On the afternoon of October 3, 2001, fifty years to the hour after Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ’round the world, I took my two and half year old son to the Polo Grounds Houses which stand where the Polo Grounds once stood, to show him the spot where half a century earlier a ballgame had been played. I explained to my largely uncomprehending son the historical significance of the place and the day.
A few years later, I took my sons to an exhibit on baseball in New York in the 1950s at a local museum. As we looked at the exhibit about Thomson’s home run, a man in his 70s joined us in looking at the photos. He shook his head sadly and seemed almost sick as he took in the exhibit. I struck up a conversation with the man, who told me that he had been a big Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He also revealed that he had bet his entire month’s salary on that Dodger-Giant series and Thomson had made him lose the bet. I asked him if he had been at the game. He smiled and said that in October of 1951 he had been in the army in Korea. Thomson’s home run still had the ability to provoke these kinds of emotions decades after that fall afternoon in Northern Manhattan.
There are a handful of baseball players whose fame has a special quality which exceeds their accomplishments on the fields, and earns these players a place in our national consciousness. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson have achieved this status, as have only a very few other players. There are an even smaller number of plays which earn such a place in the broader culture. World Series ending home runs by Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, as well as other important home runs such as Bucky Dent’s three run home run in the one game Yankee-Red Sox playoff in 1978 or Fred Merkle’s failure to touch second base in an important Giants-Cubs game in 1908, have an enduring place in baseball history, but little resonance more broadly.
Perhaps the single most famous play in baseball history, and one of the very few that has significance outside of baseball was Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ‘round the world in 1951. Thomson’s ninth inning home run gave the Giants a come from behind victory against the rival Brooklyn Dodgers in the deciding game of a three game playoff for the NL pennant. Thomson’s home run has been immortalized in photographs as well as by Russ Hodges famous mantra “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” These are among the game’s most indelible memories. Thomson died this week. He was 86 years old and a long way from the Polo Grounds and 1951.
Thomson’s home run, however, has taken on a significance that goes beyond baseball. It has also been the subject of the opening section of an important novel about Cold War America, Dom DeLillo’s Underworld, and in its own way has been linked to the postwar ascendancy of the U.S and to the Cold War which dominated that period. Thomson’s home run was called the shot heard ’round the world because American troops serving in the conflict in Korea were able to hear the game, and the home run on the radio half a world away from Northern Manhattan where the game was played.
Thomson’s home run was perhaps the ultimate New York baseball story at a time when New York truly dominated baseball. Between 1949 and 1958, at least one New York team was in the World Series every year. 1951 was the first of three consecutive years when the World Series was played entirely in New York. The shot heard ‘round the world occurred when a Staten Islander helped a team from Manhattan beat a team from Brooklyn to earn a spot in the World Series against a team from the Bronx. The shot heard ‘round of the world was also part of the history the Giants took with them to San Francisco a mere six years later; and many current Giants fans also identify with Thomson’s home run against the still hated Dodgers.
Bobby Thomson the player has always been overshadowed by his greatest moment, but Thomson was a good player. According to baseballreference.com, recent players who were most similar to Thompson include George Bell, Bobby Murcer, and Ben Oglivie, all good players who fell a few steps short of being truly great. Thomson enjoyed his best season in 1951. That year, he led the pennant winning Giants in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. Thomson was supposed to have been the team’s starting centerfielder that year, but quickly lost that job to a rookie from Alabama named Willie Mays. Instead he split his time between the outfield and third base. Interestingly three years later, Thomson, by then a member of the Milwaukee Braves, was injured in spring training and replaced in right field by another rookie from Alabama, Henry Aaron.
Thomson finished his big league career in 1960 with the Baltimore Orioles and died half a century later. Thomson’s had a long life after baseball which was punctuated by frequent autograph signings and other fan events. For 59 years Bobby Thomson lived with the knowledge that he had hit the most famous home run in baseball history. That home run both obscured a very good career and gave Thomson a place in baseball history comparable to the game’s very best. Fame of that kind can be difficult, but Thomson seemed to handle it well.
Thomson’s death feels like the passing of an era that actually ended decades ago. The home run occurred when baseball was played in black and white, New York had three teams, and a radio broadcast of a ballgame to a soldier in Asia was considered an impressive technological feat. The home run belongs to a time, city, and even country of the long ago past, but somehow it can still make a young father feel compelled to share the event, which occurred years before he was born, with his young son and an make an aging veteran still feel his monthly paycheck slipping away just as Thomson’s fly ball slipped over the left field fence and into history.