Joshua Prager revisits the home run
No home run in baseball history is as famous as Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” Not Pirate Bill Mazeroski’s off Yankee Ralph Terry in 1960, or Pudge Fisk’s in 1975 against the Big Red Machine in the 12th inning at Fenway Park, or Dodger Kirk Gibson’s home run on one leg off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in 1988. Mazeroski’s won a World Series; Fisk’s and Gibson’s blasts won World Series games: Thomson’s won a pennant for the come-from-behind New York Giants. It would have been memorable in any case, but coming off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ralph Branca to win a one-game playoff lifted the “shot” to the pinnacle of baseball’s Parnassus.
HOT-STOVE TALE: Prager tells you more than you want to know, but it’s still a great story.
Joshua Prager’s book about Thomson, Branca, and the home run begins by noting that fans of a certain age know where they were on October 3, 1951 when Thomson hit the “shot.” It is an American date like December 7, November 22, and September 11. My relationship to the home run is threefold. I saw it on television though, truth be told, it did not mean that much to me because neither the Giants nor Dodgers were my team. In 1959 I bowled at an alley in Stratford, Connecticut, owned by Ralph Branca so that I could receive a pair of bowling shoes from the hands of baseball’s reigning goat. On the home run’s 13th anniversary I married Beverly Mitchell, whose father, a lifelong Dodger fan, had been at the game. (October 3 is also the date of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal.)
Prager, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, spent five years on this book, during which time he found out seemingly everything there is to know about the events of that afternoon at Coogan’s Bluff in the Bronx. His book is enjoyable, and I recommend it, but he could have used a stern editor. There is so much detail here — the make of spikes Thomson and Branca wore! — that this reader became overwhelmed to the point of scanning entire sections. It’s clear Prager emptied his notebooks, tape recordings, and the drawer he kept them in to fill nearly 500 pages. His title comes from the poem in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience — too bad he did not heed Blake’s proverb “Enough! or Too Much.”
The Echoing Green’s subtitle promises “the untold story” of Thomson, Branca, and the “shot.” It delivers where Thomson and Branca, hero and goat, still alive and forever linked, are concerned. That October pitch defined both men, and Prager got close enough to them so that the contrast of their personalities and lives is vivid. But there is more: Prager has established what had been long rumored, that the Giants stole signs from a lookout above their clubhouse in centerfield. We now know who did it (manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher’s factotum, Herman Franks), how it was done down to the type of telescope used, and who installed the electrical buzzer system that communicated what Franks saw to the Giants’ bullpen. This too may be more than you want to know, but it makes for a good story.
Thomson denies that he knew what pitch was coming. Even if he did know, I am not convinced that knowing a fastball is on its way benefits a major-league hitter to the degree Prager thinks. Stealing signs is cheating, and it has haunted Thomson and Branca, but Thomson was a low-ball hitter whose “shot” came off a high and tight fastball. Whatever he knew, he still had to react. Good stuff for this winter’s hot-stove league. I wish Ted Williams were here to hold forth on the subject.
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