|Bobby Thomson swatting his famous, pennant-winning homer.
Where I was, in every sense, when Bobby hit ‘shot’
By JERRY TALLMER
André Breton, meet Leo Durocher.
Bobby Thomson, meet Gertrude Stein.
For a few years in the first half of the 1950s my place of residence was a smashing three-room Greenwich Village skylight-studio apartment five flights up at 265 West 11th Street.
In those early marital years I was what they call a blocked writer, or would-be writer, deeply immersed in Proust and Henry James and Yeats and Bernard Shaw and Hemingway and John O’Hara and James Agee and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and everybody else, but unable to come up with a single coherent, useful sentence of my own as I tore the paper out of the typewriter and cursed it into the wastebasket.
The rest of the time — whenever not rushing down five flights of steps to move the car to the other side of the street — down and of course back up again — was spent staring with venom at the pigeons pooping on the cornices of the buildings across the way while I babbled inanely: “Pigeons on the grass, alas… .”
And oh yes, Miss Stein — sorry, Ms. Stein — one more Dada thing. I was a New York Giants fan. Another loser. A born and bred New York (baseball) Giants fan.
Time marches on. Now, today, in the fleeting interval since Bobby Thomson, giant of Giants, was taken from us — he died on Monday of last week, peacefully, in Georgia, at 86 — I have once again been swallowed up in memories of the moment in that Greenwich Village skylight studio when, up in the beloved old Polo Grounds some 160 blocks north, Staten Island’s Flying Scot fired the Shot Heard ’round the World. And I, like everybody else in Western civilization, was listening to it on WMCA radio.
October 3, 1951, 3:58 p.m.
Flashback. One night some six months earlier, Meyer Shapiro, the all-star professor of the history of modern art who lived around the corner on West Fourth Street, came for drinks or dinner or both. I’d been sitting in on — bootlegging — his courses at Columbia University. He was up to Cézanne, and fabulous.
He climbed the five flights, stuck his head in the door, his eyes swiveled left, right, center, and as he stepped over the threshold he said: “André Breton once lived in this apartment. During the war, when the Surrealists and all other artists in Europe had to get away from Hitler.”
André Breton! The Pope of Surrealism, as he was not always flatteringly called, writer of the first Manifesto of Surrealism and much else that followed, almost as monumental a figure as the Marcel Duchamp whom only a few years later I would get to interview in his historic fourth-floor walk-up apartment across town.
It was another great Columbia University professor and man of letters, Jacques Barzun, born in France, who lately had stated the following:
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball… .”
Not long ago I got talking with a Brooklyn-based, Brooklyn-bred theater guy. As he was nattering on about Ebbets Field, he looked at me and suddenly said: “Giants fan, yeah?” Yes, I said, how’d you know? “Manhattan kid. Figures,” he said.
He meant, of course, the “Jints” of dear dead and gone Daily News headlines (“BUMS NIP JINTS, 2-1”), not those similarly named football guys.
Love is in the blood. What the Brooklyn-bred theater guy did not know was that the only visceral memory I have of my grandfather, Jacob Thalheimer, is of a little old man — though not as old, I hazard, as I am today — spending his long New York afternoons (night games had not yet been invented) huddled next to a small, arched Atwater Kent radio carrying that day’s Giants game.
One more memory:
Soccer practice. Two or three times a week up at Van Cortland Park. How I loathed it, was profoundly bored by it. Henry Stojowski and Nelly (Nelson) Craw and John Heidt, they were good at soccer. I was not. But what I loved, was thrilled by, was whenever the school bus carrying us up to the soccer field, two or three afternoons a week, reached 155th Street; there it was, fluttering bravely atop the Polo Grounds, a dark blue pennant proclaiming: “New York Giants — World Champions — 1933.”
That was then. This was now: 3:58 p.m., October 3, 1951. All hope lost. Last of the ninth. Two outs. The Dodgers about to wrap it up, 4-2. Wrap it up forever.
And Bobby Thomson comes to the plate with two Giants on base — Whitey Lockman at second base, Clint Hartung (running for the injured Don Mueller) at third. Ralph Branca comes in to pitch.
Well, you know what happens next. Everybody knows. Thomson swung at the second pitch — and Russ Hodges, on WMCA radio, started screaming: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
In Ken Burns’s masterful 1994 “Baseball” documentary, he puts the camera on a dozen or so celebrated citizens — Studs Terkel, Roger Angell, George Plimpton, Billy Crystal, Mario Cuomo, et al. — as they recall just where they were and how they reacted at that blinding moment in human history. Billy Crystal, who was a very small kid at the time, thought God had delivered a knockout. George Plimpton kicked over his breakfast table in Cambridge, England. And so on.
If, years later, you revisited the film footage of that 1951 event, and if you were very sharp-eyed, you could see tough little Eddie Stanky, the Giants second baseman, breaking away from the mob at home plate of his delirious teammates to dash toward the third-base coaching box and hurl himself into an embrace of notoriously unrespectable and even tougher manager Leo Durocher. By hook and crook, Durocher had brought the team up from 13½ games behind the Dodgers in mid-August to this glorious all-time upset of upsets.
But everybody forgets what Russ Hodges had said on the radio just before all that, as Thomson was coming up to bat.
“If I were a Giants fan,” Hodges had said, “at this moment I’d be down on my knees, praying.”
Well, Monsieur Breton — and you too, Miss Stein — when Russ Hodges stopped screaming and the uproar subsided, a minute or two after Bobby Thomson hit that homer, I waited for my heart to stop pounding as I looked around at my surroundings.
There I was, five flights up in this beautiful skylight studio, down on my knees on a Danish rug. I was 30 years old. Is that Dada enough for you?