When New York Giants announcer Russ Hodges uttered the immortal words “The Giants win the pennant!” the legacy of Bobby Thomson was indelibly etched into baseball history. Despite modest career stats, Thomson’s October 3, 1951, home run off Ralph Branca was, in 1999, ranked number one on The Sporting News’ Greatest Baseball Moments. The “Shot Heard ’Round The World” would forever be the defining moment of his career.
As New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica noted in a 1998 column during Mark McGwire’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home-run record, “Sometimes you do not need 60 or 61 home runs. Sometimes you just need one, and your life is never the same after that, not for a single day.”
“It wasn’t just me,” Thomson told Lupica. “It was everything. It was New York, it was the Giants versus the Dodgers, it was the way we’d come from so far behind, it was the fact that we came from behind that day in the ninth. It was eight teams instead of all the ones they have now. It was the World Series on the line. You tell me my home run is safe today, and maybe you’re right. Sometimes it’s like that ball never came down.” In Thomson’s own words, “I had a decent major-league career, but if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time in the Polo Grounds, batting against Branca at precisely 3:58 on Wednesday afternoon, October 3, 1951, I would have played my 15 seasons in the major leagues and then vanished from sight and memory, never to be heard from again.”
Born Robert Brown Thomson on October 25, 1923, in Glasgow, Scotland, Thomson was the youngest of six children. His father had left Scotland for the United States five days earlier in search of a better life for his family, and in 1926, Robert, his mother, and five siblings landed at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, ultimately settling on Staten Island, part of New York City. Later in life sportswriters often labeled him the Staten Island Scot.
Thomson attended Curtis High School on Staten Island, where he excelled in both soccer and baseball. He drew the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and played for the Dodger Rookies, an amateur team made up of area players the Dodgers wanted to keep an eye on.
Thomson first commanded the Giants’ attention in high school as well, playing on an industrial-league team made up of older players. “One night, there was a Giants scout named George Mack at the game. He had come to look at our center fielder, who had been invited to work out for the Giants a few days later at the Polo Grounds,” Thomson wrote in Few and Chosen. “I had a pretty good game that day, and Mack told our center fielder, “Bring that kid shortstop with you.”
Despite the ongoing interest by the Dodgers, Thomson ultimately signed his first contract with the Giants in 1942. “The Giants offered me $100 a month to go to Bristol, Virginia, in a Class D league [Appalachian League],” Thomson said. “The Dodgers said they would give me $125 a month, but I was a Giants fan and I wanted to play for them.” Thomson played sparingly at Bristol, and the Giants’ front office moved him to Rocky Mount (North Carolina) of the Class D Bi-State League. He played 29 games at third base, hitting .241 with three home runs and 18 RBIs.
Before the 1942 season concluded, Thomson was drafted and entered the US Army Air Corps. Commenting on this chapter of his life, he said, “While I missed out on the chance to improve my skills in the important early years of minor-league baseball, the air force helped me mature. When I got out of the service in 1946, I was invited to spring training in Jacksonville, Florida, with the Giants’ Jersey City team of the Triple-A International League. The place was overrun with players who had come out of the service.”
Thomson landed in Jersey City, the Giants’ top farm team, to start the 1946 season. His first game at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City also happened to be Jackie Robinson’s first game in Organized Baseball. “As far as what Jackie did in that game, I don’t remember,” Thomson said. “I just remember he was in all the headlines, and nobody even noticed a scared kid playing center field for the Giants, me.” Thomson hit 26 home runs at Jersey City, and joined the Giants late in the season. He played in his first major-league game on September 9 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, collecting two hits in four at-bats. He hit hit .315 with two home runs in 18 games for the Giants, and was in the major leagues to stay.
Initially slotted into a competition for the job at third base, Thomson began the 1947 season as the regular second baseman but moved to center field after nine games. He fared well as a rookie, batting.283 with 29 home runs, scoring a career-best 105 runs and driving in 85 runs.
Thomson’s production fell off in 1948 (.248, 16 HR, 63 RBIs), but he was selected to the NL All-Star team, striking out in a ninth-inning pinch-hitting appearance. The Giants didn’t fare much better, finishing in fifth place, 13½ games out of first place. Despite the drop in production, Thomson didn’t go unnoticed. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for one, inquired about his services in a potential trade for their own Wally Westlake, but they were unable to offer anything acceptable to the Giants. The Dodgers also showed an interest in Thomson during the winter meetings, but the Giants’ price tag of Ralph Branca in return killed the deal.
The Giants didn’t fare any better in 1949, but Thomson had what would be considered one of his best seasons, batting .309 with 27 home runs, 109 RBIs, and a .518 slugging percentage. He was a repeat selection as an All-Star, again going hitless in a pinch-hit appearance, but had become a staple in center field for the Giants, playing all of his 156 games at that position. The Giants finished a distant 24 games off the pace. Thomson was still a vital part of their future plans; club officials indicated in the offseason that everyone on the roster was available for trade except Thomson, Whitey Lockman, and pitcher Monte Kennedy. Thomson’s defensive skills had matured enough that manager Leo Durocher, commenting on Whitey Lockman, said, “He’s the third best outfielder in the league, trailing only Stan Musial and Bobby Thomson.”
The Giants went through a major housecleaning before the 1950 season, with a new cast of players built more for speed than power. Thomson led the team with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs, though his batting average fell off to .252. The personnel changes resulted in an improved team that finished third, five games out of first. Thomson hit close to .400 for the final three weeks of the season, a return to form that again earned him mention in trade talks.
Thomson’s heroics in 1951 make prior years lose emphasis in establishing his career legacy. The season not only saw a move to third base to make room for rookie Willie Mays (Thomson actually played each outfield position during the season in addition to third base), but the pennant race itself was one of the most exciting in baseball history.
“We got off to a terrible start, and the Dodgers were red hot,” Thomson recalled a half-century later. “In July, [Brooklyn manager Charlie] Dressen made his famous remark, ‘The Giants is dead,’ which really got under our skin. We fell behind 13 games on August 11, but we weren’t dead. We began to play better, and the Dodgers slowed down from their torrid first half. By September 14, we had cut their lead to six games, but we only had 12 games left.”
The Giants continued to close the gap, and after they beat Boston in their final regular-season game, Brooklyn rallied to beat Philadelphia in 14 innings, setting the stage for a best-of-three-games playoff. Thomson hit his 31st home run in Game One, a 3-1 Giants victory at Ebbets Field. The two-run blast came at the expense of the Dodgers’ starter, Ralph Branca. Brooklyn responded with a 10-0 shellacking of the Giants in Game Two, at the Polo Grounds, setting the stage for the deciding game on October 3 at the Polo Grounds.
With Brooklyn leading 1-0, Thomson hit a fly ball in the seventh inning to score Monte Irvin and tie the game, only to see the Dodgers score three runs in the eighth and go up, 4-1. The game entered the bottom of the ninth with Brooklyn’s starter, Don Newcombe, still in command. Al Dark and Don Mueller led off with singles, and after Irvin fouled out, Whitey Lockman doubled sharply to left field, scoring Dark and putting runners on second and third with Thomson coming to the plate. “As soon as Whitey hit the ball, I headed for the plate and there’s poor Mueller on the ground,” Thomson said. “It wasn’t until they carried him off the field that I realized he had injured his ankle. The delay kind of broke the tension for a moment. The next thing I remember was Leo Durocher, coming down from the third-base coach’s box and putting his arm around my shoulder and saying, ‘Bobby, if you ever hit one, hit one now.’ ” Branca was brought in to relieve Newcombe and get the final two outs.
“Nobody goes up to bat trying to hit a home run in a situation like that,” Thomson continued. “If you do, you’re almost certain to fail. I was just hoping to make contact.”
What happened next remains one of the greatest sporting moments of all time, with Thomson hitting Branca’s second pitch into the lower left-field stands, provoking announcer Russ Hodges’ unforgettable call and sending the Giants into the World Series against the New York Yankees the next day, a Subway Series they lost in six games.
After the season Thomson’s sportswriters’ moniker was altered slightly to the Flying Scot from Staten Island. On December 6 he danced a few steps of the highland fling during Bobby Thomson Day, which was celebrated by 1,400 fans in front of the Staten Island Borough Hall.
The dramatic home run linked Thomson and Branca for the remainder of their careers and beyond. The two remained in the New York area for years and developed a friendship, appearing at memorabilia shows and corporate functions. The friendship was tested when the Wall Street Journal ran an article in January 2001 headlined “Giants’ 1951 Comeback, The Sport’s Greatest, Wasn’t All It Seemed,” that told of an elaborate scheme to steal the signs of the opposition and transmit them to the batter electrically. The article became a book, The Echoing Green, published in 2006. For his part, Thomson maintained throughout his life that he didn’t receive a stolen sign, telling author Joshua Prager “I was always proud of that swing.”
After the pennant winner in 1951, Thomson spent the offseason attending various events, even performing a song with Branca at the annual dinner of the New York baseball writers.
Thomson was an All-Star again in 1952, finally getting a start in the game at third base. He again went hitless, concluding his appearances in All-Star Games without hitting safely in four at-bats. A June 16 game-ending grand slam against Willard Schmidt of the Cardinals spawned memories of the 1951 heroics, and he continued to be productive for the Giants. His 24 home runs again led the the team, but the Giants couldn’t recapture the late-season magic of their previous season and finished in second place, 4½ games behind Brooklyn. On December 27 he and Elaine Coley of Plainfield, New Jersey, were married.
By most accounts Thomson was gentle and conservative throughout his career. Author Ray Robinson (The Home Run Heard ’Round the World, among others) told of an encounter he had with Thomson at author Dick Schaap’s funeral in January 2002. The pair sat together, and after the memorial, Robinson asked Thomson if he had known Dick well. “No, I didn’t,” Thomson responded. “But he said so many nice things about me, I thought I should come and pay my last respects.” Robinson wrote, “It was a typical response for Thomson, who always tried to remain true to his personal ethos: ‘If you can bring happiness to somebody, or help somebody, I try to do it.’ ”
In late 1952 the Braves, soon to move from Boston to Milwaukee, were reported to have an interest in acquiring Thomson, even reportedly offering star pitcher Warren Spahn in a trade. That exchange never came to fruition. With Willie Mays in the Army, Thomson returned to the outfield for the 1953 season and again led the Giants in home runs with 26. The Giants struggled, however, and finished the season in fifth place, 35 games out of first place. With the need for pitching, Thomson’s services continued to be a marketable commodity, and on February 1, 1954, the Giants traded Thomson and catcher Sam Calderone to the Milwaukee Braves for pitcher Johnny Antonelli, infielder Billy Klaus, pitcher Don Liddle, catcher Ebba St. Claire, and $50,000. Although the trade was initially a shock, Thomson offered a rational outlook on the change of address. “How do I like it? Why great. What ballplayer wouldn't like being traded to a club that everybody considers a red-hot pennant contender? Naturally, I do feel sorry having to leave New York. However, it’s part of baseball to be traded, and this switch I think will do me a lot of good. It was tough keeping up one’s spirit with things breaking so badly for the Giants last year.”
In their first season in Milwaukee, the 1953 Braves had won 28 more games than in their final season in Boston, and with the addition of Thomson they were considered an instant contender as the 1954 season approached. Optimism was abounding in Milwaukee, and Thomson was slotted to bat cleanup for the first time in his career, a move to protect Eddie Mathews in the lineup. Thomson addressed the opportunity with modesty and appreciation for his new teammate. “I may not get much chance to drive over runs following a guy like Mathews,” he said. Thomson didn’t get that chance initially. On March 13 he fractured his right ankle sliding into second base in a preseason game against the New York Yankees.
The injury hampered Thomson the entire season, and he played in just 43 games, hitting .232 with two home runs. The injury provided an opportunity for Henry Aaron to join the Braves’ starting lineup in his rookie campaign, the second time Thomson had been replaced by a future Hall of Famer (the first was Mays). Suffering from multiple injuries among the ranks, the Braves were left watching at season’s end as Thomson’s old team, the Giants, won the pennant for the second time in four seasons and carried that momentum to a four-game World Series sweep of the favored Cleveland Indians.
Now 31 years old, Thomson was faced for the first time with the prospect of recovering from a significant injury. With a favorable prognosis by the Braves trainer, Dr. Charles Lacks, manager Charlie Grimm announced early in the winter that Thomson would be his cleanup hitter. Thomson played exclusively in the outfield in 1955, but hit just 12 home runs, and the Braves finished second to the Dodgers. Braves management was disappointed. Trade rumors again mentioned Thomson’s name as an expendable, with emerging star Aaron and Bill Bruton considered solid fixtures in the outfield. Once more Thomson endured the offseason, and was still on the Braves roster as the 1956 season opened. His 20 home runs and 74 RBIs, ranked fourth best on a Braves team that now included such sluggers as Aaron, Mathews, and Joe Adcock. Milwaukee finished just one game off the pace to the Dodgers.
Rumors of trades with Thomson’s name attached were again prevalent before the 1957 season. Thomson was 33 and considered past his peak by many. The rumors were realized on June 15, when Milwaukee sent Thomson (hitting .236 in 41 games at that point), pitcher Ray Crone, and infielder Danny O’Connell to the Giants for second baseman Red Schoendienst. The move provided minimal benefit to the Giants, as they finished a lowly sixth, 26 games behind the Braves, who won the pennant and went on to win the World Series over the Yankees. For Thomson, it was the second time he was traded from a team that won a World Series the same season.
Traded again at the start of the 1958 season by the San Francisco Giants (now in San Francisco) to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder/first baseman Bob Speake and cash, Thomson experienced a slight career rebirth, posting respectable numbers of 21 home runs and 82 RBIs to accompany a .283 batting average. He got no closer to a pennant winner, though, as the Cubs were well off the pace, in fifth place.
The story was the same in Chicago in 1959. Although Thomson appeared in 122 games, his career was fading and he was becoming a part-time player, despite contributing a respectable 11 home runs and 52 RBIs. His career and his interest in baseball winding down, Thomson was traded by the Cubs to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Al Schroll on December 1, 1959. He played just 40 games with the Red Sox in 1960 before being released on July 1. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles and went hitless in three games. His release on July 26, 1960, coincided with his retirement from baseball.
“Times were different then,” Thomson said. “I had to work in the offseason, and when I retired, I was married and had a child, and there were no offers for jobs in baseball, as a coach or a scout, so I had to go out and get a job.” He worked as a sales executive with the Westvaco paper products Company. “I wanted to get a responsible job, stay home more with my wife and daughter, and live a normal life,” Thomson said.
The Thomsons settled in Watchung, New Jersey. They added another daughter and son to their family. Elaine, his wife of over 40 years, died in 1993, and son Bobby Jr. died suddenly the same year, on Father’s Day, from a rare virus.
Thomson and Ralph Branca appeared together many times over the years, and their friendship endured all obstacles. “I bleed for Bob about his son,” Branca told columnist Dave Anderson in 2001. For his part, Thomson declined to attend the 50th anniversary festivities of the historic home run at a Giants-Dodgers game in San Francisco, mostly in respect for Branca. “They were going to have Ralph and me ride around in a cart,” he said. “Ralph doesn’t need that.”
Thomson finished his career as a three-time All-Star with a batting average of .270 and 264 home runs. He never amassed more than 4.6 percent of the vote in Hall of Fame voting.
Career statistics do not conclusively tell the tale of Bobby Thomson. Remembered throughout his life by one moment in time, in the final analysis, Thomson was a shy and reserved man who consistently tried to fulfill all requests, whether for a story or a simple autograph. “There was no ego in Bobby. He didn’t know the word,” said Charles “Chick” Harrison, a friend of Thomson’s from New Jersey. “He might have been a gem in the baseball world, but he was a gem to everyone who knew him.”
“People have asked me if I resent the fact that that 1951 homer is all I’m remembered for,” Thomson told The Scotsman in 2003. “What I say is, I feel fortunate that I had my one moment in the sun. It’s nice to be remembered – and so many people remember where they were when they heard that game on the radio.”
Thomson died on August 16, 2010, at his home in Savannah, Georgia. Survived by his daughters Megan and Nancy, he was 86.
This biography is included in the book Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
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