Jan 2, 2016

Legendary Italian / American Pitcher: Ralph Branca (1944-1956)

Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca was born on January 6, 1926 in Mt. Vernon New York. Branca was an all around athlete in college, playing baseball & basketball at New York University. The six foot three right hander, was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. He quickly made his debut the following season.

He began his pitching career as a reliever going 0-2 in 21 games for the 1944 Dodgers. He eventually got into Brooklyn’s starting rotation, although at times he was still used as reliever, in between starts. 

In 1947 he had his best season, going 21-12 with 148 strike outs (both second best in the NL). He posted a 2.67 ERA (3rd in the NL) with four shut outs (4th in the NL). He led the league in starts with 36, pitched an incredible 280 innings.

On May 27th at the Polo Grounds, he struck out a season high ten batters, as he beat Dave Koslo & the New York Giants 7-3. He pitched three straight complete game victories from there, with a one inning relief effort loss mixed in. On June 19th & 24th he combined for two complete game victories where he only allowed three earned runs in the 18 innings.

On July 2nd, he matched his ten strike out season high in another win (11-3) over the rival Giants. On July 6th of that year, he threw a three hitter against the Boston Braves then came back a week later a tossed a one hitter at Ebbetts Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. That season he made the first of his three straight All Star appearances.

Post Season: He opened up the 1947 World Series but took the loss, allowing five runs on only two hits, while exiting in the 5th inning. He came in  to pitch relief in Game #3 getting no decision. 

In Game #6 he got the win, coming in relief of Vic Lombardi pitching 2.1 innings of work allowing just one run. It was later in this game that Al Gionfriddo’s made his classic game saving catch at the 415 mark in center field at Ebbetts Field, off the bat of Joe DiMaggio.Brancas win forced a classic Game seven.

Branca returned to go 14-9 in 1948,as the Dodgers fell to third place. In 1949 the Dodgers were back on top winning another pennant. Branca started off the year with seven straight victories, going 7-0 with good run support as his ERA was 3.59 at that point in time. 

In June he was 3-0 bsting his record to 10-1. From that point on he won just three games losing four in the next three months.

Branca was third on the '49 club in victories, behind Don Newcombe (17) & Preacher Roe (15). He finished up at 13-5 with the best winning percentage in the NL at .722%. He struck out 109 batters (4th in the NL) and walked 91 in 186 innings, posting a 4.39 ERA in 34 games.

Post Season: Branca started Game #3 of the 1949 World Series, allowing four runs, although he pitched into the ninth inning. The game was tied after a Phil Rizzuti sac fly & Pee Wee Reese HR making it 1-1. In the 9th, a two run single  from pinch hitter Johnny Mize made it 3-1. Branca as removed & reliever Jack Banta allowed a single to Jerry Coleman making it 4-1. The Dodgers did score two runs in the bottom of the inning on HRs by Roy Campanella & Luis Olmo but came up short 4-3.

Branca dropped to 7-9 the following season, with one the worst ERA’s of his career (4.69) as Brooklyn finished in second place. Over that season & the next he was perfect on the field topping the league with a .1000 fielding %.

1951 was the season the Dodgers blew their huge August lead and the New York Giants caught them with a legendary  September run. The two teams were tied on the last day of the season, leading to a three game playoff series. In the final game of the 1951 season, it was Branca who was on the wrong side of the most historic HR in baseball history.  

Branca began the year in the bullpen not getting his first start until May 28th. On April 21st he earned a relief win against the Giants pitching three scoerless innings. He took a loss to them on June 28th, as Monte Irvin hit an 8th inning three run shot off him for the win. 

Branca followed up with a Fourth of July win, a complete game 4-2 victory in Brooklyn, giving him a 6-2 record at that point with a 2.30 ERA. He then lost to the Giants on August 15th, as Jim Hearn out dueled him 3-2 at the Polo Grounds. At this point the Giants fell to 11 1/2 games behind Brooklyn. On September 1st, Branca was 12-5 when he took another loss to the Giants, getting knocked out in the 4th inning.At this point the Giants were on the move six games back.

Overall Branca went 13-12 on the season with 118 strike outs (9th in the NL), allowing 19 HRs in 204 innings, with a 3.26 ERA. His 13 wins were fifth most on the staff as he had pitched the third most innings on the team as well (204 innings).

1951 Playoff Series: In the first game of the three game tie breaking series, played at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, Branca got the start, going up against Jim Hearn. Branca went eight innings, allowing three runs on five hits with five walks & five strike outs. He served up a two run HR to Bobby Thompson and a solo shot to Monte Irvin. He took the 3-1 Brooklyn loss. The Dodgers evened the Series in the second game with a big 10-0 blow out.

It all came down to one game, one that goes down in history as one of baseballs best ever! The fans came to the Polo Grounds on a damp cloudy fall New York autumn afternoon. It was one of the first games to  be broadcast on a national cable feed, so not only was all of New York watching but many baseball fans across the country as well.

In the final game of the '51 season, Brooklyn had a 4-1 lead going into the 9th inning. It looked like it was going to be another Brooklyn pennant winner after all. But Dodger starter, Don Newcombe was tiring, the phone call went to the Brooklyn bullpen. 

It is now legendary that bullpen Coach Clyde Sukeforth said Carl Erskines curve ball was bouncing but Branca was ready to go. Ralph Branca was brought in to a 4-2 game with two Giants runners on base, and Bobby Thompson coming to bat, representing the winning run. Branca fired a fastball right down the middle for strike one, shocking Thompson. 

The next pitch was thrown & drilled down the left field line by Thompson. Branca turned his head quickly as possible to watch where the ball would land, it went over the short left field wall for the pennant winning HR, forever remembered as “The Shot Heard Round the World”.

Branca who wore the unlucky uniform #13 made the long walk across the field with his head hung low. He laid on the steps of the clubhouse devastated. Years later it was revealed that the Giants may have possibly stolen the signs, although Thomson himself denied using the signal in that at bat. Branca was not convinced. Brooklyn fans were brutal; they sent Branca hate mail, death threats, shouted insults at him & his family members in public.

Branca called on a family member, Father Pat, who was a Catholic priest and asked him “why me”? Father Pat told him, "Because God knew your faith would be strong enough to bear this cross.”. It was these words that helped Branca get through the ordeal & cope better, accepting the outcome. 

Eventually he took it in stride and made public appearances with Thompson as the two developed a life long friendship. They appeared on the Perry Como television shows together where they would sing a parody of the song "Because of you”. By the way Branca has always had an outstanding singing voice.

It wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the HR that the story would break that the Giants were stealing signs using a telescope in their center field clubhouse. A buzzer was installed to the bullpen where back up catcher: Sal Yvars would get the signal & toss aball in the air if it was a fast ball. If it was crve he'd do nothing. The sign would then be relayed to the batter at home plate in that manner. All this would have to happen in a split second & the batter would also have to react. So there is speculation on whether the system was actually effective.

In 1952 Branca was limited to only 16 games (seven starts) and went 4-2. That year the Dodgers won the pennant yet again but Branca did not pitch in the World Series.

Although he did make history, being only the second player in MLB history to be ejected from a World Series, and the first who was not actually in the game. It happened in the eighth inning of Game 7 vs. the AL New York club. He was ejected from the dugout, by home plate umpire Larry Goetz

for bench jockeying.

In 1953 he was traded to the Detroit Tigers going 7-10 over parts of two seasons. He was sent to the AL New York team for a brief period, before one last hurrah in Brooklyn in 1956, for one game.

Branca finished a 12 season career in 1956, going 88-68 with 19 saves. He has 829 strike outs with 663 walks & 149 HRs allowed in 1484 innings pitched. He tossed 12 shut outs & 71 complete games in 322 appearances (188 starts) posting a 3.79 ERA.

Retirement: Through the years Branca has made many public appearances he has made with Thompson, at charity events & memorabilia shows. He has also appeared on many television shows such as; The Perry Como Show, Toast of the Town, the Way It Was & many interview shows.

Ralph was a contestant on the game show Concentration in 1963 where he won 17 consecutive games. He also appeared in Concentration's 1963 Challenge of Champions. For a time in the sixties he also did Mets broadcast post & pre game shows.

He was on site as the wrecking ball destroyed the Polo Grounds in New York in 1964. 

 Branca was a close friend to Jackie Robinson throughout his career, he was a pallbearer at Robinson's funeral in 1972.  In 1997 when the New York Mets honored the 50th Anniversary of Robinson's MLB debut, Branca was on hand to escort Rachel Robinson, Jackies widow. In 2013 he praised the film "42" saying it hit home & was very accurate.

Family: Ralph Branca's daughter is married to former Mets manager Bobby Valentine. I had the pleasure to meet Branca a few years back along with Thompson at the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey. He was a true gentleman, a class act with a great sense of humor. 

Honors: Ralph Branca is a member of the Italian American Hall of Fame.

Branca now lives in Vero Beach Florida. 

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