Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Interview with Ralph Branca

By Bill

Every now and then, as co-proprietors of a blog that a few people sometimes deign to read, we get emails from publishers or publicists (most accurately, publicists for publishers, but there's no non-goofy way to say that) offering advance copies of baseball or other sports books.

Most of them, frankly, aren't that exciting (we're just not that big a deal), but the one pictured to the right -- A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak and Grace, by Ralph Branca and David Ritz -- really caught my eye. I requested and received a copy, and read it (212 easy-reading pages) in a matter of a couple days.

It's a good -- and, again, easy -- read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in immediately-post-War baseball. I've been a Branca fan for at least ten years now, since I met him at a sports card show alongside Bobby Thomson, with whom he of course is forever linked, and got this (for my dad, who was born later in the month in which the event depicted took place):

What I loved about Branca -- apart from a fascination with a very good, three-time-All-Star pitcher who became known almost exclusively for one single (presumably) bad pitch -- was his friendliness and good humor and, especially, the incredible grace, good-sportsmanship, and sheer oddity of touring the country with (and, from all appearances, being friendly with) the guy who was most directly responsible for making him the goat or antihero of the sport's most famous moment. It's just a very cool, unique thing.

So when I was also offered the opportunity to have a little chat with Mr. Branca, I jumped at it. I was a bit afraid, both in talking to him and reading the book, that he'd reveal an undercurrent of bitterness and resentment that ruined that whole picture of him I have, but while the bitterness and anger are certainly there -- understandably so, when you consider he's lived as the goat for sixty years and has known for most of that time that the team that beat him was implementing an elaborate technological system for stealing signs -- there's also a very genuine good nature, and there was a genuine friendship with Thomson.

At 85, Branca is passionate, funny, and has a tremendous memory. It was the first interview I'd done since serving as the sports editor of my college newspaper about twelve years ago, but Branca is good and interesting enough for both of us. He was kind enough to spend about 25 minutes speaking with me about the book, Jackie Robinson, the Shot, the sign-stealing and more. A transcript -- edited only to remove most verbal pauses and a tiny bit of redundancy -- appears below.
Bill: Obviously, the 60th anniversary of the Shot Heard 'Round the World is a big deal, but what made you decide to write a book about it right now? What makes now the right time?

Ralph Branca: Well, I started -- someone said I should write memoirs for my family and my many nieces and nephews, so this evolved from memoirs into a book. And my brother John, who's a year and a half older than me, passed away last year, and he had been harping at me, oh, for many, many years, 35 years I'd say, maybe 40, that I should write a book. And finally, when it looked like he was gonna go, I switched from memoirs to a book. And his two sons, two boys, Billy and John, they were also pushing me to do it, and they ended up getting me David Ritz, who is a very fine writer. David and I got along famously, and I thought he did a good job of capturing me and writing the book.

I mean, because I've read it, and I like it. But that's me, I guess; what else would I do but like it?

BP (laughs): sure, sure. Now, it's called A Moment in Time, and obviously the Shot Heard 'Round the World is a big thing, the focal point of it. But it's not really that story, it's your story -- as you said, it started out as a memoir. So how did you settle on the title?

RB: That was David, he picked out a title. And I said, there's a lot of books called "A Moment in Time," but this is [subtitled] "Baseball, Heartache, and Grace." So if you put "A Moment in Time" up you'll see there's, I don't know, maybe eight, maybe ten books with the same title, but then there's a subtitle which depicts what the book is about. So David picked it out.

BP: Okay. A connection people might not always make with your career is that, being a Dodger in the 1940s and fifties, you were a longtime teammate of Jackie Robinson. And there's quite a lot of Jackie Robinson in the book, and in fact, you got to be quite close to him. Could you talk a little bit about how that relationship came about and how it got started?

RB: Well, that's all true, because -- I lived on a block I call the United Nations. You know, there was -- mostly Italian families, I'm gonna say. I could count them. I'm going to say eight -- there were eight Italian families, four black families, two Jewish families, two German families, two Irish families on this block, both sides of the block. So, blacks lived next door to me, so I had no problem playing with or talking to blacks. You know, playing with them, 'cause they played on our team, and there was blacks like three houses up and four houses up, and Charlie Woodson played on a team and Richard Tucker played ball with us.

So, when Jackie joined, all I was hoping [was] that he could play and help us win a pennant, which I think [is what]  most guys think about, winning a pennant. Because in those days you didn't make a lot of money; in fact, in 1947 I was making $6500, and had we beaten the Yankees in the World Series I would've doubled my salary, would've gotten sixty-five hundred. As it turned out, we lost, but I got forty-seven hundred dollars, so like three-quarters of my pay was in my World Series check.

BP: wow, sure.

RB: Now today, now they get 325, 350 [thousand], you know, and that's, well, that's not exactly three-quarters of their pay. In fact, it might be -- I guess I should say it's three-quarters of the minimum salary.

BP: Sure. So what was Jackie Robinson like in those early days, you know, either in the clubhouse or in private, when he wasn't on the field?

RB: Well, you know, Jackie, when he first came in, I happened to be in the locker room, and shook his hand and said welcome aboard. Gene Hermanski was in there, and Gene shook his hand, and some of the southern players were a little reluctant to go over and be too friendly with him. I guess they were worried about what the peer pressure would be, you know, back home, they'd be denigrated by their peers. So they were a little reluctant, but as the season wore on and Jackie proved to them that he could play and was worthy of being in the big leagues, he kind of changed their minds and became more friendly with him.

In fact, Dixie Walker said in like late August -- he went over and said to Jackie, you know, "welcome aboard" -- he was from, I think, Montgomery -- and Dixie said "if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't be in this pennant race." That took a lot of doing from Dixie, you know, a real southerner.

BP: Is there one -- there are a lot of interesting stories in the book about Jackie Robinson. Is there sort of one event or one thing that you witnessed first hand that to you is kind of the most important or tells you the most about who Jackie Robinson was? 

RB: Well, I think the most important thing, really, took time. Because Branch Rickey, who was the general manager, said to Jackie, "you can't get involved in any altercations. You can't get involved arguing with umps, or causing a fight or being in a fight." So for three years, Jackie was not Jackie. Because Jackie was a fiery, feisty competitor, and now he had to turn the other cheek, which he did. And if you really knew Jackie, as I did, and you found out later on when he became a fiery, feisty competitor after his third year of silence, you saw how he was totally out of character. He did this because -- like, everything rested on his shoulders. If he failed, if he couldn't play and couldn't hit, it might've delayed the entry of blacks into Major League Baseball. But, you know, he proved he could play, and it meant the entrance of blacks into baseball.

BP: So you just mentioned Branch Rickey, another famous historical figure who really factors a lot into this book. He signed you, he's renowned for signing Jackie Robinson. But you come off as...not a big fan of Branch Rickey in this book.

RB: No, no. I judge Branch Rickey [on] how he treated me, and Branch Rickey did not treat me very well. He knew I had great potential, and he, uh, he wanted to hold my salary down. And you know, when I was worthy of a raise I should've gotten a raise, forget all that nonsense about keeping my salary down.

And Branch Rickey did some experimental things that, you know, in Spring Training, were really jokes. Talking about throwing a curveball with your hand underneath the ball, or using a five-man infield, which is a total joke. You know, you've gotta have a really poor-hitting pitcher there, who couldn't hit a bull in the butt with a paddle, you know. So he tried that thing, and it didn't work.

And then when I was in Montreal [the Dodger farm club, in 1944] he wanted me to pitch every third day? I'm a prospect, you know? Everybody pitched every four days. And I was pitching two days' rest, three days' rest, and he said to the manager, "pitch him every third day." Well, that didn't do me any good, 'cause I'd go five innings and I'd run out of gas. I mean, I had a no hitter, I think, for six innings, and in the seventh inning, well, if I hit you between the eyes I couldn't blacken them, you know? Couldn't even cause a bloody nose. I'd lost all my stuff, 'cause it was like the third time I'd pitched with two days' rest. So I would've been better off pitching my regular, twice a week, I would've pitched more innings than I did pitching with his method, pitching every third day.

BP: That was one thing that really caught my eye, that you don't hear about with Rickey, is that idea of pitching every third day. Do you think -- obviously later in your career you developed some arm troubles, and it kind of shortened your career. Do you have any inkling of whether that three-day experiment had anything to do with that?

RB: Oh, no. No, I was all right, I recovered from that. You know, my career was shortened when, in Spring Training of 1952, I went to sit on a chair and it slid out, and I had a Coke bottle underneath and I landed on the Coke bottle. And it tilted my pelvis, and I was swaybacked and my left side went up an inch and a half. And now I fault the trainer, because he was an osteopath, and I went in and told him what happened and he never checked my alignment. He just told me that I had a crescent cut [on my backside]. Well, fourteen months went by before I went to another osteopath, and he said "you're swaybacked. Do you have any pain, did you feel any pain?" "No." And he said, "your left side's up an inch and a half."

Well, I want you to take a sock and fold it up and put it under your left heel, and just walk around for, oh, I'm gonna say a half hour, and see what happens to your lower left side. You know, it bunches up, and it's stiff and in pain. And you know, I still have a problem with it. I've got to lean over the sink, I get up, and I can feel it. And I've had two knee replacements and I blame it all on that, because you know, one leg was carrying the other leg. And I got a lot of arthritis in my knees and had knee replacements.

BP: Oh, wow, sure. Well, I'm in Minnesota right now, and I grew up in St. Paul, so I have to ask you about your time in St. Paul. You spent, in 1945, about four months, it sounds like, with the St. Paul Saints. What do you remember about that?

RB: Yeah, well, you know, I loved St. Paul. It was a nice town, and there was a short left field, but you know, short parks didn't bother me. I just did my pitching, didn't change anything. Because whether we were playing in Brooklyn, which was a small park, or playing in Forbes Field which was a big park, or the Polo Grounds where you don't want 'em to pull, you know. But I pitched my game, and I was a flyball pitcher because I had a rising fastball.

But, you know, St. Paul was good. It was a great town, and I really enjoyed it, and I liked being called an Angel, you know, St. Paul Angels, right? Oh, well, Saint -- what were they called -- Saints, I guess [laughs].

BP: Saints, yeah.

RB:  But, you know what, it was a wonderful experience. I got a lot of experience there. A couple older pitchers on the team who helped me, talked to me about pitching, and you know I was only nineteen years old, so. You know, I learned enough to become a decent pitcher, because I went back to Brooklyn and started fifteen games and completed seven, and had a 3.04 ERA. [Note: exactly accurate, apparently off the top of his head.] And I expect that, even though my record at St. Paul wasn't that good, I learned a lot about pitching. And there comes a point that, you know, you get confidence and you get control or you get control and you get confidence, I don't know which comes first, but you know, I had decent control. I was around the plate, I never really was wild. You know, I'd walk guys, but I'd always be around the plate.

BP: Okay, so we'll skip ahead now to 1951, the Shot Heard 'Round the World on October 3rd. Now, that was game three of the three-game playoff series. You started game one two days earlier. Now in the book, you describe -- Bobby Thomson hit a home run off of you, I believe in the fourth inning of that game. And you describe both that one and the famous one as coming on a high-and-tight fastball. Would you say they were more or less the same pitch, more or less a replay of the same thing?

RB: No, the one in Brooklyn [in game one] was more like, letter-high, inside, and when it went up I went, "that's an out," and then [Andy] Pafko started backin' up, and I went, "uh-oh, uh-oh." And Pafko backed up about twenty feet and don't ask me for what reason, but the ball carried right at the three-fifty-one mark, I don't know whether it's because they had a gate underneath, you know, that he rolled it up where they put all the equipment, the batting cage and the rollers and your grass-cutters. But the ball carried there, and it just cleared the fence, you know, it went over the fence about six inches. It probably would've carried about three hundred fifty-two feet, fifty-three feet, to straight left field.

And you know, as I wrote in the book, "wrong ballpark, Charlie [Dressen, Dodgers manager]." Because at the Polo Grounds [chuckles], that's still a hundred feet from the 450-foot bullpen. But Charlie made a big mistake, because we won the toss, and we should've played the first game in the Polo Grounds and the second two in Ebbets Field. Because you know, you need home field advantage, you get last at-bats. And they proved it three days later, when the Giants get last at-bats, they go ahead of us, we don't have an at-bat. So, that's a big advantage. You know, come the eighth inning and you're tied and you get the visitors out in the top of the eighth, you have two at-bats to their one. That's a big advantage. You know, they have to get the visitors out once, and they have to get the home team out twice. So that's a big advantage, and it proved a big advantage for the Giants three days later.

BP: Yeah. So then, I guess, you find out within about three years later that the Giants have this sign-stealing system in place.

RB: Right.

BP: Which doesn't become public knowledge for about another fifty years.

RB: Right.

BP: And, you know, it seems to me that the best part about this whole story is this relationship, both a personal friendship and a business relationship, that you developed with Bobby Thomson. So I guess the question is, having known about this and having kept it quiet for, you know, most of fifty years, how did you manage to kind of put the bitterness and anger behind you and forge this friendship with Thomson?

RB: Well, you know, I knew they had stolen the pennant. It's written, it's proven, it's documented. Joshua Prager wrote the book The Echoing Green, he wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, which is a little over ten years old, where he documented and proved [the sign-stealing], and the Giants players admitted. So, I don't know, maybe that's helped me get through this period of not talking about it, because I knew in my heart that they stole the pennant.

But when I got to meet Thomson -- I'd met him a few times, at the golf course, charity events, award dinners in the city, you know, sports awards -- and then we started doing card shows together. I didn't do a card show until late 1984. Bobby had been doing 'em earlier, and one of the promoters got both of us together where we signed together. And while we wait for the place to open up, we'd sit there and talk, and I got to realize that he was a decent guy, he had pretty decent ideas about life, had his priorities correct.

And I realized, he was only the private; the generals made the decision. Horace Stoneham, the owner, and the Giants front office, they agreed to the deal, and they hired an electrician to hook up a buzzer system from Leo Durocher's office in center field, to the bullpen in right-center, to the dugout on the first base side. And then Leo and his first lieutenant, Herman Franks, they concocted the deal and presented it to Stoneham, and Stoneham OK'ed it. And so they were they generals who made the decision. And then the two leading ballplayers on the team, you know, were Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark, and they were the cheerleaders, the guys who talked people into it. And I roomed with Stanky when he was in Brooklyn, and he's a very devout Catholic, you know, religiously went to church every week, said his prayers at night, 'cause I'd see him. And I blame them, for that, because Bobby, as I said, he was just a foot soldier, taking the orders and doing what they said.

And it was very beneficial for Bob, you know. He was only hitting .238 when they started this, and once he got the signs, he hit .365 and raised his average from .238 to like .296, and even his home run totals went up big, you know. In fact, Thomson had never hit a home run off me since they started the signs, which was like 1947 to '51. I don't know how many at bats that constituted, but he had never hit a home run off of me.

BP: Now, there are defenders of the 1951 Giants who will point out that, as a team, the team as a whole actually did about the same hitting in the second half as they had in the first, and it was the pitching -- the ERA dropped from close to four to just over three in that second half. How would you respond to that?

RB: My response is: if stealing the signs doesn't help, then why would you steal 'em? You'd see batting practice where guys hit line drive after line drive, and the Giants' -- Sal Yvars, you know, their second-string catcher, told me -- if they got out ahead by five runs, they'd quit taking the signs. And Stanky and Dark, they knew it was a curve and they'd swing like it was a fastball swing, miss it by two feet, you know. Swing over it deliberately. And I don't know about the rest of them, but I know, Sal also told me, [Don] Mueller hit five home runs in three games [note: two games, actually], and you know, Mueller's not a home run hitter, he was a punch-and-judy hitter, you know, a line drive hitter, so they told him "don't hit home runs!"

So, you know, that's nonsense. You can make any excuse, like "I'm not gonna pay the money I owe you because my wife had a flat tire or the guy in Notre Dame's a hunchback," you know, any reason, any excuse for not doing it. But the fact is, the team was 59-51, am I right?

BP: mm-hmm.

RB: And they went 37 and 7. Now, you know that's, that's unrealistic. The Dodgers were supposed to play .500 ball, and we did exactly that, 25 and 25. Which was bad, for a team of our ability. We should've been 30-20, or even 35 and 15. But I'm gonna say 30-20. And we should've. But you know what? We didn't. But any Giant fan that says that is just being unrealistic.

BP: Now, you mention in the book that you've kept up with the modern game pretty well. Have you been following the postseason this year?

RB: Oh, yeah, I'm following it.

BP: And we've got the World Series about to start [Wednesday] night. Do you have a favorite between the Cardinals and Rangers?

RB: Well, Texas' got a good ballclub. They've got some hitting, they've got pretty good pitching. The Cardinals have enough hitting up and down the lineup, and their pitching, with the way they've been using the bullpen -- which I think is, you know, short series -- you can't do that all season. But I think it'll be a good series. I'd give Texas a little bit of an edge because they were there last year and have experience, they've been there. This Cardinal team hasn't been there in a while, so. But La Russa has, so, he's got the edge as a manager because he's got the experience, and I think Texas has the edge because they've been there last year and all the hoopla that goes with it, they'll be used to it, so it'll be more like a normal game for them.

But if you asked me, I'd flip a coin and I'd say I'd give Texas a slight edge. I think they've got a little more hitting, and their pitching is good enough, their bullpen's good enough. So I'll give Texas the edge. So you can say, your prediction will now be, "I pick the Cardinals, because Branca picked Texas."

BP [laughs]: OK, great, well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. It's been a thrill getting to speak with you, and I really appreciate it. 

RB: Well, and getting back to the book: I think that basically, it's an easy read, and I think people like it, because it's not all about '51. It's about baseball as it was then, and the teams and everything else. So, it's a look back, and it also talks about '51 enough that people want to know about it. So, I appreciate your having me on, and God bless, and stay well.

BP: All right, thank you, you too.

RB: You're welcome.


The Baseball Idiot said...

This thing needs a like button.

Anonymous said...

Great interview.