All Things Bubba

Because how can you not love a baseball player named "Bubba"?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard 'Round the World

I wasn't born when Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard 'round the world. I can't remember even hearing about it before reading this book, to tell you the truth. But then, I wasn't raised in a baseball family. (I have heard about the supposedly less famous Bill Mazeroski Game 7 walkoff homer...but that game involved the Yankees. So perhaps my knowledge of baseball history is a bit Yankee-centric.)

Surprisingly, no one knows what happened to Thomson's home run ball after it cleared the fence. Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard 'Round the World is the story of sportswriter and filmmaker Brian Biegel's two-year long attempt to trace the historic ball.

It's a fascinating, though flawed book. It seems to be a sort of afterthought to Biegel's film, which tells the same story. The structure and style of the book seems better suited to a film than a book.

It's not a long book; I read it in about the time it takes to play a baseball game. But there's a lot going on it. There's the personal story, where Biegel details his struggles with depression and panic attacks, and describes how his family helped him, and how he tried to help them in return. There's the historical story, which paints a picture of what New York was like in 1951. And there's there the mystery: what really happened to the ball? It's perhaps too much to cram into such a small book, at least for this particular author.

The personal story is the weakest. Biegel's style is probably well-suited for documentaries and sports journalism, but seems rather flat and superficial for his personal struggles. He breezes over the account of his mental illness and recovery so perfunctorily it trivializes them. They become a distraction, taking away from the story rather than adding to it. The constant me, me, me also got a bit tiresome. (Though perhaps he felt he had to include that, since until the very end, he wasn't sure the mystery would be solved. If it wasn't, than the story of his personal redemption would have to carry the book.)

The history is more interesting. I suspect New Yorkers old enough to remember the era get the most out of it; for them, it's an evocative nostalgia trip. But it's also interesting for the rest of us.

Of course I knew things were different back in 1951, but this book drove home how those differences affected people. TV was brand new; one reason "The shot heard round the world" was so affecting was that it was one of the first games aired on national television. Baseball games, even playoff games and the World Series, were played during the day, which meant torture for fans who had to be in school or at work. There were many local newspapers, and the style of morning and evening papers were different. (This would turn out to be an element in the mystery.) There were no digital cameras back then; instead, one plate at time was loaded into the huge, bulky camera. The photographer had to choose his moment carefully, because it took so long to re-load the camera that there would be no second chance to get the shot. (Surprisingly, the photographer who took the iconic shot of the event didn't get a cent, at least in his lifetime.)

Baseball also mattered to people much more then. It truly was America's pastime, and the various people Biegel encounters during his quest all seem to remember exactly what they were doing when Thomson hit that historic home run. Some remembered it as the happiest moment in their lives. Some were scarred for life. Some were led to their life's vocation. It's hard to imagine any baseball event being so affecting today. There are too many teams, too many games, too much baseball coverage, for any one game to carry such weight.

Biegel introduces the major characters in the book with a short biography, describing what role the shot heard 'round the world played in each one's life. This is interesting at first, but gets tedious after awhile. The gimmick might work better in the film (which I haven't seen, but would like to). Or maybe I just got impatient, as the mystery grew more compelling.

The mystery is by far the best part. That's what pulled me through the book at breakneck speed. It's what makes it worth putting up with the book's flaws. The twists and turns Biegel encounters while searching for the ball are incredible. Everything from forensic analysis of a photo found in a flea market to a comment by an anonymous man at a Shop-Rite play a role. Promising leads turn into dead ends, and new clues arrive just when all seems hopeless. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

In fact, some of the coincidences seem so improbable that I can't help wondering if the story has been embellished somewhat. Even if it has, it's a great story. I don't want to spoil the ending, but you won't feel cheated by it. Biegel makes a good case for what happened to the ball and why it stayed hidden so long. I don't think his case for where the ball is now is as solid, but that's a minor matter. Just about any baseball fan will enjoy this book.

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posted by BubbaFan, 7:55 PM


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