“A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak and Grace,” By Ralph Branca, with David Ritz. Published by Scribner, New York. 2011.
How long could you live with a secret? Not just any secret, but the secret about how your life changed forever due to a conspiracy of epic proportions?
And suppose you knew that the man who benefited from changing your life forever, for the worse, would benefit from doing so for the rest of his life?
Could you keep that a secret?
Remarkably, that’s what Ralph Branca did, until the recent publication of his brand new book, “A Moment In Time,” (coauthored with David Ritz.)
As one would expect, there is a thread of bitterness throughout this fascinating inside look at the Dodger’s clubhouse in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s. Ralph Branca, who grew up a Giants fan watching Mel Ott play at the Polo Grounds, enjoyed his greatest triumphs pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He would suffer his greatest defeat, however, at the hands of the team he once rooted for as a child. In fact, the manager who orchestrated the sign-stealing scandal (which did not come to light until decades later), Leo Durocher, was Branca’s manager, whom Branca respected and admired, while Durocher managed the Dodgers before being sent packing to the Giants by Branch Rickey.
But long before Giants slugger Bobby Thomson hit what became known as ‘The Shot Hit ‘Round the World,” on the last day of the 1951 baseball season, Branca was a successful young pitcher with a cocky attitude playing on a legendary team in a historic era. Branca relates early on in this heartfelt story about how the Dodgers as individuals, for example, treated Jackie Robinson.
We learn that PeeWee Reese, who would grow into one of Robinson’s staunchest defenders, was at first ambivalent and cool towards Robinson. Branca himself, along with Gene Hermanski, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider, treated Robinson with respect, but several other players in the Dodger’s clubhouse did not.
Branca, of Italian heritage, (he was later surprised to learn that his mother was actually a Jew who converted to Catholicism because she thought her children would be better off) relates a moment early in his life when an educator dissuaded Branca from applying for college because of Branca’s ethnic heritage.
In those days, working class Italian-Americans were not considered college material. No doubt this moment highly influenced his future empathy towards Robinson and the other “negro” players coming into the Majors in the late 1940’s.
Branca’s style throughout the book is direct, proud, articulate, and perceptive. He has a knack for remembering all kinds of details, especially his own personal statistics, and how much money he got paid throughout his years as a baseball player. But also, the details of conversations he had with Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, with his own brothers, and with the woman he courted and would later marry, Ann Mulvey.
Occasionally, it is obvious that he is his own biggest booster, but given the magnitude of the baseball scam played against him and his teammates by the Giants in 1951, one has to feel that he has every right at this point in his old age to say whatever he wants to say.
Branca relates, in almost excruciating detail, how the Dodgers slowly watched the 13 1/2 game lead they’d had on August 11th, slip away as the Giants made an incredible run to catch them on the last day of the season. Now one outside of the Dodgers clubhouse, of course, knew at the time about the telescope the Giants had set up in center field at the Polo Grounds, which they would bring with them on the road as well.
But Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who replaced Leo Durocher, was so obsessed by Durocher’s reputation (as portrayed by Branca), that he made several dumb moves throughout the season. The dumbest move of all has to be that when the Dodgers won the coin-toss to decide if they would open the three-game playoff series at home or on the road, Dressen chose to play the first game at Ebbett’s Field, thus allowing the Giants to have home field advantage for Game Two, and if necessary, Game Three as well.
Without going into the surprising details of how Branca first learned about the Giants cheating scandal a few years later in 1954, the final quarter of the book covers Branca’s reaction to this shocking revelation, how it affected his surprisingly long relationship with Bobby Thomson over the next few decades, and why he never chose to come forward with the information about this scandal himself.
Suffice to say that Branca is a man of tremendous personal integrity, amazing generosity of spirit and deep religious faith.
Branca’s baseball career did not last long, and he will be forever remembered as the pitcher who served up the Thomson home run in the playoff game in ’51, thereby handing the Giants the pennant that year.
But “A Moment In Time” also shows that a man is much more than the one episode he is fairly or unfairly remembered for. Baseball was lucky to have had a Ralph Branca as its “goat.”
Because any man who chooses to live with a dark secret so as not to hurt the other people in his life is truly a hero.
- This Day in History: “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” (1951) (euzicasa.wordpress.com)
- Bats: The Shot Heard ‘Round Brooklyn (bats.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Pondering the Meaning of Branca’s Jewish Roots (nytimes.com)
- Ralph Branca Interview (citifieldofdreams.com)