“Ralph Branca, beloved Dodger pitcher and the man who courageously stood up to racism with Jackie Robinson, dead at 90”.
At the age of 90 years old, Ralph Branca quietly passed away the day before Thanksgiving in his Rye Brook, New York nursing home yesterday.
I wish more headlines read like the one above. Instead, the majority of them define him as the man who “gave up the ‘shot heard round the world’.
Born on January 6, 1926 in Mount Vernon, New York; Branca was the 15th of 17 children. While attending New York University, Branca was their star pitcher in 1944 and would find himself making his major league debut that summer for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
With the help of a blistering fastball and a curve ball that snapped like a flag in the wind, 1947 would be Branca’s breakout season as he went 21-12. The next season he would compile a record of 14-9 and making it 3 winning seasons in a row, he would top out at 13 wins and only 5 losses in 1949. Branca would make the National League All Star team all three years.
A post about Branca wouldn’t be complete without mention of the fastball he threw to Bobby Thompson on October 3, 1951 at 3:58 P.M..
In the final game with the New York Giants to determine the National League championship, Bobby Thompson lifted a Branca fastball into the left-field bleachers with two men on base in the bottom of the 9th inning. The shot off of Branca secured the National League pennant for the inter-borough rivals.
The “Shot Heard Round the World” is often cited as the most memorable home run in baseball history and sits alongside such baseball memories as Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, Larsen’s perfect game in a World Series and Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds. Americans alive at the time and who possessed any vague interest, could recall with exacting detail where they were when they heard the news.
The same can be said for Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.
Branca once said, “Nobody remembers that at 21, I won 21 games. Nobody remembers that at 25, I had 75 wins. All they remember is that homer.”
It would later be discovered that the New York Giants had been stealing signs from the Polo Grounds center-field bleachers during the entire 1951 season.
“He absolutely knew that fastball was coming”, Branca would go on to later say about his close friend Thompson.
Thompson denies he had the signs decoded. “Even if you know what’s coming, and I’m not saying I knew what was coming, you still have to hit the damned ball.” he would later say.
Branca enjoyed a 12 year career (1944-1956) and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1944-53, 1956), Detroit Tigers (1953-54), and New York Yankees (1954). His career win-loss record was 88-68, ERA 3.79, and totaled 829 strikeouts.
Branca was also an early friend and champion of Jackie Robinson. He was one of the few in the game to great Jackie as an equal from day one.
“Ralph was good to Jack,” Rachel Robinson once said, “when it wasn’t fashionable to be good to Jack.” In 1944, as Robinson broke the color barrier, fellow members of the Dodgers signed a petition protesting Robinson joining the team, Branca courageously refused to sign. In those early years on the road, Branca, unlike many of his teammates, regularly socialized with Jackie Robinson and proudly stood beside him when Robinson first took the field on opening day, April 15, 1947.
Branca grew up in a diverse Mount Vernon neighborhood and his immigrant parents taught him respect and acceptance from an early age. Growing up, Branca had black, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbors, friends, and teammates. “Where I lived, on 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon, black families lived right next door to me. They came in my house, I went in theirs,” he says.
While many will choose to remember Branca as merely the losing half in possibly the most famous home run in baseball history, let us not also remember him as a man of unwavering integrity who stood tall in the face of racism.