Story of Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson still resonates

The day Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color barrier, Ralph Branca stood beside him. For years after, they stood beside each other. During a racially charged 2016, we lost Branca. But we shouldn't forget him. AP Photo/Jacob Harris

Ralph Branca would often say he felt Jackie Robinson did even more than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for African-Americans, and his argument was simple: Robinson had come along first. King was a college kid at Morehouse in 1947, when Robinson did something that once seemed as wildly improbable as someday landing a man on the moon.

More than seven years before Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation, more than eight years before Rosa Parks wouldn't surrender her seat on an Alabama bus, and more than 16 years before King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, Robinson became the first black man to play in a major league baseball game. Branca famously stood next to Robinson during Opening Day introductions at Ebbets Field, though they started to get acquainted during an exhibition game the previous week when Robinson, then a minor-league member of the Montreal Royals, mumbled a word of gratitude to the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher while passing by the mound.

Branca thought the stranger might be thanking him for grooving a fastball. Soon enough, he realized Robinson was thanking him for refusing to sign a teammate's petition to keep the Dodgers as white as the first-base line.

This was the start of a lifelong friendship that didn't last nearly long enough; Robinson died in 1972, at 53, and Branca died on Nov. 23 of this year, at 90. But the Robinson-Branca partnership had a lasting impact on many Americans who saw professional sports as the first public arena where whites and blacks successfully worked together toward a common goal. So at the close of 2016, a year that exposed stubborn and depressing racial divisions across the country, it's worth remembering the first white ballplayer to act as a human bridge between a black colleague and so many lost, ignorant souls.

Stories of Bobby Thomson and The Shot Heard 'Round the World, and Russ Hodges screaming "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" were all over Branca's obituaries, as were tales of how the pitcher befriended Thomson and gracefully managed the Shakespearean tragedy that was Oct. 3, 1951.

"Sink, sink, sink," Branca, wearing unlucky No. 13, said to himself as the ball sailed toward the Polo Grounds wall in left. His heart sank instead.

But even when reliving his worst hour, Branca loved mentioning how Robinson was there for him like no other teammate. As Thomson joyfully raced around the bases and the losers trudged off the field, Robinson was the lone Dodger smart enough to watch Thomson's feet to see if the delirium caused him to miss a bag.

Branca recalled sobbing on the clubhouse steps, and hearing reassuring words from, again, just one teammate. "Hang in there Ralph," Robinson told him. "If it wasn't for you we wouldn't even have been here."

Robinson was only paying off a four-year-old debt. On Robinson's arrival in 1947, Branca lobbied the resistant Dodgers to set aside their racist beliefs for the good of the team. "If you don't want to socialize with Jackie," Branca told them, "at least work with him. Unless you're blind, you can see he'll help us win the pennant."

Branca understood that Southern players such as Dixie Walker and Bobby Bragan were facing intense pressure from friends and family back home who couldn't fathom the thought of a black man as an equal. Branca wished they'd grown up in his integrated community of Mount Vernon, New York. "Living and playing with blacks," he said, "was part of my life."

So was the lower middle-class struggle. The son of an immigrant trolley-car conductor, Ralph was the 15th of 17 children and among the Branca boys who would sleep in the attic of the family's one-bathroom house. He was a grinder in every way. Even in the final weeks of his life, Branca could recite to his daughter Mary every bus and train line he needed to make the commute from Mount Vernon to his freshman classes at NYU.

That was something else Branca had in common with the UCLA-educated Robinson -- college. Branca talked with Robinson about their college experiences, something many big leaguers couldn't relate to. Branca and Robinson talked about everything, really. Jackie thought the world of Branch Rickey, the executive who signed him. Ralph told Jackie he thought Rickey was a penny-pinching SOB.

Branca ate with Robinson when others wouldn't, and he convinced the rookie to take postgame showers with his fellow Dodgers even though some didn't want him in the same room. "Jackie was all alone," Branca said. "I was only doing what I was taught to do."

The Dodgers were playing one afternoon in St. Louis, a city that could be particularly unforgiving to black ballplayers, when Robinson chased a foul ball to the edge of the visitors dugout. As he lunged to make the catch and prepared for a collision with the concrete floor, Branca caught him and prevented the fall.

"That will help show the world this is a united team," Robinson told him.

After he was done playing, Branca and his wife Ann would take their two daughters, Patti and Mary, to the home Robinson shared in Stamford, Connecticut, with his wife Rachel and their three kids. Mary recalled playing with the Robinsons' daughter Sharon in the yard at a time in America when the sight of white and black girls playing together was not what anyone would call common.

"That's the legacy of my dad," Mary said. "He taught Patti and me that color didn't matter."

Shortly after appearing at the 1972 World Series and calling on the game's elders to hire black managers, Robinson died of a heart attack in his home. Branca was a pallbearer at his funeral at New York's Riverside Church, and he remained a loyal advocate for Rachel Robinson, who started a foundation in her husband's name. In 1997, when people of all colors and creeds couldn't do enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breakthrough, Rachel said this about the man who helped Jackie navigate his way around the racism in his own clubhouse, and the taunts from opposing players, managers, and fans:

"Ralph Branca was good to my husband when it wasn't fashionable to be good to him."

Life being as unfair as it is, Branca's career wasn't defined by the Robinson storyline. Though he dealt in the currency of self-deprecation and made a few bucks engaging in a traveling vaudeville act with Thomson, Branca privately smoldered over his fate. His daughter Mary, who would marry Bobby Valentine, saw the burden wear on her father at home. Mary tried to sell her old man on the argument that he would've been a forgotten 88-68 pitcher without his starring role in baseball infamy, but he wasn't buying.

In 1954, a teammate tipped off Branca that the Giants had used an elaborate telescope-and-buzzer system to steal Dodgers signs in erasing a 13½-game deficit in the standings, and a 4-1 ninth-inning deficit in the deciding game of the three-game series that decided the pennant. Ralph told his family. He didn't tell Thomson or any news media member because he didn't want to diminish a historic moment in the sport. But when The Wall Street Journal broke the story in 2001, Branca felt liberated. Thomson admitted he'd benefited from stolen signs, and it didn't matter that he denied getting advanced intel on Branca's fateful up-and-in pitch.

"My father was the goat for 50 years," Mary said, "and I'm just glad he was alive when he was vindicated."

Branca was most upset that his girls would hear a heckler razz him over the home run, or that his wife would hear about it when handing over her credit card at a gas station or store. The daughter of Dodgers owners, Ann was 17 days away from marrying Ralph the day he surrendered the Thomson homer. She was joined in the Polo Grounds parking lot by her cousin, the Rev. Pat Rowley from Fordham. When Ralph asked the priest, "Why me?" Rowley told the shattered pitcher that God knew he was strong enough to bear this cross. The priest knew what he was talking about.

"Ralph often told the story of how his older brother John chastised him for standing shoulder to shoulder with Robinson during introductions on April 15, 1947. John asked what would've happened if a madman with a gun and wayward aim had taken a shot at Robinson. The pitcher answered, 'I would've died a hero.'"

Branca spent his final six months in a Westchester County nursing home, where he was visited by his daughters, his bride of 65 years, his son-in-law Valentine, and his nephew John, an entertainment lawyer who represented Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones. Valentine said his father-in-law's eyes brightened whenever Jackie Robinson's name was brought up, and for good reason. On April 15, 1947, Branca was the artful Dodger who stood next to Robinson at Ebbets Field and wished him a prosperous journey. Branca asked the new guy how he was feeling before taking on the Boston Braves. "Pretty good, Ralph," he responded. "Ready to go."

Ready to start changing a separate and unequal nation.

The inscription on Robinson's tombstone inside Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery reads, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Branca's life holds up against this standard. The racist Dodgers on the 1947 team that won the pennant, as Ralph predicted, slowly but surely accepted Robinson into the club, and ate with him in his dining car on train trips. Bragan, the backup catcher from Alabama, started a youth foundation that awarded college scholarships to students, including some African-American applicants who wrote essays about Robinson.

"Look at me," Bragan once said. "Look at what Jackie did to my life." Valentine worked with Bragan in Texas and said the former Dodger credited Branca "for turning on the light for him and his teammates."

Branca's friendship with Robinson inspired his nephew to start a youth baseball organization in the Los Angeles area, Club 42, designed through scholarships to reconnect young African-American athletes to baseball. Long before he became the country's most prominent entertainment lawyer, John Branca was also influenced by his father, John, Ralph's older brother and a former New York State assemblyman known as a colorblind local rec commissioner who worked with some of the future NBA players from Mount Vernon, including Gus and Ray Williams, Scooter and Rodney McCray, and Lowes Moore.

The Brancas were always givers, not takers. Ralph became chairman of the Baseball Assistance Team, which provided financial aid to baseball figures in need. He also bled in public for athletes doomed to a lifetime of reliving big-game failures; Branca said he wrote a letter of support to Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, who went wide right with a Super Bowl on the line.

But Branca didn't realize he was giving much of anything on that clear, crisp afternoon in Brooklyn nearly 70 years ago. Nobody did. There were 6,000 empty seats at Ebbets Field, and Red Smith and the rest of the gathered press all but ignored Robinson in their reports. "We couldn't grasp what was happening right before our eyes," Branca said.

The most important day and season in the history of American team sports.

Branca was an invaluable shepherd along the way. Ralph often told the story of how his older brother John chastised him for standing shoulder to shoulder with Robinson during introductions on April 15, 1947. John asked what would've happened if a madman with a gun and wayward aim had taken a shot at Robinson. The pitcher answered, "I would've died a hero."

He did anyway. He died a hero, not a goat. As an athlete, Branca wasn't in the same league as Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, and Gordie Howe, who were among the many titans we lost in 2016.

But the end of a year shaped by a black-and-white divide is a good time to remember we need more Ralph Brancas in 2017 and beyond.