the countryside near Marengo, Iowa to find and photograph an old Amish-built barn.  It was this barn he envisioned when he talked through his ideas, imagining a swarm of kids with tattered baseballs and worn tennis shoes hanging on every word.

I currently have the assignment as part of my membership of the Society for American Baseball Research to write a biography of Thomson for the organization’s BioProject.  It’s something I volunteered to do, and I had hoped we would make a return trip to Savannah soon so I could look him up and get some facts first hand.  Now that he’s gone, I’m embarrassed I haven’t finished it, and the task is moving to the top of my priority list.

The fountain above sits in Savannah’s Forsyth Park, a beautiful and historic town where Thomson’s life ended.

A town so beautiful that General William Tecumseh Sherman spared it during his Civil War March to the Sea in 1864, instead offering the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift.

It’s hard to imagine a more scenic place to spend eternity, should Thomson’s family choose to bury him there.

The immortal New York sports writer Red Smith penned a beautiful account of the 1951 game and it’s miracle ending.  I publish it here, with credit to Mr. Smith (it is beautifully written) and respect for Mr. Thomson.  God rest his soul.

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Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff

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.

Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshalled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head on into a special park cop who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is away, weaving out toward center field where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.

At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again, the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coat tails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.

And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League….The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October….On the final day of the season when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight….Of the three-game playoff in which they won, and lost and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when — Oh, why bother?

Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds….Or perhaps this is better:

“Well,” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers.

“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”

“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here!”

“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”

And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged him out. Up in the press section, the voices of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.

It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendorous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.

The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending which such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.

Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up with runners on first and third, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.

He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ball game.

Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie, wild — pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go? Where else? Through Thomson at third.

So it was the Dodgers ball game, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.

A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up. Lockerman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz — stretcher bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.

There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. would Charlie Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was called a strike.

The second pitch — well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.

Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.

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