I was five years old, and I was half-watching the game on our new television set with my father and uncle. (The other half of me was looking at the pictures of the ball players on my collection of baseball cards.)
The year was 1951, the month was October, and my dad and uncle were watching the game at our house because my uncle hadn’t yet purchased a television (TV was not yet the accepted word) for his family. I knew the Dodgers and Giants were playing for the pennant, but I wasn’t too interested in the actual play of the game, other than to note that the Dodgers (the team I had grown fond of because they had an exciting player named Jackie Robinson) had taken the lead (much to my uncle’s delight) and appeared on their way to victory.
Then, suddenly, both my uncle and father were shouting wildly, my uncle expressing disgust, my father mild amusement (he was a Yankee fan). I looked up from my baseball cards to see pandemonium on the television screen. Some guy named Bobby Thomson had hit a home run to win the game, and everyone at the ballpark seemed to be going crazy. (“They’re going crazy; they’re going crazy!” was the latter part of Russ Hodges’ dramatic call on the radio, which I didn’t hear then, but have since heard about a gazillion times.)
Bobby Thomson died last week at the age of 86. The obituaries recalled the home run and most writers again proclaimed it the most dramatic home run in the history of organized baseball. I suppose it probably is, although for my money the Kirk Gibson homer off of Dennis Eckersley in the first game of the 1988 World Series tops it.
No matter; it was a classic moment in the history of the game, one that has endured as a “truth is greater than fiction” scene six decades after it happened.
I suppose anyone who witnessed the home run and is still alive experienced an emotional reaction to the news of Thomson’s death. Certainly that emotion wouldn’t have been a sense of sadness at his passing. Bobby Thomson was probably a good guy who lived a fine, upstanding life after his playing days ended, but no one would suggest that his life was one to honor or that his passing was akin to the death of a president or a famous movie star or even a giant in the world of business.
Thomson was famous for one moment in his life, a moment that elevated him from the good, but not great, all-around ballplayer he was over a fourteen year career, and made him an improbable hero. And, to his credit, for the rest of his life, Thomson was always too humble to consider his feat anything other than a propitiously timed home run that just happened to win the National League pennant for his team.
Baseball is that kind of a game, whether it is played by the truly great athletes who make it to the major leagues or by the ten-year olds who play it in little league organizations in their home towns. Most of the time, it’s a humbling game. Big leaguers and little leaguers alike usually make an out about 70 percent of the time. At every level, a .400 batting average is something to take note of, a rarity, even if it means the player still made an out sixty percent of the time.
Actually, Thomson’s humility may also have been due to his awareness of the twist of fortunes he had experienced in that very game. Playing third base in the eighth inning, Thomson had misplayed two balls hit to him. Those misplays had led to three Dodgers runs, breaking a 1-1 tie and setting the stage for the Giants’ dramatic comeback in the bottom of the ninth.
From goat to hero in the space of thirty minutes. Only in the world of sports do such turnarounds occur, and only in baseball can one player have such an experience. The other team sports (and goats only exist in team sports) are too dependent on the play of several teammates for the fate of the game to rest entirely on one player’s performance.
Of course, there were stories on the other side of the field as well, albeit the stories there didn’t have the same happy ending.
Ralph Branca was the Dodgers pitcher who served up the “shot heard ‘round the world.” He had just come in to relieve the starter, Don Newcombe, who had been the Dodgers’ ace all year. But Newcombe had run out of steam in the ninth (or, as some have suggested, maybe he just ran out of nerve).
Branca was hardly chopped liver. He had been an all star three times and had won 13 games that year. He was still only 25 years old, and should have had a significant career ahead of him. But that home run pretty much finished him. From 1952 to 1956, his last year, he only won another 12 games, never more than four in a season. The Thomson home run may not have been the entire cause of his demise, but it certainly pierced any sense of invincibility he may previously have had. Call it a different kind of humility.
In comparison, my life, and I suppose the lives of most of the then five (or ten or fifteen) year olds who also watched (or half-watched) that game in October of 1951, has had neither Bobby Thomson nor Ralph Branca moments of greatness or humility.
I’ve plodded along, probably hitting something less than the equivalent of .300 in my chosen fields of endeavor. All things considered, I’ve been a fair-to-middling player in the game of life. I’ve had my moments, to be sure, but none that are going to be cause for a major obituary when I die.
Bobby Thomson had his. Ralph Branca, too. The rest of us just get to ponder it all as we watch it pass on by.