The Shot That Carried All the Way to the Pyrenees

October 3, 2010
The New York Times

From his home run on Oct. 3, 1951, to his death on Aug. 16 at age 86, Bobby Thomson lived 21,502 days and, in that time, heard as many stories of where people were when he won the National League pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. He enjoyed them. He came to know through them that he had struck at just the right moment, that a confluence of technology, geography, history and the particulars of a game had made his homer historic. Though maddeningly diffident, he came to understand that like Neil Armstrong and Lee Harvey Oswald, he had provided a collective experience.

That experience is now a collective memory, a mosaic of opposing reactions to a ball that flew 59 years ago. Lived in one moment, they span the human experience — millions, as Goethe wrote, “exulting high as heaven, mournful even to death.”

Neil and Mary Romano exulted in their bedroom on Dexter Avenue in Malden, Mass. Thomson had delivered a pennant, and 38 weeks later, she delivered a son, Chuck.

Philip Arbiter, 55, heard the blast that felled his Dodgers in the launderette he managed at 21-06 Cornaga Avenue in Queens. His heart stopped beating, he fell to the floor, and he died.

Milton Glassman, an ecstatic cabdriver in Forest Hills, Queens, tossed his son Marc high over a brick stoop on 99th Street. That flight, four days before his third birthday, remains Marc’s first memory.

Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca picked up, then threw down, his rosin bag, slid his mitt into his hip pocket and, brown eyes downward, set off to the clubhouse on a slow walk he said he never remembered.

No matter that Muriel Gloster, 29, had taken off her clothing in a Greenwich Village dressing room. She darted out in her slip onto the sidewalk to cheer with the crowd.

In a tenement one flight over Eckert Avenue in Newark, Anne Prince, 42, shut off her television in despair, then closed her bedroom door. She did not emerge for dinner for the first time in 20 years of marriage, leaving her husband, Phillip, a plumbing parts salesman, to cook for their son and daughter.

Sing Sing Inmate 110-649, down the concrete hall from the electric chair that would end his life, put pen to paper. “Gloom of glooms,” Julius Rosenberg wrote to his wife, Ethel. “The dear Dodgers lost the pennant.”

Having come to symbolize, after five years in the big leagues, potential unmet, Giants pinch-runner Clint Hartung circled his large Texan arms backward, an impromptu dance of joy from third base toward home.

George Carlin, 14, sat in his bedroom three stories above West 121st Street in Manhattan holding his black kitten, Ezzard. The home run flew and so did the cat — out the window — the future comedian throwing Ezzard, who clawed a curtain and lived.

In the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals watched the young pianist Eugene Istomin jump from his seat in the wake of a broadcast and asked what had happened. “A most catastrophic and magnificent thing,” Istomin answered. Then he fell silent, a Dodgers fan in search of a lesson. “I learned to weep for winners as well as losers after that game,” Istomin later wrote.

Gordon Dean, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had worried for 10 days how to tell the American people that the Soviets had detonated a plutonium bomb. Thomson’s blast was a heaven-sent distraction. Dean wrote in his journal, “Did not receive as large a headline in the evening paper as the playoff for the World Series games.”

The mobster Willie Moretti, 57, had grown rich on bookmaking in northern New Jersey. But, The New York Times wrote, he might have failed to pay off bets after the Giants, 13-10 favorites, beat the Dodgers. Nineteen hours later, hitmen shot him dead at Joe’s Elbow Room on Palisade Avenue in Cliffside Park, a bullet passing through his left ear and out his right cheek.

Years before, Thomson inherited the train set of Frank Bourgholtzer, a fellow Staten Islander. As an NBC reporter covering an urgent story about a Soviet atomic explosion, Bourgholtzer started screaming some 100 feet from the Oval Office: “That’s my boy! That’s my boy!”

A Giants coach, Herman Franks, left his station behind the fourth window in the center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, where he had spied the white fingers of Dodger catcher Rube Walker, and drank Scotch from a paper cup. Soon he was crying. “Maybe,” he told a reporter from his hometown Salt Lake Tribune, “we caught the sign for the fastball.”

The bank robber Willie Sutton was on the F.B.I.’s list of Most Wanted Fugitives when he saw his team lose from a bar on Flatbush Avenue, a block from a Brooklyn police precinct. Life lost its meaning. “I felt like going into headquarters,” he later wrote, “and giving myself up.”

Arthur Miller was rising in an elevator above Broadway at West 46th Street when he heard a scream. It belonged to his accountant, Kermit Bloomgarden, who had recently staged Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman.” Miller, 35, was no longer a baseball fan. But news of the home run seemed to him of great importance. He later wrote, “I felt the axis of the world had shifted slightly and we must all be happy for at least five minutes.”

Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese screamed, “Drop!” at Thomson’s line drive, and Rose Krobot, a devastated fan of 59, fainted, buckling in a brownstone onto a kitchen floor on Bergen Street in Brooklyn.

After Thomson loped around the bases, and jangled atop the shoulders of teammates, and hyperventilated and felt nauseous, and waved to throngs chanting his name, and answered reporters’ questions in a voice high as helium, and played down his uppercut to Perry Como on CBS television, and sang a Chesterfield jingle on the air, and ferried unaccompanied across New York Bay to Staten Island, and taxied to Engine 154 on Hannah Street, his older brother Jim, a firefighter, asked if he realized what he had done. Thomson at first found the question silly. But then, hours after his home run, he began to comprehend.