THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD

No, not that one.  This blog is not about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which ushered in the American Revolutionary War.  It is about the pitcher who gave up what many believe to have been the most famous/infamous homerun in baseball history and how he dealt with its aftermath.  Even you non-baseball fans will appreciate this story.

Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was born in Mt. Vernon, NY on January 6, 1926, the 15th of 17 children.  (That’s not a typo, folks.)   His Italian father was a trolley car conductor; his mother was Jewish, but Ralph was raised in the Catholic faith.

Ralph was a two-sport athlete.  He was good enough to play varsity baseball and basketball for NYU.  Then, he signed with the Dodgers as a pitcher.  Even though most baseball fans only remember him for giving up the famous/infamous homerun, he pitched in the majors for 12 seasons (1944-1956) , won 88 games, and was a three-time all-star.

In addition, he was an early and fervent supporter of Jackie Robinson’s.  For example, when the players took the field for Jackie’s first game Ralph made a point of standing next to him during the pre-game introductions as a show of solidarity. Rachel Robinson was always appreciative of Ralph’s support and would often recall that Jackie “liked and admired him as a friend, even after Ralph left the Dodgers.”  When Jackie died Ralph was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.  Unfortunately, Ralph’s career was derailed by a freak back injury sustained in Spring Training in 1952, although he played until 1956.

An integral part of this story is the fierce rivalry between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the NY Giants.  It began in the late 19th Century, and it has been the one of the most fierce rivalries in sports for over 100 years.  Think Yankees-Red Sox, Duke-North Carolina basketball, or any famous other rivalry times 10.

It was not just among the fans.  The 19th Century team owners hated each other.  The players hated each other.  There were frequent fights and “beanings,” and there have been instances in which players have refused to accept a trade from one team to the other.  For example, Jackie Robinson retired rather than accept a trade to the Giants in 1958, and Willie Mays refused a trade to the Dodgers in 1972.

Even the cities, themselves, were fierce rivals.  Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898 when it was incorporated into a borough of NYC.  Brooklyn was known as the blue collar, working class borough; Manhattan was the snooty, corporate, button-down white collar borough.  This class warfare manifested itself on the playing field.  Remember, in those days, baseball was truly the National Pastime.   Fans lived and died with their team year round.  They identified with them more than today.  Most of the players did not earn much more than the fans.  Moreover, many of the players lived in the neighborhood and worked there in the off-season.  The fans might see them in the grocery store.  Their kids might go to school with the players’ kids.  Mays often played stickball with the kids in his Harlem neighborhood.   Players and fans were intertwined.

This was the backdrop in 1951 when the Dodgers and Giants engaged in one of the most dramatic and entertaining pennant races ever.  The Dodgers had a 13 1/2 game lead over the Giants as late as August 11, and it looked as though they would win the pennant easily.  But, the Giants, led by sensational rookie, Willie Mays, got hot and caught them, forcing a three-game playoff.  They split the first two games and the Dodgers had a 4-1 lead entering the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds.

The Giants rallied to make it 4-2 and had two men on base when the Dodgers went to the bullpen.  They had two relievers warming up, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca.  The story goes that Erskine had been bouncing his signature curve ball, so the manager brought in Branca to face Bobby Thomson.  Such are the vagaries of life.  Thomson took strike one, then hit the next pitch into the left field bleachers.

There was shock and bedlam depending on which team you rooted for.  Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer, was shouting the “call” of his life:  “The Giants Win the Pennant!”  The Giants Win the Pennant! ” over and over.  Giants players were ecstatic.  And Ralph Branca was devastated.  He felt personally responsible for losing the game and the pennant.

Incidentally, there are four interesting, little known footnotes to this story.

  1. In that era of primitive communication there was no official recording of the game.  The only reason that a record of Hodges’ call exists at all is that a Dodgers fan, certain the Dodgers would win, recorded it because he wanted to revel in Hodges’ misery after the Giants lost.

2.  Jackie Robinson, one of the most fierce competitors ever to play, did not leave the field immediately. He stood among the celebrating players and fans watching until Thomson touched home plate.

3.  Probably one of the most relieved Giants players was the on-deck hitter, who revealed later he was “scared to death” that he would have to hit with the pennant on the line.  This was none other than Willie Mays, a rookie that year, who would go on to become, in my opinion, the best player of his time and one of the best clutch hitters ever.

4.  Years later, a story circulated that the Giants were stealing signs during the game.  This is in some dispute, but it entirely possible that Thomson knew a fastball was coming when hit the famous/infamous homer.

CONCLUSION

A lesser man would have been “broken” by that one pitch.  Instead, Ralph embraced the event and went on to lead a productive life.  In fact, it is safe to say that were it not for that one pitch, few people would have ever heard of him.  Instead, the homerun was only the tip of the iceberg of his life.

  1.  He married and raised a family.  In fact, his wife, whom he met in the parking lot after the game, was a member of the family that owned the Dodgers.  Furthermore, his daughter married a future major league ballplayer, manager and announcer named Bobby Valentine.
  2. Thomson and he became friends and often appeared together at card shows, sporting events and other baseball functions.  They made a career out of telling and retelling the story of the homerun.
  3. Ralph won audiences over with his grace and good humor.  He often said “A guy commits murder and gets pardoned after 20 years.  I didn’t get pardoned.”  Former baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called him” a true gentleman who earned universal respect in the game he loved and served so well.”
  4. Ralph became a sports commentator, best known for doing the pre-game and post-game shows for Mets’ games (alongside a “newbie” named Howard Cosell).
  5. He became an executive with Baseball Assistance Team, aka BAT, which provided financial aid to down-and-out baseball figures.

Ralph passed away on November 23.  He should be remembered, not merely as the pitcher who served up the most famous/infamous homerun in baseball history, but also as a true gentlemen and a stand-up guy.

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