Bobby Thomson, whose homer echoed round the world, dies at 86

Bobby Thomson, whose “shot heard round the world” won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and stands as one of baseball’s most celebrated swings, has died. He was 86.

He died last night at his home in Savannah, Georgia, the New York Daily News reported, citing his daughter, Megan Thomson Armstrong.

A power-hitting center fielder turned third baseman, Thomson slugged 264 home runs in 15 seasons in Major League Baseball, the first eight in New York. The home run that propelled the Giants into the 1951 World Series endures as a baseball milestone, even though the Giants went on to lose the championship to the New York Yankees.

The Dodgers that summer had held a seemingly comfortable 13 1/2-game lead over the Giants, their hometown National League rivals. Following a Giants surge, the two teams ended the season in a tie, forcing a three-game playoff to decide the pennant.

The teams split games one and two, and the Giants hosted the deciding game at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951. Trailing 4-1 to start the ninth inning, they narrowed the gap to 4-2 and, with one out, had runners on second and third and Thomson due up. Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen pulled his starting pitcher, Don Newcombe, and replaced him with Ralph Branca.

Thomson lined Branca’s second pitch, an up-and-in fastball, toward the short left-field-corner fence. On the radio, Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges announced:

The Giants Win!’

“Branca throws. There’s a long drive. It’s gonna be, I believe -- the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left field stands. The Giants win the pennant, and they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy!”

Thomson’s shot was “arguably the most dramatic game- winning home run in history,” declared Major League Baseball. The Sporting News named it the greatest moment in baseball history. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Dodgers fan growing up, wrote in her 1998 memoir: “From that moment to this, Bobby Thomson and the Brooklyn Dodgers would be forever linked, the mere mention of his name calling forth in every Dodger fan instant recognition, comradeship, a memory of where they were, how they felt.”

As for Thomson, he wrote in his own memoir, “I have always felt that I received more attention than I deserved for hitting one home run.”

Stealing Signs

An addendum to the story came in 2001, the 50th anniversary of the home run, when Wall Street Journal writer Joshua Prager reported that the Giants had utilized a high-tech system at the Polo Grounds to steal the signs of the opposing team’s catcher, tipping off their batters to what type of pitch was coming.

Thomson acknowledged that the Giants had such a system but insisted he didn’t take advantage of it during his historic at- bat. “I was too busy concentrating on what I had to do when I got to the plate,” he said.

Robert Brown Thomson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 25, 1923, five days after his father, James, a cabinet maker, had left for the U.S. on a long-awaited visa. Working as a carpenter, the elder Thomson saved enough money to bring over his family in mid-1926, and they settled in the New York City borough of Staten Island.

Soccer was Thomson’s sport of choice in high school. In baseball, he rooted for Brooklyn’s Dodgers, which showed interest in him but were beaten to the punch when the Giants signed him the day he graduated high school in 1942.

First Game

After serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Thomson was assigned to the Giants’ minor-league affiliate in Jersey City, New Jersey. His first game in 1946 was also the first professional appearance of Jackie Robinson, playing for the visiting Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ affiliate.

The Giants promoted Thomson to the majors at the end of that season, and he finished third in voting for Rookie of the Year in 1947, his first full season.

Manager Leo Durocher moved from the Dodgers to the Giants in 1948 and found “a ball club that couldn’t win, a team of sluggers with very little speed or defensive ability,” as he put it in Thomson’s memoir. Durocher cleaned house, and by 1950, Thomson was the only leftover starter from 1947.

Thomson “was definitely more than just a slugger,” Durocher wrote. “He may also have been the fastest man in the league.”

Thomson accepted a move from center field to third base in 1951 to make room for rookie Willie Mays. Thomson hit a career- high 32 homers that year, including the one that sent the team to the World Series.

Close to Branca

He never again made the postseason. The Giants traded him in 1953 to the Milwaukee Braves, then took him back during the 1957 season, their last in New York before moving to San Francisco. He finished his career playing in Chicago, Boston and Baltimore.

After baseball, he worked as a salesman for a New York paper company. He had three children with his wife, Elaine, whom he married in 1950. She died in 1993. Their son, Bob, died in 2001.

Thomson became a regular at baseball card and memorabilia shows, often appearing with Branca, who over the years became a close friend.

“Funny how some people think we should be mortal enemies for life,” Branca wrote in an afterword to Thomson’s book. “Yet, in truth, Bobby Thomson is not only a friend, he’s one of my best friends.”

Of the famous home run, Branca said, “I’m sorry it happened to me, but since it did, I’m glad it was Bobby who did it.”