Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Bobby Thomson dead at 86
NEW YORK -- We've heard the frenzied call forever, echoing through baseball lore.
"The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
Bobby Thomson, the man immortalized with his "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951, died Monday night at his home in Savannah, Ga. He was 86 and had been in failing health for several years, the Fox & Weeks funeral home said Tuesday.
He was a good player, not a Hall of Famer. Yet on that October afternoon, with one swing, Thomson transformed a pennant race for one season into a baseball moment for the ages.
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Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run played a lead role in passion play, ESPN.com's Rob Neyer writes. Blog
He hit perhaps the sport's most famous home run, connecting off Ralph Branca for a three-run drive in the bottom of the ninth inning that sent the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the decisive Game 3 of their National League playoff.
The drive into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds and broadcaster Russ Hodges' ecstatic declaration -- four times shouting "the Giants win the pennant!" -- remain one of the signature moments in major league history.
"I never thought it was going to be that big. Hell, no," Branca told The Associated Press from his home in suburban New York. "When we went into the next season, I thought it'd be forgotten."
"I'll miss him," Branca said. "I mellowed over the years and we became good friends. I enjoyed being around him."
A three-time All-Star as an infielder and outfielder, Thomson hit .270 with 264 career home runs and 1,026 RBIs from 1946-60 with several teams. He led the league in a hitting category only once, and that was for triples.
But the fly ball that flew over the wall vaulted "The Flying Scot" to a place of almost mythic status. There have been plenty of historic home runs over the years -- Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk and Joe Carter, to name a few -- but Thomson's shot stands as the giant among them all.
The tall, lanky and self-effacing Thomson, however, was stunned that in a lineup that included future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, he would hit the pennant-winning homer. He called himself "the accidental hero."
Thomson never quite understood all the fuss the homer created. On its 40th anniversary in 1991, he said, "I can't believe we're still talking about it."
"Bobby Thomson will always hold a special place in our game for hitting one of the signature home runs in baseball history. 'The Shot Heard 'Round the World' will always remain a defining moment for our game, illustrating the timeless quality of the national pastime," commissioner Bud Selig said.
The home run decided one of the most memorable pennant races, and later led to one of its most-debated questions: Did he know Branca was going to throw the high-and-inside fastball that Thomson hit out of the park?
The Shot Heard 'Round the World
On Oct. 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson -- who died Monday night at 86 -- hit arguably the most famous home run in baseball history. Photo gallery
More than a half-century later, it was revealed the Giants during the season had used a buzzer-and-telescope system to steal signals from opposing catchers. Helped by the inside information, the Giants overcame a 13 1/2-game deficit to the Dodgers, won 37 of their final 44 games and forced a playoff.
Thomson always insisted he did not know what pitch was coming when he connected. Branca was never quite so sure.
For years, Thomson and Branca appeared together at functions of all kinds, a modern-day Abbott & Costello act, their retelling of the moment filled with fine-tuned comic touches and playful jabs. Often, Branca would prompt Thomson to claim more of the credit.
Only one thing was missing from their act: the home run ball itself. The prize remains an elusive souvenir, with several people claiming to have it but no one able to prove.
"We did award shows, dinners, autograph shows, golf outings, maybe five or six a year," Branca said.
Thomson moved south about five years ago to be closer to one of his daughters. Branca said he hadn't seen him for a couple of years.
Long after the Giants and Dodgers left town and moved west, Thomson remained a recognized figure on New York streets. Taxi drivers, office workers and pedestrians of a certain age would stop him or call out his name -- the old Giants fans cheered, the Dodgers crowd, not so much.
Thomson hit a career-high 32 home runs in 1951, and his shot on Oct. 3 sent the Giants into the World Series the next day. He hit a mere .238 without a home run as his team lost in six games to the crosstown New York Yankees, who were in the midst of winning a record five straight crowns.
The luster from Thomson's shot, though, never dimmed. There was even a funny postscript, provided by the great Yogi Berra.
Berra and some of his Yankees teammates attended Game 3 of the Dodgers-Giants playoff, eager to see which team they would face. But after Brooklyn scored three times in the eighth inning for a 4-1 lead, Berra decided he'd seen enough and wanted to beat the late-afternoon traffic.
Yep, it's true. The man who coined the phrase "it ain't over till it's over" thought it was over and actually left the Polo Grounds and was driving home when Thomson homered.
"Bobby was a heck of a guy," Berra said Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
Moments of silence for Thomson were held at Yankee Stadium, where the grainy, black-and-white clip of his homer was shown on the videoboard, and Fenway Park.
Thomson's home run came during an era that baseball fondly calls "The Golden Age," a time when the sport was No. 1 in America and New York was its epicenter. The pennant race between those longtime rivals, the Giants and Dodgers, only heightened the tension.
New York won Game 1 of the playoff as Thomson homered against Branca in what turned out to be an eerie precursor. Brooklyn won Game 2 in a rout, setting up a winner-take-all rematch.
Down 4-1 in the ninth, the Giants began to rally when Alvin Dark and Don Mueller led off with singles against Don Newcombe. After Irvin fouled out, Whitey Lockman hit an RBI double that made it 4-2.
Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third and was replaced by pinch-runner Clint Hartung -- in fact, a little more than a month ago, Hartung died.
Branca then relieved Newcombe and on an 0-1 pitch, Thomson connected. And the rest, really, was history.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Thomson was named after an uncle who was killed in World War I. He came to the United States in 1926 when he was 3 years old and the family settled in Staten Island, N.Y., where he played high school and semipro ball. He worked out for both the Giants and Dodgers and after signing a contract with the Giants in 1942, he spent three years in the military during World War II.
Bobby Thomson's game-ending homer gave the New York Giants the 1951 pennant and made him an icon.
When Thomson came to the major leagues in 1947, he was a fleet center fielder, often called "The Staten Island Scot," and lauded for his speed, but he was an anomaly in a lineup of slow-footed sluggers.
The Giants hit 221 homers in Thomson's rookie season and he had 29 of them. By 1949, Thomson was a prominent hitter in the lineup, batting .309 with 27 homers and 109 RBIs.
The rivalry with the Dodgers was as intense as any in sports, two teams in the same city, playing in the same league. There seemed a genuine dislike for each other by the players and sometimes it overshadowed the games.
When he hit the homer, Thomson recalled the emotion of the moment. "I remember thinking, `We beat the Dodgers! We beat the Dodgers!' Then, almost as an afterthought, 'We won the pennant!' "
The home run made him an immediate New York icon. There were television appearances, banquet speeches, the whole range of spoils for a low-profile outfielder who won a pennant with one dramatic swing.
But sentiment goes only so far in baseball front offices and in February 1954, the Giants traded Thomson to the Milwaukee Braves for four players and cash.
In a spring training exhibition game, Thomson broke his ankle trying to break up a double play. His roster spot went to a rookie who would fill in admirably for the Braves. Hank Aaron went on to set a record with 755 home runs.
Thomson spent two seasons with the Braves and then was traded back to the Giants in 1957, their last season in New York. Then there were cameo appearances with the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.
Thomson was a businessman after he retired and stayed around the New York area for many years.
"He was a real gentleman and I think he handled his role well, too, being the hero of that series," said former Brooklyn pitcher Carl Erskine, who was warming up in the bullpen when Branca was summoned. "I think he and Branca turned that incident into two real pros who handled that in a real class way."
Thomson joined other members of the 1951 Giants team at AT&T Park in San Francisco for a celebration in July 2002.
"Many of us in the organization had the opportunity to meet and spend time with Bobby and for that we will be forever grateful," Giants managing partner Bill Neukom said.
Thomson's survivors include two daughters, Megan and Nancy.
Funeral arrangements were pending.