Bobby Thomson didn’t hit his famous home run off a tee, in case you were wondering.
Nor did he flip the ball into the air, fungo-style, and swat it over the left field wall at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951.
Most of the great history makers had sidekicks.
Charles Lindbergh had the Atlantic—and his plane. Dr. Jonas Salk had mold. Elvis Presley had his hips.
And Bobby Thomson had Ralph Branca.
Thomson, auteur of the biggest walk-off home run in baseball history, died this week at age 86.
It was Thomson who slammed Branca’s pitch into the Polo Grounds seats in the bottom of the ninth of the tiebreaker game between Thomson’s New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, lifting the Giants into the 1951 World Series.
With one swing, Thomson became as famous as Babe Ruth, even though he was one-tenth the player that Ruth was.
Such is the gravitational pull of the legendary singular moments that occur from time to time in baseball, a sport where nothing can happen until the pitcher hurls the ball toward the plate. After that, all bets are off.
Thomson’s three-run home run capped a furious second half charge by the Giants, who found themselves double digits in games behind the Dodgers at one point during the 1951 season.
The Giants chomped into the Dodgers’ lead like a Pac Man game until the two teams were in a dead heat by season’s end. Baseball rules at the time mandated a best-of-three playoff to determine the league champion.
The teams split the first two games of the playoff, and the Dodgers were ahead 4-2 when Branca was summoned from the bullpen in the ninth inning of Game 3.
Thomson had some power; he hit 264 home runs in his 15-year career. This wasn’t Bucky Dent/1978 at the plate.
You know what happened. Branca threw, Thomson swung, and Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges lost his mind.
“THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT”
A young whippersnapper on Bleacher Report suggested to me that Hodges’ call—long heralded as the most famous in sports history—was overrated.
“All he did was yell the same thing over and over,” the whippersnapper whined. “What was so special about that?”
If he’d been sitting next to me I would have backhanded him across his puss.
Instead, I took a deep breath and wrote back to him that Hodges’ call gained so much notoriety because it was basically the very first dramatic sports call captured on audio tape.
That, plus even many non-sports fans know what “The Giants Win the Pennant!” refers to.
Branca, by the way, is still alive, if anyone has cared to wonder.
He’s 84 and enjoying his retirement at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York.
What’s fascinating, to me, about the Branca/Thompson connection is that neither player was anything close to being a Hall of Famer. If they didn’t have the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” no one beyond their own families would know who they were after retirement.
Branca was 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA. He made three All-Star teams but he was no star, per se. Thomson had a career batting average of .270 and ended up becoming a journeyman, playing for five teams from 1946 to 1960. Thomson, too, made some All-Star teams but All-Star rosters throughout history are teeming with dogs who had their day.
Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca were joined at the hip the moment that baseball soared into the seats at the Polo Grounds on 10/3/51.
Baseball’s Batman and Robin, forever.
Ironically, just months prior to his death, Thomson was finally showing signs of Branca fatigue.
For decades, Thomson had been haunted by accusations that sign-stealing engineered by Giants manager Leo Durocher enabled Durocher to somehow signal to Thomson what pitch was coming from Branca—specifically a fastball.
Thomson vehemently denied those charges.
In a Q&A with the New York Post’s Steve Serby published in May 2010, Thomson says those who accuse him of benefiting from sign-stealing are trying to take something away from him.
Among the accusers: Ralph Branca himself.
“Naturally I’m not happy about anyone who takes away from me the one thing that I’ve always thought, the one thing I can take credit for (that) I’ve earned in my baseball life,” Thomson told the Post.
So does Thomson have any hard feelings toward Branca re: the sign stealing accusations?
“I just got a little tired of having that home run taken away from me. I was glad to get down here in Savannah (GA) and get away from it. In the last four years, (Branca’s) called twice, I guess to do a card show. I’m all through with card shows, and I wasn’t going to come to New York. I’ve had enough of Ralph, and I’m sure he’s had enough of Thomson.”
Thomson also hit a homer off Branca in Game One of the playoff. Funny how no one has cried about stealing signs when it comes to THAT dinger.
But a word about Ralph Branca.
On the day Jackie Robinson made his big league debut in 1947, the number of folks against the idea of a black man taking a Major League Baseball field included many of Robinson’s own Dodgers teammates.
In fact, only one of them had the temerity, the courage, and the sense of decency to stand alongside Robinson during the playing of the National Anthem prior to the game. The others refused.
That man was Ralph Branca.
Indeed, the sign stealing thing aside, Thomson calls Branca “A very decent person.”
Baseball immortality strikes like lightning—it shows no preference based on skill, stardom, or reputation. And it comes with no warning whatsoever.
The Tigers had a light-hitting shortstop named Cesar Gutierrez, a career .235 hitter. Yet on June 21, 1970, Gutierrez went 7-for-7 in an extra-innings game in Cleveland. He came into the contest hitting a robust .218.
Ty Cobb never went 7-for-7. Nor did Ted Williams or Rogers Hornsby or Tony Gwynn.
I love the suddenness of baseball fame and infamy. The sport has a propensity for it that makes it, in my mind, America’s greatest game.
“It’s a funny thing with Ralph Branca and me ending up the way we did on the ballfield,” Thomson told the Post.