Seventy years ago today. Polo Grounds, New York.
Except for scattered clumps of disheveled, half crocked men back-slapping one another and chirping kids darting back and forth from the light of one street light to another, the parking lot was mostly deserted. Ralph could see his fiancee’s Chrysler parked at the far end of the fenced-in player’s lot, but he didn’t move until she gently took his elbow and guided him through the doorway and into the October night. The security guard at the door nodded and Ralph could detect what he perceived to be a wry smile turn up the edges of his mouth. As his fiancee Ann took one side, family friend, Father Pat Rowley, sidled up on the other, and the threesome crossed the long emptiness of the Polo Grounds parking lot.
Ralph’s ears could still hear the echoing of the cheers reverberating in the air, or was it a deafening silence? He couldn’t tell.
As the little group paused while Ann fished around in her clutch for the keys to the Chrysler, Ralph looked at Father Rowley and asked “Why me?”
Without hesitation the Jesuit priest replied “Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
And so he did.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I knew the name “Ralph Branca” ever since I could remember. I was born twenty years after he threw that single pitch that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant, and both the teams in the game no longer existed anymore, yet that game and the players who took part were as a part of my childhood.
Everyone I grew up with had an endless supply of family stories about where so-and-so was when Branca gave up that home run: My grandma was working in a cookie factory and the game was so important that it was broadcast to the workers over loudspeakers. An uncle of mine was 7,800 miles away in war-torn Korea and listened via Armed Forces radio as the pennant was snatched away from his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I had a friend who could send his grandfather into a snarling, swear conjuring rage just by imitating Russ Hodges’ dreaded call of “the Giants win the pennant! the Giants win the pennant!” And thirty years after that home run it was humiliating to me when the shortstop on my team yelled “nice one, Branca” after I gave up a cheap home run that lost us a ballgame. It wasn’t a playoff game, or even the 9th inning, but man, it was an insult that cut worse than any swear word we had in our already salty vocabularies.
No other moment in sports history comes close to that single game in October, 1951. Countless non-fiction books have been written about the ’51 pennant race, the game, what happened to the home run ball, and the players after the cheering died down. Thomson’s home run has been employed as a plot device for shelves of fiction novels and TV shows, and hardly an autobiography of a person alive in 1951 could escape mentioning where they were on that day.
Ralph Branca grew up a New York Giants fan, an irony not lost on bitter Brooklyn fans many years later. After a high school tryout with the Giants ended with their scouts telling the tall string bean to get lost, Branca enrolled in NYU and soon his physique developed into an imposing 6′-3″, 205lb. After his freshman year at NYU, the 18 year-old found himself on the mound in Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger. This was 1944, and unlike most of the wartime replacement players rushed into the majors just to keep the game going, Branca and his 95 mph fastball had what it took to stick.
He bounced from the high minors and Brooklyn in 1945 and when the veterans came back from the war in ’46, Branca was good enough to make the club full time. Manager Leo Durocher used the big righty as a spot starter and reliever, all the while letting the kid soak up the knowledge passed down to him by the Dodgers’ two grizzled veterans, Kirby Higbe and Hugh Casey. In one of the most exciting pennant races up to that time, the Dodgers fought the Cardinals tooth and nail into September. Durocher turned Branca loose down the stretch and his pitching helped land the Dodgers in a best-of-three playoff with St. Louis for the National League pennant. Branca was tapped for Game 1, but the Cardinals scored three runs and knocked him out of the box in the third inning. The Dodger bats couldn’t rally, and Brooklyn lost the game 4-2. They were then crushed 8-4 in Game 2 and the Cardinals went to the World Series.
Ralph Branca blossomed into the Dodgers’ ace the next year. At the age of 21, Branca had now matured into a confident, although sometimes cocky, starter. He tempted fate by wearing number “13” – something superstitious ballplayers avoided lest they anger the baseball Gods. Not Branca. For him 13 was a lucky number. He led he league in starts and came in second with 21 wins that got the Dodgers into the World Series. But, as great as he was on the mound in ’47, Branca was always prouder of what he did off the field that summer.
Nineteen forty-seven was the year Jackie Robinson integrated the game, and Ralph Branca was right there for the whole spectacle. While several Dodgers were openly hostile to Robinson, most of the other players simply ignored the newcomer. Not Ralph Branca. The ace of the staff went out of his way to befriend Robinson, and the two men laid the foundation of a friendship that would last until Jackie’s death in 1972. It was Branca who unhesitatingly stood next to Robinson on Opening Day, and told skeptical teammates that unless they were blind, it was easy to see that they could win the pennant with Robinson as their teammate. It was Jackie’s powerful drive to win that eventually won over his teammates, but a small part of his acceptance has to be credited to Ralph Branca. On trains in between games the pitcher ate his meals with Robinson and then encouraged him to join his teammates in the shower after a game instead of waiting until everyone had finished. To have the Dodgers’ number one pitcher in his corner went a long way to making Jackie feel a bit more accepted.
Branca won one game and lost one as the Dodgers fell to the Yankees in the ’47 Series. The next summer he had 10 wins under his belt at the all-star break when he was pegged in the shin by an errant throw during batting practice. The injury developed into an infected bone lining, and he spent three long weeks in the hospital. In the meantime, the Dodgers blew the pennant to Boston. The next season Branca’s arm just wasn’t the same. His 13-5 record looked good when printed in the sports section, but the velocity was no longer there and he was pitching on smarts most of the time. By 1950 he was relegated to the bullpen, number 13 called in only to mop up after a game was already blown or just to soak up some innings.
Then, the following spring, the heater came back. All the throwing he did in the bullpen the last two years contributed to reviving his ailing arm. Ralph became a spot starter and the Dodgers seemed to have the 1951 pennant wrapped up going into September. For his part Branca had a great 13-5 record, but then the wheels came off the Brooklyn pennant train. After being a dozen games in front, the team played .500 ball for the rest of the year. Branca dropped seven games and couldn’t nudge his win number past that number 13. The Giants went on a 37-7 tear and remarkably caught the Dodgers on the last day of the season.
The best-of-three series for the pennant began with Ralph Branca on the mound in Ebbets Field for Brooklyn. Branca gave up just six hits, but two of them were home runs by Monte Irvin and a game winner by Bobby Thomson, and the Dodgers lost 3 to 1. The next game was played in the Polo Grounds and the Dodgers crushed the Giants 10-nothing.
Now the pennant came down to a winner-take-all Game 3. Big Don Newcombe held the Giants back and took a 4-1 lead into the ninth. Now Newk tired, giving up a run on a pair of singles and a double. Bobby Thomson, hero of Game 1, came to the plate and rookie Willie Mays knelt menacingly on deck. With runners on second and third with one out, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen looked to his bullpen. Two righties were up and throwing, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. Dodgers coach Clyde Sukeforth told Dressen that Erskine had just bounced a curve in the dirt, and just like that, Number 13 jogged out of the bullpen and into infamy.
It was in the dark hours after Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” that Branca asked Father Rowley “why me?” and received the important answer of “Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
Branca was now the most reviled man in Brooklyn. His name was cursed from Flatbush to Green Point. While many a man would have wilted or cracked under the stress of it all, Branca took Father Rowley’s advice to heart. He posed for goofy and humiliating publicity shots with Thomson during the World Series and even sang a dopey novelty re-working of “Because of You” with his foe. Some might have looked upon all this as a guy making the best of a bad situation, but for Brooklyn fans, seeing Branca make nice with the man who snatched the pennant from them made Number 13 a hated man.
In the aftermath of the playoff loss, coach Clyde Sukeforth lost his job and many thought the same should have happened to Branca. Whispers opined that the only reason the pitcher wasn’t traded to the Browns or some other backwater team was because in the off-season he had married his fiancee, Ann, whose family owned the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, if Branca was now untouchable, that didn’t mean his uniform wasn’t – come spring the front office forced Branca to turn in his number 13 and replace it with what was hoped to be a luckier number 12 instead. Despite all the publicity surrounding the pitcher ditching his unlucky digits – there were photos Branca dumping the old jersey in a garbage can – he never got a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Dodger fans after that fateful pitch to Thomson.
In the spring of ’52 Branca was playing cards in the clubhouse when his chair tipped backwards and he landed on a coke bottle. The heavy glass container knock his spine out of line and Branca was never an effective pitcher again. He was out of baseball by 1956, a once promising career now reduced to a single bad pitch.
Instead of shrinking into the shadows and avoiding any reminder of that terrible day, Branca leveraged his part in social history into a new line of work. For better or for worse, everyone in the Metropolitan area knew the name “Ralph Branca”, and he turned this into a lucrative career in insurance. As an executive in Manhattan throughout the 1960’s, Branca frequently ran into his old teammate Jackie Robinson who was an executive himself with Chock Full of Nuts Coffee.
While lesser men would have spent their remaining years bitter about the bad shake baseball had given them, Branca spent the rest of his life giving back. He became a leading figure in the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which lent a helping hand to old ballplayers who needed financial help. The old pitcher also appeared frequently with Bobby Thomson at autograph signings and TV shows that marked the October 3 anniversary of the “Shot Heard Round the World”. Branca was a graceful figure in defeat, yet as inspiring as he was, he had a deep secret he kept to himself.
As early as 1953, Branca knew that the Giants had installed an elaborate sign-stealing system in the Polo Grounds. A spotter with a telescope hidden high up in the Giants office windows in the scoreboard relayed the opposing catcher’s signs via a buzzer system. The pitch was signaled to the batter who could choose to use this insider knowledge or not. As Giants players were traded off the ’51 club, word eventually made its way back to Branca and by the 1960’s the Giants sign stealing plot was an open secret.
What kind of inner strength did it take for him not to scream out to the world “Thomson knew what was coming!”
The whole affair was given the big league treatment in Joshua Prager’s indispensable book “The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World“. The pitcher later told interviewers that his friendship with Thomson was never the same after Prager’s 2008 book because Thomson refused to even acknowledge the sign stealing scheme to Branca. Standing next to Thomson at all those card shows co-signing thousands of baseballs suddenly lost its appeal, and the two drifted apart. Still, Branca was gracious enough not to speak his mind as long as Thomson was alive. Those words spoken to him back in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds made all the difference in how he led his life since 1951 and he stuck to it.
Ralph Branca passed away in November of 2016. Of course, all the headlines went something like “Ralph Branca, who gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ dies” or “Ralph Branca, beloved Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ home run, dead at 90“. It was inevitable, and something Branca himself probably would have smiled at. After all, he proved he was strong enough to bear that cross.
Notes on the Illustration: I was originally hesitant to do a Ralph Branca story and illustration. Whenever a ballplayer dies there’s always a glut of hastily written tributes, especially on the internet, and I didn’t feel like I could add anything worthwhile. However, a fella named Shaun that I met at a presentation I gave last summer sent me a very well thought out and inspirational email about Branca’s passing, particularly stressing the pitcher’s strength of character in the aftermath of the home run. Because of Shaun’s eloquent and personal take on Branca’s passing, I was persuaded to do a piece on him.
When it came time to starting the drawing, I knew I wanted to depict that dreaded number “13” on his back. It was simply too ironic and iconic not to. That done, I then ran into the problem of what background to choose. I did a few different ones showing the Polo Grounds box seats, and then one of him in front of the section of wall where Thomson’s homer sailed over, but it just didn’t seem right. Then I thought up the background you see now. Since the Giants had the hidden telescope in the office windows in the center field scoreboard, I knew that was the only background for this card. The Chesterfield sign, the green scoreboard and those dark, mysterious windows… it just made sense.