'The Shot Heard 'Round the World' and the Goal No One Saw

From the same blog that assaulted you with three weeks of World Cup posts comes another meditation on a vaguely unpopular (in the U.S., anyway) sport: ice hockey. James Hughes, a dear friend and former honcho of Stop Smiling magazine (now books!) contributes this lovely piece about the late Bobby Thomson, fandom, being able to say you were there and what it means to bear witness.

The Shot Heard Round the World, and the Goal that No One Saw
By James Hughes

When Bobby Thomson passed away last month, his miracle moment--the three-run shot over the leftfield wall of the Polo Grounds that stripped the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1951 pennant and whirled New York Giants fans into a frenzy, prompting lifelong "where-were-you-when" nostalgia kicks--was the perfect pearl for sports columnists to shuck out once again.

They can't be blamed. The "Shot Heard Round the World" on October 3, 1951 remains, by many historians' accounts, the high-water mark of professional baseball. Meanwhile, August 2010 was shaping up to be a month most would rather forget. Roger Clemens was nabbed for needles again. Stephen Strasburg's elbow popped the Nationals out of the national conversation. A-Rod's 600 home run milestone was swept into the back pages. The new Bud Selig statue wasn't moving many outside Milwaukee.

But the extensive coverage and tributes to Thomson made for great copy. One standout, written by Dave Anderson of the New York Times, revealed glimpses of Thomson's subdued retirement--a welcome contrast to the scenery-chewing we've come to expect from many ex-ballplayers--and the remorse he felt for Ralph Branca, the Dodgers pitcher who surrendered the game-winner during a catastrophic appearance on the mound that was soon followed by a pep-talk with a priest.

The continued fascination with Thomson's Shot prompted a look back at the masterful prologue of Don DeLillo's Underworld (Scribner, 1997), which recreates the atmosphere inside the Polo Grounds that afternoon in pointillist detail. DeLillo tracks the progress of several attendees: the kids who hop the turnstiles for a chance to witness history; the neighborhood crazies who dance in the aisles; the diehard fans sweating out every pitch; the "gum-chewing men with nothing to say." Even J. Edgar Hoover is there, fearing that the masses "who will light the city with their bliss" might soon disintegrate beneath a Soviet bomb.

The fans, DeLillo writes, "bring with them body heat of a great city and their own reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day--men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game."

The reason these images resonate so completely with me is that I recently witnessed my own personal Thomson Shot--and I can attest that DeLillo's surgical study of the ensuing chaos after a magical moment reveals several universal truths.

Leaving America's pastime aside--I opt for Canada's game--I no longer have to carry the burden of rooting for the team with the longest-active Stanley Cup drought. On June 9th, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Flyers 4-3 in overtime to capture my city's first Cup since the Kennedy era. And unlike the crisp, definitive arc of Thomson's home run ball, the sudden-death goal by star winger Patrick Kane instead set the scene for one of hockey's most mind-bending anti-climaxes. The moment has quickly become the stuff of legend. And I was there to see it.

Plane tickets. Train rides. Scalped seats. A calculated risk to witness the sublime. As DeLillo wrote: "Nothing you've put into this is recoverable and you don't know whether you want to leave at once or stay forever, living under a blanket in the wind."

These words registered as I sat among several hundred scattered Chicagoans either flaunting their team loyalty or bottling it up like undercover cops.

Flyers eyes on us at all times.

There are three minutes in the game and your team is now tied. (DeLillo: "Everything is changing shape, becoming something else.") Whereas you'd previously been counting down the minutes as they nursed a one-goal lead--each second of the clock like a stonecutter's taunt--the roar of the Flyers fans now assaults your senses. The equalizer they'd been praying for is in the net. Overtime is forced. Another Philly comeback feels possible. And this is a fan base that expects comebacks--demands comebacks--as well as undying, hard-nosed loyalty from their players. (During one whistle, the scoreboard flashed a highlight of JJ Daigneault's celebrated game-winning goal for the Flyers at the Spectrum in 1987 before cutting to Daigneault in attendance, beaming proudly for the camera. Dressed to the nines in a dark suit appropriate for any league veteran, a fan near me was still compelled to shout, "What--the piece'a shit couldn't wear anything orange?")

And though me and my pack of Chicagoans--my brother John and our friend Adam--faced the ruthless heckling Philadelphians are known for, all was forgotten when Patrick Kane juked past a Finnish defenseman and buried the game-winner in the net--quite literally buried, as the puck was vacuumed up beneath the padding in the corner, vanishing from sight. Fooled were the goal judges, the referees, the linesmen and 20,000 breathless fans. At that moment, Kane was the only one celebrating--a rink-wide victory lap he later admitted was intended to sell that the goal was clean.

The stadium was so pin-drop quiet and the pregnant pause of Chicago fans so muffled, we could hear the players' sticks clatter to the ice as they stumbled into celebration. Here in this stadium that had previously been rocked to its foundation by handclap-chants straight out of Riefenstahl and the Rocky brass on another tired loop. Here where rabid fans--like the guy two rows down who made a kabuki display of how he was going to punch each of us in the face--were now slinking up the aisles, patting their pockets for car keys. Several demanded to see a replay. None quarreled with the opposing fans, as we'd anticipated. The fog of confusion was too thick. (Weeks later Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois passed a House resolution honoring the Blackhawks. It began: "About three weeks ago, several hundred brave Chicago Blackhawk hockey fans sat in Philadelphia and wondered why Patrick Kane was flying across the ice in celebration. He scored the goal that no one saw." In a season of political disappointment in Illinois, it was a rare moment of solidarity.)

Frozen in mid-celebration, memories of the 1999 Stanley Cup held us in check. When Brett Hull of the Dallas Stars scored the most controversial overtime Cup-winning goal ever--his skate was in the blue paint of the crease at the time he scored, a clear violation of a draconian rule since overturned--his teammates stormed the ice, followed by union cameramen and their cord-wranglers and the media brigade ravenous for the I'm-going-to-Disneyland treatment. Too awkward, too impossible to push back the Dallas throngs. Chaos reigned. The only person missing was Jack Ruby.

Whereas the NHL twisted itself into knots justifying that goal--and commentator Bill Clement, a former Broad Street Bully, later channeled his inner-Jim Gray in an on-air confrontation with Brett Hull about the goal's validity--there was no disputing Kane's season finale. It was a clean goal--albeit one drastically lacking in dramatic impact on broadcast television. A quick YouTube recap of the NBC and CBC play calls reveal just how marble-mouthed the presentation of Chicago's proudest moment was. The hometown radio coverage of John Wiedeman was a lone voice to capture the excitement, despite a similarly stilted delivery. (The on-air confusion was the inspiration for this spoof on a radio show in Kane's hometown of Buffalo, the same city denied the Cup by Hull's skate.)

Such fumblings are a reminder of how sacred Russ Hodges' euphoric radio play-by-play was for Bobby Thomson's home run. When that "grits and taters voice," as DeLillo describes it, belted out the famous mantra "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" it was not a call, but a coronation. Fans lost it instantly. "There are people with their hands in their hair," DeLillo wrote, "holding in their brains." And yet, it's the 1951 Giants who remain trapped under a cloud of conspiracy. Reports, like those in the Wall Street Journal in 2001, later revealed that an elaborate system of sign-stealing with a telephoto lens inside the Giants clubhouse was perhaps what gave their batters the edge against rival pitchers like Branca--the ones who never lived down their failings. But whether or not Thomson truly stole a sign for his famous Shot, that's a secret that passed with him.

James Hughes is a writer and co-publisher of Stop Smiling Books. He recently moved back to his home state of Illinois with his wife and son, and re-upped his Blackhawks season seats.