Former slugger Thomson dies at 86

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McClatchy Tribune
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bobby Thomson, whose “Shot Heard ’Round the World” at the dramatic climax of the 1951 season still is arguably the most famous home run in baseball history, died Monday night in Savannah, Ga. He was 86.

Thomson, born in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised on Staten Island, became an icon when his home run ended a three-game playoff for his New York Giants against their bitter rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The three-run shot against pitcher Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds was immortalized by the radio call of broadcaster Russ Hodges, who yelled into the microphone—and into history—“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

It capped a stunning late-season comeback by the Giants, who had seemed to be way out of the pennant race in trailing by 13 games in August. The game-ending hit, which predated by decades the phrase “walk-off home run,” has been mentioned in movies, novels and documentaries. It retained its place in American culture even after the Giants lost the World Series that year to the Yankees.

For decades after that, Thomson was linked with Branca, and the two were friends. They appeared together many times and once combined for a duet at the New York Baseball Writers Association of America annual awards dinner in Manhattan. In an afterword to Thomson’s autobiography, Branca wrote, “In truth, Bobby Thomson is not only a friend, he’s one of my best friends.”

Thomson, for his part, wrote in the book, “I have always felt that I received more attention than I deserved for hitting one home run.”

But there was no getting away from it, especially in 2001, when Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager wrote that the 1951 Giants had devised an elaborate system to steal opposing teams’ signs through the scoreboard in center field. Thomson acknowledged the existence of the system but said he had not used it during his at-bat against Branca.

His life and career did involve more than one pitch. Thomson was signed by the Giants out of high school in 1942, served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, played minor league ball in Jersey City in 1946 and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 1947.

Manager Leo Durocher considered him one of the fastest players in the league, but moved Thomson, a three-time All-Star, from center field to third base in 1951 to make room for the rookie Willie Mays. It was Mays who was on deck when Thomson hit his memorable home run.

Thomson was later traded to the Milwaukee Braves and had another brush with immortality, and home runs. During a spring training game on March 13, 1954, he broke his ankle sliding into second base. Braves manager Charlie Grimm immediately told rookie Hank Aaron the job was his, beginning a career that ended with Aaron becoming the all-time home run leader at the time.

After he retired from baseball, and before he began making the autograph-show circuit, Thomson worked for a paper company in New York. Elaine, his wife of 43 years, died in 1993. Bob, one of their three children, died in 2001.

Last updated: 2:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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