Non­fic­tion

The Echo­ing Green: The Untold Sto­ry of Bob­by Thom­son, Ralph Bran­ca and the Shot Heard Round the World

Joshua Prager
  • Review
By – December 16, 2011

Some mar­riages may be made in heav­en, but oth­ers endure much like a python’s coils: once the embrace tight­ens, escape is not an option. Joshua Prager recounts such an endur­ing rela­tion­ship in The Echo­ing Green, which in part is a base­ball sto­ry and in part a tale of redemp­tion. Fifty-five years have passed since one of the most dra­mat­ic home runs in base­ball his­to­ry was struck, but for any­one who was wit­ness to the cli­mac­tic moments in 1951, Prager’s por­tray­al con­jures up a mul­ti-sen­so­ry vision of a place that now exists only in memory. 

Before the phrase walk-off home run,” before base­ball reached the West Coast, before the glob­al­iza­tion of sport, there were the Brook­lyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. Locked in a pen­nant race that was both a bat­tle between two local neigh­bor­hoods and an elim­i­na­tion race with a spot in the World Series as the prize, there was a denou­ment of a months-long come­back— not fol­lowed by even one pitch.” Bob­by Thom­son reached the left field stands with a line dri­ve off Ralph Bran­ca, and Octo­ber 3, 1951 is now remem­bered not for the explo­sion of the Sovi­et Union’s sec­ond atom­ic bomb, but for Thomson’s blast. 

Despite any dis­be­lief of the under-60 crowd that this event could be so trau­mat­ic as to con­tin­ue to gen­er­ate books and sto­ries about a mere three-run homer, Prager’s metic­u­lous­ly researched book illu­mi­nates why this should be so. And for Bran­ca, who threw the pitch, and for Thom­son, who swung the bat, their reluc­tant pair­ing as pro­tag­o­nists in a frozen moment deter­mined that they would be remem­bered in the future not as sep­a­rate beings, but as two halves of one whole. 

The Echo­ing Green reveals a secret, how­ev­er. The Giants appar­ent­ly used mechan­i­cal means — a tele­scope, a buzzer, visu­al sig­nals — to alert a bat­ter to the type of pitch to expect. This rev­e­la­tion would bring Bran­ca some release from the pain of fifty years of being a goat and Thom­son would find some release from the pres­sure of being a reluc­tant hero. But was the home run taint­ed? Did Thom­son know which pitch was com­ing? If the Giants knew the pitch­es, why were they unable to score a sin­gle run in the pre­vi­ous game? And how was Thom­son able to homer off Bran­ca just two days ear­li­er, in anoth­er ball­park, where using a tele­scope was not pos­si­ble? These unan­swer­able ques­tions con­tribute to the dra­ma of the sud­den­ness with which the 1951 sea­son con­clud­ed. While William Blake’s poem, from which Prager’s title is tak­en, cel­e­brates inno­cence, ulti­mate­ly The sun does descend,/And our sports have an end:/…no more (to be) seen,/On the dark­en­ing Green.” 

Despite some unfor­tu­nate phras­ing (“The Dodgers tot­ed too a tie…,” a wax­ing cres­cent glim­mered three nights grown”), and although in attempt­ing to draw a par­al­lel between the pro­tag­o­nists’ lives’ the author might have done bet­ter to sep­a­rate Thomson’s and Branca’s lives, rather than alter­nate abrupt­ly from one to the oth­er, Prager absorbs the read­er in this moral­i­ty tale. For the stu­dent of social his­to­ry or just a fan of base­ball, the sto­ry behind the shot heard round the world” is an engross­ing read.

Noël Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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