As a historian, I have always been fascinated by fame and how unfairly the gods of chance bestow it. Andy Warhol said that in this media age, everyone is famous for 15 minutes. But some people, the great and the not-so-great, are famous forever, and it is not clear why they make it into the nightclub of immortality and others, apparently equally worthy, do not.
Take two brothers who lived in the 19th century. One served as a congressman and senator from Ohio for many years, was secretary of the Treasury and secretary of State, was a major power in the Republican Party, and a perennial possibility for the presidential nomination. Yet he is completely forgotten today except by historians. His older brother, however, rode through Georgia at the head of an army in the fall of 1864 and is known to every schoolboy. To be sure, John Sherman is the eponym for the Sherman Antitrust Act (and coined the term “mending fences” in its political sense). But William Sherman gave his name to a clear refusal to seek the presidency (“If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve”), that has been known ever since as a Sherman.
Or consider Bobby Thomson, who died Monday at age 86. He was a journeyman fielder in the major leagues from 1946 to 1960. While a solid fielder and hitter, he came nowhere close to being considered for the Hall of Fame — a very restrictive club to be sure. He would, today, be completely forgotten except by keen students of baseball history. That is, he would be except for one at-bat, one hit, one incandescent moment of glory that caused his death, 59 years later, to be front-page news across the country.
It was the third game of a three-game playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers to determine the National League Pennant. It was the bottom of the 9th, one out, two men on base, the Giants down 4-2. The count was 0-and-1. As radio announcer Russ Hodges described it, Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca “throws … [audible sound of bat meeting ball]. There’s a long drive … it’s gonna be, I believe …THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy! HEEEY-OH!!!” [10-second pause for crowd noise] I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I do not believe it!”
The home run was quickly dubbed, with the braggadocio so typical of baseball, the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. It will be part of any history of this strange, boring, sublime, exhilarating, and utterly American game for as long as wooden bats hit leather-clad balls.
You can see that immortal moment here (and hear Russ Hodges). But perhaps Red Smith — the Shakespeare of sportswriters — said it best when he wrote the next day, “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.”