Bobby Thomson died yesterday. For those steeped in baseball lore, Robert Brown Thomson hit arguably the single most famous home run in baseball history off Ralph Branca, winning the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
If you aren't aware of the "Shot Heard Round the World" I more or less insist you watch this, and make sure you take the time replay it and close your eyes and listen to Russ Hodges' radio call:
1951. The Polo Grounds. Bottom of the Ninth in the ultimate game of a three game pennant playoff. New York City when the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees WERE baseball. Millions of American soldiers, many engaged in absolutely brutal combat with the Chinese in Korea, the rest nervously staring at hordes of Russian soldiers and tanks on the far side of the Iron Curtain, listening on Armed Forces Radio. The ball never recovered and identified, lost to the mists of time.
The game itself came about due to one of the great comebacks in all of baseball history. By August 1951, the Dodgers had a 11 1/2 game lead on the Giants. The Dodgers played .500 ball the rest of the way, the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games. Look at that number again. The Miracle at Coogan's Bluff, indeed.
Hell, Jackie Robinson had to hit a homer in the 14th inning of the last game of the season against the Phils just to get the Dodgers into a 3 game play off versus the Giants. For the Giants and the Dodgers, their fates were inextricably linked forever, even after they moved to San Francisco and LA.
Thompson was not a one hit wonder, if I may fall into pun. A three time All Star, he hit 264 home runs and played in the majors for 14 years. Ralph Branca, who handled his role as the losing pitcher with much grace and aplomb, was also a 3 time All Star, and played for 12 years. Both men were in the prime of their careers playing at the highest levels of the game.
The homer itself is classic, because it sums up every kid's dream: last out, game on the line after a dramatic comeback in the 9th, hitting the homer to WIN. IT. ALL. Save me your Joe Carter, Kirk Gibson, Dave Henderson, and whomever else you want to argue. This home run towers above them, because the event captured all that was good and holy about baseball at its apogee in American culture and sports.
Not yet faced with real competition from other professional sports, the game was the absolute king. The NFL, the great swaggering lord of all modern American sports, was still seven years away from its big coming out party at the 1958 NFC championship. For some reason, even Bill Mazeroski's shot to win Game 7 of the 1960 World Series hasn't resonated in the same way as Thomson's dinger.
Yes, I know the Giants were stealing signs. It is generally considered legal, if unsavory and dishonorable, in baseball. And almost every team does it.
Whether you fancied yourself hitting the last shot, throwing a hail mary, sinking the 30 footer for birdie on the 18th, heading a cross in extra time, winning by a nose, etc.; Bobby Thomson and Russ Hodges's call, and the absolute pandemonium at the Polo Grounds captures every young (and old) dream of sporting glory.
Next time you see your kid quietly whispering to himself just before he wins the big game in his mind, just remember Bobby Thomson: he got to live the dream.