Tuesday, 31 August 2010


My obituary of the baseball player Bobby Thomson, who hit 'the shot heard round the world', is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. As usual with American sports obits, some things I thought were significant got left out, which may or may not mean something to you.

When Leo Durocher moved Thomson from the outfield to third base, it was to accomodate the bat of a 20 year old rookie named Willie Mays, who went on to be one of the game's great outfielders. Thomson went out of his way to mentor Mays, who'd been signed out of the Negro leagues, and in some obits Willie reflected on his 'class'. Thomson's bat was very good for an outfielder, but exceptional at third, and he handled the transition to a far more demanding defensive position without complaint.

Of course, Dodgers' manager Charlie Dressen deserves some criticism. In my original copy I'd explained how the Giants won the first game at Ebbetts Field basically on Thomson's home run off Ralph Branca. Dressen chose to play the first game at home and the other two on the road, and, as many people have pointed out, both Thomson's homers would have been outs had he hit them in the other stadium. But this also makes one question why he called on Branca to pitch to Thomson at all, or why he didn't walk Thomson, loading the bases and creating force outs, and pitch to the on-deck batter, who of course was Willie Mays.

I pointed out that the World Series stayed in New York that year; after all it was the centre of the universe. And I described their loss to the mighty Yankees as 'inevitable', which I wish had been left in. It also occurs to me that Thomson was one of a small group of native New Yorkers who went straight to and starred for one of the hometown teams (Branca, from Mount Vernon, was close enough to be another), like Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford, Babe Herman, Sandy Koufax (until the Dodgers moved to LA) or Phil Rizzuto (or the Mets' John Franco). New Yorker ARoid Rodriquez got to the Yankees via Seattle and Texas, Eddie Lopat came from the White Sox. Joe Torre, of course, was from Brooklyn. If we define 'starred' rather more loosely we could mention Johnny Murphy, Lee Mazzilli, Joe Pepitone, Ed Kranepool, or 'Superjew' Mike Epstein.

I also found it interesting that Thomson actually came out of retirement in 1963 to sign with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants. In my copy I pointed out that meant he ended his career in a Giants' uniform, as Yomiuri's jerseys and hats were direct copies of the New York Giant kit. It's also worth noting that the use of the game on the radio in the Godfather is anachronistic, as it is supposedly 1948 when Sonny is gunned down. I was particularly taken with Thomson's story about the Perry Como TV show; he drove himself home, taking the Staten Island ferry, and that to me was another indicator of what baseball, and its players, used to symbolise: working guys working at a job that was a lot more fun and a little better paid than your dad's.

It also reminded me of another story from that Giants team. Dressen pulled Don Newcombe for Branca after a pause in the game because Don Mueller had broken his ankle sliding into third. His replacement as a base-runner was Clint Hartung, who died just last month (8 July). Hartung achieved a certain amount of recognition because the baseball writer Bill James named an award for him, given to players who do not fulfill their hyped potential.

Clint Hartung was about 6-5, 210 pounds, which was pretty big in those days, especially for a player with his speed. He was called 'The Hondo Hurricane' because he'd led Hondo, Texas to a state title as a pitcher and outfielder, and signed a pro contract with the minor-league Minneapolis Millers, starting his pro career in Eau Claire, where he won three games and hit .348 before being drafted in midseason in 1942. He mostly played baseball in the Army, and with Pearl Harbor's Hickham Field Bombers he hit .567 and won 25 straight games as a pitcher, which was enough to get him into Life magazine as a 'one man ball team'. After the war, the Giants bought his contract from the Millers, for $25,000 and four players. Hartung was an immediate sensation in 1947's spring training (a homer in his first at bat) and arrived in New York as highly heralded as any player ever has been.

As a rookie that year he went 9-7 as a pitcher, and hit .303. But like some modern players, like Rick Ankiel, he was hampered by the team's indecision with him; they never decided whether he should be a pitcher or a hitter (and at the major league level he was only adequate as an outfielder) and his managers, first Mel Ott and then Leo Durocher, both appeared to resent having to use him in both capacities. Of course other players, like Babe Ruth, have coped better. He also was a soft-spoken, modest character, just the sort of qualities unlikely to receive huge appreciation from either Ott or Durocher.

Hartung played six seasons for the Giants. In the first four, as a pitcher, he wound up 29-29, in his final two (1951-52) he was reduced to just part-time duty as a pinch-hitter which meant his lifetime batting average was just .238, though he hit 14 home runs in his 378 at bats. That run scored in the 1951 playoff was probably the high point of his career.

The Giants sold him to the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League, and he later played for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League, but eventually he returned to Texas, where he played for the Plymouth Oilers, a top semi-pro team run by Plymouth Oil in Sinton, Texas. It was reminiscent of playing in the Army, and the relative lack of pressure seemed to agree with him.

As Bill Gallo pointed out in the Daily News, had agent Scott Boras been around in 1946, Hartung would have died owning three huge ranches. As it was, he seemed content. That was, as I said above, a different era. In 1983 he was interviewed by Texas Monthly magazine. Asked about any regrets, he said 'when the bubble bursts, that’s it. When it’s over, it’s over.'

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