Ralph Branca

fullsizerender“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..

01011104

Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants hits a game-winning home run off of Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca in a playoff game at the Polo Grounds – October 3, 1951, New York (AP)

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-jackie-863e8314

Ralph and Jackie at the Brooklyn Dodgers office the day Jackie Robinson signed his contract.  February 12, 1948

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.

The “Say Hey Kid” comes to Norfolk

01231201Growing up here in the Hampton Roads area, I have always been a fan of our local triple-A baseball team.  Up until 2007, the Tidewater Tides served as the AAA farm team for the New York Mets.  That partnership lasted 38 years.   Dropping the “Tidewater”, the team is now called the Norfolk Tides and is serving as the AAA farm team for the Baltimore Orioles.  As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I attended many games with my parents and grandparents.  I became a Mets fan solely because I could turn on the TV and tune in to the Mets game and see some of the same guys that I had once seen play here locally.  If you look back through the 38 year relationship between the Tides and the Mets, it’s amazing to see just how many players came through this area on their way to the big leagues.

I happened to also love press photos – don’t ask me why.  A few months ago I came across this pretty cool piece of Willie Mays playing an exhibition game against the Tidewater Tides on June 8, 1979 at the old Metropolitan Stadium.  Mays of course had been retired for 6 years at that point and was serving as a coach.  After being brought into town to help boost ticket sales, he was given 2 at bats and stroked a pair of singles to help the Mets to an 8-6 victory over the Tides.  The ’79 Mets team, led by Joe Torre was less than stellar.  Posting a 63-99 record, their efforts were good enough for a 6th place division finish.

In regards to Metropolitan Stadium (or “Met Park” as the locals used to call i
t); it was torn
down in 1991 to make way for a fancy-shmancy USAA Insurance building (my buddy works there).  The Tidewater Tides were moved south to the banks of the Elizabeth River where their new home would be called Harbor Park.  They dropped the “Tidewater” and are now known as just the “Norfolk Tides”. As a little-league player, I had actually attended a few baseball camps at Met Park.  It’s hard to believe I’ve stood in the same batter’s box as the great Willie Mays.

Below are two shots of Met Park.  The shot on the left looks to be from the ’60’s I would guess.  The shot on the right was taken in the winter of ’91 just before it was torn it down.

MET PARKMET PARK LAST DAYS

 

 

 

Top of the First…

Well…here I am.  After spending years poking around other people’s baseball blogs, I have finally decided to dive in and start my own.

I’ve attempted to get this first blog post up and running for 2 days now but have been plagued with a slight case of writer’s-block.  I’ve decided to approach this first post as a lead-off hitter would approach his at-bat.  I’ll step in, work the pitcher a little bit and just poke one through for a base hit.

I can tell you, the blog at this point has no real “theme”.  I assume it will unintentionally gravitate towards the following topics:  The New York Mets, collecting cards and autographs, and baseball history.

MAYSLet’s lead it off by wishing Mr. Willie Mays a very happy 85th birthday.

“They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.” – Ted Williams

Mays was born in Westfield Alabama on May 6, 1931.  At age 16, Mays starred for the Birmingham Barons of the Negro League.  In 1950, the New York Giants placed Mays in their center field and the rest is history.

His rookie season, Mays hit 20 home runs and drove in 68 runs earning NL Rookie of the Year honors.  1952-1953 was spent serving our country with the US Army.  The 1954 season enjoyed watching Mays win the batting title with a .345 average, 41 home runs and 110 runs batted in.  That was also the year the Giants took the NL Pennant and Mays dazzled the world with “the catch.”

Mays finished up his career with a .302 batting average, 3,283 hits, 660 home runs, 24 All Star Game appearances, 2 NL MVP awards, and 12 Gold Gloves.

So there you have it.  The first post is complete.  I guess there was a good reason it took me two days to find the right thing to write about.

I can’t think of a better “lead-off” post than Willie Mays.