Bobby Thomson, Giants player who hit 'the shot heard round the world,' dies at 86

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; B06

Bobby Thomson, 86, who made baseball history when he sent "the shot heard round the world" over the left field fence at New York's Polo Grounds for a legendary home run on Oct. 3, 1951, died Aug. 16 at his home in Savannah, Ga. No cause of death was reported.

The clock above centerfield read 3:58 that autumn day when Mr. Thomson's right-handed swing on a fastball from Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca launched the underdog New York Giants into the World Series.

It was the ninth inning in the last meeting of a three-game playoff between the Giants and Dodgers to end the regular season and decide the National League pennant. It was also the first sports series to be broadcast on television coast to coast. The Dodgers had led most of the season, but the Giants went 37-7 at the end. By the end of September, both teams were tied 96-58.

Mr. Thomson, a lanky third baseman who lived with his mother on Staten Island a ferry ride from the stadium, was a moderately successful slugger best known for his Scottish ancestry -- but he was in the middle of a hot streak.

The Giants won the first game 3-1, assisted by a two-run homer from Mr. Thomson off Branca. The Dodgers came back and won the second matchup, 10-0.

In the bottom of the ninth inning of the third playoff game, the Dodgers, whose ranks included Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges, led the Giants 4-1. By the time Mr. Thomson got to the plate, there were two Giants on base, one out, and the score was 4-2.

Giants Manager Leo Durocher told Mr. Thomson before he left the bench, "Bobby, if you ever hit one, hit one now."

Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe was relieved by Branca to close the game. Branca's first pitch to Mr. Thomson was called a strike.

His second pitch was high and tight and, as Branca later recalled, Mr. Thomson swung at it "like a tiger pouncing on some wounded antelope."

The resulting home run was a low line drive that landed in the stands of Section 35 above the helpless Dodger left fielder Andy Pafko.

"The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" yelped breathless radio announcer Russ Hodges, immortalizing the energy of the 5-4 victory. New York sportswriter Red Smith began his column describing the ensuing bedlam: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead."

The Sporting News called Mr. Thomson's pennant-clinching blow the greatest moment in baseball history. The historic ball, which was never recovered or accurately identified, was once called the "Holy Grail of Sports."

The Giants went on to lose to the New York Yankees in the World Series -- with no help from Mr. Thomson's bat -- but that fact has been largely forgotten.

Mr. Thomson played parts of 15 seasons for five teams, ending his career with the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. He concluded that his lifetime statistics ( .270 batting average, 264 homers, 1,705 hits and 1,026 RBIs) were "fairly good, but inconsistent," even though he was a three-time all-star player. His peak came and went, he said, that afternoon in October 1951 as he rounded the bases.

"It never occurred to me at the time that it would take its place in history," Mr. Thomson later said. "The only value I placed on it was that it helped the Giants beat the Dodgers. We hated each other, you know; it was a bitter rivalry."

Robert Brown Thomson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 25, 1923. His father was a cabinetmaker and moved his family to New York when Mr. Thomson was an infant.

He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and started playing baseball professionally for Giants minor league affiliates. He moved up to the majors as a center fielder in 1946.

In 2001, a Wall Street Journal reporter said Mr. Thomson was part of a Giants signal-stealing scandal during the 1950s, including the historic 1951 Dodgers game. Mr. Thomson dismissed the allegations and said he did not use the scheme against Branca.

"I was too busy concentrating on what I had to do when I got to the plate," he said.

After baseball, Mr. Thomson worked as a sales representative for a paper company and often went on autograph signing tours with Branca. The two became close friends.

Mr. Thomson's wife, Elaine, whom he married in 1950, died in 1993. Their son, Robert B. Thomson Jr., died in 2001. Survivors include two daughters .

In his memoir, Mr. Thomson wrote: "I have always felt that I received more attention than I deserved for hitting one home run."

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