Ralph Branca, a key early ally for Jackie Robinson whose Brooklyn Dodgers career was ultimately best known for giving up the game’s most memorable home run, died early Wednesday morning, according to son-in-law Bobby Valentine.
Branca, 90, was a Mount Vernon, N.Y., native who spent almost his entire 12-year career with Brooklyn, though he missed out on the club’s only championship in 1955, returning to the Dodgers a year later.
It was on Oct. 3, 1951, when Branca’s significant place in baseball lore was established, in the final game of the season between his Dodgers and the New York Giants. Protecting a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning, he gave up a three-run home run to Bobby Thomson -- "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" -- at the Polo Grounds, giving the Giants a 5-4 victory and the National League pennant.
It capped a Giants rally from a 12 ½-game deficit on Aug. 10. New York won its final seven games and Brooklyn lost six of its final 10 to force a three-game playoff for the pennant.
One of the greatest guys to ever throw a pitch or sing a song is longer with us. Ralph Branca Passed this morning.— Bobby Valentine (@BobbyValentine) November 23, 2016
Branca was the Game 1 loser at Ebbets Field, but came on in relief in the finale. Thomson’s home run, immortalized by Russ Hodges’ radio call – “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” – only extended the legend of the Giants’ comeback and final victory.
The pennant race was in subsequent years shrouded in controversy, as Giants players acknowledged in 2001 that they used a telescopic lens to steal signs during games at the Polo Grounds.
Regardless, Branca wasn’t just a speed bump in history. An 88-game winner over 12 seasons, he won 21 games as a 21-year-old in 1947, a season forever known for the debut of Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues.
Robinson faced slurs, threats and even physical rebukes from opponents and managers, most famously Philadelphia skipper Ben Chapman, and even his own teammates, such as Georgia native Dixie Walker.
While it was Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese’s public display of support for Robinson – draping his arm around the second baseman – that drew much renown, Branca aided Robinson behind the scenes.
The son of immigrants from Italy and Hungary, Branca was raised in a diverse neighborhood in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
“Where I lived, on 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon, black families lived right next door to me. They came in my house, I went in theirs,” Branca said in a 2014 interview with Westchester Magazine.
That upbringing prompted him to help bridge the gap for Robinson, with whom he often shared meals and encouraged to assimilate with Brooklyn teammates. He remained close with Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson.
“Ralph’s always been close to us,” she said in a 2014 interview. “There were players who were hostile to Jack and tried to provoke him. Ralph was one of the players who supported him openly. Jack liked and admired him as a friend even after (Branca) left the Dodgers.”
Branca also pitched for the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, retiring after returning to the Dodgers for one game in 1956. Eventually, his bond with Thomson grew into a friendship, as he gracefully embraced his moment in history and even turned their connection into a charitable cause.
“Ralph didn’t run away and hide,” Thomson said at a gathering marking the 40th anniversary of the Shot.
Said Branca: “I lost a game, but I made a friend.”