Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bobby Thomson, R.I.P.

In part because I was a nerdy little kid, I immersed myself in baseball history as a youngster, and parents and grandparents nurtured the habit by buying me great baseball books. Not too many six-year-olds in my neighborhood could discuss Don Larsen's perfect game, Pepper Martin's 1931 World Series performance or the Philadelphia A's scoring 10 runs in an inning to beat the Cubs 10-8 in the 1929 World Series.

And one moment that always fascinated me was Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" home run. I read everything I could find about the moment, watched it hundreds of time on tape and memorized everything I could about a homer that happened five years before I was born. The story in a nutshell:

In the 1951 National League pennant race, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a 13-1/2 game lead over the New York Giants, but the Giants went 37-7 over the last few weeks and caught the Dodgers on the last day of the season, setting up a three-game playoff for the pennant. Each team won a game, and the Dodgers had a 4-2 lead in the 9th inning of Game Three. In the bottom of the 9th, Thomson hit a three-run homer off of Ralph Branca for a 5-4 win that gave the Giants the pennant. You've probably heard the immortal call of announcer Russ Hodges screaming "The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant."

Across town, the American League Champion Yankees were waiting, and a week later they won the World Series in six games, but Thomson's homer had become a milestone in baseball history. For the rest of his life, he was known for that home run. He and Branca became friends, and spent a lot of time at baseball card shows, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

The above photo was signed by the both of them, and I've always liked this picture because it illustrates the short distance the ball had to travel to the left-field porch at the Polo Grounds. Home of the Giants, the Polo Grounds was sort of a bathtub-shaped stadium, and the dimensions were bizarre: 279 feet down the left-field line, and only 259 feet down the right-field line, but an incredible 483 feet to straightaway center field. (Much of Willie Mays' greatness was found in the fact that he could cover ground adequately in the massive center field.)

Thomson passed away today at the age of 86, and a great summary of the home run and his subsequent life is found in this AP dispatch here.

A few of my favorite little tidbits from the day:

1) Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter for the New York Times (and IMHO, the greatest sportswriter ever) wrote this incredible lead for his account of the day:

"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."

They don't write leads like that any more.

2) A little bit of trivia: The on-deck hitter, who later admitted he was afraid he would be forced to come to bat with the game on the line, was a young rookie named Willie Mays.

3) Even more trivial: As all of this was going on, a thousand miles away in St. Paul, Minnesota, a young woman named Arline Winfield was giving birth to her son, Dave, who would grow up to be perhaps the greatest athlete Minnesota has ever produced (though a first-rate a**hole as a person) and later took his place in the Hall of Fame.

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