‘The shot heard ’round the world’ and a life-long love affair
Special to the Appeal
One summer day in 1957, an 8-year-old boy growing up in a lower-middle-class family in a small town in the Midwest was indulged by his mother with 1 cent to spend at the corner market. So began a life-long love affair.
He’d seen neighborhood kids playing with baseball cards, and that day he bought his first one, in a penny pack – a single card plus a powder-covered stick of pink bubble gum wrapped together in a brightly decorated paper sealed with wax. The card and the experience were enchanting, and he was hooked.
Card #262 in the 1957 Topps set featured Bobby Thomson, then with the Milwaukee Braves. It was a perfectly framed full-length color photo of the outfielder in his batting stance, a pleasant but determined look on his face. The grass in the photo was as lushly green as all the Midwest in May, and the red-and-black Braves logo on the uniform was vibrant.
The next week, the boy wheedled 5 cents out of his mom and bought a nickel pack, with six cards and a larger slab of gum. The first card in that pack was a thing of wonder: a card titled “Dodger Sluggers,” featuring four Brooklyn batsmen kneeling side-by-side in an on-deck position with their bats perfectly aligned. Card #400, with Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, is famous as Topps’ first stars card and is much beloved by collectors.
He soon learned about rooting for a team, and the Sluggers card had sewn up his loyalty to “Da Bums” for life. Any team with four such awesome heroes as depicted in royal-blue-and-white flannel on that cool card was simply the best. But becoming a Dodgers fan based on that card after getting hooked on the hobby by the Thomson card carried an irony he didn’t appreciate at such a young age.
For, six years earlier, on Oct. 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson, batting for the despised New York Giants in the last inning of the only intra-city league championship playoff series ever, won the pennant with a walk-off home run that epitomized the heartbreak that had long dogged Brooklyn fans.
Through World War II, the Dodgers had been one of the sorrier franchises in baseball. But in 1947, rookies Snider, Hodges and Jackie Robinson teamed with captain Pee Wee Reese, second-year man Furillo and decent pitching to win the National League pennant. With the arrival of Campanella in 1948, Da Bums became the best National League team of the era, winning in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956, before breaking their fans’ hearts a final time by leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958. They had, however, finally won the World Series in 1955, after four series losses to the also despised cross-town Yankees.
But in 1951, the Dodgers led the league in mid-August, 13.5 games ahead of the Giants, and seemed to be cruising to the World Series. Then, in an unprecedented swoon-and-surge combo, they struggled and the Giants won 16 games in a row to end the season tied. With the playoff series tied at 1-1, the Dodgers led the deciding game at the Giants’ Polo Grounds home field, 4-2, in the bottom of the ninth, with Brooklyn’s ace pitcher, Ralph Branca, on the mound.
The Giants had two runners aboard when Thomson stepped up to bat. It was the first popular-culture moment broadcast by electronic media that caused people all over New York City, across the country, and even around the world to remember decades later exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard or saw it unfold. Or, “The (Second) Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Thomson hit Branca’s pitch into the left-field seats as the announcer screamed repeatedly over the air waves, “The Giants win the pennant!”
It was the beginning of the end as a player for Branca, who kept a stiff upper lip, but was never the same pitcher after that. And while Thomson played until the end of the decade, his career also drifted downhill. Years later, the two toured the banquet circuit and sports-memorabilia shows together in an awkward show of sportsmanship, to great response.
But in 2001, almost 50 years after the event, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Giants’ miracle run and Thomson’s home run had both been facilitated by … sign stealing! In an office in the centerfield stands, the Giants had a coach with a telescope who was picking up opposing catchers’ signals to their pitchers and relaying those signals via a buzzer system to the Giants’ bullpen, also in centerfield. With hand signals, the bullpen let the Giants’ batters know whether they were facing a fast ball or curve.
The revelation lifted a burden from the shoulders of both men. Its sunlight gave them redemption. Branca could at last talk about what had long been rumored that he had been too honorable ever to mention. Thomson could at last emerge from a guilty secret. Both men showed class throughout, and the awkward friendship before the revelation flowered into a real one afterward. Both of them recognized that, even though Thomson had a sneaky advantage, Branca had still brought his best stuff and Thomson had to hit that.
And the little boy? He was one of the lucky few: His good mother did not throw out his baseball cards when he went away to college. Today, he lives in Carson City and still has the two cards – now in well-loved condition in protective plastic holders. He still collects cards and loves the game, its lore and his hobby. He and his wife, Kathy, have a 5-year-old daughter, Karyn. They hope she will inherit those loves along with those cards and will enjoy the many lessons of life that Branca, Thomson and legions of others have shown that sports can teach.
• Ron Knecht, an economist and Nevada University Regent, had such meager baseball skills that he had to get his letters as a distance runner.