Monday, November 16, 2009

Coogan's Bluff

Joshua Prager has written a sublime, prosaic book about the "shot heard round the world": Bobby Thomson's home run to win the National League pennant on the final playoff pitch of 1951. It has been compared to The Boys of Summer, but it is less parochial, more truthful, and more serious.

Prager's research is both exhilarating and exhaustive. In 2001, he became notorious for an article about the Giants' telescopic stealing of signs. Here it is catalogued in merciless detail.

As are the lives of Branca and Thomson. In a chapter that is a tour de force, Prager interrupts the 1951 season at the playoff to narrate in synchrony their paths to this defining moment: Branca's huge and happy family, Thomson's taciturn father and supportive brother. The intermission takes up a fifth of the book.

It is emblematic of Prager's digressions that the final game itself is paused, as Thomson steps into the batter's box, before the pitch – the swing – Russ Hodges' call – for a paragraph that begins thus:
Pitcher and hitter had both awakened that morning at 7:30 in the home of parents. Both had eaten eggs prepared by his mother, Thomson with a side of bacon, Branca a side of ham.
"We are not so different, you and I." How could we understand this miracle before we knew the breakfasts of which it was made?

If the events of Prager's narrative are deliberately inverted and pulled apart, so too his words. In the first ten pages:
Thus did a bloody digit and enflamed appendix now convene Durocher and Horace Stoneham in New York's center-field clubhouse.
Durocher was obnoxious, would from short instruct his pitcher to throw at opposing batters.
All about the city were starting nines, and the consequence most embraced of its newfound proficiency was the overtaking of New York.
There are dozens of these throughout the book: prepositions, verbs, scattered through sentences to surprise the reader. Meaning waits, as a string of signifiers, names and dates is given sense at last by the missing term, on which everything pivots. Call no man happy till he throws the final pitch.

What is a life, asks Prager? Facts and facts and facts: eggs eaten, girlfriends left, wives kissed and parents grieved. But there is only one fact about Branca: he threw the fastball Thomson hit.


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