Ralph Branca never could escape from Oct. 3, 1951. On Wednesday night at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher relived the day again. He was on hand with his wife, Ann, and son-in-law, Bobby Valentine, for a screening of director Andrew Muscato's 2013 documentary, "Branca's Pitch," which details Branca's life both before and after New York Giants legend Bobby Thomson hit the home run that would become known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."
The film is something of a companion piece to Branca's 2011 book, "A Moment in Time." It follows Branca and ghostwriter David Ritz as they work on the book, which features Branca's memories and baseball footage. Ritz is an eccentric character who has written more than 50 biographies with celebrities, including Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin. Ritz was a 8-year-old Dodgers fan living in Newark, N.J., "crying his eyes out" when Thomson hit his home run, and he adds a unique perspective to the film.
By mid-August 1951, Branca's Dodgers had taken a 13 1/2-game lead over the Giants. However, the Giants went on a 16-game winning streak and tied the Dodgers on the final day of the regular season -- that feat become known as "The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" -- forcing a three-game playoff for the National League pennant.
Branca started Game 1 at Ebbets Field, and the Giants won, 3-1, on the strength of a two-run home run by Thomson. In Game 2 at the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers rallied for a 10-0 win.
In Game 3, also at the Polo Grounds, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen removed starter Don Newcombe in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on second and third, one out and a 4-2 lead. Dressen brought Branca in to face Game 1 hero Thomson.
"The first pitch was a perfect pitch," Branca said. "A fastball that split the strike zone into four quarters, right down the middle."
Thomson let it go.
The second pitch was another fastball, up and in, that Branca had planned as a setup pitch for the curveball that was to follow. But he never got that far. Thomson turned on pitch No. 2, driving a sinking line drive into the left-field bleachers and giving the Giants the pennant.
In "Branca's Pitch," Branca, now a very technically savvy 88-year-old, watches a YouTube clip of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." (That moniker is partly due to the baseball significance of the home run, and partly due to the fact that it took place during the first-ever nationally televised baseball game.)
"All I could say was, 'Sink, sink, sink,'" Branca said, and that sentiment is still visible on his face as he watches 60 years later. "But I knew it was gone all the way."
|"I was a good pitcher, but I was only known for throwing Thomson that home run pitch. That gave me notoriety. People say I became famous, but I say I became infamous."|
|-- Ralph Branca|
Thomson became a hero. Branca became a goat.
"I was a good pitcher, but I was only known for throwing Thomson that home run pitch," Branca said. "That gave me notoriety. People say I became famous, but I say I became infamous."
Branca wrote "A Moment in Time" to tell both his side of the story and the rest of his story, and "Branca's Pitch" continues the tale. Branca is candid and endearing as he recalls his life-long love for baseball, which began as he was growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the 15th of 17 children born to a family of Italian immigrants. Just two weeks after the end of the 1951 season, Branca married Ann Mulvey, daughter of Dodgers owner James Mulvey.
"I may have lost the game," Branca said, "but I still got the dame."
The documentary includes some fantastic footage of Branca competing on the game show "Concentration," as well as footage from "The Ed Sullivan Show" that features both Branca and Thomson singing stylized versions of Tony Bennett's 1951 hit "Because of You" to cardboard cutouts of the other shortly after the '51 season.
Joshua Prager -- Wall Street Journal reporter and author of the 2008 book "The Echoing Green," which details the elaborate system of telescopes and buzzers used by the New York Giants to steal signs during the latter part of the 1951 season -- is also interviewed at length in Muscato's film. Branca allegedly learned of the sign stealing from Tigers teammate Teddy Gray in 1954, but he stayed silent about it for the better part of 60 years for fear of sounding like he was "crying over spilt milk." In the film, though, he makes his feelings known. "They stole the signs," he said. "They stole the pennant."
But in "Branca's Pitch," it is the elegantly aging right-hander who steals the show.