Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bobby Thompson 1923-2010

The Shot Heard 'Round the World
 Last half of the 9th it's a 4-2 ballgame...but the Giants have the tying run on second base...Bobby Thomson, up there swingin'...Branca throws... 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 Thompson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands...the Giants win the pennant and they're growing crazy....
                                                            —Russ Hodges, New York Giants Announcer 

On Sunday mornings in New York, there is a weekly radio show about baseball on WFAN hosted by Ed Randall, who says in his standard introduction that baseball is "the only game you can see on the radio." Do you agree? Very often, I think, great news moments are immortalized visually—especially in still pictures. Photographs sum up experiences instantly and etch them deeply into memories in a way that other media don't. But of course there are moments we know best from other media, and Russ Hodges's call of Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World" is one of them. Still photos of the moment, like the one above (which unfortunately isn't credited...can anybody help with that?), credited to Associated Press, have become well known, but they don't capture the narrative that makes the moment compelling: Hodges, on the other hand, delivers a three-act play in a matter of seconds—Branca throws, Thompson hits, the Giants win the pennant. Film footage of the event stands up today only as a historical curiosity. (Try watching this clip with Hodges's voice muted: Not much there, except for the insert shots of ecstatic Giants fans.)
     Maybe this is all a matter of technology—radio was fully formed in 1951, while photography was a still few years away from the 35mm cameras and motor drives that would revolutionize sports photography and make a magazine like Sports Illustrated must-reading for fans. As for television, it would be several decades before high-quality images, instant replays, and 24/7 highlight clips became standard viewing expectations.
     But I think I agree more with Ed Randall: Baseball, spread out over a vast area, complex in the implications of every play, was and is still best seen on the radio, where skilled announcers paint the images in our minds. Boxing is a photographic sport; the punch is never as compelling as the aftermath of the action. Football is a television sport, with bodies and movement seen in a rolling, roiling storyline. Hockey...well, you have to be there. (I take that back, considering this clip, the only call that might rival Hodges's in the annals of sport. Here, the picture and the words belong together.) Baseball belongs on the radio.
      What do you think? Here's another question: What do you think the best sports call ever was?

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