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Bobby Thomson, Who Hit the Epic Homer to Win '51 Pennant, Dies at Age 86

Nick PoustCorrespondent IIAugust 17, 2010

There have been many memorable home-runs hit in major league baseball history.

There was Bill Mazerowski’s shot in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series; Carlton Fisk’s in the 1975 World Series, waiving it fair; Kirk Gibson’s in the 1988 World Series, hobbling around the bases, and pumping his fist rounding second to the, “I don’t believe what I just saw!” call from Jack Buck; Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series winning homer; Aaron Boone’s drive deep into the New York night to end Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox; and David Ortiz’s blast to end Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, igniting a historic four-game rally over the rival Yankees.

But few were as memorable as Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard ‘Round the World," off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ralph Branca, to give the New York Giants the 1951 pennant over their vaunted rival.

It is renowned as the greatest round-tripper in history, but Thomson never saw what all the hubbub was about. “I can’t believe we’re still talking about it,” he said on its 40th anniversary.

Believe it, Mr. Thomson.

It ended perhaps the most exciting pennant race of all time, and few moments in any sport’s history can rival what transpired that magical day on the diamond.

The Giants were deemed dead in the water in August, but a 37-7 finish remarkably forced a playoff with the Dodgers. Their rally was unthinkable—undeniably the most miraculous in history—a rally which ended in the most exhilarating and dramatic of fashions.

Thomson died today at the age of 86. He, nor his famed home-run, will ever be forgotten. Its clearing of the left field wall did much more than win a baseball game. The rivalry between the Giants and Dodgers went beyond sports: it was the battle for New York.

In today’s game of baseball, members of the Red Sox and Yankees talk, laugh, and commiserate before games. The Giants and Dodgers did no such thing. Hate is a strong word, but it can aptly be used to describe their feelings for each other.

Thomson played for the Dodgers Rookies, a sandlot team and part of the Dodgers organization before signing a contract with the Giants for $100 a month, a solid chunk of money in those days. Some players grumbled over salary, but for the vast majority, playing the game was enough (unlike in today’s money-grabbing era).

That’s how it was for Thomson. He had an incredible love for the game, and was darn good at what he did.

He hit a career-high 32 homers during the 1951 season, his sixth of eight seasons with the team.

He bounced around for the rest of his career, playing with the Milwaukee Braves for three-plus seasons, then back with the Giants for the remaining 81 games of ’57, and then made stops in Boston and Baltimore to finish a 14-year career that ran from 1946-1960.

He hung up his spikes with eight 20-plus homer seasons, including five straight with the Giants, and had 264 in his career to compliment 1,026 RBI, 903 runs, 1,705 hits, three All-Star selections, and an MVP finish in the top-10, which came, fittingly, during that famed ’51 season.

Thomson couldn’t have played in a better era for the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. In ’51, the Dodgers held a 13.5 game lead on August 11th, fueling a premature proclamation from Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen, “The Giant is dead!” It turned out, backed by rookie Willie Mays and, of course, Thomson, the Giants stormed back, ending with the most extraordinary of finishes.

That extraordinary finish was brilliantly documented in Don DeLillo’s 1997 best-selling book Underworld. DeLillo documents the adventure undertaken by Cotter Martin, a young kid who, fictionally, has a helluva time sneaking into the third playoff game between the two, evading “a cop in municipal bulk” in the process:

“Cotter gives him a juke step that sends him nearly to his knees and the hot dog eaters bend from the waist to watch the kid veer away in soft acceleration, showing the cop a little finger-wag bye-bye.

… He cuts into an aisle in section 35 and walks down into the heat and smell of the massed fans, he walks into the smoke that hangs from the underside of the second deck, he hears the talk, he enters the deep buzz, he hears the warm-up pitches crack into the catcher’s mitt, a series of reports that carry a comet’s tail of secondary sound.

Then you lose him in the crowd.”

Then, after the crack of Thomson’s bat:

“And Cotter standing in section 35 watching the ball come in his direction. He feels his body turn to smoke. … But before he can smile or shout or bash his neighbor on the arm. Before the moment can overwhelm him, the ball appears again, stitching visibly spinning, that’s how near it hits, banging at an angle off a pillar–hands flashing everywhere.”

That eloquent description of the homer and the pandemonium which ensued, communicates one of the most jubilant feelings one can feel, and one that Cotter and the thousands who actually bought tickets felt.

The homer by Thomson, who, “had the good fortune in 1951 to come to bat at the right time,” fueled a rivalry which went beyond the game, a rivalry which was also ignited by Sal Maglie, the Giants ace who was aptly nicknamed The Barber for his close shaves—that is, his desire to give opponents chin music whenever he felt necessary.

Just as the Dodgers hitters knew Maglie all too well, Thomson was Branca’s worst nightmare. Branca had allowed a homer to the then 27-year old in the first playoff game, then the shot on October 3rd, which completely erased a 4-1 ninth-inning deficit.

Whatever happened to the genius nicknames like “The Barber”? What ever happened to playing for the thrill of the grass? What ever happened to cleverly labeling game-winners as Thomson’s was? What ever happened to baseball being more than baseball, a game full of turf wars, bad blood, and tremendous history?

The game has lost it’s imagination. The game is rapidly losing the all-important meaning of game. And now, the game has lost a shy, nonchalant man, a man who hit the "Shot Heard ‘Round The World," a man, as well as his shot, who will never be forgotten.


(photo from USA Today)

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