Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bobby Thomson, 1923-2010

"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."
-- Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, October 4, 1951

Bobby Thomson died yesterday, at his home in Savannah, Georgia. He was 86, and had been ill for some time.

It has been nearly 59 years since he hit a home run that was more than just a home run. It ended the most amazing Pennant race New York City, perhaps any city, has ever seen.

And because it was beamed around the U.S.A. in the first nationally-televised (NBC) broadcast of any non-World Series game, and because the Armed Forces Radio Network played it for every U.S. military base from London (the writer George Plimpton claimed to have heard it while studying at Cambridge University in England) to Korea (where a war was raging that would soon claim as draftees Willie Mays, the Giant batter who was on deck, and Don Newcombe, the Dodger pitcher who'd nearly won the game before being relieved), it was called "The Shot Heard 'Round the World," after the description in poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson of the musket shot that began the War of the American Revolution on the Lexington Green, outside Boston, in 1775.

Ralph Branca, the pitcher who gave it up, is now 84 and lives in Rye, New York, not far from his hometown of Mount Vernon.

Robert Brown Thomson was born on October 25, 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, and at the age of 2 moved with his family to Staten Island, New York. He's easily the greatest player ever to come from that Borough. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II. An outfielder and 3rd baseman, he played for the New York Giants from 1946 to 1953, the Milwaukee Braves from 1954 to 1957, briefly returned to the Giants in 1957, the Chicago Cubs in 1958 and 1959, and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles in 1960.

A 3-time All-Star, he batted .270 lifetime, with 264 home runs, including the big one at 3:58 PM on October 3, 1951.

It's good that Bobby was the one to hit it. If Branca had gotten him out, the next batter was Willie Mays, and all these years later we'd be saying, "Well, of course, Willie Mays hit the home run." Same as with epic home runs by Gabby Hartnett (1938), Johnny Bench (1972), Carlton Fisk (1975), Jack Clark (1985), Kirk Gibson (1988), Edgar Martinez (1995), Derek Jeter (2001).

It's better when it's not one of the big boomers, when it's Bill Mazeroski (1960) or Chris Chambliss (1976) or Bucky Dent (1978). Or, more recently, Jim Leyritz (1995 and 1996), Scott Brosius (1998 and 2001), Todd Pratt (1999), Aaron Boone (2003), or Scott Podsednik, or Geoff Blum (both in the 2005 World Series), or Yadier Molina (2006).

Thomson retired to work for a paper company, but once the baseball memorabilia craze kicked off, he was set for life. That life, with many glories, came to an end yesterday.
Rest in peace, Bobby. And watch out for my Grandma. She was a Dodger fan from Queens and she's still mad at you!


For the record, Thomson's death leaves 8 men who played in the game of October 3, 1951 still alive, 4 on each team.

From the New York Giants, in alphabetical order: Alvin Dark, shortstop; Monte Irvin, left field; Willie Mays, center field; Don Mueller, right field. Reserve infielder Artie Wilson and pitcher George Spencer, who were on the Giant roster but did not play in the game, are also still alive. Pitcher Larry Jansen (who relieved Sal Maglie and was the winning pitcher), outfielder Clint Hartung (who pinch-ran for Mueller and was driven in by Thomson's homer), third baseman Jack Lohrke, second baseman Davey Williams and catcher Sal Yvars (none of those last 3 played in the game) have all died within the last 2 years.

From the Brooklyn Dodgers: Ralph Branca, pitcher; Andy Pafko, left field; Don Newcombe, pitcher; Duke Snider, center field. Pitchers Carl Erskine, Clyde King and Johnny Schmitz; reserve outfielders Rocky Bridges and Dick Williams (the future Hall of Fame manager), and infielders Tommy Brown and Wayne Terwilliger, who were on the Dodger roster but did not play in the game, are also still alive. Outfielder Gene Hermanski, who did not play in the game, died a few days ago; and outfielder Don Thompson, who didn't play, died less than a year ago.

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