Bobby Thomson and Red Nelson

Bobby Thomson died Monday night.

He was at his home in Savannah, Ga. Thomson was 86 years old and had been in failing health for several years. He had moved to the South about five years ago to be closer to one of his daughters.

Those of us who love the game of baseball never really tire of hearing Russ Hodges’ call of The Shot Heard Round the World.

“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Yes, he said it four times. It was October 1951.

Thomson’s three-run home run off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning secured the pennant for the Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. It will forever be one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

“I never thought it was going to be that big,” Branca told The Associated Press. “Hell no. When we went into the next season, I thought it would be forgotten. I’ll miss him. I mellowed over the years, and we became good friends. I enjoyed being around him.”

There’s an outstanding book by Joshua Prager titled “The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World.”

Prager, a former Wall Street Journal writer and a 2011 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, says he made literally thousands of phone calls while researching and writing that book.

As it turns out, one of those calls was to my parents’ house in Arkadelphia.

Here’s the story:

My father joined the Army Air Forces as it was known at the time in 1943 following his freshman year of college at Ouachita. He was sent for training to Saint John’s University, an all-male Catholic school in central Minnesota that’s surrounded by thousands of acres of forests, prairies and lakes. It was not unusual for college campuses to be used for training during World War II. George Wallace, for instance, received his training on the Ouachita campus in Arkadelphia long before becoming the governor of Alabama and a presidential candidate.

It was quite a change of scenery for my dad, a poor boy from Benton whose family had no money to travel during the Great Depression.

He occasionally would mention how beautiful it was there. He saw more snow than he had ever seen. Unable to return home for Christmas, he accompanied a fellow recruit to the family home in South Dakota for the holidays. He remembers more snow, seeing pheasants for the first time and staying at the house to watch young children while his friend and the other adults attended midnight mass (my dad is Baptist).

Beyond that, however, Dad never talked much about that time and certainly would never have dreamed of bragging about any personal accomplishments. As I’ve written on this blog before, he truly is part of the Greatest Generation, one of those silent men who did their duty during World War II and then returned home to raise families and build businesses.

By the time the call from Josh Prager came, my dad’s hearing was such that he was unable to carry on a telephone conversation.

Here’s what my mother remembered: A nice man called from New York, said he was working on a book about a famous baseball player and wanted to confirm that this was the home of the Red Nelson who had spent time at Saint John’s in Minnesota during World War II.

Mom confirmed that he indeed had the right Red Nelson but told him my dad was unable to do a telephone interview.

Prager, in turn, told her that he initially had been under the impression that Thomson had been voted “most athletic” among that group of Air Force recruits. In interviewing someone who was there, however, he was told that the “most athletic” was not Bobby Thomson. It was a guy named Red Nelson from Arkansas.

I anxiously waited for the book to come out so I could buy my father a copy. His name wasn’t mentioned. After all, there was no reason for Prager to mention any awards Thomson didn’t win. Still, Dad enjoyed reading the book, and our family had a great story to tell.

Dad had remembered a Bobby Thomson. He said he had just never made the connection that it was that Bobby Thomson.

I asked him why he had never mentioned being “most athletic.” He said he saw no reason to mention it.

The more I’ve read about Bobby Thomson since his death Monday, the more I’ve become convinced that he and my dad were a lot alike.

Prager wrote this earlier today at www.tnr.com, the website for The New Republic: “Bobby Thomson did not recognize his own renown. No matter that the home run he had hit in a Harlem horseshoe on Oct. 3, 1951, remained 49 years later the unsurpassable high point 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.”

Prager said Thomson told him, “I’m tall and thin and I wear glasses.”

Thomson’s late wife had once said of him, “He’s sensitive and humble to a fault with a tendency to play himself down.”

Thomson was a three-time All-Star who hit .270 with 264 career home runs and 1,026 RBIs in a career that spanned from 1946 until 1960. He often would call himself “the accidental hero.”

It later was revealed that the Giants had a system that season for stealing signals from opposing catchers. Thomson always insisted he did not know what pitch was coming when he hit The Shot Heard Round the World.

Prager, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize four times, says Thomson later admitted that he had made use of stolen signs in his first three at-bats that day but not the last.

Thomson had been born in Glasgow, Scotland, and named after an uncle who died in World War I. He came to this country in 1926 when he was just 3 as his family settled in Staten Island. He signed a contract with the Giants in 1942 but ended up spending three years in the military.

Prager writes that Thomson’s father, a cabinetmaker, “ingrained in Bobby and his five older siblings the importance of reserve.”

“We were brought up to be seen and not heard,” he told Prager.

After his famous hit, Thomson told the Daily News of New York: “It was a pitch 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.”

My father will turn 86 on Oct. 14, which incidentally will be my 21st wedding anniversary.

The dementia is such now that I can’t really carry on a conversation with him. If I could, though, I’m sure he would continue to maintain that he never knew it was the famous Bobby Thomson he beat out for “most athletic” all those years ago in the woods of Minnesota.

And even had he known, he wouldn’t have felt it was anything worth mentioning to his son.

Yes, they raised them differently back in those days.

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3 Responses to “Bobby Thomson and Red Nelson”

  1. BigFan says:

    Great story, Rex. Pretty sure there’s a book in there. I know I would read it!

  2. Ray Brookings says:

    The “shot heard around the world” happen when my father was sitting in a car in El Paso, Texas in front of a hospital where I was entering the world. I will always have a connection with Bobby Thompson.

  3. Phil W says:

    Thanks for sharing that story. I’ve always held your father in high esteem. You are correct…..they raised them differently in those days.

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