Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ralph Branca, 1927-2016

On September 25, 2003, Bob Murphy retired after 42 seasons as a Mets broadcaster. He had not publicly revealed that he was already dying of cancer. But I think the Met fans suspected something was up, because when Bob's final message was piped in to the public-address system, there were a lot of people crying. And not because the Mets had lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1.

At the 7th inning stretch, "God Bless America" was sung -- by 77-year-old Ralph Branca. Who also happened to be the father-in-law of recent Met manager and former Met player Bobby Valentine. He nailed it. And the fans gave him a standing ovation.

I have frequently slammed the intelligence of Met fans. But I must give them credit for recognizing that this man's life amounted to more than 1 pitch that he threw 52 years earlier.

*

Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was born on January 6, 1926 in Mount Vernon, Westchester County, New York. He was the 15th of 17 children of an Italian-born father (a trolley conductor) and a Hungarian-Jewish mother. He played baseball and basketball at New York University (NYU), and was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He made his major league debut on June 12, 1944 -- against the very team, the New York Giants, and in the very ballpark, the Polo Grounds, that would be permanently attached to his story 7 years later. The Giants won the game, 15-9, and, of the 5 pitchers the Dodgers used that day, Branca, only 18 years old, was hit the least hard.

He entered the game in the bottom of the 3rd, with the Giants already leading 11-5, with 2 men on and 2 out. He struck out Buddy Kerr, pitched a scoreless 4th, and got the 1st 2 outs in the 5th -- Mel Ott and Joe Medwick, the National League's 2 most dangerous hitters of the 1930s -- before giving up a home run to Phil Weintraub. He got the last out in the 5th, and pitched a scoreless 6th, before manager Leo Durocher sent a pinch-hitter up for him.

He got into 21 games that season, going 0-2 with a 7.05 ERA. Clearly, he would not have been in the major leagues if not for the manpower drain of World War II. But in 1945, he was ready. He got better in 1946, but there was some foreshadowing. The Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals finished in a tie for 1st place, and, for the 1st time (the 1908 "Merkle Playoff" isn't officially counted as such), there was a Playoff for a Pennant. Branca lost Game 1, and the Cards completed the sweep in Game 2.

In 1947, the Dodgers promoted Jackie Robinson, making him the 1st black player in modern Major League Baseball. Few of his teammates stood up for him. Branca was one, because he understood discrimination better than most of them did: He was half-Italian, half-Jewish, raised Catholic, and he might also have been discriminated against for having, to put it politely, a prominent proboscis.

When the film 42 premiered in 2013, telling the story of Jackie's "rookie" season, Ralph was played by Hamish Linklater. He was already the last surviving member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. He also turned out to be the last survivor of his 17 siblings.

And that was his best season. He won 21 games at age 21, had a 2.67 ERA, and made the National League All-Star Team for the 1st of 3 straight seasons. In the World Series, he was the Dodger starter and the losing pitcher in Game 1. In Game 3, he gave up the 1st pinch-hit home run in World Series history, to Yogi Berra, but the Dodgers won anyway. He was the winning pitcher in Game 6, which was highlighted by Al Gionfriddo's catch of a Joe DiMaggio drive in deep left-center field at the original Yankee Stadium. The Yankees won the Series in 7 games.

That was the closest Ralph would get to a ring. He went 14-9 in 1948. In 1949, he went 13-5, his .722 winning percentage leading the NL. He started Game 3 of the World Series, and held a 1-1 tie into the 9th inning, but the Yankees beat him. He never appeared in another postseason game.

*

In 1951, wearing Number 13, the unlucky number, he won 13 games, losing 12. Again, the NL race ended in a tie, this time between the Dodgers and their intracity arch-rivals, the Giants. Ralph took a 1-0 lead into the 4th inning of Game 1 of the Playoff at Ebbets Field, but hit Monte Irvin with a pitch, and gave up a home run to Bobby Thomson. The Giants won, 3-1. The next day, at the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers won, 10-0, to set up the title decider at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951.
Triskaidekaphobia? Bad luck? Who believes in that stuff?

No single game in the history of baseball has had more written about it than this one -- not either of the "Merkle Games" between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs in 1908, not Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, not the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox Playoff, not Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Dodgers led 4-2 with 1 out in the 9th, but the Giants put men on 2nd and 3rd bases. Starting pitcher Don Newcombe was out of gas, and Dodger manager Charlie Dressen called his bullpen.

Clyde Sukeforth, who, as a Dodger scout, had found Robinson, was the pitching coach. He was observing the 2 Dodgers warming up. He told Dressen that Carl Erskine had bounced some pitches in the dirt, but that Branca was pitching well. And so, Dressen called for Branca.

This was one of the most boneheaded decisions in baseball history. Thomson could only hit a fastball, and Branca had nothing but a fastball, and a tendency to give up home runs. In contrast, Erskine, although this reputation was still in the process of developing, had one of the best curveballs in the major leagues. Given the events of Game 1, and of Game 1 of the 1946 Playoff, Branca was the wrong man to face Thomson.

He was such a wrong choice that when my grandmother heard the public address announcer at the Polo Grounds say, through her radio, "Now coming in to pitch for Brooklyn, Number 13, Ralph Branca," she turned the radio off, because she knew he would give up a home run.

Branca through a fastball, and Thomson let it go. It hit the outside corner for strike 1. Branca tried to sneak a fastball high and inside, a jam pitch, but Thomson hit it to straightaway left field, for a home run that ensured that, in the words of Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges, "The Giants win the Pennant!" Although it was between 2 teams in the same city, it became known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."
This photo was taken inside the visitors' locker room
inside the center field blockhouse at the Polo Grounds.
That's Cookie Lavagetto, 1947 Dodger World Series hero,
and by 1951 a Dodger coach, and a distraught Branca.

In the parking lot of the ballpark, he was met by his fiancee, Ann Mulvey, daughter of James and Elizabeth Mulvey. Mrs. Mulvey, better known as Dearie, was the daughter of Steve McKeever, who had been a partner of former Dodger owner and ballpark building Charlie Ebbets. The McKeevers and the Mulveys were, like the Brancas, residents of Westchester County (in their case, White Plains). As her father's heir, Dearie was a part-owner of the Dodgers. Also with Ann was her cousin, a priest, Father Pat Rowley.

Ralph asked a totally understandable question: "Why me?" Rowley told him, "Ralph, God chose you, because He knew you'd be strong enough to bear this cross."

Rowley turned out to be right. Ralph never became bitter about his role in the defeat. He even became friends with Thomson thereafter. What's more, the Giants still ended up losing the World Series to the Yankees -- and Ralph got the girl. They were married for 65 years, and had daughters Mary Valentine and Patti Barnes. He lived to see 3 grandsons born.

Branca later learned that the Giants had installed a system for stealing signs at the Polo Grounds. Thomson insisted until his death in 2010 that he had not been tipped off about Branca's pitches. But, as I said, he didn't need to be: Branca had only one good pitch, a fastball. Branca insisted that he wasn't angry at Thomson, but that he was angry at the Giants.
Bobby and Ralph, in 2001, 50 years later

*

Lots of people speculated that giving up the most famous home run of all time got into Ralph's head, and that he was never the same pitcher after that. He insisted that his decline was the result of an injury in Spring Training in 1952, when he leaned back too far in a chair and fell, hurting his back. He appeared in only 12 games in the 1952 season.

In 1953, the Dodgers waived him, and he was picked up by the Detroit Tigers. They released hi in 1954. The Yankees hired him as -- save your jokes -- a batting practice pitcher. They signed him, and he appeared in 5 games, going 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA. They released him after the season.
A rare photo of Branca as a Yankee

In 1955, he pitched for the Minneapolis Millers -- ironically, the Triple-A farm team of the Giants. But he hurt his arm, and it looked like his career was over. But in 1956, the Dodgers made him a September call-up, and he appeared in 1 more game, tossing 2 scoreless innings on September 7.

He closed his career at age 29, with a record of 88-68, for a winning percentage of .564, and a 3.79 ERA. To put that in perspective: His contemporary Don Larsen, pitcher of the only World Series perfect game, had an 81-91 record; while Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched the only back-to-back no-hitters in baseball history in 1938, went 119-121. Of course, Vander Meer won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1940, while Larsen won them with the Yankees in 1956 and 1958. Branca never won one.

*

Ralph became an insurance salesman, successful enough at it to become a member of the prestigious Westchester Country Club. In 1963, he was a contestant on the TV game show Concentration, winning 17 straight games. In 1972, he was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson's funeral. He ran the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which aided indigent former ballplayers. Keeping his friendship with Jackie in mind, he extended its aid to former Negro League players.

He was a standup guy, willing to talk about his brush with immortality, but also to remind people that he once won 21 games to help the Dodgers win a Pennant. He attended memorabilia shows alongside Thomson. He entertained with his singing voice. And he attended Old-Timers' games and similar events nearly until the end.
Top row, left to right: Maury Wills, Tommy Davis and Carl Erskine.
Bottom row: Duke Snider and Ralph Branca.

He lived in Rye, Westchester County, until his frailty led him to move into a rehabilitation center in adjoining Rye Brook. He died there, shortly after midnight, on November 23, 2016. He had survived his rendezvous with destiny by 65 years.

There are now only 2 men who played in that game who are still alive: Willie Mays, the last survivor of the 1951 Giants; and Don Newcombe of the Dodgers. Also still alive from the 1951 Dodgers' roster, but not appearing in the game, are Carl Erskine, Tommy Brown and Wayne Terwilliger.

Ralph Branca lived 89 years, and was the opposing pitcher in 6,449 at-bats in major league play. He deserves to be remembered for more than one at-bat in a flickering black-and-white film image from the Harry Truman years, before coast-to-coast major league baseball, before rock and roll, before credit cards and mobile phones and desktop computers. He deserves to be remembered for all the lives he touched -- not just Bobby Thomson's.

No comments: