Ralph Branca: The Final Pitch

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The date was October 3, 1951. Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was a pitcher for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Branca was called into the game in the ninth inning of  the third and deciding National League Championship playoff game against the New York Giants.

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The score was 4-2 in favor of the Dodgers, who were on the verge of wrapping up the pennant and playing the archrival, crosstown Yankees in the World Series. Coming to the plate, to await  Branca’s first offering,  is third baseman, Bobby Thompson.

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The Giants – at the Polo Grounds –  entered the ninth inning down 4-1 against starting pitcher Don Newcombe.   They had scored a run, knocking out the Dodger phenom with just one out, and sported runners on second and third, with Thomson – who had earlier in the series hit a game-winning home run against Branca – coming up.

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Branca first threw a strike, then a fastball high and inside, a wasted pitch meant to set up a curveball low and away.

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Thomson swatted –  sending the ball screaming down the left-field line and into the lower tier of the stands — the so-called “shot heard ‘round the world,”.  What a blast!  The walk-off, 5-4 home run  had  WMCA announcer Russ Hodges intoning arguably sports’ most famous call, “The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”

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Ralph Branca in 2004.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia

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Eddie Stanky jubilantly jumped into the arms of Giants manager Leo “The Lip”  Durocher in celebration, as the burg of Brooklyn was stuck with instant despair.  The Lip’s damning epithet, “Nice guys finish last,” ironically  was coined four years earlier when he helmed the Dodgers.  Branca took the defeat heroically and without bitterness, a quality he’d become known for the rest of his life until his death at the age of 90 on November 23, 2016 in a Rye, New York, nursing home.

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“I never thought it was going to be that big,” he told Associated Press. “When we went into the next season, I thought it’d be forgotten.”

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The game was the first to be televised nationally, which sparked baseball’s emergence as a major business enterprise and media attraction. Thomson’s home run ball later became a talisman for author Don DeLillo in his celebrated novel Underworld, describing the circuitous fictitious journey it took after leaving his bat and ending up in the clutches of a fan named Cotter Martin. 

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Within six years, both teams had fled for the West Coast – the Dodgers to L.A., the Giants to San Francisco — leaving the Yankees the lone New York team in a National League town… until the Mets arrived as an expansion team in 1962.

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The New Dodger Stadium in LA.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia

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Flashback to Brooklyn that fateful October day, where a diehard Dodger fan named Florence Trakin, five months pregnant with her first child (me!), nervously watched the game on TV.  The Giants had come from 13 ½  games behind in the second week of August to tie the Dodgers,  a stretch-run to the pennant that would later be discovered was fueled by illegal sign-stealing.

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My Mom-to-be had already experienced plenty of heartache with the Dodgers, who had won pennants in 1941, 1947 and 1949 (and would go on to win in 1952 and 1953), only to lose to the damn Yankees in the World Series every time.

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 “Wait ‘til next year” became their battle cry and “Dem Bums” their embattled nom de sport.  When the Dodgers/Giants gave way to the Amazin’ Mets, the new New York National League representative inherited that hard luck scenario, especially when in their maiden season, they sported a godawful record of 40-120, playing in the now-decrepit Polo Grounds, one-time home of the Giants.

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I became a fan of the Mets during that inaugural year mostly because I inherited my mother’s own anti-Yankee/pro-National League bias. I also learned what it was like to lose, and lose, and lose, with no end in sight, and learning to take it all in stride with the aplomb of wizened manager Casey Stengel and such colorful characters as Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman, the epitome of the lovable loser.

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I suffered patiently, and then in 1969, just seven years after launching my lifelong devotion to the Mets, they won the World Series, one of only two in their pockmarked history.  And somehow that devotion has been sprinkled around such perennial ne’er-do-wells as the Jets, Knicks and Islanders, even as I followed my mother’s beloved Dodgers from Brooklyn to the City of Angels.

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The Mets won the World Series in 1969.

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Picture Courtesy of the George Eastman House Photography Collection

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Ralph Branca was by no means a loser.  He grew up in the working class Italian section of Mount Vernon, New York, the 15th of 17 children, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 18 after studying at New York University for a year, where he played on the basketball team.

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Branca spent the first 11 seasons of his big-league career with the Dodgers, winning a career-best 21 games in 1947, then going on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers and the Yankees.

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A gracious loser, Branca formed a lifelong friendship with his “nemesis” Bobby Thomson, the two often appearing together at events before Thomson died in 2010 at the age of 86. He was also known as one of Jackie Robinson’s fiercest defenders when the latter broke the color barrier at Major League Baseball.

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Later, Branca took a prominent role in the Baseball Assistance Team, a charity that helps members of the major-league community that have fallen on hard times. He hosted Branca’s Bullpen, a show which preceded Mets telecasts during the 1964 season, further endearing him to me. In another Amazin’ connection, his daughter Mary is married to ex-Mets manager Bobby Valentine. Finally, he was an uncle of record business mogul lawyer (and executor of Michael Jackson’s estate) John Branca, a connection which always made me  feel even closer to him.

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 “He handled that crushing playoff defeat with unparalleled grace and class for the rest of his life,” said the N.Y. Post’s Don Burke, a longtime friend of Branca.

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“Nobody remembers that I once won 21 games,” Branca once told a reporter in a rare moment of regret. “All they remember is the homer. It was a good pitch. It was a cheap home run. But the good men do is oft interred with their bones and the evil lives on. That’s Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.  I went to college.”

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Ralph Branca in 1953.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia

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Ralph Branca’s example taught me from an early age that it wasn’t the end of the world to be on the wrong side of a losing pitch – that it was more important to compete well and accept the consequences.  I always appreciated his quiet fortitude. That pitch has been part of my DNA through countless losing seasons by my feckless four teams, and will continue to be even after the man who threw it is now gone. Nice guys may indeed finish last, but sometimes that’s even more important than finishing first.  Wait ‘til next year isn’t so bad if you live to see it.

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