Bobby Thomson did not recognize his own renown. No matter that the home run he had hit in a Harlem horseshoe on October 3, 1951, remained 49 years later the unsurpassable highpoint of a national pastime, a life marker for a generation of Americans who remembered where they were when the Giants won the pennant (the Giants won the pennant!) as vividly as they did the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of Kennedy. And so, after we agreed over the phone to meet at his New Jersey church, he was sure to tell me, lest I not recognize him, what he looked like.
“I’m tall and thin and I wear glasses,” he said.
Over the next six years, I spent hundreds of hours with Thomson as I wrote a book that centered on his midcentury homer. But it took only minutes to understand that his bewildering humility was as great a burden as it was a virtue. When, after church, Thomson sat beside me in his living room, he asked me to read aloud from his autobiography what his late wife had observed of him. “He’s sensitive and humble to a fault with a tendency to play himself down,” she had said. Thomson began to cry.
“Why didn’t I do better than that?” he asked me in his Sunday tweed and loafers. “You can only play yourself down so much and then it gets dumb. I’m 77.”
It was Thomson’s father James, a cabinetmaker in Glasgow, who had ingrained in Bobby and his five older siblings the importance of reserve. “We were,” Thomson told me, “brought up to be seen and not heard.” And so, when the unprepossessing hero, soaked in sweat and champagne, faced a horde of reporters 30 minutes after hitting “The Shot Heard Round the World” (and it was heard ‘round the world, transmitted on Armed Forces Radio from New York to California to Japan to Korea, where foot-soldiers in foxholes south of Kumsong listened in via loudspeaker), his task was clear.
“A better hitter would have let Branca’s pitch go by for a ball,” he told his hometown Staten Island Advance, disparaging in a high and hoarse voice the feat of a lifetime. “If I was a good hitter I’d have taken that one,” he assured The New York Times. “It was a pitch,” he told the Daily News, “that Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.”
Never mind that in the three-game playoff with the Dodgers, Thomson had batted .500 and driven in three-quarters of the Giant runs.
Thomson returned to his leitmotif in 1954 when he slid to break up a double play and suffered a triple-fracture of his right ankle. “It was a fool thing to do,” he told the press, “as I had no chance of beating the throw.” Though he was never again the same player, he didn’t blame the injury for his decline. To do so would go against the ethic of his late father.
That ethic was evident when Thomson took an aptitude test at the New Jersey Stevens Institute of Technology after leaving baseball in 1960. “He responds most eagerly when he is called upon to engage in activities which he feels are useful and worthwhile in a moral sense,” wrote Ph.Ds William Hirschman and Donald Livingston who reviewed Thomson’s answers. “He wants to do the ‘right’ thing, that is to say.”
Thomson and his 1951 Giant teammates, however, had not done the right thing in the months leading up to his epochal home run. Beginning on July 20, they had stolen the finger signals of opposing catchers and transmitted them—via a coach with a telescope, an electrician with buzzer wire, and a reserve catcher with hand signals—from clubhouse to bullpen to batter.
And so it was doubly hard for Thomson (who went to work selling paper bags for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company) to take pride in his achievements, his Scottish reserve and Protestant propriety compounded by guilt.
His secret was safe until March 1962 when the AP quoted an anonymous allegation that the Giants’ 1951 pennant had been aided by a buzzer. Reporter Joe Reichler phoned Thomson for a comment. “It positively isn’t so,” he said.
“I didn’t admit it,” Thomson told me. “I said, ‘You mean [Giants manager] Leo Durocher would steal signs?’”
The honest salesman lied about the sign-stealing for 38 more years. Then we spoke, Thomson acknowledging to me that he made use of the stolen signs in his first three at-bats on October 3, 1951, but not in his last. After I wrote this in The Wall Street Journal, and debate about his home run and fairness raged on air and in print for months on end, Thomson, unburdened, did something wonderful. With gusto that increased until his death on Monday at his home in Georgia at the age of 86, the gentle Giant dug in his heels, defended his legacy, and took pride in the undeniable fact that he had seized the one opportunity in his lifetime for greatness.
Joshua Prager is the author of The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World. He is a 2011 Nieman Fellow at Harvard.