Ralph Branca, the pitcher who had three consecutive All-Star seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers but who was never allowed to forget one pitch that crushed them – the ninth-inning fastball that Bobby Thomson drove into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds in 1951 and on into baseball legend – died on Tuesday at his home in Rye, New York. He was 90.
“A guy commits murder and he gets pardoned after 20 years,” Branca once said at an old-timers’ game. “I didn’t get pardoned.”
Branca’s unforgivable offense (at least to Dodger fans) came on the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951, when, in a final game with the New York Giants to determine the National League championship, he served up Thomson’s electrifying (at least to Giants fans), pennant-winning home run – the Shot Heard Round the World – probably the most memorable in baseball history. The Dodgers had been in first place by 13 1/2 games in mid-August, but the Giants had come back to tie for first on the season’s final weekend.
In baseball lore the moment has been preserved in amber, alongside Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium, Don Larsen’s perfect game in a World Series and “the Catch,” Willie Mays’ spectacular over-the-shoulder, warning-track snare of a Series blast at the same Polo Grounds, three years after Thomson’s “shot.”
It was immortalized in American literature by Don DeLillo, who opened his 1997 novel, “Underworld,” with an extended passage that puts the reader in the stadium on that fall Wednesday afternoon in 1951 – a lyrical re-creation of the event that carries echoes of the Giants’ radio announcer Russ Hodges’ disbelieving call as the ball headed for the fence and sailed over Dodgers’ left fielder Andy Pafko, culminating, as pandemonium erupted, with the joyous, repeated declaration, “The Giants win the pennant!”
After the loss, Branca sat on the wooden stairs of the clubhouse, a two-level affair, his head bowed, his shoulders hunched.
In the Polo Grounds parking lot, his fiancée, Ann Mulvey, the daughter of James and Dearie Mulvey, part owners of the Dodgers, had been waiting for him. She was accompanied by her cousin, the Rev. Pat Rowley, a Jesuit priest.
When Branca emerged, he asked Rowley, “Why me?”
The priest told him, “Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
Branca bore that burden without complaint even after learning a few years later that Giants players had been tipped to forthcoming pitches for much of the 1951 season through a scheme in which the Giants used a telescope in the Polo Grounds’ center-field clubhouse to pick up opposing catchers’ signals.
Details of the sign stealing were publicly revealed by Joshua Prager in The Wall Street Journal in 2001 and in his book “The Echoing Green” in 2006.
Thomson, who died at age 86 in August 2010, always maintained he was not tipped that Branca would be throwing a fastball on what became that fateful home-run pitch.
But Branca was convinced otherwise. “When you took signs all year, and when you had a chance to hit a bloop or hit a home run, would you ignore that sign?” Branca said in an interview weeks before Thomson’s death. “He knew it was coming. Absolutely.”
A few days after The Wall Street Journal report, Branca and Thomson saw each other for the first time at an event in Edison, N.J. They talked in private for five minutes, about a secret they’d both known about but never shared.
Later, they spoke about their discussion.
“It’s been a cleansing for both of us,” Branca said then. “He knew that I knew. It’s better this way.”
“To me, it was a forbidden subject,” the right-hander said. “And I didn’t want to demean Bobby or seem like I was a crybaby.”
Said Thomson: “It was like getting something off my chest after all those years. I’m not a criminal, although I may have felt like one at first.”
And then, hours later, Thomson and Branca appeared together in Manhattan at the New York baseball writers’ dinner. In front of a ballroom full of fans, they took turns singing about the fateful pitch and swing, to lyrics written to the old standard “Because of You” – a reprise of the act they performed when the same dinner was held in January 1952.
After his playing career ended, Branca co-founded the Baseball Assistance Team, which aids members of the baseball family in need of financial, medical or psychological assistance, and served as its president for 17 years. He was a pallbearer at friend and former teammate Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972.
▪ “I was closer to Ralph than to any other Dodger. He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace.” – Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully
▪ “Branca to me was a hero. Ralph and I became very close, my family and his family. I always enjoyed being around him. He was a tough one in every way and I really admired him.” – Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda
▪ “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.” – Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred
Branca by the numbers
3: All-Star teams to which Branca was named in 12 major-league seasons.
3.79: Branca’s career earned run average.
75: Career victories by Branca at the age of 25.
88-68: Branca’s career record.
Did you know?
▪ Branca was the father-in-law of former big-league manager Bobby Valentine.
▪ The Dodgers signed Branca after giving him a tryout motivated by a letter written by his sister. At the age of 17, he signed for $90 a month.
▪ Branca and his 16 brothers and sisters were raised Roman Catholic. But in 2011, Branca learned that his mother, who arrived in America from Hungary at age 16, was born Jewish, that her birth name was Kati Berger, and that two of her siblings had died in concentration camps.
▪ Through the years, Branca appeared with Thomson at old-timers’ games, baseball dinners and cruises. They turned over a portion of their earnings from joint appearances to charity and became friends. And Branca grew resigned to being known solely as a classic goat of baseball history.
Compiled by Stu Rosenberg
The Associated Press contributed to this report