Ralph Branca more than just 'shot heard 'round the world'

Sixty-five years later, it remains the most famous home run in major league history: Bobby Thomson's blast to win the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ralph Branca, who died Wednesday at age 90, had to live with the burden of surrendering that home run and always did so with grace and dignity. In part because the game featured the two city rivals, in part because of Russ Hodges' call, no two opposing players became so linked. We remember other famous home runs, but aside from perhaps Kirk Gibson and Dennis Eckersley, the pitcher eventually fades a bit into the background.

That never happened with Branca. Even as his career fizzled after 1951, he handled his moment in history with good sport. He and Thomson became friends, and in retirement often appeared together at card shows or on talk shows. He became a successful financial executive after his baseball career and he ran the Baseball Assistance Team organization for 17 years, helping those who faced financial difficulties in their post-baseball lives. One of his daughters married Bobby Valentine.

Oh, it's also possible that the Giants cheated to beat Branca and the Dodgers. We'll get to that in a moment.

Branca was a local kid from Mount Vernon who signed with the Dodgers in 1943 and reached the majors in 1944 at 18. In 1947, at age 21, he went 21-12 with a 2.67 ERA while throwing 280 innings. He made the first of his three All-Star teams and helped the Dodgers win the NL pennant. He was a big right-hander who threw hard and at this stage in his career had Hall of Fame potential. Of course, we'd never let a 21-year-old throw 280 innings these days and that would prove to be Branca's best season, although he followed it up with All-Star berths in 1948 and 1949.

He suffered a bone infection in his leg in 1948 and spent three weeks in the hospital with periosteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone). In his SABR biography, Branca said the infection eventually settled in his shoulder, which cut into his velocity. It would seem reasonable to speculate that throwing 280 innings at such a young age had an effect as well. After a poor 1950 season, Branca had his last good year in 1951, going 13-12 with a 3.26 ERA in 204 innings.

The Dodgers had a 13 1/2-game lead on Aug. 12, but the Giants mounted a furious late-season rally and tied the Dodgers to force a best-of-three tiebreaker. Branca started the first game and pitched well, but lost 3-1. The Dodgers won the second game 10-0, setting up the final game at the Polo Grounds. Don Newcombe took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. He'd already told Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella earlier in the game that he had nothing. Robinson told him to stay in there until his arm fell off. Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen was pacing back and forth in the dugout and had started calling down to the bullpen in the eighth inning.

"He sounded frantic," Dodgers bullpen coach Clyde Sukeforth told a writer in 1976. "'Who's ready? Who's ready?' He'd always have a plan for who would relieve, when he would come in, if such-and-such happened, and so on. Not that day."

In the ninth, after two singles and an out, Whitey Lockman doubled in a run to make it 4-2. Branca and Carl Erskine were warming up in the bullpen.

As legend has it, Dressen called down again to the bullpen. "They're both ready," Sukeforth said. "However, Erskine is bouncing his overhand curve." Dressen went to the mound and signaled for Branca. Two pitches later, Thomson homered.

After the game, Dressen was asked why he brought in Branca. "Sukeforth said he was ready," Dressen answered.

Did Thomson know what was coming? Maybe. The Giants had spent the second half the season stealing signs. As Paul Hirsch writes,

        In January 2001, Joshua Prager, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, published the details of a sign-stealing scheme the Giants rigged in the Polo Grounds, their home ballpark. The scheme involved a telescope from windows in the center-field clubhouse, a buzzer rigged under dirt in the bullpen, and a reserve catcher positioning his body and equipment to tip off the batter as to which pitch was coming. Prager's story confirmed for the public what Branca had been told by his

Detroit Tigers

      roommate Ted Gray in 1953. Gray was friends with Giants reserve outfielder Earl Rapp and was told the story. Branca said Thomson knew what was coming on October 3, 1951, and while he still had to hit it, the information was certainly useful.

"I begrudge the Giants the 1951 pennant," Branca said emphatically in the 2008 interview. "They deprived our owner of money he deserved, they deprived our fans of the joy of a pennant winner, and they deprived my teammates and me of the fame and glory that comes from playing in the World Series. What the Giants did was despicable. It involved an electronic buzzer. No one else used that. Sometimes you could see people in the center-field scoreboard in Chicago or wherever using towels to give signals and you could do something about it. The buzzer was undetectable, and it was wrong."

Branca hurt his back in 1952, and then his arm, and would win just 12 more games in the majors, finishing with a career record of 88-68. Branca said his relationship with Thomson became strained after Prager's story -- and subsequent book, "The Echoing Green" -- was published. Did Thomson know what was coming? While he admitted to the Giants' pitch-stealing scheme, he told Prager he didn't know what pitch Branca was going to throw on Oct. 3, 1951.