I am an artist who sculpts life size, solid wood statues of ballplayers. My Jackie Robinson statue is currently on display at the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, NJ. While checking their website recently, I found an event there that piqued my interest. It was a film called Branca’s Pitch with a Q&A with Ralph Branca, the Dodger pitcher who gave up the pennant-winning home run to Bobby Thomson of the Giants on Oct 3, 1951. We’ve all seen the film of Thomsom bounding around the bases at the old Polo Grounds and Russ Hodges screaming, “The Giants win the pennant, The Giants win the pennant…etc.”, so when I saw that Ralph Branca would be at the museum where my statue was, my wheels began turning. Since Branca was the last living 1947 Dodger, I thought, “…wouldn’t it be great for him to take a picture with the Robinson statue?” That would be a good shot for my art website, so I felt compelled to go and try and get the photo.
In preparation, I pulled out my copy of Josh Prager’s 2008 book, “The Echoing Green”, and ran some You Tube videos on the topic. In 1951, the Giants found themselves 13.5 games back of the Dodgers in early August. And then they got hot and put on the pennant run for the ages. It ended up with both teams having identical records at the end of the season and National League rules called for the teams to play off in a three game series to determine who would go to the World Series; “the pennant”, if you will. In those days, the pennant doubled most player’s salaries for the year. Grown men, playing for money; a zero sum game.
The Giants and Dodgers split the first two games and played the third and deciding game on Oct 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds. On Ralph Branca’s second relief pitch, Bobby Thomson hit a three run homer to give the Giants the win, 5 to 4, in the bottom of the 9th inning. Since it was the first live, coast-to-coast baseball telecast in history, and since Russ Hodges broke all decorum by memorably screaming “The Giants win the Pennant”, four times over, this event became iconic, probably out of all reasonable proportion.
In January 2001, it came out publicly for the first time that the Giants had picked off the Dodgers’ signals. They had a man with a telescope out above the center field fence and he would see the catcher put down the sign and he’d use a buzzer that they had installed by an electrician, to signal the pitch to the bullpen and then on to the batter. Branca claimed that he had been told of this telescope system as early as 1954, by a team mate in Detroit when he was pitching for the Tigers. He kept silent about it, probably because if he was the one to break the story, it would look like he was trying to shift blame off of himself. So he wisely kept quiet until the article in 2001.
After that article, Branca came out swinging and did the talk shows and declared that the Giants had cheated; that they had stolen the pennant in 1951, and, he added, they had even stolen the 1954 pennant and World Championship as well, even though he was not involved in the 1954 pennant–he was pitching in Detroit. He demeaned the home run as “cheap” due to the odd dimensions of the Polo Grounds as well as claiming that it was based on a stolen signal and therefore should be invalid. He said that the Commissioner should retroactively award the 1951 pennant to the Dodgers and their heirs.
With all that said, there is one very material item that has not, to my knowledge, been written about in the proper context, and that is the question that I posed to Mr. Ralph Branca and his son-in-law, Bobby Valentine, in person, at the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, NJ, Feb 19, 2014.
When I was in college in the 1980′s, I had found an old Sports Illustrated article by Dick Young written in 1955: “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch”.
The article features Dodger starting pitcher Preacher Roe detailing how he, “threw spitballs the whole time I was with The Dodgers. Seven years in all”. Spitballs were against the rules of baseball in 1951. Preacher Roe went 22-3 for the 1951 Dodgers. And that was my question to Branca and Valentine and filmmaker Andrew Muscato. I asked basically: how can you call entire Giant teams “cheaters”, when, (1) they weren’t cheating by the rules of baseball and (2) you profited from a guy who admittedly cheated?
I had no sooner gotten the words out of my mouth when Bobby Valentine began speaking quite loudly and quickly. He nervously asked rhetorically whether I was not mistaken; that perhaps spitballs were not illegal in 1951? He continued talking and referenced that the spitball ban included some pitchers who were “grandfathered” and could legally throw them. Now I knew that the spitball was banned in 1920, and the last legal, grandfathered spitball, was thrown by Burleigh Grimes in 1934. Valentine was tap dancing; protecting his nice, old, father-in-law by spouting patent nonsense, but doing so very professionally so as to let everyone know, “…well, we’re not going THERE!”
And then Ralph Branca asked me somewhat patronizingly, “…you don’t know what a spitball looks like”, and I said, “spinless, or nearly so”. And he said, “yes…” and proceeded to describe how you hold it and squirt it out of your fingers and he then reminisced that Preacher Roe had this great spitball that would come in waist high and Campy would have to dive down and catch it almost off the ground. So while Bobby Valentine tried to completely squash the topic, there was 88 year old Ralph Branca basically telling us all, “yes, Preacher had a dandy spitball”, and insodoing, he made my point for me.
For the record, I immediately felt bad. I felt I gave an old man a hard time. But I couldn’t help myself because only minutes before, I was angry at this same old man and the film maker and executive producer Bobby Valentine, for leading people to a false conclusion; for sullying the reputations of people, living and dead; folks who could not necessarily defend their reputations.
It angered me that they were all making money off what are basically cherry-picked “facts”. I think what turned my annoyance into action was when he went after the 1954 World Champion Giants, because he had nothing whatsoever to do with them. In the end, while I know I’m tilting at 60 year old windmills, it is about fairness, and Ralph Branca is not being fair–neither are Andrew Muscato and Bobby Valentine. Here you have people weaving a false narrative and profiting by it. They have a good thing going and I wasn’t going to be permitted to spoil it.
But on the stairs on the way out, as folks were crowding around Branca and Valentine to get their autographs and handshakes, a guy turned to me and stage-whispered, “you are RIGHT!”, and I said quietly to him, “I know, but I feel bad for asking it”. And we talked a bit. He was a nice guy. Further down the stairs, I met a baseball writer who I know and I said the same thing, “I shouldn’t have opened my mouth” and he said, “no, it was a good question”.
At some point during the film, I decided that I would not hang around and try to get a photo with Ralph Branca and my Jackie Robinson statue. Sure he was the last living member of the 1947 Dodgers and had been instrumental in his acceptance. I had come to the simple, disappointing conclusion that I didn’t want it because I didn’t respect him. Sure, he helped integrate baseball and sure, I enjoyed his talk about Durocher vs Dressen and Jackie and Hodges and Pee Wee and “the era”. He’s a nice old man and he’s funny and his stories and place in history are great, but I just can’t reconcile it. He’s in one of the bigger glass houses and he’s throwing stones and I guess, hoping no one will notice. The trouble is, I noticed.
And I think the shame of it all is that Ralph Branca’s legacy should be that he was perhaps the first white ballplayer to accept Robinson and befriend him. Instead, the focus will be somewhat splintered with too much attention being drained off in the direction of his biased narrative of this single pitch.