Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 24, 2016

A Life Far Greater Than One Moment In Time

As another Thanksgiving draws to a close, sports fans can be grateful for many moments. In the twelve months since their last tryptophan coma they have seen one of football’s greatest quarterbacks go out a winner in February’s Super Bowl 50. They have witnessed a compelling and dramatic World Series, stretched to its full seven games with the final contest extended into extra innings. They watched as that Series finally brought to an end a title drought of epic scale for the victorious Chicago Cubs, just as they saw another city long associated with losing write an exciting new chapter when LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA championship last spring.

For fans of the Denver Broncos, Cubs and Cavaliers, for those who count among their heroes Peyton Manning or Vonn Taylor, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Schwarber, or King James, there are plenty of reasons to give thanks. Even those without a specific rooting interest can appreciate the thrill of games well played and dramatic endings. It’s also natural when recalling the highlights of sports over the past year to think first of the winners. Except for the occasional bettor with hard cash at stake, no fan roots for his favorite team or player to lose, and the fan bases of teams that always seem to come up short quickly earn the sympathetic description of “long-suffering.” No matter the sport, the purpose of every contest is to win.

But losing is not without value and sometimes the more important lesson can be learned from those who do not claim the prize. That simple truth seems especially important to remember on this Thanksgiving, which arrived with the sad news that Ralph Branca has passed away at the age of 90.

Branca was a three-time All-Star who won 88 games, all but eight of them with the Brooklyn Dodgers during a twelve-year career that included stints with the Tigers and Yankees. He won 21 games in 1947 when he led the National League in games started. Two years later he was the league leader in winning percentage at .722. He made it to the big leagues at the tender age of 18, but a back injury suffered during Spring Training in 1952 robbed him of his effectiveness, and he was out of the game at the age of 30.

But Ralph Branca is not remembered for his 21 victory season, a win total that matched his age in 1947. Fans do not recall the enormous potential of a tall right-hander with a blazing fastball who had 75 wins by the age of 25. The three All-Star Game selections are lost to history. For more than six decades, since 3:58 p.m. on the afternoon of October 3, 1951, Branca is remembered for one pitch. That pitch, the second of the at-bat, was a high and tight fastball to Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants. It was the 9th inning of the decisive third game of a playoff to determine the National League champion, after the Dodgers and Giants had finished the regular season with matching records of 96-58. Brooklyn was leading 4-2, but New York had runners on second and third with just one out, and had already plated one run in the inning off Dodgers’ starter Don Newcombe.

As even casual fans know, Thomson swung at that fastball and sent a line drive toward the sixteen foot high wall in left field at the Polo Grounds. Even as he turned to follow the ball Branca was saying to himself, “Sink, sink sink.” But the drive stayed up, disappearing into the left field seats for a title-winning home run. Thomson’s homer became the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” immortalized in grainy video almost always accompanied by the exultant repetitive call of the Giants’ play-by-play man Russ Hodges on WMCA-AM radio.

In the long decades since other pitchers have served up dramatic postseason home runs. The Yankees’ Ralph Terry threw the pitch that Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates sent over the left field wall at Forbes Field for a walk-off homer that won Game 7 of the 1960 World Series for Pittsburgh. Thirty-three years later in the 9th inning of Game 6 Mitch Williams of the Phillies sent an offering to Joe Carter that the Blue Jays’ outfielder hit over the fence for a three-run homer to win the Series. In between those two Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley watched as gimpy Kirk Gibson blasted one of his pitches to right at Dodger Stadium to stun the Oakland A’s in Game 1 of the 1988 Series.

The Mazeroski and Carter homers in particular, as the only two round trippers to win world championships, are arguably more notable than Thomson’s shot. But in 1951 the Great Game was still the national pastime, and Game 3 of the Dodgers-Giants playoff was the first baseball game to be televised nationally. Perhaps that is why the old scene at the Polo Grounds endures as a moment of high drama, and for the pitcher who made the fateful delivery, one of ultimate despair.

But the lesson of Branca’s life is that even a defeat that becomes a permanent part of one’s resume need not ultimately define a person. Shortly after throwing the fastball to Thomson Branca met his fiancé and a Jesuit priest in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds. “Why me?” he asked the cleric; who replied “Ralph, God chose you because He knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”

So in fact, Branca was. A man of deep faith, he quickly realized that his family was far more important to him than anything he did on the mound. He was married less than three weeks after Brooklyn’s 1951 season came to its heartbreaking conclusion, and he and his wife Ann raised two daughters. He enjoyed tremendous success in the insurance business, but also made time to serve for 17 years as president of Baseball Assistance Team, a charity dedicated to assisting members of the baseball family who fall upon hard times. Since its formation in 1986, BAT has provided more than $32 million in aid to 3,400 recipients.

He was also proud of having stood willingly next to Jackie Robinson during player introductions on Opening Day in 1947, as Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. He dismissed the concerns of friends who worried that a fanatic with poor aim might take a pot shot at Robinson and hit Branca instead. But his courage also earned him plenty of vitriol from those who wanted to keep major league lineups lily-white. Years later he served as a pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral.

Inevitably every remembrance of Ralph Branca begins with his role in the Great Game’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” But those that are complete do not end there. They speak of a full life lived well, of personal success and public service, and of the enduring importance of family and friends. They tell the story of a man who suffered one of sports’ most public defeats, and then refused to let that moment of ignominy define his life. It is a story worth remembering, and one for which all sports fans should be thankful.

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Responses

  1. This is probably your best piece yet – and that is saying a lot.

    Don

    • Thanks Don, I appreciate your kind words.

      Mike


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