The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World
By Joshua Prager
Pantheon, 498 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Certain historic moments remain powerful partly from being perceived and remembered simply: A schoolteacher dies as the Challenger space shuttle bursts in the sky. Six uniformed Americans capture an island by raising a flag at Iwo Jima.
And, 55 years ago at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, a National League baseball pennant is won and spirits uplifted or crushed after Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hits a game-winning home run off Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In ``The Echoing Green," Joshua Prager goes well beyond the simple perception of that home run in ways that are at first marked by frustrating detours and unneeded details, but that eventually give this event a deeper, more complex meaning.
Prager's approach is to build toward that third and final playoff game and its decades-long aftermath with biographies of often unadmirable characters who were crucial in both the game and in an aspect that has been publicized far less than that dramatic home run: Beginning in July of that 1951 baseball season, the Giants stole the opposing catcher's pitch signals during home games, using a telescope, an electrically wired buzzer, and a human relay system.
Prager has little interest in making parallels to the recent steroid revelations in Major League Baseball, or in debating the moral complexities of sign-stealing. Instead, he rationalizes that ``the marrow of baseball -- of all sport -- is competition" and essentially equates baseball's subjectivity ( umpires' calls) and willful trickery ( pitchers scuffing balls) to further justify the Giants' unusually elaborate sign-stealing scheme.
While this is akin to excusing bank robbery because some people run stop signs, it is consistent with Prager's plan to base his book on a mass of facts (generating 117 published pages of notes and bibliography). At times, these facts, including his description of the sign-stealing, illuminate a larger picture than what the simple consensus memory provides.
At many other times, however, the author does not distinguish between details that lend color and context, and minutiae that disturb the narrative's focus and pace. For example, Prager includes the names of doctors who briefly treated Branca and Thomson, and describes a minor league manager of Branca's as ``a 65-inch Jew from New York," which can make the reader wonder which details will prove to be important: his height, heritage, or hometown. (The answer: none of them.) Even when Prager is re -creating the playoff game he interrupts the scene, once with a digressive mini-biography of a pinch runner who in this context deserves no more biography than ``pinch runner."
Prager also reaches for the poetic, first in the book's title (the title also of a William Blake poem ), then with such lines (within a history of the Polo Grounds) as ``The [pitcher's] mound had not budged in the sixty years since Giant Amos Rusie first stood upon it on April 22, 1891. And the ground beneath it reached to the colonial roots of America." And Thomson, following an injury, ``wore on his right foot a high-top shoe, the better to bear the weight of expectation."
This apparent desire to poeticize also could explain the oddities of syntax (``Right of home, meantime, and up a flight, stood the press room -- white-clothed tables and a bar to feed and water before games the newspapermen.") and the forced parallels and transitions: of the electrician who wired the buzzer system, Prager writes ``just as Welsbach Electric stopped penciling the word sick on Chadwick's time card, a sickening sense of the inevitability of the Giant march on the pennant overtook the Dodgers."
These gratuitous strains and details distract from the power that the story already has. For example, that electrician was a Dodgers fan who ultimately helped his team lose to the Giants, his part-time employer.
And the strength of well-chosen facts is evident when Prager zeroes in on a plaque honoring the great former Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson (partly for being ``one of the finest sportsmen of all time") that is located just 2 feet from the peephole through which the spying telescope was trained on the opposing catcher.
Just as that final playoff game is most remembered for its ending, this book becomes strongest in its final 100 pages, when the writing loses most of its poetic reaching, odd stylings, and overreporting, and Prager focuses on the complex reaction to the home run.
For the home run forever redefined Thomson and Branca, financially as well as psychologically: Both made many thousands of dollars off speeches, memorabilia sales , and even singing appearances, because people saw them simply: Branca as the goat who threw the ball, and Thomson as the hero who hit it.
Branca, naturally, is the more defensive of the two, while Thomson is more gracious. But their lives are further complicated when Branca learns of the sign-stealing, and when Thomson is confronted with that fact. Both men carry and express contradictions that belie this supposedly simple event. Branca alternately and repeatedly claims not to be bothered by being remembered only as a goat, and bemoans his fate. Thomson seems to settle on a compromise confession: Sure, he took signs that season, but not for that one home run pitch.
Prager skillfully reveals the people behind the simple-minded images, bringing these two men to the same level as the flawed people he earlier revealed, and to the people we know, and are. In the end, then -- as in life, and art -- no simple heroes or goats exist, and baseball is not a pastoral escape, but a cold, harsh reflection.
David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.