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.
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?”
Branca was born in January 1926. His parents had 17 children, a number that still elicits a chuckle from Ann, Branca’s wife of more than 60 years. It didn’t take long for Branca to develop a passion for baseball, and in the summer he and his brother John, Bill Branca’s father, would play all day. “We played from 9 to 9,” Branca says, noting that they only took breaks for lunch and dinner.
Although they lived on the border of the Bronx, the Branca family’s baseball allegiances were with the New York Giants. Ebbets Field, across the city in Brooklyn, “was in another land,” Branca says. Yet it was at Ebbets Field that Branca found himself playing for the Dodgers in 1944 when he was not yet 20. During that era, many pro baseball players worked winter jobs, and Branca attended New York University during the off-season.
“We didn’t make a whole lot of money—there was no minimum salary,” Branca says. “In my first year, when I was 18, I made $400 a month—it equivocates to $5,300 today, which was good money at the time but nothing that you could live generously by.”
Branca quickly learned that pitching was a chess match and he had to rely on his own wits, which are considerable. (According to his brother, he scored a 160 on an IQ test as a kid, and in the 1960s won 17 times in a row as a contestant on the memory TV game show Concentration.)
“If I got a guy out on curveballs twice, I’d set him up where he’d be looking for a curveball, but I’d throw a fastball,” Branca explains. “Early on, I threw a change-up to a hitter on Chicago and he hit a home run. [After the game] my roommate, Eddie Stanky, asked me why I threw that pitch. I said, ‘Because the catcher called for it.’ He said, ‘Did you ever see a losing catcher in a box score?’ It was a valuable lesson. I was only 19, but I learned that I had to throw the pitch I wanted to throw. After that, I shook the catcher off often.”
When Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, some teammates were in an uproar, but Branca welcomed him. Though Branca witnessed the racism surrounding Robinson, he also saw the way Robinson’s play on the field helped chip away at prejudice. “Early in the year, [teammates] from the North and West accepted Jackie,” he says. “Guys from the South were a little reluctant and it took them until the end of July or August to become friendly with him. Dixie Walker, a guy from Alabama who originally didn’t want Robinson on the team, told Jackie in late July or early August, ‘I haven’t talked to you but welcome aboard; you can play and you’re helping us win the Pennant.’”
That year (1947) was also a special year for the 21-year-old Branca. He won a career-high 21 games and entered the record books as the second-youngest player in the National League to win more than 20 games.
In 1951, Branca married Ann Mulvey, the daughter of James and Dearie Mulvey, who owned a share in the Dodgers. The defining moment of Branca’s career came that same year in October when Branca gave up the game-winning home run to Thomson. In the 1980s, Branca would tell a reporter that what he remembered best about the “shot” was being in the parking lot after the game.
“I remember going out to the parking lot,” he said back then. “Ann was in the car with a friend of ours, Father Paul Rowley from Fordham. And I said to Father Rowley, ‘Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?’ And Father Rowley said, ‘God gave you this cross to bear because you’re strong enough to bear it.’”
And bear it Branca did. His baseball career ended in 1956, but he forged a successful career in finance selling insurance policies. He and his wife have two daughters, Mary and Patricia. Mary is married to Bobby Valentine, a former Major League baseball player and manager of the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox, who now is executive director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Branca and Valentine often argue good-naturedly about the game they both love.
“When I’m with him, we talk baseball,” Branca says. “I’ll tell him that in my day the players were better, there was more competition; today they have too many teams and a lot of non-players. He doesn’t agree.”
The Legacy Left Round the World
Branca after giving up a game-winning walk-off home run to New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson on October 3, 1951.The home run became known as “the shot heard ‘round the world,” one of the most famous moments in sports history.
A couple of years after “the shot heard ’round the world,” Branca learned about the sign-stealing scandal from pitcher Ted Gray while they both were playing for the Detroit Tigers. Branca stayed silent about it for decades because he didn’t want to be the one to break news that could tarnish the legendary baseball game. “I didn’t want to sound like a crybaby or a sore loser. But now that the news is out, I can talk about it,” he says, noting his repugnance of the cheating scandal. “Don’t be giving the Giants any credit because that’s the most despicable act in the game. Somewhere along the line, somebody should have had enough guts and brains to say, ‘We can’t do this.’”
Players stealing signs on the field is an accepted practice in baseball, but Branca says what the Giants did was different. “Guys on the field between the lines, or even in the dugout, that’s fine, but to use a buzzer system?”
Thomson, who hit the legendary home run and died in 2010, may have known a fastball was coming before hitting Branca’s pitch over the wall, but Branca doesn’t blame Thomson. They even became friends later in life.
Branca is clearly bitter about that epic play that took place so many years ago. It’s also clear he doesn’t want that play to define his career. The film 42 will perhaps provide Branca with a better legacy. In the film, Branca humorously encourages Robinson to shower with him and the rest of the team. Prior to Branca talking to him, Robinson would wait until after all the white players were finished showering. Branca recalls the actual moment with pride. “Jackie was reluctant to take a shower with the rest of the team; I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m waiting.’ I said, ‘No, no—you’re playing first base, you’re part of this team. In the shower with me.’”
Sometimes Branca’s public support of Robinson worried his family. On opening day, after Branca stood beside Robinson during the team’s introduction, his brother John warned him that he could be collateral damage if there was an assassination attempt on Robinson.
“When I got home, John asked if I was crazy. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You stood next to Jackie.’ I said, ‘So what?’ He said, ‘Suppose the guy was a lousy shot and missed by three feet.’ I said, ‘I would have died a hero.’”
Erik Ofgang is an award-winning freelance writer whose work regularly appears in dozens of magazines and newspapers throughout the country. He grew up in Connecticut where he was regaled by stories of the land of his forefathers – Brooklyn—and the Dodgers, the borough’s mythic baseball team.