Spander: Thomson will live forever in Giants lore

The hero passes, the moment lives. In photos on the club level of AT&T Park. In recordings played a thousand times.
“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant.”

One swing of the bat, and ecstasy. And agony.

The greats keep leaving us: Warren Spahn, Dom DiMaggio and now at age 86, Bobby Thomson, who hit the “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”

We still hear Russ Hodges’ voice. We still see the celebration at home plate, where a 20-year-old named Willie Mays would have been the next batter.

Fifty-nine years ago, Oct. 1951, the Battle of the Boroughs, New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds for the third game of a best-of-three playoff series to determine the National League champion.

Only days earlier, the transcontinental TV network had been connected. Until then everything in California that came from the East was a week late. But now — I was a seventh grader in Los Angeles — it was as if the West had been re-opened across the Sierra.

I was a Dodger fan, because my dad, from New York, was a Dodger fan. TV was in its infancy, 10-inch or 12-inch black and white sets, screens smaller than those of current laptop computers. Vern Baker, our PE teacher at Audubon Junior High, weaseled a set and put it in the boys gym. We watched only during lunch.

Who could have known? The Dodgers led 4-2 into the bottom of the ninth. On came Ralph Branca in relief of Don Newcombe.

We couldn’t hear the announcer, who I later would learn was the great Ernie Harwell, who died a few months ago. He was doing television, Hodges the radio, shouting words that still echo.

“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I do not believe it.”

Neither did I that afternoon. Mr. Baker, as we properly addressed him, switched off the set seconds after the ball cleared the left field wall and Leo Durocher, in the third base coach’s box even though he was the Giants’ manager, jumped, bounced and leaped like a mad man as Thomson circled the bases, New York a 5-4 winner.

Joyful Bobby. Heartbroken Branca. It was Billy Buckner, a thousand times worse. The Dodgers held a 13½-game lead in August. The Giants won and won and won, 37 of their final 44 games and the Dodgers were lucky to tie the last day of the regular season.

Eventually, the pain subsided for Branca. He and Thomson united to appear at card shows, to sign autographs on baseballs, including one in my cluttered office, Thomson’s name above Branca’s.

I met them both several times, gentlemen from the old school who understood how fate had linked them, how even though that autumn afternoon one would become a winner, the other never was a loser.

The 1951 Giants would lose the World Series to the Yankees, for whom Joe DiMaggio — born and raised in San Francisco, as brother Dom — would be playing his final season.

Thomson and his teammates came to AT&T Park in 2002, interestingly the last time the Giants won a pennant, for the unveiling of a plaque which hangs in left field reading, “Remember ’51.”

We will, and we’ll never forget Bobby Thomson.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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