Ralph Branca should be remembered for his dignity, not one pitch

There have been other home runs in New York baseball in the years since, and some of them will be remembered forever. There was Roger Maris’ 61st, and Bucky Dent’s home run that day in October of ’78 against Mike Torrez, when it was the Yankees and Red Sox playing a one-game season to see who would go to the World Series that year. And there was the night at the old Yankee Stadium in 2003, when Aaron Boone went deep in the bottom of the 11th against the Red Sox, with the Series on the line.

But there has still never been one like the one that will always be known as The Shot Heard ’Round the World, Bobby Thomson’s home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds on the day when Russ Hodges would start yelling, over and over again, about the Giants winning the pennant.

It was the Dodgers and the Giants and New York and the amazing comeback the Giants had made that year to even get into a best two-of-three series. Then it came down to that last game, and Thomson hit one off Ralph Branca over the wall, and in that moment it was the most famous baseball moment the city had ever had, in the city where we still had three teams.

No could possibly have known it at the time, on the day when Ralph Branca threw that pitch and fixed his place in baseball history, but it was the beginning of a lifetime of grace from him. Because the guy who threw the pitch spent the rest of his life showing you something about himself and his own character and maybe even the character of his city:

Ralph Branca, beloved Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, dead at 90

Ralph Branca showed you how to get back up. In the words of the great Pete Hamill, Ralph lived a life after that, and not an apology.

“He was,” Ralph’s son-in-law Bobby Valentine was saying on Wednesday morning, “the greatest guy I ever knew.”

You would walk into Bobby’s office at Shea Stadium in the days when he was managing the Mets, and there would be Ralph Branca sitting with him, happy to be back in that world, right back in the middle of National League New York.

“I’ve know him since the mid-1970s,” Bobby Valentine said, “and I never saw him angry. I never saw him disparage anybody around him. I never saw him feel sorry for himself, even at the end. Now he would take the microphone sometimes, but only if he wanted to sing, because he had a wonderful singing voice. But he only took it to talk if he thought somebody wanted to listen. To me, it was another testament to his greatness.

Bobby Thomson’s 3-run homer helps Giants win pennant in 1951

“He didn’t leave his bed for the last month of his life and even then, I never saw him complain to a nurse, or a family member or even a passerby. He lived with dignity and died with dignity, and didn’t want to bother anybody with the process.”

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Bobby Valentine calls his father-in-law Ralph Branca, seen here in a 2003 file photo, ‘the greatesy guy I ever knew.’

(Barry Talesnick/New York Daily News)

Ralph Branca was 90 when he died. He was twenty-five when he threw that pitch to Bobby Thomson on Oct. 3 in 1951, and not so far removed from being a phenom with the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning 21 games at the age of 21.

But no one remembered that after ’51. They remembered the pitch he threw in the bottom of the 9th to Thomson, one that he hoped would sink and never did.

In 1986, thirty-five years later, I managed to get Branca and Thomson, who would later become friends and make appearances together, to come to Westchester Country Club, where Ralph and his wife Ann lived until the last couple of years, and talk about the game and the pitch and everything that had happened, in both their lives, after that. It turned into a wonderful day, full of memory and friendship and the unusual bond that had been created between these two men, because of a home run hit in another time, in their sport and in a remarkable baseball time in their city, at the beginning of the 50s, when New York still felt like the capital of the baseball world.

Lupica: Thomson’s ‘shot’ will live forever

At one point I said to Ralph Branca that after all these years, he had to be sick of the whole subject.

414. OCT. 10, 1951, FILE PHOTO

Ralph Branca, seen here just days after giving up the infamous homer to Bobby Thomson in 1951, displays the dignity and grace that would come to define his life.

(Anonymous/AP)

“I take it as it comes,” Branca said that day, a quiet man whose voice was even quieter than usual in that moment. “If I feel like getting into it, I do. If I don’t, I don’t. You find out a lot about people by who brings it up and who doesn’t.”

Then I asked him what he remembered best, from the time the ball went over Andy Pafko’s head in leftfield and over the wall and into history.

“I remember the parking lot,” Ralph Branca said. “I remember going out to the parking lot. Ann was in the car with a friend of ours, Father Paul Rowley from Fordham. And I said to Father Rowley, ‘Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?’ And Father Rowley said, ‘God gave you this cross to bear because you’re strong enough to bear it.'”

He was a strong and good man. He was the Brooklyn Dodger who had married Ann Mulvey, a daughter of one of the Dodger owners, a couple of months before he threw the pitch to Thomson. If you knew Ralph Branca, and I was lucky enough to know him well, you know the line he always had about that one. He even used it that day at Westchester Country Club, on something that was really only an anniversary for Bobby Thomson.

18607. JUNE 6, 1991, FILE PHOTO

Ralph Branca (r.) and Bobby Thomson, seen here together in 1991, would become good friends.

(Marty Lederhandler/AP)

“Lost the game, won the dame,” he said.

“What those of us who loved him were lucky enough to do,” Bobby Valentine said, “was share in a life of dignity. And immense loyalty. If you truly can be loyal to a fault, that was Ralph Branca.”

He ended up winning 88 games in the big leagues and having a lifetime earned run average of 3.79, and pitched for five more years after Thomson’s home run. He pitched for the Tigers and even for the Yankees. He did travel around with Bobby Thomson and made television appearances with him and at card shows and at baseball dinners. They did become friends, a friendship that lasted until Bobby Thomson’s death in August of 2010. It just made Bobby Thomson one more person lucky enough to call Ralph Branca a friend.

My own friendship with Ralph began after that 35th anniversary piece in the Daily News. We began to play golf together at Westchester Country Club, which for him was like playing a round in his backyard. One day he noticed me looking down at his driver.

Ralph Branca leads a rendition of 'God Bless America' at he fifth meeting of Gallo's Geezers in 2007.

Ralph Branca leads a rendition of ‘God Bless America’ at he fifth meeting of Gallo’s Geezers in 2007.

(Roberts, Matthew,,freelance/Roberts, Matthew,,freelance)

“What are you staring at?” he said.

I pointed. He had the word “Turn” written in his neat handwriting on top of his driver, with a little arrow underneath it.

Ralph grinned and said, “Even out here, you still need a game plan.”

He was a wonderful man. He was wonderful company. And a gent to the end, one who wouldn’t allow himself to be defined by one pitch, on the day when he ended up pitching to Thomson instead of Carl Erskine.

There was a day once at Westchester, in the late afternoon, when we were sitting on a bench, waiting to hit. And somehow we had gotten around to talking about Thomson again, because sometimes even Ralph would bring it up.

He smiled that day, as if looking back across the years.

“Can’t lie,” Ralph Branca said. “It was a lot more fun being Bobby.”

The guy who threw the pitch talking one more time about the guy who hit it. Guy who did live a life, and not an apology. Big guy who should be remembered for that.

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Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News

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