Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2011

Book Review: Ralph Branca Looks Back

Sixty years on, the event is not a true memory for most of us. What the mind’s eye sees is not the ball sailing into the left field seats, but rather the old black and white footage of the historic moment. The sound echoing through one’s head did not come from the speaker of an old tabletop radio; rather it is a salvaged tape recording of Russ Hodges repeatedly announcing the improbable ending to the three-game playoff for the National League title. The Giants win, win, win, win, the pennant. Yet even as the moment recedes into the gray mists of history, it remains one of the most dramatic in the history of the game. It brought joy to fans on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and despair to the faithful in the neighboring borough across the East River. In an instant on an October afternoon a hero was created; as was, necessarily, a goat.

The goat, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, is out with a memoir that revisits the moment when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson turned on a fast ball and sent his historic home run into the stands at the Polo Grounds. But “A Moment In Time,” written by the 85-year old Branca and David Ritz, does two other important things. First it reminds us that we now know things about the Giants surge through the last two months of the 1951 season, up to and including October 3rd, that were closely guarded secrets at the time. Second, in detailing a very full life, it makes clear that while Branca will always be best-known for the second pitch he threw to Thomson in the bottom of the 9th that day, he never allowed that failure to define his existence.

Branca’s effectiveness as a pitcher was severely compromised following a freak accident during spring training in 1952. By the middle of the following season, the Dodgers released him and Branca signed with the Detroit Tigers. In 1954, during his second and final season in Detroit, he became friends with left-handed pitcher Ted Gray, who in turn was a close friend of Earl Rapp. Rapp was a journeyman utility player who had played with the Giants for part of the 1951 season. He had revealed to Gray, who in turn felt compelled to tell Branca, that in the middle of the 1951 campaign the Giants had installed a World War II telescope in their center field offices in the Polo Grounds. Along with an elaborate system of electric buzzers wired to ring in both the home dugout and bullpen, Leo Durocher’s club had used the telescope, aimed directly at home plate, to steal the signs given by opposing catchers. The buzzer system was used to inform the players in the dugout and a relief pitcher in the bullpen what type of pitch was about to be thrown. The New York batter waiting at the plate would then receive this vital clue by one of several prearranged shouts from his teammates in the dugout, or by noticing the placement or waving of a towel by his comrade in the bullpen.

Initially incredulous, Branca soon confirmed the reality of the scheme by confronting another former member of the 1951 NL champions, a player he had known since childhood. The Giants had gone a phenomenal 25-6 at home after installation of the sign-stealing apparatus. If even one of the victories was a result of New York’s hitters knowing what pitch was coming, then the tie between the Giants and the Dodgers after 154 games was tainted; and Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world” off Branca that ended the three-game playoff between the teams was considerably less heroic.

Armed with this stunning news, Ralph Branca then did nothing. He believed then, and still does, that if he were the one to reveal what the Giants had done it would seem like little more than the sour bleating of the man who had been made into a goat. When occasional rumors about the sign-stealing made their way into the press, Branca steadfastly refused comment, and the story always died. So it was not until 2001, fifty years after one of the most dramatic contests in the history of the game that the truth finally came out. First in a Wall Street Journal expose, and then later in his book “The Echoing Green,” journalist Joshua Prager revealed the elaborate scheme that gave the New York Giants an undeniable leg up on their opponents during their remarkable run through the second half of that now distant season.

Freed at last to speak, Branca readily stated his belief that he and the Dodgers had been robbed of the championship. Bobby Thomson, for his part, acknowledged benefiting from the sign stealing but insisted that he had not received signs during his crucial 9th inning at bat against Branca; a claim that surely stretched the boundaries of logic and credulity. But coming as it did so far after the actual events, the revelation of the truth had very little impact on the timeless images of that afternoon at the Polo Grounds.

Ralph Branca seems accepting of that, content with the fact that the truth is out there and aware that it will never undo the events of that day. Even assuming that he knew a fastball was coming; Bobby Thomson still had to hit it. Branca grew up in the midst of a very large and loving family. A devout Catholic, his God and his family remain far more important to him than his reputation as a pitcher. Once out of the game, he became a very successful insurance salesman. He eventually formed an improbable friendship with Thomson, and was instrumental in negotiating contracts for the two of them to appear together at memorabilia shows. In recounting his time in the game, he makes it clear that his role as teammate, friend and supporter of Jackie Robinson in the barrier-breaking year of 1947 is of far more enduring importance than a high fastball to Thomson four years later.

In the twilight of a life well-lived, Ralph Branca has done us all a service. His highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable memoir reminds every reader that while individual moments inevitably stand out, it is the full story of a life that gives it texture and meaning.

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