Branca’s career still is defined by one moment
It’s the author of the most infamous pitch in Dodgers history, and a reporter, sitting at a Beverly Hills deli around 9 a.m. And just after the former pitcher orders breakfast -- an omelet, bagel and hot tea -- Larry King walks over.
King, a Brooklyn native, knows the pitcher from when the Dodgers played in his hometown. The two make small talk, reminisce, then, just before King heads back to his table, he turns to a friend and says, “People forget what a great pitcher he was.”
The pitcher, Ralph Branca, 84, nods, sighs and replies, “Nobody knows that.”
Branca is remembered for one pitch out of the thousands he threw, an inside fastball to Bobby Thomson in the third and deciding game of the 1951 New York Giants-Dodgers playoff series that became one of the most famous home runs in history, “the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
The three-run homer to left field clinched the National League pennant for the Giants, causing broadcaster Russ Hodges to scream into his microphone, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
The play inexorably connected Branca and Thomson, but the two became good friends, agreeing to countless interviews, speaking engagements and autograph sessions.
Last week, when Thomson died at 86, Branca lost his living link to infamy. The two had seen each other less in recent years, and last spoke about a year ago when Branca asked Thomson whether he could attend a signing event, but Thomson said he wasn’t feeling well enough to make it.
Branca said he’ll attend a service for Thomson next week in New Jersey “to say goodbye to an old friend.”
But through decades of friendship, Thomson never told Branca what Branca believed all along: That Thomson had been tipped off on the pitch that became the most famous play of both their careers.
“I talked to [Giants catcher] Sal Yvars, and he said, ‘I gave him the pitch,’ ” Branca said.
Branca, who stopped in L.A. recently to attend a memorial service for his brother, John, is working on a book proposal -- and a mini-documentary series -- about his life.
One chapter he admits will be long is the one about the Giants stealing signs in 1951, which he said explained their 37-7 finish after a 59-51 start.
Branca said Detroit’s Ted Gray explained in 1954 the Giants’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme, which Yvars later said included having a utility player sitting in the center-field stands with a telescope. (Yvars confirmed the scheme to the Wall Street Journal in 2001.) But Thomson, who once called Yvars a “traitor,” always denied that he knew what was coming in that famous at-bat.
How Thomson denied it, though, made Branca suspicious.
“We were at [Yogi Berra’s] museum once and he said, ‘I took the signs the first three at-bats, but not that at-bat,’ ” Branca said.
Branca added, “I think he didn’t want to demean what he did, but in my mind, I think he would have been a bigger man if he admitted it.”
That’s not to say Branca, who wouldn’t talk about the issue until recently, holds a grudge. He blames the Giants front office, calling Thomson “just a foot soldier” who did his job.
“He’s a good guy, was humble, never lorded it over me, had decent values, good family man, good provider, good husband,” Branca said.
Even today, as much as Branca wants that moment back, he said he doesn’t need closure.
“I know what it was, I know how I pitched, and even though I get blamed for it, I’m not the guy who lost the pennant,” he said.
And before he leaves the deli, Branca signs an autograph for another old friend, King, writing, just above his name, “The Giants stole the pennant.”
“Not won the pennant,” Branca said, looking up at a reporter, “Stole the pennant.”