Monday, August 23, 2010

Bobby Thomson, Jackie Robinson, and Destiny

Bobby Thomson, "The Staten Island Scot", passed away last week at the age of 86. Thomson is of course best known for the "Shot Heard 'Round The World", baseball's most famous walk-off home run, decades before that term was coined.

Thomson - wearing #7 - debuted with the Giants organization on April 18, 1946 in Jersey City. If we don't know much about Thomson's performance or feelings that day, it is understandable, as he was overshadowed by another young player making his debut for the visiting Montreal Royals. After all no one knew that in five years the young Thomson would be responsible for perhaps baseball's most famous home run. But no one watching Jackie Roosevelt Robinson that day had any doubt that history was being made. With the eyes of the nation on him, the first African-American player in an official game in organized baseball went 4-for-5 (including a three-run homer and two bunt singles), batted in four runs, and scored four. The fact that the Royals walloped Jersey City was 14-1 was almost incidental.

Robinson being congratulated after his first home run, at Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, April 18, 1946.

Both players were promoted to their respective big league clubs after their one season in the International League. Robinson led the league in almost everything. Although Thomson's accomplishments were more modest, he set a Little Giants home run record with 26, and the Scotsman's power was enough reason to make the move across the river to the Polo Grounds by the end of the year.

Fast forward to 1951. The trajectories of these two players lead inexorably to the October day that ended the National League season. Having now spent five full seasons with these rival teams, these two players were hardened veterans, and they knew each other well. (The Dodgers and Giants played each other 22 times a year in those days). Robinson, having been freed of the shackles imposed by Branch Rickey his first two seasons was now a defiant, confident, and controversial player, at the height of his skills. Thomson, never a great fielder, had to abdicate his center field position and move to third base to accommodate the most sensational black player since Robinson, the young Willie Mays. But both were having great seasons (Robinson and Thomson finished sixth and eighth, respectively in MVP voting that year).

The Dodgers got off to a roaring start, and by August 11th had amassed a 13 1/2 game lead. Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen had famously (if ungrammatically) declared "The Giants Is Dead". But Leo Durocher's Giant club fought back ferociously, winning 37 of their last 44 games, including their final seven. Only a Brooklyn victory against the Phillies on the last day of the season (on Jackie Robinson's dramatic 14th-inning home run, no less), salvaged a tie for first with New York. The stage was set for a special three-game playoff to decide the National League pennant and the right to face the remaining New York club - the Yankees - in the World Series. (The Yankees were having a historic year of their own. It was the last season of Joe DiMaggio and the first of Mickey Mantle).

Playoffs were only used to break ties in the days before the leagues had divisions, so there was far more drama to this series than there is for today's league playoffs. Dodgers manager Dressen won a coin toss and oddly chose to play only the first game at Ebbets Field (he could have elected to start the series in Manhattan and have the final two games in Brooklyn). What few remember today is that the Giants won the first game 3-1 on a Bobby Thomson two-run homer off (you guessed it) Ralph Branca. The Dodgers easily dominated the Giants at the Polo Grounds the next day (if the Giants were indeed stealing signs, as was learned years later, it didn't do them much good that day against rookie Clem Labine, who shut them out 10-0). This set up the deciding Game Three on October 6.

Seven taut innings of baseball produced a 1-1 tie, with those 1946 rookie opponents Robinson and Thomson each responsible for batting in the lone run for their respective team. But in the top of the eighth the Dodgers broke it open, scoring three against future teammate Sal Maglie. The Bums confidently took the field in the bottom of the ninth, sitting atop a 4-1 lead, and needing just three outs for the pennant. However a tiring Don Newcombe, pitching on just two days' rest, allowed a double to Whitey Lockman, scoring Alvin Dark. (It was Robinson who had persuaded Newcombe to stay in the game). Two on, one out, Dodgers up by two. Dressen had Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca warming up in the bullpen. Thomson had hit Branca hard all year and homered off him for the game winner in Game One, so Erskine was the obvious choice. But bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth thought he saw Erskine bouncing his curve and recommended Branca instead. (Sukeforth would later pay for this decision with his job).

Thomson stepped to the plate saying to himself "If you're gonna hit one, hit one now, you S.O.B". Willie Mays was in the on-deck circle praying the game not be left up to him. As Mays admitted years later, as a 20-year old rookie he simply was not ready for the pressure of that moment - not yet anyway. Thomson took the first pitch for a strike. Branca reeled back and delievered his second pitch. We all know what happened next. Thomson drove Branca's high inside fastball over the left field wall, and into history. "The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!". The Dodgers had lost the title on the last day of the season for the third time in six years.

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At the Polo Grounds, the clubhouses were beyond center field, more than 500 feet from home plate, and the Dodger players, who had to suffer the indignity of trudging all the way across the field to escape the joyful delirium of the Giants and their fans, began their long painful exit. All the Dodgers that is, except one. Jackie Robinson stood quietly and waited until he was sure that Bobby Thomson had touched every base.

Jackie Robinson watches the Giants celebrate Bobby Thomson's home run.

Our flannel of the month is Bobby Thomson's 1946 Jersey City Giants shirt, #7.