Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodger who gave up the famed “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” but whose life was about far more than one pitch, died Wednesday at a nursing home in Rye Brook, New York, at the age of 90.
Branca’s death was first reported Wednesday morning on Twitter by his son-in-law Bobby Valentine, the former Mets manager.
“One of the greatest guys to ever throw a pitch or sing a song is no longer with us. Ralph Branca passed this morning,” Valentine tweeted at 8:23.
The one pitch for which Branca will forever be known was a high fastball that Bobby Thomson hit over the leftfield wall at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951. It went for a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the New York Giants a 5-4 victory in the deciding Game 3 of the National League playoff series.
The historic blast capped the Giants’ comeback from a 13 1⁄2-game deficit in mid-August. Giants announcer Russ Hodges’ famous call, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” cemented the moment as one of the most dramatic in baseball history. And it appeared to tar Branca with the label of all-time goat.
But Branca, who went 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA in a 12-year major-league career, wore his infamy well. He appeared with Thomson repeatedly over the next half-century at card shows, corporate events and baseball functions, retelling the story of the home run that grew into a sports legend. They always were friendly at the affairs, sometimes even teaming up to sing about the big moment. They first did it in January 1952.
Thomson, who died in 2010 at 86, once told the New York Post: “That moment was the best thing that ever happened to me. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to anybody. It was Ralph that allowed people to enjoy it, though. His grace. His good humor.”
Branca developed a sly sense of humor about the moment, often repeating lines such as “A guy commits murder and he gets pardoned after 20 years. I didn’t get pardoned.”
But the comments always were made without bitterness and with an appreciation of how the pitch that had defeated the Dodgers had not defeated Branca, even though that wasn’t the 25-year-old’s thoughts at the time.
According to legend, Branca met his fiancée, Ann Mulvey, in the Polo Grounds parking lot after the game. She was with her cousin, the Rev. Pat Rowley, a Jesuit priest.
“Why me?” Branca asked Father Rowley.
“Ralph,” Rawley said, “God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was born Jan. 6, 1926, in Mount Vernon, New York. He was the 15th of 17 children. The 6-3, 220-pound righthander made his major-league debut with the Dodgers as an 18-year-old in 1944 and went 21-12 for Brooklyn in 1947, the year his teammate Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.
Branca’s support of Robinson during that turbulent season was long remembered by Robinson’s widow, Rachel.
“Ralph’s always been close to us,” she said in a 2014 interview with USA Today. “There were players who were hostile to Jack and tried to provoke him. Ralph was one of the players who supported him openly. Jack liked and admired him as a friend even after (Branca) left the Dodgers.”
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, in a statement, noted Branca’s support of Robinson and his stint as an executive with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which provides financial aid to baseball figures in need.
“I extend my deepest condolences to the family, friends and fellow admirers of Ralph Branca,” Manfred said. “Ralph was a true gentleman who earned universal respect in the game he loved and served so well. Ralph’s participation in the ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’ was eclipsed by the grace and sportsmanship he demonstrated following one of the game’s signature moments. He is better remembered for his dedication to the members of the baseball community. He was an inspiration to so many of us.”
Branca spent his first 10 seasons with the Dodgers before they waived him in 1953. He spent parts of the 1953 and ’54 seasons with the Tigers and appeared in five games with the Yankees, also in 1954. He didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 1955.
He returned to the Dodgers on Sept. 7, 1956, for one final game — against the Giants, this time at Ebbets Field. The Giants won, 6-2, but Branca threw two scoreless innings. No shots heard ’round anywhere. Just a nice ending to a memorable career.
With The Associated Press