Bobby Thomson, a true New York sports icon and author of the most famous home run in baseball history, passed away last night. He was 86. As far as I can tell, nobody ever said a bad word about the man.
What follows is something I wrote a few years ago about an afternoon I spent in the presence of this genuine Giant a few years before that.
All right. This is who I wanted to be. This is who I said I was but for the timing of my birth. Here’s my chance.
It is not October 3, 1951 at the Polo Grounds. I was too late for that. Instead, it’s fifty years hence, no coincidence. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The Shot Heard ’Round The World. These people I’m joining today for lunch in Little Italy, they are real, actual New York Giants fans. They lived through it. They didn’t just read about 1951. They remember it, relish it, revel in it the way I retreat into 1969 or 1986 at least once a day each.
These are my people. They are me once removed. I asked for it. Now I must go sit among them.
I’m not really here to see them. Technically, the star attraction on 10/13/01 is the man who made 10/3/51 famous. The New York Giants Historical Society, organizers of the event (and a group of which I am a paying member), has convinced Bobby Thomson himself to be the guest of honor at Forlini’s Restaurant. Bobby Thomson is just shy of 78 years old in mid-October 2001. How many times has Bobby Thomson told his Shot Heard ’Round The World story? Multiply his age by the year and then maybe you’d be close. He tells it because there’s always somebody who wants to listen.
I feel like a bit of a camp follower, a Jint-sniffer. These people who are here, all who have decades on me, this is their memory. For me, it’s merely my ideal. But I paid my admission and I carry my torch. Other than children or grandchildren of the elders, I am, at the not-so-tender age of 38, among the youngest NYG fans in attendance.
But what the hell? Bobby Thomson isn’t just their Giant. He’s our Giant. He’s my Giant. A Giant among Giants from when the Giants were giants among baseball-playing men. Does anybody else with a homer of his own carry as much cachet? Carlton Fisk? Kirk Gibson? What did they hit? Yeah, the Carlton Fisk home run. The Kirk Gibson home run. Bobby Thomson hit a home run that has a name that isn’t merely eponymous.
When my sister was in high school studying American history and I was in elementary school, I asked her to quiz me to see if I knew any of it. OK, she said, what’s The Shot Heard ’Round The World? “Bobby Thomson’s home run that beat the Dodgers for the pennant at the Polo Grounds in 1951!” I precociously answered. She rolled her eyes and mentioned something about Concord and Lexington. We were both right. But anybody from Concord and Lexington getting his own luncheon lately?
This could have been something else. This could have been the umpteen-thousandth pairing of Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca. They made history together in a way that Fisk and Pat Darcy or Gibson and Dennis Eckersley didn’t quite. They were hitter and pitcher, New York and Brooklyn, nice guy and nice guy when they got to know each other and show up at golf tournaments and Kiwanis dinners and the like. Usually, Bobby Thomson doesn’t take a bow by himself. Fifty years later, he doesn’t like to gloat. He even took Branca off the hook by declining to attend a planned ceremony (scrubbed in the aftermath of 9/11) at Pac Bell Park in San Francisco to commemorate the fifty years. He didn’t want to embarrass his old friend.
But the people who run the New York Giants Historical Society had other ideas, which is one of the reasons I claimed a kinship with them. They’ve had enough of the Brooklyn Dodger legacy. They don’t want to honor a Dodger, not even incidentally. This, they explained to Bobby, would be family. The Giants fans and the Giants hero. Bobby, who lives in Jersey, relented and came alone.
Nobody missed Ralph Branca.
Funny thing, baseball in the past as viewed in the present. We had just finished absorbing a spate of all-century teams and lists and such, and each of them was led by Babe Ruth. It was pointed out by a few old-timers and SABR types that every similar survey regarding the best player ever, taken throughout the actual twentieth century while it was in progress, named Ty Cobb as the greatest player. Ruth? Great. Cobb? Greater. By 1999, Ruth had surpassed Cobb. Neither had swung a bat in competition since 1935.
That fifty years had passed since the Giants won the pennant (the Giants won the pennant!) hadn’t impacted the need to reconfigure their story for a new generation. What was going to be a grand golden anniversary was tarnished in Giant eyes early in 2001 when the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy investigative piece uncovering the likelihood that the 1951 Giants (gasp!) stole signs as they furiously made up ground on the 1951 Dodgers.
It was a wonderful story written by Joshua Harris Prager. It started on the front page and jumped to most of another. I thought it terrific because even though it lent credence to the sign-stealing rumors that apparently had been circulating since Branca’s pitch cleared the left field wall (big deal, I decided; what ain’t caught ain’t illegal), it brought back to life the greatest home run (Giants down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth of the deciding sudden-death playoff game as Thomson steps up with one out, two on and nothing less than the flag at stake) at the end of the greatest pennant race (Giants surge from 13½ back to tie the Dodgers, both teams playing in the same city) in the history of baseball. What a splendid way to grab people’s attention.
My colleagues in the New York Giants Historical Society didn’t see it that way. The first issue of the Giants Jottings newsletter that was mailed after Prager’s story blasted it. Blasted the reporter. Blasted the Journal. Blasted backup catcher Sal Yvars for confirming the main point of the article — that a series of elaborate Polo Grounds bells and whistles were put into motion at Leo Durocher’s behest so the Giant batters would know what the next pitch would be. We’ve all heard Sal Yvars spout this nonsense for years, was the Jottings party line. Ignore him. He’s Judas.
But the Journal has more juice than Jottings. HBO did a fiftieth-anniversary documentary and the sign-stealing became a major plot point. Several NYGHS members were interviewed for the film and they were none too happy with the result. Again, the documentary was well done and even-handed. Anybody who wasn’t there for 1951 (which would be most of us in 2001) learned a lot. But the Jottings editorial board railed against it, too.
Editorial judgment aside, I had to admire that as well. As a Mets fan in millennial New York, I’d had enough of being told I was living in a Yankee town. The New York Giants fans had been getting the same treatment on a historical level vis-à-vis the Brooklyn Dodgers (that’s who everybody loved and everybody pined for) since 1957. Why shouldn’t they skew every issue to fit their mildly paranoid world view? Nobody got any signals, everything was on the up and up, the Giants were clean-living churchgoers, the Dodgers heathens and probably a little red.
Works for me.
Bobby Thomson, who sheepishly denies getting any ill-gotten signs, packs Forlini’s this Saturday afternoon. It’s about a month since September 11. We are within walking distance of Ground Zero. Bobby himself was there. He and Ralph (who feels Prager’s sign-stealing scoop removed the blown-pennant onus from him for the rest of eternity) shook hands there the other day to lift the spirits of the workers. That was after they were called on to ring the New York Stock Exchange opening bell. They’re still big men in the Big Apple, no matter that relatively few New Yorkers in any given setting would have first-hand knowledge why. Hell, I wasn’t there, yet I’m thrilled to have a chance to see Bobby Thomson.
This is Jintstock. This is as close to a New York Giants game as I am ever going to get. Yet I feel strange. I’m an intruder of sorts. I’ve read books. I’ve worn black and orange caps and t-shirts and jerseys. I’ve collected pictures and bookmarked Web sites devoted to their ballpark. The year before, I dragged my wife uptown just so we could stand once where the Polo Grounds once stood. I joined the demographically incompatible New York Giants Historical Society and even wrote an article for Giants Jottings (which was held in perpetuity after the sign-stealing scandal ate up space). I had been waiting almost thirty years for a chance to feel a part of the team that I was sure was ancestrally mine.
But it’s not my team. Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I still carry the feeling for the Giants, but I am an intruder. Today, October 13, 2001, is for these other people sitting here. For the New York Giants fans who are now over 60, over 70, over 80. Who grew up with Carl Hubbell or Mel Ott or Bobby Thomson and had them all taken away from them. This is their day. I’m just here to watch and learn.
Nobody minds me, but somebody asks me what I’m doing here. So I pull out the line I’ve been waiting to use all my baseball-watching life.
“Well,” I say. “I’m a Mets fan in my heart, but a Giants fan in my soul.”
The guy who asked looks slightly confused. “I don’t know what that means,” he says, “but it sounds good.”
That’s all right. It’s not about me. It’s about them. It’s about a movement that one of the sons of the members has started to get Mayor Giuliani to rename a portion of Harlem River Drive after Mel Ott. Hizzoner, the big Yankee fan, pushed through a designation of a chunk of the West Side Highway as the Joe DiMaggio. Ott deserves the same, we are told. The city must act now! There is general nodding. I hesitate to articulate what I am thinking, that a month ago our city was attacked and there’s a gaping, smoking hole not too many blocks from here. Maybe Mel Ott can wait a little while, y’know?
Before Bobby Thomson speaks, our master of ceremonies, an old guy (of course he’s an old guy; everybody here is old) asks if anybody would like to say anything. He has several takers.
This is what I learn is on the minds of New York Giants fans in 2001:
• The Dodgers stank.
• The Dodgers were a bunch of crybabies.
• October 3, 1951 was the happiest day of my life.
• I was so happy we could stick it to those arrogant Dodger fans.
• It was so sweet to “break the Brooks’ balls”.
The Giants have their codgers and their codgers still have it in for the Dodgers. Beautiful!
And they have gratitude for Bobby Thomson. It is always “thanks to you, Bobby” that they remain forever on cloud nine. They love this man. He not only gave them something to thrill to fifty years ago, he keeps giving them something to dwell on blissfully every day that they have left on this earth. Thank you, Bobby Thomson.
With that, Bobby Thomson takes to the microphone. He is as humble as advertised. Even if he has done some variation on this thousands of times, he appears touched. These are his people and nothing but his people. No, Ralph Branca does not belong here. This is Bobby’s show.
And Bobby gives us what we came for. Bobby Thomson relates how nervous he was on October 3, 1951 in that ninth inning. How bad he felt about a baserunning blunder of his that took the Jints out of an inning earlier in the game. How he was gonna be the goat who cost his team the pennant. How he was so focused on his pending at-bat in the ninth inning that he didn’t notice in the middle of a Giant rally that the Dodgers had changed pitchers from Newcombe to Branca, who he homered off in Game One of that three-game series.
“I told myself,” Bobby tells us, “give yourself a chance to hit.”
That’s all anybody could ask. After taking strike one, Bobby determined his chance was at hand. He took his chance. He swung. The rest is truly history.
What a story. What a man. No wonder these people love him. I now love him, too. Not just in the abstract but for being the way he continues to be.
When he’s done speaking, he’s presented with a gift certificate for a golf store in Jersey that somebody found out he frequents. He says he wants to donate it to charity. No, he’s told, it’s for you. C’mon Bobby, you deserve it. He mumbles some thanks. He seems just what he didn’t want Ralph Branca to be. He seems embarrassed.
Then he seems crowded. His fans, in their 60s, their 70s, their 80s, their late 30s, seek his hand and his autograph. I have brought with me a digital camera, a Sharpie and a copy of The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!, his memoir. I don’t want to bother the man. He needs a cane to get around and this has probably been a tiring day. But if not now, when? Fair enough.
Mr. Thomson, I say, would you mind…for the fiftieth time on the fiftieth anniversary, Bobby Thomson poses with a fan for a snapshot and signs something. I don’t have time to turn the page, so he signs the cover of the book. It’s a paperback so it’s a little schmeary, but there it is. Bobby Thomson’s signature on something of mine.
A special edition of Giants Jottings captures the luncheon for posterity. “Magically,” the Society newsletter reports, “we were all 50 years younger.”
Don DeLillo didn’t do so bad himself. In the 1990s, the author had made the ball (which was never tracked down to anybody’s satisfaction) that became The Shot Heard ’Round The World the trigger-object of his highly acclaimed novel, Underworld. DeLillo wrote that the kids playing hooky at the Polo Grounds on 10/3/51 would become “the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”
They were. And I was willing to listen.