Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ralph Branca, RIP: Dignity in Infamous Defeat

By Jeff Kallman

"I lost a ballgame, but I gained a friend." Thus did former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca describe the aftermath that really mattered when it came to surrendering baseball's still most famous home run, a sweet friendship with New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson that was compromised by an ugly revelation in 2001.

Thomson died in Georgia at 86 in 2010. Branca died last Wednesday morning in a Rye, New York nursing home at 90. About a decade before Thomson's death, Joshua Prager revealed in the Wall Street Journal that there may have been more to the 1951 Giants' stupefying comeback to force the fabled pennant playoff than met the eye. Or, perhaps more to the point, the eye in the sky.

According to Prager, in the article and his subsequent book The Echoing Green, Giants coach and future manager Herman Franks was planted in the manager's office of the Polo Grounds clubhouse behind and above center field — with a telescope. At the apparent instigation of manager Leo Durocher, a man not beneath subterfuge or chicanery in pursuit of his pursuits on and off the field.

Franks's assigned mission: steal the signs opposition catchers were giving their pitchers. Franks would then relay the sign by buzzing the Giants' bullpen, set down the right field line, and the sign would be flashed to Giants' hitters, usually by bullpen catcher Sal Yvars. The buzzer's electric line was buried under the Polo Grounds outfield.

Prager's implications, of course, included that Thomson got a big boost in nailing Branca for the Shot Heard 'Round the World. Thomson to the day he died acknowledged the Giants had the sign-stealing scheme in place but denied he himself took advantage of it in the playoff set. Branca wasn't really sure what to make of it.

When he was a Tiger, later, Branca heard the rumour from his roommate, pitcher Ted Gray, who was friendly with another 1951 Giant, a reserve named Hal Rapp. The Society for American Baseball Research records that Rapp told Gray about the scheme, and Gray passed it on to a disbelieving Branca.

"He still had to hit it," Branca reasoned to himself; he'd say the same thing when whisperings that the Giants' sign-stealing technique was about to be exposed in vast detail. So did Prager in the Journal. But after Prager's article and subsequent book, Branca took a harder line in a 2008 interview with SABR's Paul Hirsch:

I begrudge the Giants the 1951 pennant. They deprived our owner of money he deserved, they deprived our fans of the joy of a pennant winner, and they deprived my teammates and me of the fame and glory that comes from playing in the World Series. What the Giants did was despicable. It involved an electronic buzzer. No one else used that. Sometimes you could see people in the center-field scoreboard in Chicago or wherever using towels to give signals and you could do something about it. The buzzer was undetectable, and it was wrong.

Branca and Thomson came over the years to follow to like each other and socialise frequently when they weren't doing memorabilia shows and television appearances together. When Travis Ishikawa nailed the 2014 pennant for the Giants with a game-ending 3-run homer, Branca and Thomson were news all over again.

Branca was an intelligent and sensitive young man, a student of the game, a three-time all-star, a promising pitching star whose career was compromised by overwork in his third and career season (1947) and a leg injury at the 1948 All-Star Break, when a thrown ball hit him in the shin and provoked a serious bone condition, periosteomyelitis, which spread to his shoulder and compromised his fastball for 1949 and 1950.

He seemed to return to form in 1951, even if he wouldn't be the same pitcher he was in 1947. Strafed in the first playoff game, Branca warmed in the pen in the ninth inning of the deciding third game along with Carl Erskine in the event Dodger starter Don Newcombe — taking a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth but gassed while he was at it — finally did lose what was left of his right arm.

Bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth — formerly the scout who'd spent a long time trailing and analyzing Jackie Robinson before Branch Rickey brought Robinson to Brooklyn to sign him and re-break baseball's color line — told a frantic manager Charlie Dressen, "Erskine just bounced a curve." Never mind a) that curve ball pitchers do bounce them now and then, and b) Thomson in 1951 could be had on a curve ball-heavy diet.

With Clint Hartung and Whitey Lockman on base, Dressen called for Branca. Branca opened with a strike on the corner. The next pitch sailed into the lower left field seats. The heartbroken Branca was salved only by his family priest telling him God chose him for such a fateful moment because He knew Branca would be strong enough to bear its burden.

In 1952 Branca fell off a clubhouse stool and landed on a Coca-Cola bottle, which he said threw his back out of alignment. It kept him to 16 gigs with the '52 Dodgers. The Tigers claimed him off waivers for 1953; he stayed until his release in July 1954. Hired by the Yankees to pitch batting practise later that season, Branca looked good enough that manager Casey Stengel activated him, and he appeared in five games before season's end and his release.

The Giants, of all people, took a flyer on Branca for 1955 and he opened with their Minneapolis farm, but an arm injury in a spring game finished him there. After an Old-Timer's Day appearance in Yankee Stadium a year later, he discovered he had some fresh velocity in his arm and contacted the Dodgers.

General manager Buzzie Bavasi signed him and he spent the final month of the year with the Dodgers, only to hurt his arm again during the team's offseason Japan tour. When he didn't make the Dodgers out of spring training 1957, Branca retired. Bavasi later admitted he signed Branca not so much for him to pitch but to let him retire as a Dodger.

Branca's post-baseball life included success in the insurance business. He appeared on the classic television puzzle game show Concentration — and won 17 straight games. He was the first president of the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides aid and comfort to former players — especially those whose careers didn't extend to the free agency era — in hard times.

And, late in life, Branca discovered he was actually of Jewish stock: Prager discovered it researching The Echoing Green. Branca's mother, Kati, converted to Roman Catholicism after emigrating to America in the early 20th Century, and raised her children in the faith — but never told her son about his Jewish root or that an uncle had been killed in a Nazi concentration camp. For once, the normally gregarious Branca was rendered quiet.

"Maybe that's why God was mad at me — that I didn't practice my mother's religion," he told Prager for a New York Times article. "He made me throw that home run pitch. He made me get injured the next year. Remember, Jesus was a Jew."

Married to the daughter of one of the Dodgers' minority owners, before Walter O'Malley finagled Branch Rickey out of the picture, Branca was the father of two daughters, one of whom eventually married Bobby Valentine. (It was Valentine who announced his father-in-law's death on Twitter.) He became respected throughout baseball for carrying the burden of the Thomson home run with amiable class.

"Bobby was the hero," Vin Scully once said, "but the fellow who came out of that incident 10 feet tall was Ralph Branca. Ralph to me carried the cross exceptionally well. After a while it had to be excruciating." You'd never know it from meeting Branca as the years went passing by. No sports goat ever wore the misapplied horns with more grace.

As a player, Branca was one of the first white Dodgers to accept and befriend Jackie Robinson, something for which Branca remained proud for life, justifiably. Once, when Enos Slaughter spiked Robinson with purpose on a play at first base, Branca walked over to tell Robinson, "I'll get the next son of a bitch for you." Robinson replied, "No, Ralph. Just get them out."

When the Dodgers lined up on the foul line for a pre-game ceremony in 1947, Branca's brother John quaked — he was only too well aware of death threats dogging Robinson, including a threat to shoot him on the field.

"What if the guy's a lousy shot?" John Branca asked.

Brother Ralph didn't flinch. "Then I'd have died a hero."

If you consider that one kind of a hero is a man who is beaten by a better man in the moment but carries it with dignity and without attaching a spotlight of pity to shine upon himself, then last Wednesday morning Branca did just that.

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