Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bobby Thomson Dies, 59 Years After Achieving Immortality

Until he passed away yesterday at the age of 86, Bobby Thomson was alive for more than 2.7 billion seconds. The reason I know his name, which will likely never be forgotten among baseball lovers, is because of something he did in approximately 3 of them.

On October 3, 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, in the third game of a 3-game playoff. There were no divisions in each league back then; the team with the best record at the end of 154 games won the pennant and went to the World Series. Unless there was a tie. Which despite being 13-1/2 games behind in mid-August, the Giants earned and forced a best-of-3 playoff to decide the National League Pennant. The two teams split the first two games, and the Dodgers had a 4-1 lead heading into the bottom of the 9th at the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants.

The Giants scored a run and then had runners at second and third with one out, trailing 4-2. Ralph Branca came into pitch for the Dodgers and Bobby Thomson came to the plate. With an 0-1 count, Thomson hit a high fastball into the left field stands. Although only one of three broadcasters calling the play, Russ Hodges most famously shouted (as heard on the video above):

“There’s a long drive ... it’s gonna be ... I believe — 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! ...

“I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it, I do not believe it!”

As Richard Goldstein of the New York Times wrote in Thomson's obituary: 

Partly because of the fierce rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers; partly because it was broadcast from coast to coast on television; and partly because it was memorably described in a play-by-play call by the Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges, Thomson’s three-run homer endures as perhaps the most dramatic moment in baseball history. It was a stirring conclusion to the Giants’ late-summer comeback, known as the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, and remains an enduring symbol of victory snatched from defeat (and vice versa).

Beyond the legendary moment in baseball history, what I have found fascinating about Thomson is that he and Branca became close friends, if not during their careers than for many years long after, when they would often do joint speaking appearances and autograph signings. This despite the fact that Branca always suspected Thomson of benefiting from stolen signs and knowing a fastball was coming, a suspicion seemingly validated in recent years.

As Goldstein reports, at one joint appearance on the 40th anniversary of his dramatic home run, Thomson remarked that “Ralph didn’t run away and hide.” To which, Branca responded, “I lost a game, but I made a friend.”

Some years back, I saw Thomson and Branca at an autograph show or two, where I got the above photo and ball at right signed by both of them. I remember how at ease they seemed about their joint history, despite the glory for one and ignominy for the other. And Thomson especially seemed like a really nice and gracious guy.

Similarly, as the New York Times' Dave Anderson writes, Thompson--who had a stellar career in which he amassed 264 home runs and 1,026 RBI over 15 seasons--never gloated about his most famous moment because he didn't ever want to embarrass Branca. When the San Francisco Giants planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," Thompson declined to attend the festivities.

“They were going to have Ralph and me ride around in a cart,” he said at the time. “Ralph doesn’t need that.”

So while he'll forever be best known for three storied seconds, it seems Bobby Thomson deserves to be similarly remembered for always clearing the fences when it came to consideration and class.

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