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The Real Story of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World”

You Won’t Read It in the “Newspaper of Record.”

Today The NY Times ran a brief piece by Corey Kilgannon noting that the Astros sign stealing was nothing new in baseball. Kilgannon pointed out that it was learned in 2001 that the Giants had used a system anchored by a telescope in a window of their clubhouse beyond center field at the Polo Grounds to get the opposing catcher’s hand signals to the batter prior to each pitch. Since the 1951 National League season ended with Bobby Thomson’s famous home run that became known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the reports tarnished what had long been considered one of the greatest moments in baseball history.

But there are several problems with the comparison. Sign stealing of any type – ranging from using a telescope to the plain old naked eye – was perfectly legal in 1951. As a result, many teams tried to do it using a variety of methods, some of which may have paralleled the Giants system. Stealing signs using a “mechanical device ” was not outlawed by the league until 1961. In 2001 this was extended to the use of “electronic equipment.” So while the Astros (and Red Sox) were clearly cheaters who broke the current rules, the ’51 Giants were simply taking advantage of a loophole in the MLB rulebook of the time. Kilgannon leaves this unmentioned.

Another key distinction Kilgannon ignores: the Giants relayed the signs from their bullpen in right field, whereas the Astros “banged the can slowly,” so to speak.  Can the Springers and Altuves of the world creditably claim that they never heard anything? Thomson, meanwhile, went to his deathbed denying he knew what pitch was coming from the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca that fateful afternoon. Thomson said that he was concentrating on the pitcher, not right field, and never got the signal. “I can assure you nobody gave me any sign,” Thomson said when the reports first came out. “I was looking for a fastball and that’s what I got.”  

Thomson was a humble, no-nonsense kind of guy of Scottish heritage so that is likely to be true. But Kilgannon leaves Thomson’s protestations out of his story, essentially convicting him via their absence.

Moreover, the real story of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World is Thomson’s previous record against Branca. Thomson had hit 4 Home Runs against the Dodger stalwart during the season. He had also hit what turned out to be the game-winning Home Run off Branca in Game 1 of the 3-game playoff series. When Thomson came to bat in the last of the 9th of the final game with 2 runners on base, first base was open and rookie Willie Mays was on deck. Thomson already had 2 hits that day including a double.  Mays was 0-3 with two strikeouts. Mays has said many times since that he had been praying the Dodgers didn’t walk Thomson to load the bases in order to pitch to him.

But Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen didn’t want to put the potential winning run on base and inexplicably chose to bring in Branca, who had pitched 8 innings as the team’s Game 1 starter, to face his nemesis Thomson on one day’s rest.

The rest, as they say, is baseball history.

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