Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca Recalls Friendship With Jackie Robinson And Baseball’s History Of Racism
How a Mount Vernon native helped shape the Brooklyn Dodgers’ legacy.
Teammates Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn Dodgers office on February 12, 1948, the day Robinson signed his contract. Branca signed his several days earlier.
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Ralph Branca remembers all too well the racism directed at his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson. It was 1947, the year Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. When the team played on the road, Robinson was often greeted with jeers and slurs. In some cities, Robinson couldn’t stay with the rest of the team because they were booked at segregated hotels. But nowhere did bigotry rear its ugly head with more ferocity than in Philadelphia, says Branca, 88, a Westchester native and longtime Rye resident.
“The Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, was an avowed Southerner,” recalls Branca, a former pitcher. “He’d say, ‘Hey boy, I need a shoeshine,’ or, ‘Hey boy, come to me so I can rub your head.’”
Robinson also had to contend with racism from members of his own team. Several Dodgers, supposedly led by right-fielder Dixie Walker, signed a petition against having Robinson on the team. But not Branca. He grew up in a diverse Mount Vernon neighborhood and his immigrant parents—his father was from Italy and his mother from Hungary—taught him respect and acceptance. Growing up, Branca had black, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbors, friends, and teammates.
“Where I lived, on 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon, black families lived right next door to me. They came in my house, I went in theirs,” he says.
That’s why Branca was one of Robinson’s biggest supporters and friends. He ate with him when they traveled, encouraged him to partake in activities with the rest of the team, and proudly stood beside him when Robinson first took the field on opening day.
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.”
Moments in Time
Seventy years ago, in 1944, Branca made his big-league debut with the Dodgers. Over the course of his 12-year, injury-shortened career, he’d win 88 games, tally 829 strikeouts, and register a 3.79 ERA. But Branca’s accomplishments are often overshadowed by one play that occurred in 1951 in a playoff at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Pitching in relief, Branca gave up a three-run homer to Bobby Thomson that is considered one of the most famous plays in sports history, known in baseball lore as “the shot heard ’round the world.” As a result of the “shot,” the Giants won the game 5-4, defeating the Dodgers in their pennant playoff series, two games to one.
For Brooklynites, Branca and his Dodgers teammates from the 1940s and early ’50s have grown into larger-than-life myths. The long-gone Ebbets Field, the small neighborhood ballpark where the team played home games, has been eulogized like a baseball Camelot.
Sitting in the lobby of the Westchester Country Club on a recent afternoon, Branca lives up to the myth. At 6’3”, he’s got a commanding presence, booming voice, and a tough, sarcasm-tinged personality that was forged on the mean New York streets of a bygone era. “I was born a wise guy,” says Branca, who would seem at home bantering and trading barbs with a character from a Martin Scorsese film.
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.’”
At the start of Branca’s 2011 autobiography, A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace, which he co-wrote with David Ritz, Branca talks about the uniqueness of the game of baseball. “[It is] a beautiful sport based on a poetic geometry. It is a game played outside of time. You play it not until the clock runs out, but until there is a clear winner.”
“Out of time” is also a good way to describe Branca. The events in his life have the nonlinear qualities of a William Faulkner novel. “The shot heard ’round the world” occurred more than 60 years ago, yet revelations about the moment continue to emerge. In 2001, Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager detailed how the Giants had employed an elaborate sign-stealing operation, using a high-powered telescope in center field and a buzzer system to alert their batters to the next pitch. Though rumors about the sign-stealing system had long circulated, and Branca had learned of it decades earlier, the article set the record straight publicly.
Ten years later, Prager unearthed another fact about Branca. In 2011 he revealed in the New York Times that Branca’s late mother, Kati, who had emigrated from Hungary and converted to Catholicism, was Jewish. Ultimately, the family learned Branca’s uncle Jozsef and his uncle’s family, as well as his aunt Irma and her family, were killed in Nazi concentration camps. The news came as a surprise to Branca, a devout Catholic who never knew his mother was born Jewish.
“I didn’t know any of it,” Branca says. “My mother never told me.”
One could assume that Branca’s mother raised her children with so much racial sensitivity because of her Jewish heritage, but Branca maintains racial acceptance was simply a fact of life in his neighborhood and house.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re Jewish, black, or whatever. I judge people for who they are,” he says. However, he admits that his unknown Jewish heritage may have influenced him. “Maybe that’s why I have so many Jewish friends—subconsciously, you know?”