Forgiving Ralph Branca.
Why the infamous Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, who recently passed away, didn’t deserve all that hatred. And the surprising Jewish connection.
I’ll never forget the bitter tears I shed on October 3, 1951 – the day of mourning in Brooklyn for baseball fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, amongst whom a young yeshiva boy like myself was inexplicably included.
One swing of the bat by Bobby Thompson of the hated New York Giants turned certain Dodger victory into defeat and allowed the Giants to win in the final moments of the playoff game and go on to the World Series, after miraculously coming from behind a 13 ½ game deficit in August. Thompson’s home run would become famous as “the shot heard round the world”, honored by The Sporting News as baseball’s greatest moment and even immortalized by a stamp.
Bobby Thompson was lionized as the hero but the narrative also demanded a villain. With one pitch, the All-Star Brooklyn player, who three years earlier at age 21 startled the baseball world by winning 21 games, became the scapegoat for all the misery of a season ending in despair and defeat. Ralph Branca was the one Dodger manager Charlie Dressen entrusted to enter in relief to close out the game – and with one misplaced fastball became the man selected by fate as the eternal symbol of sports infamy as baseball’s most famous loser. Forgotten were all of Branca’s triumphs and contributions to his team’s success. Fans could not forget the one time he failed.
Years later at an old-timers game, Branca sadly commented, “A guy commits murder and he gets pardoned after 20 years. I didn’t get pardoned.”
Last week, in his 91st year, Branca passed away. It is fitting that in retrospect we reflect on the remarkable parts of the story which only emerged years after the event which so bitterly affected Branca’s life.
Facing public contempt and vicious calumny, Branca found solace in the knowledge that God knew his faith was strong enough to bear this test of biblical proportion. What Branca did not know at the time was something which would only become revealed years later. Traded to the Detroit Tigers, Branca’s roommate who had been friends with one of the winning New York Giants exposed to him the bitter secret: The Giants had been stealing the signals between opposing pitchers and catchers since the middle of the summer of that season with the use of a hidden telescope in the Polo grounds centerfield clubhouse. That is how they managed “miraculously” to win 37 of their final 44 games. And that, in almost all certainty, was “the magic ingredient” behind the Thompson home run of the millennium.
Imagine what that news must’ve meant to the man forced for years to bear the burden of undeserved and unearned ignominy. Imagine knowing that you had been unfairly judged because of the cheating of others. Imagine that you now had an opportunity to destroy the lives of those who caused you so much pain and hurt.
I can’t begin to picture the amount of self-control and personal character it took for Branca to decide to withhold publicizing the information he learned for years afterwards – only to comment upon it after it was revealed in a 2001 article in the Wall Street Journal.
That is what I call a real mensch.
Branca said: “To be called a goat, as I was, for half a century hurt like hell especially when I knew that the team that tagged me with that label had implemented an elaborate and outrageous system of cheating. I had learned about the cheating less than three years after it happened. Yet for many long decades I kept quiet. I was advised to capitalize on and expose the scheme. Go to the press. Write a book. Do something. But I refused. I didn’t want to be seen as a whiner, a sore loser or baby crying over spilt milk. Take it on the chin. Accept the blow. Move on with your life. Or, best of all, forget about it, which proved impossible.”
And the story does not end there. Remarkably enough, there is a Jewish connection.
Ralph Branca discovered late in life that he was in fact Jewish.
Branca was one of 17 children raised in a strictly Roman Catholic home. In 2011 Joshua Prager, author of a book on the Bobby Thompson home run, shared an incredible discovery with the pitcher who endured sport’s equivalent of the trials of Job. Following up on genealogical research, Prager determined the Branca’s mother was actually born Jewish! She came from Hungary, her birth name was Kati Berger, and two immediate members of her family had in fact perished in concentration camps because of their Jewish identity. In accord with Jewish law, Ralph Branca discovered late in life that he was in fact Jewish.
Branca with his parents, Kati and John, in 1947.
It is almost heartbreaking to learn that Branca’s reaction to the news immediately took him back to the traumatic and life-changing moment of his career. “Maybe that’s why God’s mad at me – that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion.”
Poor Ralph Branca. So accustomed did he become to being the recipient of undeserved blame that he feared even God was angry at him for not observing a lifestyle about which he had absolutely no knowledge or an identity never revealed to him. As a Rabbi, I could have told him that Judaism has a special category known as tinnok she’nishba – a child “taken captive” in infancy who has no knowledge of his true background and who is therefore not judged by laws of Jewish observance but rather by moral character and behavior.
By that standard Ralph Branca deserves to be remembered for his remarkable strength of character, for his exemplary illustration of graceful acceptance of life’s trials and the ability to overcome them, and his extraordinary demonstration of faith in spite of overpowering difficulties. Upon his passing, it is surely time for even the most diehard Brooklyn Dodger fans not only to forgive him but to bless his memory.