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RALPH BRANCA,
1926-2016

Baseball great Ralph Branca died 11/22 at his residence, the Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y. He was 90.

“When I joined the Dodger organization as a broadcaster in Brooklyn in 1950,” said Vince Scully, “I was 21 and Ralph Branca, already one of the best pitchers in the baseball, was 22. Our friendship has lasted a lifetime. I’ve known many honorable men, but no one who, through thick and thin, has displayed more integrity than Ralph. It’s one thing to say an athlete has achieved greatness in his sport—as Ralph surely did—but another to say a man has achieved greatness of character. I believe Ralph Branca is a great man.”

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 1926, the 15th of 17 children of an Italian-American streetcar conductor and his Hungarian-born wife, Ralph Branca lived a childhood he once described “as something out of a Jimmy Stewart movie. If it wasn’t perfect, it was pretty darn idyllic.”

“The racial diversity of our little community was amazing,” he said. “We were Roman Catholics living next door to Jewish people with African-Americans on one side of the street and Hispanics on the other—and all without a single incident. It was the Depression, a time when, in the name of survival, people stuck together. And then came the War, where unity became even more critical. Although only twenty miles from Manhattan, Mt. Vernon had a small-town All-American feel of a beautiful era when folks looked after each other.”

Following the lead of his big brother John, an ace pitcher, Ralph joined his high school’s varsity squad. The two brothers dreamed of playing major league ball. In 1942, John joined the air corps. But when Ralph tried to enlist, a punctured eardrum kept him out. A tryout as a batting practice pitcher in Ebbets Field led to contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers a year later.

General manager Branch Rickey signed Branca at $90 a week before sending him to a farm club in Olean, N.Y. In the fall, Ralph was admitted to NYU, where, in addition to playing basketball and baseball, he excelled as an honors student. 

On June 6, 1944, Rickey moved him up to the majors.

“At 17,” said Ralph, “I had weighed 150 and was 6’ even. Then at 18, I tipped the scales at 205 and stood 6’3.”

It was a simpler time for baseball: only 10 major league cities and two division-less leagues.  

In 1946, Ralph was chosen as the team representative, the man designated to bring complaints to the owners.

“Team manager Pee Wee Reese pushed me into the position—probably because I was a college kid,” Ralph remembered. “In those pre-player-union years, the job meant little, but I was flattered that my teammates wanted me to represent them.”

By 1947, Branca achieved stardom, winning 21 games, leading the league with 36 starts and playing in his first of three consecutive All-Star games.   

“My salary was $6500, and I still took the bus and two subways to work,” he said.

1947 was also the year Jackie Robinson joined the team, breaking the major-league color line. Initially, not all the Dodgers greeted him warmly. Some players petitioned against Robinson’s admission. Others gave him the cold shoulder. Along with teammate Duke Snider, Ralph became one of Jackie’s most visible and staunchest supporters.

“I was blessed to be present at that monumental moment of history,” Ralph stated. “Jackie was not only a phenomenal athlete and fierce competitor; he was a fine human being. With hordes of detractors calling him ugly names and even threatening his life, he conducted himself with dignity and courage. He was pure inspiration. He became one of my closest friends in life. I was proud to be one of his pallbearers when he passed in 1972.”

Fairly or not, Ralph Branca is best remembered in the annals of baseball as the man who served up the home run pitch to Bobby Thomson in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951—“the shot heard around the world”—that gave the New York Giants a come-from-behind victory in a pennant-clinching playoff match, the first baseball game to be nationally televised.

Decades later, it was discovered that in the last months of the season the Giants had cheated. The team had installed a powerful telescope in dead center field to steal the signs of their opponent’s catcher. Through an elaborate relay system, Thomson knew what pitch Ralph would be throwing.

“Before that revelation and after,” said Scully, “Ralph always held his head high. He never let that incident define him. He was bigger than that. When he retired five years later in 1956, he did so with his self-respect intact. Some men display heroism in victory. But far more impressive is the display of heroism in loss. Ralph’s acceptance of that loss, without rancor or bitterness, is one of the most inspiriting examples of sportsmanship I’ve been privileged to witness.”

Or as Ralph’s priest Father Rawley from St. Francis in Brooklyn told him, “God chose you because he knew you were strong enough to bear this cross.” 

Only a few days after the end of that tumultuous 1951 season, Ralph married the love of his life, Ann Mulvey, the granddaughter of the man who built Ebbets Field. Their daughter Patti was born in 1954, a year before the Dodgers won the first World Series in team history.

After retiring in 1956, Ralph became the first president of BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team. Serving as CEO for 17 years, he led the fight to support former major leaguers who had fallen on hard times.

In what Branca called “an improbable alliance,” he and Bobby Thomson became one of the biggest draws in the history of baseball card shows from coast to coast.

“I lost a game,” said Ralph, remembering that fatal pitch, “but more importantly, I made a friend.”

In the late ’50s, Ralph completed a five-year course that certified him as a chartered life underwriter and, in a career spanning four decades, became one of Security Mutual’s most successful salesmen, specializing in protection insurance and estate planning.

In the ’60s, his star rose again: Displaying his mental acuity on the nationally syndicated TV game show Concentration, he prevailed on unprecedented 17 straight games, becoming the show’s all-time winner. All He also became host of Mets pregame show Branca’s Bullpen, reuniting him with his close pal and Dodger colleague, Mets manager Gil Hodges.

A true renaissance man, Ralph had a strong baritone/bass voice. He made a recording in addition to performing twice on the Ed Sullivan Show, singing rousing versions of “Lucky Old Sun” and “Because of You.”

Ralph has been inducted into several halls of fame, including Mount Vernon High School, NYU Italian-American Sports and Westchester County.

His son-in-law, former major league player and manager Bobby Valentine, has called him “one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”

“Both in and out of the game,” said Duke Snider, “Ralph Branca has always been about kindness and compassion. He treats people, regardless of background or race or station in life, with deep respect. Everyone who knows Ralph, whether in his professional or private life, looks at him as a leader.”  

Ralph Branca is survived by his wife Ann, two daughters Patti and Mary Ellen, his son-in-law Bobby Valentine, his grandsons Bobby Valentine Jr. and Will Barnes, and his godson and nephew John Branca, the acclaimed entertainment attorney. 

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