A month of rereadings: ‘Pafko at the Wall’

• As soon as I Tweeted today about Bobby Thomson’s famous homerun, a friend messaged me about one of the famous stories that stemmed from that 1951 playoff game and one of the greatest moments in American sports history. Had I read it?

He was referring to the opening of Don DeLillo’s novel “Underworld.” Initially this chapter, “Pafko at the Wall,” was published in Harper’s magazine and later was released separately as a novella of its own.

Andy Pafko was the Brooklyn Dodgers’ left fielder who looked on helplessly as Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” sailed over his head and beyond his reach. pafko

The Giants won the pennant, and DeLillo’s fictionalized story — featuring true-life characters Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor and J. Edgar Hoover — populated a tale as rich and resonant as the real thing.

Thomson, who died this week at the age of 86, enjoyed an otherwise uneventful career, but as the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark points out in “The Story is Never Over,” one moment can be immortal, and can speak for much, much more than the moment itself:

“The Shot has become a story about what constitutes triumph and tragedy in America, about how sports defines our identity, about fame, celebrity, race, scandal, myth and mystery, recounted time and again in nonfiction books, documentaries, investigations, novels and even poetry.”

And this:

“Journalists can draw from this short history this moral: That the big story is never over. The Civil War is still not over. The Depression is not over. Nor the assassination of JFK. Nor the destruction of the World Trade Center. Hang in there — for a long time — on the Gulf oil spill.”

In a media age seemingly surrendered to the idea of the fleeting moment, these enduring truths are wonderfully encouraging to this old history hack.

• I’ve been spending a good part of this month writing offline, and it’s been vital to reconnect with a more immersive, contemplative process that I worried had escaped my attention span.

What’s also been deeply satisfying as the dog days of summer whittle away has been to reread some books, essays and magazine articles on a variety of topics that I had nearly forgotten about. I’ll post more about that soon, but for now the Pafko story is very high on the list of some fabulous rediscoveries.

• At the same time, old media habits do die hard. ESPN baseball writer Tim Kurkjian has given up his nearly 20-year habit of cutting out, and pasting, every single Major League Baseball box score into a notebook. With newspapers almost uniformly resigning box scores to their websites, Kurkjian, a former scribe for the Baltimore Sun, now reads them online as well. Yet he finds that something very important is missing:

“I’m not comfortable doing it but I have no other choice. I have saved time, as well as money on scotch tape and scissors. Since 9/11, I estimate having lost at least six pair of scissors because I forgot to remove them from my bag and the security men and women at airports thought I might hijack the plane using scissors as dull as NFL preseason games.

“But I still read box scores with the same vigor and interest every day for there is so much to learn in box scores, almost everything you need is in box scores, especially with the expanded ones that tell you, in some cases, more than you wanted to know.”

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One Comment

  1. Mark Gumbiner
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Back in 1998 Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca visited Denver for a joint Autograph session. I had been inspired by the first part of Undercover when Cotter Martin sneeked into the ballpark to watch what became the infamous homerun game.
    I asked Bobby Thomson to autograph my copy of Underworld with the following:

    TO COTTER MARTIN
    NEXT TIME PAY YOUR WAY
    INTO THE PARK
    BOBBY THOMPSON
    RALPH BRANCA

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