Ralph Branca lived a long time. In one of those years, 1947, he was a 21-game winner for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he's best remembered for a pitch he threw in a winner-take-all playoff game four years later, a fastball that New York Giants second baseman Bobby Thomson turned on, and turned into the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." Branca died on Tuesday at age 90. His life story was as simple as an errant pitch and as complex as a man going to the gallows for a crime he didn't commit. In the end, there was something like magic to it all: the storytellers tried to make Branca a baseball martyr, but he turned their intentions inside out.
The image of Branca stretched out across the steps in the visitor's clubhouse in the Polo Grounds, weeping, is on the short list of most devastating photographs in baseball history. In that moment, the Giants are about to go to the World Series to face the New York Yankees and the Dodgers are going home. There are a series of these images, and in a way looking at them feels more perverse than the more overtly malignant kinds of voyeurism—peeping through the slats of window shades or at hacked photos of celebrities. The photo of Branca is frank and straight-on, which makes it all the more difficult to take. No one needed to see a 25-year-old man weeping like that.
All they really needed was confirmation that he felt bad, that he had reacted appropriately to what was to that point one of the most devastating losses in sports history. And boy, did he. But Branca's life went on for another 65 years, long enough to define his life apart from that one terrible moment. Think of the life that followed as a slow-motion version of Lou Gehrig's "luckiest man" speech: Branca had the inner strength to be more than the terrible thing that had befallen him.
After the game, Branca, a religious man, asked the Rev. Pat Rowley, "Why me?"
"Ralph," the Jesuit priest told him, "God chose you because he knew you'd be strong enough to bear this cross."
It was not until the 1990s, in a story confirmed this century by Joshua Prager, that it was revealed that the Giants had an elaborate system for stealing signs set up at home. Their manager was Leo Durocher, and he wasn't above that kind of thing; back in his playing days with the Yankees, he had been suspected of lifting items from the clubhouse, filching things like Babe Ruth's watch; his life went on in that vein. Stolen signs or not, though, Thomson had killed Branca that year, hitting .385 with a triple and three home runs in 17 plate appearances. How much of that was skill and how much of it was being tipped pitches will never be known. It's hard to see what knowing would add, really; Thomson still had to execute even if he knew what pitch was coming, and he always denied that the Shot was a moment gifted to him by a telescope and a buzzer system. (The system existed, but the Giants' team offense actually declined after the system was installed.) Once Branca was informed that the Giants were stealing signs, he decided he was robbed, and that was that—there was no ambiguity in the matter for him, and if that's what it took for him to be at peace, then it's hard to say that anyone had a right to argue the point with him. Blame should have no part in the discussion in any case. It's just baseball doing what it does.
Or…well, maybe some blame, and not just for Durocher but for Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen. Branca never should have been in that game in the first place. Hell, there never should have been a game in the first place. On Saturday, August 11, the Dodgers were 70-36 and led the second-place 59-51 Giants by 13 games with 48 games to go. They were a very good team, a veteran team, and the National League pennant race should by rights have been over. Durocher realigned his team at that point, helping spark one of the great closing runs in baseball history, a 37-7 finish. The Dodgers went 26-22, which was hardly a collapse, although that doesn't really tell the full story: Despite New York's historic hot streak, on September 20 Brooklyn still led by 4.5 with 10 games to play. But the Dodgers were also in a state of denial, grousing that the Giants weren't really that great and that the Willie Mays kid everyone was talking about was being overhyped. And then Durocher's men blew past them, winning seven straight to finish the schedule.
The two teams were tied, triggering a three-game playoff. Points in the Dressen indictment/exculpation of Branca: (1) The Dodgers won the coin toss for home-field advantage. Dressen said, no, we'll play game one at home and the next two on the road. At the Polo Grounds. At, you know, the place where even then people thought some sign-stealing had been going on. Which was also the place where the Dodgers had gone 5-6 during the regular season. Which, also, was not Ebbets Field. (2) Dressen was an old-school manager who rode his pitchers hard, particularly that fall as the race was slipping away. Branca was arguably gassed well before he served up Thomson's shot; he pitched eight times in September, making six starts, and was hit hard, giving up seven homers and 27 runs in 33 innings. (3) Branca had already started Game 1 of the playoff and lost, allowing three runs and throwing 135 pitches over eight innings. (4) He gave up two home runs in that game, one to Monte Irvin, and one to, yes, Thomson. (5) That was October 1, which meant that Branca faced Thomson in Game 3 after having had had all of one day to recover from his 135-pitch start.
As much as any gangster condemned to death in an old black and white movie, Branca wuz framed. This makes it all the more meaningful that he carried on and got up off those steps. Players have seen their lives haunted or outright destroyed by moments like that: think of Fred Merkle going through life ducking the epithet "bonehead," or Donnie Moore killing himself and, nearly, his wife. Branca lived through it, in a sense more active than passive. Branca pitched four more seasons and retired, and then he kept on carrying on, caring not just for his family but, as the president of the Baseball Alumni Team, for indigent old ballplayers as well.
He had stopped asking "Why me?" by then, and had moved into the bigger world of "Why him?" the first step towards empathy. Probably he always had it, but maybe it was triggered by that humbling moment at the Polo Grounds, became a bigger part of Branca's life than it would have been otherwise. No one can know these things. Branca became good friends with Thomson, too, before and after the cheating story broke. That was an act of magnanimity as well. No man should have to bear the burden of being a hero alone, but more than that, in sharing the moment with Thomson, Branca eliminated the victor/vanquished aspect from what was, after all, only a sports story. Thomson could exult in his victory—his own life went for nearly 60 more years, too—without feeling that his high was also someone else's low.
This is one of the most generous gestures imaginable, and one that defines Branca's life much more than one pitch in one game. To rise from those clubhouse steps and not just get over his suffering, but first transcend the sadness and find grace for oneself and then make a gift of it to others. Branca is remembered for throwing a pitch that lost a pennant, but he was a much greater man than many who won one.