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Caple: 1951 was a very good year
Neyer: Septembers to remember
DeLillo: "Pafko at the Wall"
Smith: Thomson authored an unlikely ending
Soup: Hodges went crazy along with the fans.
Shot heard 'round the world
Russ Hodges' call of Bobby Thomson pennant-winning home run in 1951.
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On the 50th anniversary, Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca talk about their involvement in Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World."
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
The Shot That Changed the World
By Eric Neel
Special to ESPN Classic
On Oct. 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run capped a wildly improbable comeback. With one swing, he took the National League title from the Brooklyn Dodgers and gave it to the New York Giants, who had been 13 1/2 games down in the pennant race in August and behind 4-1 entering the ninth inning. Exhilarating and devastating all at once, Thomson's three-run homer became almost instantly known as "the shot heard 'round the world." Fifty years later, the phrase resonates still, a snapshot of America in the middle of the century.
This phrase, which seems at first glance a simplistic hyperbole borne of a sportswriter's overactive imagination, holds far greater meaning upon reflection. In one phrase, and one moment, we find captured the spirit of the times. All at once, the expression echoes America's anxiety during the Cold War and the Korean War, brags about the global reach of radio and the telephone, celebrates television's expansion as a sports medium, and acknowledges baseball's nascent multiculturalism.
"The phrase was in the air," says baseball historian Jules Tygiel. Only two days before Thomson's "shot," New York Post writer Arch Ward had used the expression "the shot heard 'round the baseball world" to describe a Dodger homer, Jackie Robinson's 14th-inning blow to win Brooklyn's final scheduled regular-season game.
Jackie Robinson was not the first athlete to inspire the phrase. At the 1935 Masters, Gene Sarazen hit a miraculous 4-wood from the fairway into the cup on the par-4 15th hole, a double eagle which became known as "the shot heard 'round the world."
Long before Sarazen's "shot," American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase in "Concord Hymn," and 1836 tribute to the colonial soldiers who began the Revolutionary War by engaging British troops at Concord, Massachusetts in 1775. "Here once the embattled farmers stood," Emerson wrote. "And fired the shot heard 'round the world."
The phrase presumes that the United States, particularly New York, is the center of the globe. In the same way that we have claimed our baseball tournament is the "World Series" and its winners are "champions of the world," the expression "the shot heard 'round the world" presumes that people outside our country cared about a home run. Tygiel points out that it reflects an "American postwar arrogance," a sense of the America's influence and authority after vanquishing Hitler and establishing the Truman Doctrine.
As it turns out, it really was "the shot heard 'round the world," in a number of ways, both in fact and metaphorically. As Don DeLillo explores in his novella "Pafko at the Wall," "the shot heard 'round the world" was a reasonable representation of real-world developments in an escalating Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. In a 1997 profile of DeLillo in The New Yorker, David Remnick suggests the "unrepeatable, communal joy" of Thomson's homer was "married" to front-page news announcing the Soviets had set off a second atomic bomb that same day. The Soviet test signaled the end of American nuclear dominance, and the phrase captured both the carefree abandon inspired by Thomson's gallop around the bases and the collective fear inspired by an escalating atomic race.
In keeping with this convergence, writers for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune described Thomson's homer with a Cold War feel for the apocalyptic. Their vocabulary was explosive and dramatic. John Drebinger's front-page story in the Times said Thomson "blasted the Dodgers right out of the world series picture," and recounted the Giants' ninth-inning comeback as a "lash[ing] back with a fury that would not be denied" which culminated in Thomson's "blow of blows." Another front-page piece said "Bobby Thomson exploded" and "it was murder in Brooklyn." In the Herald Tribune, Rud Rennie said Thomson hit a "sudden, dramatic, breath-taking wallop," Dan Bloom marveled at the "sudden death he administered to the Dodgers," and another piece referred to the home run as a "mighty blow for freedom."
The world tuned in
In one very real way, "the shot heard 'round the world" was not much of an exaggeration at all. An unprecedented audience of many millions tuned in to radio and television broadcasts of the Giants-Dodgers playoff.
The games were carried on several stations in New York and broadcast coast-to-coast by the Liberty Broadcasting Network, and, as Tygiel points out, there were "hundreds of thousands of American military personnel stationed 'round the world'" who heard "the shot" on Armed Forces Radio.
It was a breakthrough television event, as well. AT&T had installed coast-to-coast cable in the months before the playoffs, and the series between the Giants and Dodgers became the first time baseball was televised live nationally. Russ Hodges' radio call is the most famous record of the deciding game, but Ernie Harwell was at the mike for the television audience. "This was the first baseball ever televised on a truly national basis," Harwell recalled in Curt Smith's "Voices of the Game." "The 1951 World Series was scheduled to be the first, but the playoff beat it … and to begin with the Thomson homer -- unbelievable!"
The day after the game, the New York Times reported that media exposure was a crucial part of what made Thomson's shot special: "The clincher was a struggle that should live long in the memory of the fans who saw it, as well as those who had it portrayed for them by radio and television in a coast-to-coast hook-up."
Television sales and baseball enthusiasm were up all around the country. The audience was primed and the stage for Thomson's heroics was larger than ever before. As Tygiel puts it, the "shot heard 'round the world" was both "the last great moment of radio sportscasting" and "the first nationally televised sports highlight."
Ringing off the hook
Besides television and radio broadcasts, people connected to the game and spread news of its thrilling end over the phone. Barely able to contain their enthusiasm, folks dialed up their neighbors and families -- "Have you heard!? … Did you see it? … Can you believe it!?"
Both the Times and the Herald Tribune reported heavy telephone traffic in the moments after the game ended -- news of Thomson's homer literally traveled across the country and 'round the world by word of mouth. "For a half hour yesterday afternoon, starting immediately after the New York Giants had won the pennant," the Times article says, "the sudden mass urge of baseball enthusiasts to discuss the ball game and its outcome with friends" overwhelmed the city's circuits. And a Herald Tribune story reports that an "entire Pennsylvania exchange of the New York Telephone Company was tied up for twenty minutes."
Taking it to the streets
In addition to telephone connections, DeLillo remembers the "shot heard 'round the world" as a communal event in the streets of New York. "All over the city people are coming out of their houses," he writes in "Pafko." "This is the nature of Thomson's homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened."
Indeed, there were loud, spontaneous celebrations throughout the city in the hours after the game ended. The Times describes a "full-throated roar [which] rolled across" Staten Island, for example, and reports that "factory whistles" and "ferryboats joined the happy chorus," along with a "concerted blowing of horns as fans got the news on their car radios [and] taverns suddenly emptied of men who had been nursing beer for hours while watching the television screen."
A changing world
The crowds glued to the game and coursing through the streets were uniquely integrated, as well. Once a predominantly white audience rooting for all-white teams, the community of New York fans had become more diverse in the years since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947.
Even if Thomson's shot had been heard only 'round the baseball world, that small world was broader and more inclusive than it had been in the past. By 1951, Robinson was an established star for the Dodgers and Willie Mays had broken through for the Giants. And, as Tygiel suggests, this meant that "radio and television witnesses included untold numbers of African Americans drawn to a contest pitting the National League's two most racially integrated teams."
Another kind of history
In the hours after Thomson's homer cleared the left-field fence, as shouts from the streets and the stadium died down, Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith described the game's thrilling conclusion as though it were a paradigm shift, as though everything was different. "There is no way to tell it," he wrote. "Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic can ever be plausible again."
He was taking creative license, of course, straining for figures of speech that might capture the fantastic rush of glee and overwhelming flood of anguish he saw and heard in the Polo Grounds that afternoon. Like the headline writers for the Daily News who called Thomson's feat "the shot heard 'round the world," Smith was trying to translate a feeling, a sense that baseball was big news on October 3, 1951.
In "Pafko," DeLillo calls the event "another kind of history," something that "joins [us] all in a rare way, that binds [us] to a memory."
If he's right, "the shot heard 'round the world" still resonates some 50 years later not only because it reminds us of a shocking swing and a blissful romp around the bases or because it recalls heads bowed in sadness and Ralph Branca trudging off the mound in regret, but also because it calls up for us a time when the world was on edge, when war and technology and baseball were redefining life itself.
Eric Neel is a contributing editor at ESPN.com and the former managing editor of SportsJones.
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