Broadcasts were not routinely recorded in 1951, but many of us have heard Hodges’ depiction of the famous Bobby Thomson home run 1951. Doris Kearns Goodwin makes it seem as if she heard it on the television, but the reports I have read said that his call was preserved on a tape recording by a Brooklynite made off the radio. Perhaps Hodges was simultaneously broadcasting on radio and TV, but that seems unlikely, and if the Goodwin family was listening to the radio while watching the television broadcast, I would have thought the Goodwins would have been listening to the Dodgers announcer, Red Barber. (Barber, it is reported, pronounced Hodges overexcited call as “unprofessional.”)
Perhaps Doris really did hear Hodges make the call. Perhaps, like me, she heard it later. It is memorable, and perhaps she conflated it into the actual memory. What’s clear is that for her this game produced what has been sometimes called a “flashbulb memory” in which a memory of a momentous event becomes, we believe, indelibly etched into our mind. We probably all have some of these. Research, however, has shown we are often mistaken in details of these memories. (When I looked at some of this research for an academic project, they were called flashbulb memories. With the decline of flashbulbs, I wonder if researchers now use a different term.)
Kearns Goodwin makes clear the importance of the event. “It was the worst moment in my life as a fan. . . . From that moment to this, Bobby Thomson and the Brooklyn Dodgers would be forever linked, the mere mention of his name calling forth in every Dodger fan instant recognition, comradeship, a memory of where they were, how they felt.”
Doris had been posting the baseball scores in the window of a local butcher shop whose owners were Giants fans. She was so miserable that she avoided the shop until she received a bouquet of roses from the owner (“It was the first time anyone had sent me flowers.”), imploring her to come back because she was missed. “My excitement about the flowers drained my humiliation and pain over the Dodgers’ collapse.” She went to the store and posted the last Dodgers’ score of the season.
The memorability of the game and the pomposity of its importance to some sports fans is seen in a continuing reaction. Goodwin writes that she now lives in Concord, Massachusetts, that is celebrated as the site of the first battle of our Revolutionary War, which was commemorated in a famous line from a no-longer famous poem written in the first half the nineteenth century. When she takes visitors to Concord’s Old North Bridge and sees the inscription on the monument there, ‘the shot heard round the world,’ “I think privately of Bobby Thomson’s home run.” This characterization, however, is not confined to her private thoughts. Thomson’s homer was characterized with the Revolutionary War line almost from the moment that ball landed in the stands and remains with many Americans. I recently tested my assumption that that playoff result lives in the minds of many Americans who had no personal connection with the game. I asked a biergarten drinking buddy, who was born twenty years after it happened, if he was familiar with Bobby Thomson’s home run. He immediately said, “The shot heard ‘round the world.”
I have also been dipping into American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith edited by Daniel Okrent. Smith, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning sportswriter, is best known for the four-times-a-week columns he wrote for New York City newspapers in the four decades after World War II. Of course, he wrote about the famous home run with a lede, published on the day after the game, that has been characterized as one of the best: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.” Okrent labels that opening and the rest of the piece “the platonic ideal of a column about a major sports event.” I found Smith’s recounting to be enjoyable, and his often-remarkable prose is always worth examining. However, what first struck me in the October 4, 1951, column is that the writer immediately sensed that Thomson’s home run was not just one among many exhilarating sports events that he had seen. It stood alone. Not just to the rabid fan of the one team or the other, it was, as they say, a game-changer even to the seasoned sportswriter, who could no longer believe that he had seen it all.
But I noticed something else in Red Smith’s column. He mentioned that there were “34,320 witnesses” to the game. The later depictions of that afternoon make it seem as if the whole country or at least all interested in sports or at least all of New York City or at least all of its baseball fans were living and dying with each pitch. On the other hand, the Polo Grounds, where the game was played, had a capacity of 55,000. More than 20,000 seats were empty. Perhaps the game was not as important when it was played as its extraordinary outcome later made it become.
These writings by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Red Smith turned my thoughts to Don DeLillo’s remarkable novel, Underworld, which I had read twenty years earlier. It is not an easy book, or, at least it was not for me. I started the book and gave up. A few years later, I picked it up again, this time finishing it, realizing that I had just read something extraordinary.
(continued September 27.)