In the fall of 1963, I was a young airman stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York. I had recently returned from a tour of duty just outside Istanbul, Turkey and the Rome/Utica area just didn’t have quite enough magnetic pull to keep me in town on weekends. I often hitchhiked the Thruway to Albany, not just because it was my home town, but because it was a place that had a hell of a lot more going on.
On one of those Friday afternoons I was standing roadside with a buddy of mine, a fellow airman, for what seemed to be a very long time. In hitchhiking, as in everything else, there are good days and there are bad days. Things were not going well on this one, and we were growing discouraged. Finally, though, this fairly ordinary-looking Pontiac sedan pulled over and we grabbed our bags and took off down the road and jumped in; me up front riding shotgun, Pete climbing into the back seat.
After rolling along in silence for a while someone finally broke the ice, and then all three of us began rambling on about everything under the sun. Being guys, we eventually stumbled upon the subject of baseball. Our driver mentioned in passing that he used to play the game himself, a remark that went unnoticed for awhile, and we continued to rattle on and on about facts, figures, heroes, etc. Besides, we had all played baseball in the past, hadn’t we?
Then, for some reason, it occurred to me to ask exactly what he meant when he said he used to play baseball. Well, he said, I started out playing in high school, then went on to play in the minor leagues. Wow, we said in unison, did you ever make it to the majors? Yeah, I was in the majors for a while. Holy cow! This was getting interesting. Real interesting.
The Thruway can seem like one long endless ribbon of road when you have no one to talk to, but on this one particular autumn evening, I was completely unaware of the outside world. It was just getting dark, and before continuing his story, he slowly reached down to turn the lights on. His face, now illuminated by the dashboard, revealed the unmistakable signs of mischief: an impish little grin at the corners of his mouth and a twinkle in his eye.
I thought he was going to string us along for a while, just for laughs, then admit he was joking. It would have been a pretty damn good laugh, too, because he had us – hook, line and sinker. OK, OK, spill the beans; who’d you play for? The New York Giants, he said quietly. The New York freaking Giants? Are you kidding me? You played for the Giants? You mean the farm team? No, I was in the majors for a few years. Really? What’s your name? Robert. Robert Thomson.
Hmm, that didn’t ring any bells with either of us, and for a few seconds there we were all suspended in this agonizing silence; and then, all of a sudden, it hit us! You couldn’t… possibly… be… Bobby Thomson? Yep, that’s what they used to call me.
Holy Jumpin’ Jesus! Bobby Thomson! The man who hit the most famous home run in the entire history of the universe; the home run so famous they called it ‘the shot heard round the world.’ We were stunned. Speechless. To this day I don’t remember very clearly what happened after that; I recall the two of us going nuts and jabbering a mile a minute for a while, then settling down to listen, enraptured, to all the details of that day, from the man who had lived them; how he had no memory of running the bases, how he threw up as soon as he reached the locker room, and on and on into the night. We were in the hallowed presence of the biggest Giant in the world.
It was one of the great rides of my life, despite the fact that he had broken my heart when that ball soared over the fence in the last out of the last inning of the final playoff game for the 1951 National League pennant. Though he had delivered a crushing blow to every fan of the long-suffering Brooklyn Dodgers that year, there was no way around the fact that it was a moment of high national drama, a lightning bolt across the American sky, a crowning moment in baseball history. When it happened, I broke down and cried. I was 9-years old.
But on this particular night, I relived it with him, I rejoiced with him. Why? Because the Dodgers, the team I had earned several bloody noses defending as a youth, had finally paid me back for my undying loyalty just a few years earlier by moving the team to Los Angeles, California. The final indignation came when Ebbets Field was torn down and that hallowed ground was covered with high-rise apartment buildings.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would one day be riding shotgun for the very man who had hit that pitch. But here I was, not only riding alongside him, but cheering for him, celebrating with him. It was all very clear to me; I had finally been avenged. Go, Bobby, go, Bobby, Go!