Ralph Branca headlines TABC book festival

Ralph Branca headlines TABC book festival

A Q&A with with Dodger legend

More than 60 years, baseball big leaguer Ralph Branca kept famously quiet about the 1951 baseball game between the Giants and Dodgers that ended with the Giants winning the pennant.

Branca, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, served the final pitch resulting in Bobby Thomson’s three-run home run, which was dubbed “the shot heard ’round the world.”

The historic game marked a crushing defeat for Branca, who, because of that one ill-fated pitch, became known by many as a “goat,” while Thomson was crowned a hero.

Ralph Branca in 1953 at age 26.

It was not until 2001 that the truth came out in a story by The Wall Street Journal that the Giants had obtained the Dodgers’ secret signs and that Thompson likely knew a fastball was coming.

Branca, who was told about the “industrial espionage” by a teammate in the 1950s, never uttered a word about it. Many credit Branca for his lack of bitterness. In fact, he remained close friends with Thomson until the latter’s death in 2010.

Branca went on to enjoy a busy life off field: he has been married to his wife, Ann, for more than five decades, became a successful businessman, father and grandfather, and helped run an organization to help indigent ballplayers.

Branca recently broke his silence about the cheating scandal in his memoir, “A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak and Grace” (Scribner: 2011) in which he writes, “I was a damn effective pitcher. It pains me to be remembered for one unfortunate pitch….”

Branca discovered another surprising detail about his life in recent years: that his mother, Kati Berger, who married Branca’s Italian Catholic father and raised her brood of 17 children as Catholics, was a Jew. This fact was unearthed by a journalist who revealed that Branca’s mother was a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Catholicism after coming to America in 1900, and that family members were killed in concentration camps during the Shoah.

This news came as somewhat of a shock to Branca, whose mother brought him to church regularly. He himself served as a “Shabbes Goy” for a neighbor who paid him a few cents to light her stove on Shabbat, he recalled.

Branca grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 18. He was a three-time All-Star who pitched in the World Series twice and played professional baseball for 12 seasons, from 1944 to 1956.

Now a sharp 85-year-old, Branca will be the keynote speaker at the Torah Academy of Bergen County’s Book Day on Feb. 15. He spoke to The Jewish Standard in a telephone interview. The following is an excerpt from the conversation:

Q: Does your book “A Moment in Time” convey any special message to readers?

Branca: I think the life lesson from it is really that life is not a straight uphill path. You have your ups and downs. I had my down and lived through it. I took the high road. I knew the Giants stole the pennant and never talked about it. The lesson is you can take the high road and still feel good about it.

Q: What inspired you to write your book?

Branca: I started to write a memoir because my nieces and nephews have been badgering me to write a book for 40 years. It’s an easy read and it sounds just like you are talking to me. It talks about my life as a kid and goes into my career in baseball.

Q: What message do you have for young people, particularly the TABC students whom you will speak to next week?

Branca: When I talk to the boys, I’ll talk about Jackie Robinson and what he went through – the struggles he went through as the first black man in Major League baseball. He turned the other cheek so many times and performed admirably under extreme pressure. He showed how to have courage. What impressed me about him was how he performed under extreme pressure. He was thrust into a role he never thought about deeply until he was there. He did so much for the blacks because he was the first. He performed very very well, especially the first year. He was put in a strange position. He was the only [black] guy on the team. He just came through admirably. He just turned the other check and didn’t fight back. Philadelphia was extremely bad. They threw watermelon and black cats on the field. But he got through it. People today can’t imagine it because things have changed so much since then. He was called the “N word” all the time.

Q: It must have come as quite a surprise to you to learn very late in life that your mother was Jewish. What was your reaction to the news?

Branca: My mother being Jewish doesn’t affect me. I’ve always been friendly with Jews my whole life, being in New York. I just took it in stride. She didn’t practice anything Jewish. We went to church all the time. I just say “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with my being Jewish.” I don’t think I would have done anything different had I known years ago about this. I am what I am. Jewish people are great people. There are a lot of similarities growing up Italian and growing up Jewish. We both have close-knit families. And we both like salami, right?

Q: Many people may remember you for “the shot heard ’round the world,” but what do you want your legacy to be?

Branca: I guess that I lived through a crisis that was really illegal and I knew about it and never said anything about it until someone else broke the story. I don’t know if that makes me a mensch or what. I had the courage to go through all that nonsense and never told anyone how the Giants stole the pennant. That might be the biggest part of my life. I always feared being called a sore loser or a cry baby. When it came from someone else’s lips, Josh Prager of The Wall Street Journal, it gave it legitimacy and then my tongue was loosened. But if I had talked about it first, they wouldn’t have respected me.

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