It could easily be said that one pitch obscured everything else that Ralph Branca ever did. There were times when even Branca seemed to think that. In retrospect, days after his death at the age of 90, it is clear that reality says just the opposite. That one pitch was what allowed us to really get to know him.
The pitch, which Bobby Thomson clocked over the leftfield wall at the Polo Grounds in what likely is the most famous moment in baseball history, revealed who Branca really was. It let us see his sportsmanship, grace, dignity, faith, humor and social conscience. It allowed us to hear his singing voice, too.
Branca, the Dodgers pitcher who effectively became the flagpole to the Giants’ stunning pennant, became a larger-than-life and bigger-than-defeat figure on Oct. 3, 1951, and remained that way for the rest of his days.
Had he not been the strongest arm in the bullpen that day, had he thrown a warmup pitch in the dirt the way Carl Erskine did, had he never been called into that tight spot at the end of a special three-game tiebreaking playoff against the most bitter rival imaginable, we probably never would have known what a good man Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was.
Chances are, we never would have learned that he was the 15th of his family’s 17 children, that he went to NYU and played basketball and baseball, that he grew up on a diverse block in Mount Vernon and that he carried his world view from that neighborhood into the Brooklyn clubhouse as he welcomed Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball’s first African-American player.
We would not have seen how magnanimous he was toward Thomson—to the point of keeping his mouth shut for nearly 50 years after a Detroit Tigers teammate told Branca in 1953 that the Giants had surreptitiously stolen signs through the outfield scoreboard in 1951. Thomson later denied he knew what pitch was coming, but Branca said during a golf outing 10 years ago, “I was on the short end of the stick that day. But I know in my heart that I never cheated.”
Whatever suspicions he maintained, Branca did not hold them against Thomson. Hours after the latter died in 2010, Branca said in a Newsday interview, “Listen, he was a real good guy. He was a good husband, a good father, a good provider, a good American. He lived a good life.”
Had Branca been chewing on sour grapes, he could not have good-naturedly joined Thomson in a duet to the old standard “Because of You” in 1952 or reprised it in 2001.
“Ill luck befell him in many ways. He was a class act,” said Joseph Dorinson, the chairman of the history department at LIU who organized a major Jackie Robinson conference in 1997, marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Branca was the first person he called.
“One, I knew he was in the New York metropolitan area and two, he had been one of the first to embrace Jackie,” Dorinson said, recalling how Branca challenged less hospitable teammates — many poorly educated — and reminded them that Robinson was a college man.
Branca showed up at the conference and later received an honorary doctorate. He appeared at functions for decades. He never hid from his role in having served up “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” A devout Catholic, he always embraced the words he heard from the Jesuit priest (his then-fiancee’s cousin), who told him that he was put in that high-stakes position because he had the strength to handle the consequences, good or bad. “That struck home. It was my salvation,” Branca told MLB.com years later.
Baseball historian and author Marty Appel got to know Branca well over the years and summed him up this way the other day: “He was a man of great self-confidence. He knew that he gave up a historic home run. He also knew that he was a three-time All-Star and a 21-game winner. He was just very comfortable being Ralph Branca. He didn’t feel he needed to go around and make apologies for his abilities or who he was.”
It is a shame that Branca never was treated to a glorious no-hard-feelings ovation in Brooklyn the way Bill Buckner was in Boston. Then again, he really did not need it. A greater shame was a freakish accident in spring training of 1952 (he fell off a chair in the clubhouse and landed on a Coke bottle). It knocked his spine out of alignment and negatively affected his career.
Baseball-reference.com lists his career statistics as similar to those of these pitchers: Pete Vuckovich, Paul Foytack, Russ Meyer, Tex Carleton, Tom Brewer. We know a heck of a lot more about Branca than we do about any of those guys because of what he withstood and what he stood for.
Branca was a true New Yorker. He played for the Dodgers and Yankees and had a minor-league tryout with the New York Giants. In the early days of the Mets, he did pre- and postgame radio shows, called Clubhouse Journal, with an up-and-coming host named Howard Cosell. “Branca was sort of the ‘good cop’ as Cosell was developing his reputation as a great critic of Casey Stengel,” Appel said.
In the late 1990s, Branca was an irrepressible defender of another Mets manager, Bobby Valentine, his own son-in-law. When this reporter once mentioned to Valentine what a big supporter he had in Branca, Valentine grinned as he thought of the older fellow’s many heated conversations and said, “Too big.”
For many years, Branca put his fame and his business acumen to work as an organizer of the Baseball Assistance Team. “He helped many indigent ballplayers who had fallen on hard times,” Dorinson said. “To me, that was worthy of an honorary doctorate, too.”
Branca merited a Masters in overcoming failure, a Ph.D. in humanity. We will remember him, and in an odd way, be thankful for that one pitch.
ASIDE FROM THAT DAY...
Though Ralph Branca will be forever tied to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world,” he had a respectable 12-season career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Tigers and Yankees. Some numbers: