Baseball And Memories

The death of Bobby Thomson this week brought to mind a column I wrote in 2001. It’s about baseball and growing up and childhood memories. I thought it was worth sharing:

It was a small cardboard box, barely big enough for a baseball but able to hold a child’s imagination. For inside of it was magic, in the form of scribbles and letters on a tightly stitched piece of horsehide that could be found in my grandmother’s attic.

The baseball had been given to my uncle years before by one of the men who had signed it, and to my 5-year-old mind those names became larger than life.

There was Willie Mays. And Monte Irvin. And Bobby Thomson. There were all the players from the New York Giants of the early 1950s, on a ball that had been given to my uncle when he was a boy growing up in Portland.

I’ve frequently been reminded of that ball in recent weeks. For it had landed in the attic courtesy of Larry Jansen, a pitcher on those Giants teams.

Jansen has been in the news lately. Reporters from New York. ESPN. Media outlets from all over the country have called the home in Forest Grove, Ore., where he has resided for the past 50 years.

They’ve called in search of the past, reaching back to the most famous home run in baseball history. Fifty years ago this week, Thomson hit a three-run homer off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Giants a playoff victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers and the National League pennant.

“Have you heard Russ Hodges’ call?” Jansen asked. “I think that’s what made it last so long.”

You’ve heard the call of the radio announcer, of course, the one that goes, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! …”

Jansen, 81, is on the short list of people to ask about the home run. He was the winning pitcher that day after entering the game as a reliever.

“Nobody remembers I won the game,” Jansen said. “They know Branca lost.”

The victory was Jansen’s 23rd of the season. But it wasn’t the only highlight of his career, merely the biggest.

In 1947, he was 21-5 as a rookie.

In the 1951 World Series, he faced Joe DiMaggio in the final at-bat of the Yankee Clipper’s career — “I held him to a double, so I thought I did pretty good.”

In 1954, he was part of a World Series champion as a coach for the Giants.

“I won 95 games my first five years and couldn’t make $40,000,” he said. “Now you make $40 million.”

But the discussion always comes back to Thomson’s home run. And, for me, that brings it back to my grandmother’s attic.

The ball is long gone, lost in some bushes when my cousins decided to play catch with it.

Can you imagine that happening today, in an age when memorabilia is considered an investment rather than a keepsake? These days a ball signed by Willie Mays and his teammates would be displayed in a glass case with a round-the-clock armed guard.

But in some odd way, emphasizing the value of the ball would only diminish its worth.

Because that ball isn’t really lost. It is found whenever I hear the names of Bobby Thomson or Larry Jansen. Found whenever I think back to the genesis of my fascination with baseball. Found whenever a memory of my late grandmother brings a smile to my face.

And those things, of course, are more valuable than any old baseball.

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