August 19, 2010
You Could Look It Up
Not a One-Shot Wonder
Five Thoughts on Bobby Thomson That Don’t Mention the Shot Heard ‘Round the World
1. In writing up the Gene Mauch All-Stars, I discussed several players who got off to terrific starts in the majors but whose careers petered out before they could make a case for, if not the Hall of Fame in most cases, at least on being memorable. If not for Thomson’s big moment, he might be remembered as one of those players. Despite losing three minor-league seasons to World War II, he became a major-league regular with the Giants at 23 and was very good right off the bat but had trouble finding consistency. His WARP totals by year from 1947-53: 3.0, -0.4, 7.0, 1.9, 4.9, 4.1, 0.5. That’s one great season (.309/.355/.518 in center field), a couple of very good years, and three that flirted with the replacement level. Once the Giants traded him to the Braves, Thomson was never the same. From 30 to his retirement at 36, he had but one season that even approached that level, reaching 3.0 WARP while playing center field for the Cubs. As a Giant, he hit .277/.337/.484 in 1,135 games and played a key part on the 1951 pennant winner. For everyone else, he played 644 games and hit .255/.319/.418. With a better finish, Thomson still wouldn’t have gotten a plaque in Cooperstown, but he probably would have exceeded 2,000 hits and 300 home runs and played on at least two more pennant winners, particularly the 1957 and 1958 Braves. “I tried hard to avoid being an every-other-year ballplayer,” Thomson said, but he was one.
2. The reason for his rapid decline might have been the broken ankle he suffered in spring training, 1954, his first with the Braves. It kept him out for three-quarters of that season, a year in which the Braves finished eight games behind the Giants. That injury, and the player that the Braves gave up for Thomson, did severe damage to the franchise. As Jay Jaffe discussed in our book It Ain’t Over, the Braves gave up left-hander Johnny Antonelli in the deal. After trying to break through for a couple of seasons with the Braves in Boston, Antonelli missed two years to military service in Korea. Somehow, he came back a mature pitcher. Though only 12-12 for the Braves in 1953, his 3.18 ERA was well below the league average of 4.29, and he struck out 6.7 batters per nine in a league that K’d just 4.4. As a Giant in 1954, he put together a Cy Young-worthy season and helped pitch the team to a pennant and an upset World Series win over the Cleveland Indians. The Braves, who thought they were deeper in pitching prospects than they actually were, won only two pennants in the Hank Aaron era, finishing second five times from 1953-60.
3. Having hurt themselves in the original Thomson deal, the Braves got better when they traded him in 1957. That June, with the Braves in first and struggling to hold off the Reds, Dodgers, Cardinals and Phillies, all of whom were between 1 ½ and three games out, they decided to replace their light-hitting second baseman Danny O’Connell. Thomson, along with pitcher Ray Crone, was sent back to the Giants for All-Star second baseman Red Schoendienst. The future Hall of Famer hit .310/.348/.434 the rest of the way. The team held on to win the pennant, then beat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
4. Thomson was one of the few Giants to survive Leo Durocher’s great purge of 1948-50. Playing for Mel Ott in 1947 (Durocher’s nice guy who finished last), the Giants set a record with 221 home runs. This would seem like a good thing, but when Durocher took over in 1948, he was bothered with the team’s lack of speed and athleticism. By 1950, Durocher had gotten rid of seven starters from the 1948 team:
Players like Mize, Gordon, and Marshall could really hit, but if Durocher didn’t think you could go from first to third on a single he wasn’t all that interested in you (one of the reasons he wasn’t a fan of Ernie Banks by the time he managed Mr. Cub in the late 1960s).
5. Thomson was a third baseman in the minors, and his experience at the hot corner would be hugely important to the resolution of the 1951 pennant race. Thomson had opened the season in a bad slump, hitting just .220/.327/.397 through the end of June, and the trio of rookie Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Mueller had squeezed him out of a regular job. When third baseman Hank Thompson, who hadn’t hit much that year either, was badly spiked in mid-July, Durocher gambled on bringing Thomson to the infield. Thomson not only played the position well enough to get by, but went nuts with the bat. In 81 games starting July 1, he hit .353/.434/.696, knocking 23 home runs in 298 at-bats. The Giants, trailing the first-place Dodgers by 7 1/2 games, went a terrific 52-20 the rest of the way, tied the Dodgers, and won the pennant playoff on Thomson’s you-know-what.