Branca, pitcher of 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' fame, dies

Three-time All-Star won 21 games for 1947 Dodgers

Branca, pitcher of 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' fame, dies

Baseball has lost one of the game's enduring gentlemen, who lived for more than 60 years with a most conspicuous yet somewhat unwarranted smudge on his pitching reputation. Ralph Branca, the losing pitcher in one of baseball's most famous games, is dead at age 90. The game -- no, American society -- is diminished by the loss of a man of such integrity, heart and strength. We haven't often seen the likes of Branca since the day that labeled but didn't change him, nor are we likely to see many of his kind again.

Former big league manager Bobby Valentine, Branca's son-in-law, shared the news Wednesday morning on Twitter.

He threw the pitch that resonated throughout the land; therefore, he is forever connected to the man who hit it from Coogan's Bluff into the consciousness of all generations of baseball loyalists and to a time when baseball was, in every way, the national pastime, if not the country's sports obsession. The pitch was the focal point of Branca's life as the public sees it, the scarlet letter that didn't necessarily fade in the years that followed. But neither the pitch nor the profound loss it prompted in 1951 became the theme of his life.

"I extend my deepest condolences to the family, friends and fellow admirers of Ralph Branca, a three-time All-Star, a friend of Jackie Robinson and a former president and board member of the Baseball Assistance Team," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "Ralph was a true gentleman who earned universal respect in the game he loved and served so well. Ralph's participation in the 'Shot Heard 'Round the World' was eclipsed by the grace and sportsmanship he demonstrated following one of the game's signature moments. He is better remembered for his dedication to the members of the baseball community. He was an inspiration to so many of us."

Branca lived a prosperous, comfortable and content life, rising above the narrow identity the world would have affixed to him. He handled the circumstances in such a way that he developed a reputation as a caring, forgiving and tolerant man of charm and grace and emerged as something of a hero in the epic baseball episode, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Because of the home run, Branca, the Brooklyn Dodger, and Bobby Thomson, the New York Giant, are linked as strongly as peanut butter and jelly, Hope and Crosby and gin and tonic. A most casual observer aware of one undoubtedly is equally familiar with the other. Even now, after both have passed, they remain two sides of one unique and conspicuous coin.

In the years that followed Thomson's three-run home run, by which the Giants completed a four-run comeback to beat the Dodgers and win the National League pennant -- "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" -- the pitcher and hitter developed a friendship that withstood time, rumors, speculation, and finally, an unsettling truth. The Giants had stolen the Dodgers' signs during the three-game playoff and Thomson might have benefited from the electronic surveillance when he pulled Branca's high inside fastball over the left-field fence in the Polo Grounds for the most famous final-pitch home run.

Nonetheless, the two remained friends until Thomson's death in 2010.

Nine years earlier, Branca gained unwanted confirmation about the circumstances that led to the home run, that espionage was, in fact, a part of the Giants' strategy. And he learned he had some unfinished griping in him, too. But his friendship with Thomson remained steadfast. Branca had come to know and like his one-time adversary after the fact. A man with so big a heart and so genuine and warm a smile was incapable of developing, much less holding, a grudge.

"When I got to meet Thomson -- I'd met him a few times, at the golf course, charity events, award dinners in the city; you know, sports awards," Branca said in 2011, "we started doing card shows together. I didn't do a card show until late 1984. Bobby had been doing them earlier, and one of the promoters got both of us together where we signed together. And while we waited for the place to open we'd talk. I realized he was a decent guy, he had pretty decent ideas about life, had his priorities correct."

Thomson, Branca toss first pitch

Branca came to see Thomson as "only the private," explaining, "The generals made the decision. Horace Stoneham, the owner, and the Giants front office -- they agreed to the deal. They hired an electrician to hook up a buzzer system from [manager] Leo Durocher's office in center field to the bullpen in right-center to the dugout on the first-base side. Leo and his first lieutenant, Herman Franks, concocted the deal and presented it to Stoneham, and Stoneham [approved] it. They were the generals who made the decision.

"The two leading ballplayers on the team were Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark, they were ... the guys who talked people into it. I roomed with Stanky when he was in Brooklyn, and he was a very devout Catholic, went to church every week, said his prayers at night. I'd see him. I blame them, for that, because Bobby, as I said, he was just a foot soldier, taking the orders and doing what they said."

Branca was a bright and sincere man whose kinship others treasured. "As good and decent a man as God ever put on this earth," Thomson said in 2002, months after the two had marked the 50th anniversary of their shared moment.

They had made scores of public appearances over the years as an entry, beginning with their starring in a skit at the annual winter dinner staged by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America in January 1952. Each stood behind a cardboard image of himself. Branca began singing "Because of You" with appropriately revised lyrics. Thomson followed with different customized lyrics. Then Branca strangled the Thomson cutout.

The playful strangling, without the cutouts, was repeated dozens of time over the years.

A week after their debut as an act, the two reprised the song for a national audience on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and in 2001 they returned to the writers' dinner and performed again. "It's always been easier for me than it's been for Ralph," Thomson said that night. But Branca, who loved to sing and sang quite well, gave no public indication of being bruised, angry or offended. He smiled throughout and hugged his partner.

Branca never allowed the smudge to matter much in a lifetime he characterized years later as happy. "Life has been good," he said early in 2013. "I'm healthy outside of walking slowly. My brain works, and in January I finished my 87th year. That's how the Italians put it. The Italians have it right."

As much as the home run he allowed, it was Branca's ability to overcome, heal and enjoy rich and fulfilling decades with an abiding sense of grace that distinguished him in his big league afterlife. Any telling of Branca's life requires prominent mention of Thomson, of course. But other than the home run, Branca's legacy is mostly unmarred, borderline pristine. He turned the page and lived happily ever after.

"One of the finest men in the game," the late Bob Mandt said of Branca in the early 1990s after sharing his box at Shea Stadium with Branca for a Mets game. Mandt was the head of stadium operations, a member of Mensa and a fine man himself. He admired Branca's intelligence. Branca was the best kind of know-it-all. His mind was quick; in 1963, he won 17 straight games on the TV show "Concentration," which challenged memory.

Mandt knew so many people, he enjoyed the good ones and considered Branca one of the best. "Is there a more decent man?" he asked ... and not rhetorically.

It wasn't that Branca learned to live with the fallout of Oct. 3, 1951; he had the proper perspective before he was summoned from the bullpen to replace Don Newcombe in the ninth inning that afternoon. The pitch Thomson hit into the left-field stands at the Polo Grounds ruined only his day, not his life. Anyone who stayed in touch with Branca over the years recognized that truth.

Sal Yvars, a catcher with the Giants in 1951 and 40 years later the source of old news that rekindled the sign-stealing controversy, told Branca: "Ralph, you should be proud; you were the right man for the job." It was Yvars' acknowledgement that a lesser man would have slouched under the burden of failure.

Gammons on Branca's passing

A different man might have blamed superstition.

You see, Branca wore uniform No. 13. But triskaidekaphobia be damned. Thirteen was merely a number to him. He could have worn 33 or 41 or 58. He had chosen 12 as his numerical identity as a freshman basketball player at New York University. When he joined the Dodgers in 1944, at age 18, he requested 13. "I just liked to be contrary then," he said years later. Kirby Higbe, another Dodgers pitcher, had worn No. 13, but he had gone to war.

Branca slipped his valuable right arm into the No. 13 uniform sleeve, and after nearly eight full seasons, one of them particularly successful, he slipped into history. Or was he pushed?

The Dodgers-Giants rivalry was unlike all others in professional sports -- genuine enmity prevailed. Some Dodgers acknowledged having no regard for Halloween because its orange-and-black color scheme matched that of the Giants. The Yankees and Red Sox of the late 20th century and early 21st merely thought they disliked each other. The animosity that developed between the Dodgers and Giants was conspicuously more intense. The Yankees and Red Sox were in the same division. The Dodgers and Giants were in the same city, the same league, the same cauldron.

The story of the 1951 season warrants only superficial review. The first-place Dodgers led the Giants by 13 1/2 games after the first game of a Brooklyn doubleheader on Aug. 11. Branca was the winning pitcher. The Giants stormed back and pulled into a first-place tie on the final scheduled day of the regular season, causing a three-game playoff. Thomson's home run produced the final three runs in a four-run, ninth-inning rally that determined the outcome of the decisive game. It hit the borough of Brooklyn like an asteroid.

As Yvars recalled it, the Giants had begun, in late July, using World War II binoculars and/or a telescope positioned in center field to read the signs of their opponents' catchers during home games. A buzzer system alerted the bullpen; the information was forwarded to the dugout and then relayed to the batter.

Russo on Branca's grace

The dastardly system was well-planned and remarkably well-executed. Dark and Stanky went so far as to make outs on pitches they knew were coming so they wouldn't overplay the team's hand and raise eyebrows.

Yvars eventually confessed to the evil doing, not that the Dodgers hadn't developed some suspicions.

Before his questions were publicly answered, Branca had wondered how Thomson, a right-handed hitter he had handled successfully for years, could have hit the final pitch of the National League season -- a high, inside fastball -- with such authority. How could Thomson have anticipated that location?

Is it telling that Thomson said this years after the swing? "I've never hit a ball like that before or since. I thought it was headed for the upper deck, but I'd gotten on top of it, and it started to sink. When I saw it sink, I didn't think it would be a home run. I thought it might hit the fence."

"I knew the pitch was good," Branca told retired Newsday columnist Steve Jacobson in 2012. "He had no right to swing other than knowing what was coming. He'd stepped in like he knew what was coming."

Bobby Thomson's shot

Truth be told, Thomson hit two other home runs against Branca in the previous 32 days -- Sept. 1 at the Polo Grounds and Oct. 1 at Ebbets Field, the latter a two-run home run in the fourth inning that provided the decisive runs in a 3-1 Giants victory in the first game of the playoff series. He hit one other home run against Branca in his career.

And there is this: The Giants presumably used their system in the second game of the series, also played in Manhattan. They lost, 10-0. Thomson had the only extra-base hit they managed in nine innings against Clem Labine. So who knows? Perhaps Thomson was neither prescient or particularly prepared. Maybe he was just hot.

But it was Thomson hitting a high, inside pitch that perplexed Branca.

Branca recalled being consoled by one teammate immediately after the game -- Jackie Robinson. Baseball history identifies Branca as one of the few Dodgers who welcomed Robinson to the Dodgers clubhouse in 1947, when Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. Sometimes what goes and comes around is positive and uplifting.

Branca on Jackie's legacy

A camera caught Branca sobbing near the clubhouse after the game. Understandable. Yes, the Dodgers had lost the pennant; worse, the despised Giants had won it. Thomson had the opposite reaction, but it was, in a way, similar. "To us, at first," he said, "the big thing was that we beat the Dodgers." For a few moments, securing a place in the World Series was secondary.

Branca told Jacobson he and his fiancée Ann Mulvey and Dodgers catcher Rube Walker and his wife Millie went to dinner in the Bronx that night. They were greeted with a standing ovation. How cruel! "They must have been Giants fans," Branca said.

Ann's cousin, a priest at Fordham University, briefly joined the group. Branca sought his guidance. He asked, "Why me?" The priest's response was that God had chosen Branca because his faith and constitution were strong enough to bear the unbearable. "That struck home," Branca said years later. "It was my salvation. I realized that I had done the best I could. The guy just hit a home run. He was better than I was this day. Life goes on. You don't go through it undefeated."

"Why me?" may have been asked by Branca when he was interviewed by newsmen in the clubhouse after the game, too. But there is no known recording from immediately after the game.

Weeks later, Branca was at Toots Shor's, the popular saloon hangout for Jackie Gleason, Broadway stage folks and the highest-profile entertainers and athletes in New York. There Branca was asked to re-enact his horror and sadness. "Why me?" he said repeatedly for posterity. "Why me? Why me?" Though he had accepted the priest's reasoning.

That is the sound bite -- though there were no "sound bites" in the early 1950s -- that has been broadcast hundreds of times since.

The home run had a rippling effect the following spring. Dodgers equipment manager John Griffin gave Branca uniform No. 12, upsetting the pitcher. Dodgers publicity director Harold Parrott had made the change for a photo opportunity. Branca was pictured wearing 12 and discarding 13. "Harold had no right without asking me," he said. "I'm still angry at him."

He resumed wearing No. 13 in 1953.

A few days after the switch to 12, Branca and his new wife were playing Monopoly with two other couples. His chair collapsed and he landed on a soda bottle, injuring his back. It was the beginning of the end of his career. The fall tilted his pelvis and prevented him from throwing as hard as he had. "I blame Parrott," he said. "You can't mess with triskaidekaphobia."

Verducci on Branca's passing

All that swirled around Branca after Thomson's home run still obscures how effective a pitcher he had been. In 1947, at age 21, he produced a 21-13 record and 2.67 ERA in 280 innings. He led the NL in starts with 36, placed 11th in the balloting for Most Valuable Player -- the Cy Young Award wasn't introduced until 1956 -- and was an All-Star for the first of three times. He started the All-Star Game in 1948.

"When I was healthy, I was one of the best pitchers in both leagues," Branca said.

His record was 12-6 soon after that All-Star Game start when another freak injury undermined his career. Branca recalled a pregame warmup when "a couple of idiot teammates" were intentionally throwing short hops to each other. One was thrown so hard that when it skipped past the man with a glove and struck Branca in the shin, it knocked him out. Two weeks later, Branca was hospitalized with a bone infection. He won two of five decisions thereafter that season.

He won 13 games in 1949 and again in 1951. But his career was essentially over in 1954 when, at age 28, he made five second-half appearances for the Yankees. He returned to the Dodgers in September 1956 for a two-inning appearance, then turned his attention to supporting his family via different means, working in the insurance business. He did well in that role, too.

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A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., on the Bronx border, Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was the 15th of 17 children born to Kati (née Berger), who had immigrated from Hungary, and John Branca, a trolley-car conductor with Italian roots. He was raised Catholic but learned late in life that his mother was Jewish. Two of her relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.

He played basketball and baseball and rooted for the Giants as an adolescent. His marriage to Ann began 17 days after the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." For years, when the calendar reached Oct. 3, she wished her husband a happy anniversary.

Ann Mulvey was the daughter of a 25-percent owner of the Dodgers. Their daughter Mary married Valentine, former manager of the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox.

Branca produced an 88-68 record and 3.79 ERA with 829 strikeouts in 1,484 innings in 12 seasons, numbers that are quite incidental in a review of his career.

"On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my best wishes to Ralph's wife Ann, his daughter Mary, his son-in-law Bobby Valentine and his many friends throughout the national pastime," Manfred said.