NY Giants baseball legend Bobby Thomson died at home in Savannah, Georgia, on Monday at age 86 after a long illness. Thomson has long been remembered for hitting a game-winning home run at the Polo Grounds in New York in a playoff game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.
War stories. That is what old Dodgers fans passed down to their kids and grandchildren, just as I always got the story about the “shot heard around the world” and what it did to Dodgers fans. For those of you who don’t know, it was Bobby Thomson who hit a three-run homer off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca, winning the game and the three-game playoff series in favor of the NY Giants. As always, in the Dodgers Hall of what might have been – the woulda-shoulda-coulda place where fans of Dem Bums cried in their beer – Thomson stood out as the guy who stopped them from going to the World Series against the New York Yankees.
Bobby Thomson did this long before I was born, but that didn’t stop the story from being told enough times for me to be mesmerized by it growing up. When I got old enough, I would see Thomson on television shows, usually with Ralph Branca sitting next to him. The two of them seemed like good old friends, laughing and recounting the day of October 3, 1951, like it was the day they both graduated from high school. In truth, that is probably closer to what it was: that day, as they both became enshrined in baseball lore, permanently attached to one another as much as if they had walked down the aisle and received diplomas together.
I think Thomson and Branca taught a lot of us kids what it meant to accept things as they were. Thomson always came across as a good winner, almost as if he were just lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. He never seemed to have come down off that cloud after hitting that homer, as if he still didn’t believe after all those years that it happened the way it did. Branca, on the other hand, taught us how to be a gracious loser.
It seemed apparent that he and Thomson had become friends over the years; there was never even a hint of animosity and almost a glowing respect for Thomson. Branca and Thomson were linked forever by that one pitch and swing, and they both will be remembered as class acts who understood their place in baseball lore and were humbled by the magnitude of moment that inextricably linked them.
There were rumors at the time, no doubt perpetrated by frustrated Dodgers fans, that the Giants were stealing signs all season, and particularly during that playoff series. Giants manager Leo Durocher – who had once been manager of the Dodgers and championed Jackie Robinson as his player – was known to play the game to win in any way possible. Even if the Giants were able to steal the signs, and even if Thomson knew what pitch was coming from Branca, he still had to be able to hit it over the fence. Nothing, even the rantings of these crazed Dodgers fans (some of whom were members of my family) can diminish the impact of that home run.
There are more than a few legendary home runs that baseball fans remember: ones that won a pennant or a World Series. We talk about them today as “walk-off homers,” and it is a powerful truth that nothing in baseball, or in all of sports I believe, is as monumental as this. Of all the homers ever hit, the balls sailing over the wall into the hands of fans during the course of all the years baseball has been played, only one homer has ever been called “the shot heard around the world.” No other home run. Ever.
Bobby Thomson played 15 years and hit 264 home runs during the regular season. He will always be remembered for one of them, one of 32 he hit in 1951. But he will also always be remembered for having the class and dignity that becomes part of lore and legend. He leaves Branca behind now, but no doubt he is taking his place among those like him, the passed on baseball legends, in the field of dreams in the great beyond.