You cannot go into a tailspin every time one of the old Brooklyn Dodgers trudges toward the clubhouse immemorial — Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, all gone — but news that Ralph Branca joined the list couldn’t help but stir a passing wave of wistfulness.
Plenty has been written about the old Dodger hurler since his death at age 90, just before the holidays.
First, of course, was Branca’s place in baseball history.
On Oct. 3, 1951, Branca served up a pitch that Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants swatted into the lower deck of the Polo Grounds. The homer, in a dramatic three-game playoff series, gave the Giants — who had come from far behind in the standings — an unlikely victory and sent Dodger fans away muttering their familiar autumn refrain, “Wait’ll next year.”
Before long, Thomson’s blast became known as “The Shot Heard Round the World,” and the game still counts as one of baseball’s most memorable — breathtaking for Giants fans who celebrated that day, ghastly for Brooklynites like me, a chubby 11-year-old who raced home, huffing and puffing, from P.S. 170 in Bay Ridge, to bear witness to the final innings.
My parents at work, I settled alone onto the couch — stiff pillows, green, floral pattern — in an apartment about the size of a two-car garage and waited, edgy, for our vintage, 10-inch, table model RCA television to warm up.
The RCA was more steamer trunk than entertainment center — a giant wood box with a tiny screen in the center — and had been a hand-me-down, from Mom’s sister, Aunt Edna, who worked on Wall Street and, flush after a year-end bonus, upgraded to a fancy DuMont.
But, boy, on that day, I was glad for the giant crate in the corner of our little living room, whatever its origins. Sitting forward on the couch, most likely with a tall glass of milk and package of Fig Newtons, I waited. Finally: sound, picture, Polo Grounds!
Most of what happened next is as blurry as my vision without the wiggly metal frame glasses necessary since third grade. Branca pitched. Thomson swung. The ball was gone; hope, too.
Outside, the neighborhood gang gathered in disbelief.
“Thomson got lucky.”
“Musta had his eyes closed.”
“Whatta you gonna do?”
“Nothin’, I guess.”
“Wait’ll next year.”
Later in life, I understood this is why we watch sports. It is how we learn to manage loss, to push ahead, to believe in another day. None of that occurred to me on that woebegone Wednesday, when I sighed, sulked and generally wore defeat as I did the corduroy knickers my mother once insisted I try on: with utter despair.
But Branca? He was the ultimate role model.
In defeat, the pitcher was gracious and unguarded and became nearly as famous for his good nature as the inside fastball that Thomson murdered.
That was just Ralph — the nice guy who backed Robinson when Robby broke baseball’s notorious color line in 1947, and the devoted fellow who, in retirement, served as president of the Baseball Assistance Team, a nonprofit that gives financial aid to needy folks in the “baseball family.”
Often, Branca accepted invitations to talk about the 1951 playoffs and who was at his side? Thomson!
The two — Thomson died in 2010 at age 86 — attended card shows and baseball gatherings. In her book “Team of Rivals” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with one-time foes. Branca and Thomson outdid Abe. On the road, the two sometimes even sang about their improbable togetherness.
“Because of you, there’s a song in my heart,” Thomson would start.
“Because of you, I should never have been born,” Branca crooned in return.
I never blamed Branca for Game 3, and I don’t think many Brooklyn fans did. We knew he was a class act, and that, in the glum days following historic defeat, he was leading by example.
“Not his fault,” we’d say whenever someone mentioned the game.
“Was a good pitch.”
“Bad luck, is all.”
Branca was a Dodger, and for the Dodgers, things always could go flooey. I think that’s why we loved them so dearly, and, in memory, still do, even as their impostors play in faraway Los Angeles. They were like us, the buncha’ Bums, good, bad, whatever.
After Thomson’s disastrous home run, the pitcher who served it up assured a downhearted borough that winning isn’t everything. Sometimes, we found out, it doesn’t matter, at all.