Bobby Thomson, with his hand raised, was surrounded by his teammates after he hit a home run in the ninth inning to win the National League pennant for the Giants.
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Bobby Thomson, who swatted the most famous home run in baseball history — the so-called “shot heard round the world” — for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951, to cap baseball’s most memorable pennant drive, died Monday at his home in Savannah, Ga. He was 86.
His death was announced by his daughter Megan Thomson Armstrong, who said he had been in failing health and had recently had a fall.
Partly because of the fierce rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers; partly because it was broadcast from coast to coast on television; and partly because it was memorably described in a play-by-play call by the Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges, Thomson’s three-run homer endures as perhaps the most dramatic moment in baseball history. It was a stirring conclusion to the Giants’ late-summer comeback, known as the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, and remains an enduring symbol of victory snatched from defeat (and vice versa).
“I can remember feeling as if time was just frozen,” Thomson once said. “It was a delirious, delicious moment.”
It was the bottom of the ninth inning in the third game of a three-game playoff. The Giants were down by two runs and the count was no balls and one strike. Branca, who had just come into the game, delivered a high fastball to Thomson, perhaps a bit inside. In the radio broadcast booth, Hodges watched the baseball fly off Thomson’s bat.
“There’s a long drive ... it’s gonna be ... I believe — the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!
“Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant, and they’re going crazy, they’re going crazy! ...
“I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it, I do not believe it!”
Thomson’s home run propelled the Giants to a 5-4 victory,he and Branca became bonded as baseball’s ultimate hero and goat, and the moment became enshrined in American culture. In 1999, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Thomson’s drive, and Don DeLilloused the baseball he hit as a relic of memory in the acclaimed 1997 novel “Underworld.”
Robert Brown Thomson was born on Oct. 25, 1923, in Glasgow and arrived in the United States at age 2. The son of a cabinetmaker, he grew up on Staten Island and signed with the Giants’ organization for a $100 bonus in 1942 out of Curtis High School.
A right-handed batter with good power and excellent speed,Thomson was in his fifth full season with the Giants in 1951. He got off to a slow start, playing center field, then went to the bench in May when the Giants called up a 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays. But Thomson was playing regularly again by late July, this time at third base, and he hit better than .350 over the final two months of the season.
In mid-August, the Giants trailed the first-place Dodgers by 13 ½ games, and the Dodgers’ manager, Charlie Dressen, had proclaimed, “The Giants is dead.” But they went on a 16-game winning streak, and they tied the Dodgers for the National League lead on the season’s final weekend.
The Giants won the playoff opener, 3-1, at Ebbets Field, behind Thomson’s two-run homer off Branca, the Dodgers starter. But the Dodgers romped, 10-0, the next day at the Polo Grounds.
On Wednesday afternoon, the teams returned to the Polo Grounds to play for the pennant. It was an overcast day, and the attendance was just 34,320 — some 22,000 below capacity — for a duel of pitching aces, the Giants’ Sal Maglie against the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe.
Thomson blundered in the second inning, trying to stretch a hit into a double while his teammate Whitey Lockman was standing at second base; Thomson was tagged out in a rundown. His fly ball tied the score at 1-1 in the seventh, but in the eighth he let two ground balls get by him at third base for singles in the Dodgers’ three-run rally, giving them a 4-1 lead.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants had runners on second and third with one run in and one out. Dressen removed Newcombe and waved in Branca to face Thomson, who had hit 31 home runs that season, two against Branca.
“I kept telling myself: ‘Wait and watch. Give yourself a chance to hit,’ ” Thomson remembered.
Branca threw a fastball and Thomson moved his bat slightly but took a strike.
Branca delivered a second fastball, and this time Thomson sent the ball on a line toward the 16-foot-high green wall in left field. “Sink, sink, sink,” Branca told himself.
The Dodgers’ Andy Pafko slumped against the wall as the ball cleared the top and landed in the lower deck.
Thomson galloped around the bases as Branca began a long walk to the center-field clubhouse. Eddie Stanky, the Giants’ second baseman, and Leo Durocher, the manager, hugged each other in a madcap dance in the third-base coach’s box and grabbed at Thomson as he reached the bag. He broke away and arrived at home plate with a leap, surrounded by teammates who carried him on their shoulders.
“Now it is done,” Red Smith wrote in The New York Herald Tribune. “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.”
Thomson’s home run eventually became entangled in revelations of a sign-stealing operation conducted by the Giants in 1951, related by the sports columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times in his book “Pennant Races” (1994) and by Joshua Prager in The Wall Street Journal in 2001 and in his book “The Echoing Green” (2006).
Prager reported that several players on the 1951 Giants, including Thomson, had confirmed that they stole opposing catchers’ signals for much of the season via a buzzer system using a “spy” with a telescope in the center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds. But Thomson told Prager that he was not tipped off to the kind of pitch Branca would be throwing when he hit the pennant-winning homer.
In an interview last month, Branca said he felt that Thomson did receive a signal from the Giants’ bullpen that a fastball was coming on that fateful pitch.
“When you took signs all year, and when you had a chance to hit a bloop or hit a home run, would you ignore that sign?” Branca said. “He knew it was coming. Absolutely.”
The rest of Thomson’s career was anticlimax. He performed no World Series miracles as the Giants were beaten by the Yankees in six games. He was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in February 1954, but soon afterward broke an ankle sliding in an exhibition game. He played for the Giants again in 1957, then with the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Soxand the Baltimore Orioles, and retired after the 1960 season with a batting average of .270 and 264 home runs over 15 years.
After leaving baseball, Thomson, a quiet, modest man, became a sales executive with the Westvaco paper-products company, now part of MeadWestvaco. “I wanted to get a responsible job, stay home more with my wife and daughter and live a normal life,” he said.
Thomson lived in Watchung, N.J., until 2006, when he moved to Savannah to be near his daughter Nancy Mitchell. She survives him, as do his daughter Megan Thomson Armstrong, of Milford, N.J., and six grandchildren. Thomson’s wife, Elaine, died in 1993.
In an interview Tuesday, Mays, who was on deck when Thomson hit his epic homer, recalled how grateful he was to Thomson for helping him adjust to the major leagues when he arrived with the Giants as a rookie in 1951 and Durocher put him in center field.
“Leo wanted him to move to third base,” Mays said of Thomson. “He didn’t have a problem with that. That’s class.”
Over the years, Thomson appeared with Branca at old-timers’ games, baseball dinners and autograph shows. They donated much of the money they made to charity and forged a certain closeness.
At one joint appearance on the 40th anniversary of his dramatic home run, Thomson remarked that “Ralph didn’t run away and hide.”
Branca responded, “I lost a game, but I made a friend.”