Famed home-run hitter Bobby Thomson dead at 86
NEW YORK – Bobby Thomson, whose “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951 has echoed through baseball history as perhaps the game’s most famous home run, has died. He was 86.
Thomson had been in failing health for several years. He died at home in Savannah, Ga., on Monday night, the Fox & Weeks funeral home said Tuesday.
On that October afternoon, with one swing, Thomson transformed a pennant race for one season, and his life forever. He connected off Ralph Branca for a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning in the decisive Game 3 of a National League playoff, lifting the New York Giants over their dreaded rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The drive into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds and broadcaster Russ Hodges’ ecstatic call of “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.
Yet 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.”
The home run decided one of baseball’s 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?
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 steadfastly claimed 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.
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 homered on Oct. 3, and the 1951 World Series began the next day. Thomson hit a mere .238 without a home run as the Giants 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.
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 frenzy.
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.
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’s survivors include two daughters, Megan and Nancy.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed to this report.
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