LOS ANGELES — Longtime Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca passed away on Wednesday morning, at age 90. His son-in-law, former Dodgers player and former major league manager Bobby Valentine, passed along the news on Twitter.
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
In his 91st year on Earth he left us with same dignity and grace that defined his everyday on earth. He will be truly missed!!!— Bobby Valentine (@BobbyValentine) November 23, 2016
Branca is known as the pitcher who gave up one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, Bobby Thomson’s “Shot heard ‘round the world” in Game 3 of the 1951 National League playoff to send the Giants to the World Series. But Branca was so much more than that, and perhaps most importantly never let that home run define or consume him.
He was pitching in relief just two days after throwing eight innings in the opener of the three-game playoff against New York. Thomson, who hit a home run against Branca in that game too, was the only batter Branca faced in the third game, on Oct. 3, 1951.
Marty Noble of MLB.com wrote a wonderful remembrance of Branca, and recounted a story from a postgame dinner with Branca and his then-fiancee Ann, joined by a priest after that game, as told to Steve Jacobson at New York Newsday in 2002:
Ann's cousin, a priest at Fordham University, briefly joined the group. Branca sought his guidance. He asked, "Why me?" The priest's response was that God had chosen Branca because his faith and constitution were strong enough to bear the unbearable. "That struck home," Branca said years later. "It was my salvation. I realized that I had done the best I could. The guy just hit a home run. He was better than I was this day. Life goes on. You don't go through it undefeated."
“I was closer to Ralph than to any other Dodger. We traveled around the world and became very good friends,” Vin Scully said in a statement released by the Dodgers. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace. I was grateful for his friendship and I grieve at his death. He was a great man.”
Branca, a native of Mount Vernon, New York, signed with the Dodgers at 17 out of NYU in 1943, and pitched 21 games at age 18 for Brooklyn in 1944, including one start.
Branca totaled 85 strikeouts in the 1944-1945 seasons, the most strikeouts by any Dodgers pitcher before turning 20. In second place is Julio Urias, who struck out 53 before turning 20 on Aug. 7 this season.
From 1947-51, his ages 21-25, Branca was a key member of the Dodgers starting rotation, averaging 14 wins and 206 innings per year with a 3.55 ERA and 114 ERA+. He made three straight National League All-Star teams from 1947-1949.
The first year of that run for Branca was Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, and Branca was one of the first on the team to embrace Robinson as a teammate.
Ralph Branca is remembered for giving up Bobby Thomson's HR, but he should be remembered as one of the few that welcomed Jackie Robinson pic.twitter.com/C36QWRTm87— Dan Hirsch (@DanHirsch) November 23, 2016
In April 2014, Branca was profiled by Eric Ofang of Westchester Magazine, and mentioned his friendship with Robinson:
Branca remains friends with Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, who is 91 and splits her time between homes in New York and Connecticut. “Ralph’s always been close to us,” she said in a recent phone 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 he [Ralph] left the Dodgers.”
Branca pitched for the Tigers and Yankees before returning to the Dodgers in 1956, pitching two innings in his final major league season, at age 30. In parts of 12 major league seasons, Branca was 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA, a 105 ERA+, 1,484 innings.
“Ralph was a true gentleman who earned universal respect in the game he loved and served so well. Ralph’s participation in the ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ was eclipsed by the grace and sportsmanship he demonstrated following one of the game’s signature moments,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “He is better remembered for his dedication to the members of the baseball community. He was an inspiration to so many of us.”
Branca met with the actor who played him in ‘42,’ as recalled in 2014 by Ofang:
For his own film debut, Branca met with Actor Hamish Linklater who portrayed Branca in 42, the 2013 film about Robinson. Branca recalls the meeting with deadpan seriousness. “[Linklater] came to my office to visit me and ask about my relationship with Jackie. He was very nice and asked a lot of good questions. Then I told him, ‘You have to go see a plastic surgeon.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘You’re not handsome enough to play me.’”
“Branca to me was a hero. I admired him so much,” said Tommy Lasorda. “Ralph and I became very close, my family and his family. I always enjoyed being around him. He was a tough one in every way and I really admired him.”