Meeting Bobby Thomson
Bobby Thomson is a baseball icon. Even if the only thing he did in his career was hit a homerun to win the 1951 playoff game, it would be enough to insure his place in baseball history.
Red Smith described the aftermath of Thomson’s home run in a New York Herald Tribune column, “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.”
This homerun occurred six years before I was born. Until Mazeroski’s homer nine years later, it was the most famous ‘walk off’ homer!
During the mid- nineteen Sixties my father was a part-time bartender at the Plainfield Country Club in Edison, New Jersey. One of the job’s perks, aside from tips, was meeting various sports’ personalities. Since I was very young at the time, I did not recognize who many of them were.
For instance, I can remember my dad telling how he made a drink(s) for Pete Gogolak, the fine kicker for the New York football Giants. Gogolak was the first kicker to utilize a soccer style to kick field goals. I knew who he was he was still playing. Then there was Ralph Terry. Terry was a former Yankee pitcher, he surrendered Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960 World Series. I still have his autograph and remember a story that he told my dad. It seems Ralph got married right after the World Series and went immediately to Mexico for his honeymoon. The next morning he spotted a local paper, it was in Spanish but he made out one word, “Mazeroski!”
But the one guy that my dad got silly about meeting was Bobby Thomson! I can remember my father proudly giving me Mr. Thomson’s autograph. It was on the back of a bar receipt. I feigned excitement, but at the same time it meant nothing to me.
My father explained how this man hit one of the biggest homeruns in baseball history on October 3, 1951. He also recounted listening to it on the radio.
It seems that before the 1951 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers were considered unstoppable by most of the baseball experts. This expectation was true for most of the season. By August 10th, the Dodgers were ahead of the Giants by 12 ½ games. But that was about the time the Giants began to sneak back, winning 37 of the last 44 games. At one point they won 16 in a row. When the regular season was completed, both the Dodgers and Giants had identical records. Which meant for the second time in National League, a best of three play-offs was needed to determine the pennant winner.
With two teams winning one victory apiece, the pitching match up for the deciding game pitted Sal Maglie (Giants) against Don Newcombe (Dodgers). The game was deadlocked at 1-1 going into the top of the eighth inning. The Dodgers scored three times to go up 4-1.
Then at the bottom of the ninth inning, the stage was set for what was referred to as “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff or The Shot Heard Around the World!”
Alvin Dark started off with a single, which was followed with another by Don Mueller sending Dark to third. Then Monte Irvin, the NL’s RBI leader popped out. Whitey Lockman hit a double to bring in Dark but Mueller injured himself sliding into third and was replaced by Clint Hartung. The Giants were now down 4-2 with men on second and third bringing Bobby Thomson to the plate to meet history!
Charlie Dressen decided that Newcombe had enough and went to the mound to make a pitching change. He had Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine in the bullpen. On the advice of Clyde Sukeforth, he elected to have Branca pitch to Thomson.
Branca’s first pitch was a fastball down the pipe for a strike. His second was up and in, with the intention of setting up for a breaking ball down and away. Bobby yanked it down the short leftfield line and over a seventeen-foot wall to end the game!
At 3:58 pm that afternoon Russ Hodges screamed over the airwaves: “Giant win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
Bobby Thomson would later admit: “I knew it was a homerun as soon as I hit it. Homerun, upper deck, that’s what, went through my mind. Then all of a sudden, the ball started to sink and for a split second I thought it was going to hit the wall. Then it disappeared. I had never hit a ball like that before.”
Thomson retired after the 1960-season with an impressive career. He was a three time All-Star, all with the Giants. Thomson hit over 20 homeruns eight times, and drove in over 100 runs four times. Arguably his best season was 1951: 32 homeruns, 101 RBIs and a batting average of .293. His lifetime numbers were 264 homers, 1,026 RBIs and a .270 average.
Years later, when I was working at AT&T, I almost crossed paths with Mr. Thomson. It seemed that he lived in Berkley Heights, New Jersey and was golfing buddy of Shel Goldberg, my Division manager. Well, it seems that he came to my workplace to have lunch. Shel brought him to my cube to introduce us, but I was home with my sick son. He left an autograph for me, “To Bobby, Best wishes your friend Bobby Thomson, ‘The Shot Heard around the world!’”
I was disappointed that I missed a chance to meet the man that I heard so much about. I figured that I missed my chance.
After several years passed, my brother in-law Joe called me up to invite me to a Knights of Columbus luncheon. I can still hear him say, “You know more about baseball history, the speaker is some old ball player, you probably heard of, Bobby Thomson?”
Well, you can imagine my reaction. I jumped at the chance to meet him. I am happy to say, that Bobby did not disappoint. He was both entertaining and informative. I had a blast.
I can remember Bobby recalling something Carl Erskine said. When someone asked Erskine what his best pitch was, he replied, “The curveball I bounced in the bullpen at the Polo Grounds!”
After Bobby finished speaking, the audience was invited to come up and meet him. I finally shook hands with him. Sure, I already had a couple of his autographs but I wanted to finally shake his hand. I also brought along a book for him to sign.
What would be more appropriate than “The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant: The Real Story of Bobby Thomson?”
(Bobby Thomson died on August 16, 2010)