These are places that are gone (Bobby Thomson, 1923-2010)

Oh, to be able to do one memorable thing in your life — something so wonderful and momentous and once-in-a-lifetime that people, even ones who weren’t born when it happened, will talk about you after you’re gone.

Something people by the masses will remember in shorthand.

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.

Bobby Thomson.

Ralph Branca.

The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!

Well, he’s gone now. Thomson, the Glasgow-born, Staten Island-raised Flying Scot, the New York Giants’ third baseman whose improbable bottom-of-the-ninth, one-out, three-run line-drive homer off Branca lives on as perhaps the most dramatic moment in American sports history, died yesterday at 86 at his home in Savannah, Ga.

No one except hardcore stats freaks remembers that Thomson played third base and outfield in the bigs for 14 years for several teams: the Giants (twice), the Milwaukee Braves (where he broke an ankle in 1954 spring training and had his roster spot filled by a rookie named Hank Aaron), the Cubs and, in his final partial hang-on season of 1960, the Red Sox and Orioles. That he was a three-time All-Star and had a lifetime .270 batting average.

And no one cares.

What people care about — both contemporaries of his and people who were born years after the fact, and maybe even some non-sports fans — is that he did what many of us would love to do: faced with a pressure-packed situation, he came through in the clutch, and in spades — royal flushes of them. And roses — bouquets of them.

There’s nothing these days that compares to the magnitude of what Thomson did. Not a Super Bowl, not a World Series; not the Yankees-Red Sox or the San Francisco Giants-Los Angeles Dodgers. His eternal moment in the figurative sun of a cloudy late afternoon in upper Manhattan on Oct. 3, 1951, was of a particular time and place:

  • Baseball was still the national pastime. The NFL was struggling mightily to draw fans then; the turning point, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” was seven years away.
  • New York was the center of the universe and also the center of baseball. It was the only city big enough to house three big-league teams at once, and in the glorious 12-year span stretching to just after the National League teams bolted for California (1947-58), New York teams won 10 of those World Series (Yankees 8, Giants and Dodgers 1 each) and 18 pennants. A lot of “never again” in this paragraph.
  • The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were a blood rivalry. The hatred ran deep and long. The teams have hated each other for 120 years, but aside from that Juan Marichal-Johnny Roseboro incident in 1965, nothing in the California history of the series rivals that of New York. Leo Durocher was a champion of Jackie Robinson when he made history, but after he left Brooklyn to manage the Giants in 1949, they became sworn enemies. And when the Dodgers traded Robinson to the Giants before the 1957 season, Robinson retired rather than play for them.
  • The Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 1/2 games in August of 1951. Not until the ’78 Yankees came back from 14 down to upend the Sox did a team surmount such a deficit. And the Dodgers didn’t fold; the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games to force a three-game playoff for the pennant, years before divisional play.
  • The Giants trailed 4-1 going into the ninth inning of the third playoff game after Brooklyn scored three runs in the eighth.

And it was into this setting — one out, pinch-runner Clint Hartung, who just died last month, on third (after Don Mueller broke his ankle sliding); Whitey Lockman on second (after doubling home leadoff hitter Alvin Dark) — that Thomson stepped in against Ralph Branca, who was brought on to relieve starter Don Newcombe.

The improbability of the home run had nothing to do with Thomson’s batting ability; he hit his career-high of 32 that season and homered off Branca in Game 1 of the playoff.

Part of it was just the cumulative drama of the situation. Part of it was the configuration of the ballpark.

While it never hosted a polo match, the last of several New York venues to bear the name “Polo Grounds” was better suited to chukkers than innings. The dimensions were 257 feet to right field, 279 to left — and 483 to the deadest of dead center. (Think of that when you consider the greatest play in baseball history: Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in the Series three years later, about 440 feet back.) And the left-field wall was 17 feet high.

By rights, Thomson’s line drive on an 0-1 off Branca should have died and hit the wall in left. But just like Bucky Dent’s pop fly in ’78, something cosmic made the ball carry over the wall and into history.

Thomson did what every kid dreams of doing, of course — hit the game-winning home run in the biggest situation of his life. But it was a locus of time, space and circumstance that elevated this moment above every single other in the history of baseball.

The flipside to the moment of glory is that you can live another 59 years, as Thomson did, and not have another moment that comes close. (And then you’ll have to talk about the damn thing for the rest of your life, too.) But hell, he did it. He just plain did it. And I’m sure he led a decent life, raised a good family and all — which, in the grand scheme of things, is a lot more important than hitting a ball with a stick. But nearly everyone wants to do that one really wonderfully momentous thing in life that will be remembered for as long as there are memories.

Y’know, I don’t think I ever heard Russ Hodges’ legendary call of the home run growing up; maybe once on “Sports Challenge” as a kid or something. It wasn’t until Tommy Keene recorded his original version of “Places That Are Gone” in ’83, which incorporated the call, that I truly heard it and could put it in perspective. And now this place is truly gone. And as the perpetual kid I still am, I still hope I get the chance to step up and have my Bobby Thomson moment.

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