Monday, October 3, 2011

Bobby Thompson and Me: The Legacy of My Grandfather

Sixty years ago today, Bobby Thompson's 9th-inning home run off Ralph Branca sent the New York Giants into the World Series, completing the ultimate comeback over the Brooklyn Dodgers. (You can find my essay on the buildup to the Shot here) While the rest of baseball will uniformly celebrate the Shot Heard 'Round the World, a yearly schism will divide fans of the New York Mets.

Have you ever really considered the complex relationship Mets fans have with Bobby Thompson's famous home run? New York was given a National League expansion team to fill the void the Giants and Dodgers left when they both moved west after the 1957 season. When the team took the field for the 1962 season, they clad themselves in orange and blue, a compromise between the colors of the past. The Mets were a team both sets of fans could root for.

But when October 3 rolls around, all bets are off. Around half of Mets fans, the ones whose legacies lie with in New York Giants, celebrate the storybook ending that sent their team to the World Series. The other half of Mets fans are rooted in the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and they look back on this day and curse Ralph Branca for trying to go inside on Bobby Thompson. Usually united in their support for one team, brother will turn against brother over a rivalry long past. The closest thing to compare it to would be large, rural high schools feuding over games played before consolidation.

So, as a modern-day Mets fan living in the Midwest, where do my loyalties lie when reminiscing about a home run that happened 40 years before I was born? To answer that question, I must tell the story of a South Dakota man and his first year in New York City.

My grandfather was born in 1927. In 1945, he left the farm in South Dakota for Biblical school in Rochester, New York. After transferring to the University of Rochester, he graduated from there in 1949. He stayed an extra year to earn a Masters in History, and married my grandma, a Rochester native, the same year, 1950. In 1951, Grandpa moved to the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City, near Columbia University and Grant's Tomb, to pursue his Bachelor of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary. Aside from following the path God had set him on, Grandpa's next biggest task was choosing a baseball team to root for.

Being new to the Big Apple, Grandpa could have chosen any of the three New York teams to follow. He first considered the Yankees. But the Yankees were too successful for his tastes; they were the team of the rich and powerful, the team of corporate America. Being an aspiring minister hoping to help those who corporate America thumbed its nose at, he couldn't root for the Yankees and keep his soul at the same time. So he wouldn't become a Yankees fan.

Grandpa then considered the Dodgers. He went to a few games at Ebbets Field, but he could never really get into the home team. He concluded that in order to be a Dodger fan, you had to be a real Brooklynite; you had to live in that borough and be a real Brooklyn Bum. He was living on Manhattan, too far away from the epicenter of that team. So he wouldn't become a Dodgers fan.

Finally, Grandpa considered the Giants. The Giants were the only New York team based on the island of Manhattan. They played in the Polo Grounds, only a few blocks away from Morningside Heights. They were a working man's team, like the Dodgers, but had an appeal broader than the boundaries of the borough. Finally, in 1951, the Giants brought up a 20-year-old kid named Willie Howard Mays to play center field. Grandpa was a huge fan of Willie Mays (he also shared a birthday with Grandma). So, for him, the choice was clear. Grandpa became a Giants fan.

Luckily for him, he picked one heck of a year to become a Giants fan. And he was in the city for all of it: for 13 back in August, for 16 in a row, for 37-7, for game one at Ebbets Field and game two at the Polo Grounds. And on the afternoon October 3, 1951, he was listening to game three on WMCA-AM radio when Dark and Mueller singled, and when Irvin fouled out and Lockman doubled, when Hartung replaced Mueller and Branca replaced Newcombe. And when Bobby Thompson sent Ralph Branca's 0-1 fastball into the short porch in left, Russ Hodges screamed to Grandpa through his radio:


And Grandpa went crazy, and Grandma heard what happened and she went crazy, and they both ran out to dance in the streets and celebrate with all their neighbors, who were also listening to Hodges on the radio. "...and they're going crazy, they're going crazy! HEEY-OH!!!"

Of course, he was there for the other great moments of the 1950s. For the magical season of 1954, for Willie's greatness that year, The Catch in the World Series, and the four-game sweep of the Indians. He was also there when the Yankees and Dodgers renewed their rivalry year after year. My father was born in 1956, and Grandpa dreamed of passing on the traditions of the orange and black to him when he was old enough.

Of course, after 1957, he didn't know if he'd get that chance. In the blink of an eye, two sets of fans were left with broken hearts when the Giants and Dodgers packed up and moved west. Some of them may have given in and joined the Yankee empire, but Grandpa stood firm and supported his team, even after moving out of the city about a year later. After all, they were still called the Giants, still wore orange and black, and still had Willie Mays patrolling the center field in Candlestick Park. For now, he could still root for a team located 3,000 miles from home.

Then in 1962, the prayers of more than half a city were answered with the arrival of the orange-and-blue-clad New York Mets. It didn't matter that in their early years they were one of the worst teams baseball had ever seen; Grandpa, his fellow Giant fans, and Dodger fans all had a new set of heroes. Dad got into baseball around the time the team moved into Shea Stadium, and he grew up a fan of the New York Mets. After graduating from Ward Melville High School in 1974, he took his team with him when he left for Earlham College in Indiana. After he got his Ph.D. at Syracuse in 1983, he got a job at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he met my mom. They married in 1984, the year he got a job at Purdue University in West Lafayette. I was born in 1991, and when I was old enough, Dad passed the tradition on to me. Thus, in conclusion, with fandom of the old New York Giants grandfathered into me, I rejoice at the events of sixty years ago today.

Grandpa died early last year at age 82. I have so many wonderful memories of him, but my favorite is one of ten years ago, when he first told me his story of the pennant race of 1951, of dancing in the streets with Grandma and their neighbors on October 3. It's that memory that helped shape my dad's destiny as a baseball fan, and in turn has helped to shape mine. I am a third-generation New York National League baseball fan, and it all started when a 24-year-old divinity student and his wife moved to Morningside Heights the year Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard 'Round the World.



1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing that story and allowing us to spend a few moments with Grandpa! Very Special!