Branca Looks Back on Glory Days|
by: Patrick Hickey, Jr. | Senior Writer - NY Sports Day | Saturday, July 14, 2007
BROOKLYN - Anyone that knows anything about Brooklyn baseball still remembers the name Ralph Branca. Sure, everyone knows he was the pitcher that gave up the infamous Bobby Thomson home run in 1951 that cost the Dodgers the pennant, but few still remember what a pivotal part of those successful Brooklyn teams the right-hander was and what a vital cog the former 20-game winner was, in a dressing room that consisted of future Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Pee Wee Reese.
Throwing out the first pitch before the Cyclones took on the Jamestown Jammers this past Sunday, Branca looked back on his career and shared some of his favorite memories about his playing days in Brooklyn, revealing just how much the game has changed since he hung up his cleats in 1956.
A key member of several Dodger teams that always found a way to win, Branca feels that because the team stuck together for so long, the fans in Brooklyn were able to connect with them in ways that aren’t possible anymore, due to free agency and the huge salaries present in today’s game.
“Brooklyn will always hold a special place in my heart,” said Branca. “The fans in Brooklyn were the greatest. However, I know those great times also had something to do with the team I played for, which had so many great guys. They were so competitive. We won six national league championships and lost three more on the last day; we could have won nine out of 13 after the war.”
The reason why many believe that the Dodgers were somehow always involved in the chase for the pennant every season, despite injuries, was because the organization at Brooklyn paid very close attention to the emotional makeup of the players they signed, rather than their raw ability on the field. While Branca never knew what the internal philosophy in the organization was when signing players, he did notice the team was always ready to play, loaded with a cast of characters with enough brevity and charisma to star in a major motion picture.
“I don’t know if he [Dodgers GM Branch Rickey] judged them on intelligence or playing ability, but we always had good teams,” said Branca who is a graduate of New York University. “We were all genuinely nice guys that were team-oriented. It was a great group of gentlemen, to be truthful. It was all basically led by Pee Wee [Reese]; he set the example. He and Jackie were really like the co-leaders of the club. So I don’t know if our team was brought together by those guys or by Rickey looking for intelligence or something else.”
As a matter of fact, Branca believes it was just a coincidence that the Dodger teams he played on had an uncanny amount of character and respect for the community and believes that all baseball players during the late 40’s and early 50’s had to be smart cookies to make it in the world of professional baseball.
“You had to be smart to play this game in the 40’s, to remember all the stuff about the other teams. There were no computers back then, so this [pointing to his head] was your computer,” said Branca, with a laugh. “We never had anything written down; you’d just remember what you pitched to guys and their reactions to certain quirks you had. I think it was all just part of the game and I think back then you needed to have that intelligence to be a good player.”
Despite the togetherness, intelligence and moxie that he and his fellow teammates exhibited on the field however, Branca’s career was never the same after a terrible off the field accident that limited the former 20-game winner to only 22 starts and 12 victories over the last three years of his career. Rather than feel sorry for himself, the straight-shooting Branca admits he didn’t take care of himself the way he should have during his career, but also feels that if sports medicine was a little more advanced during his time in Brooklyn, he could have played longer.
“At that time, they didn’t have anything in sports medicine that could have helped me. I went virtually untreated. When I went to Detroit [he was claimed off waivers by the Tigers in 1953], the trainer worked on me really hard and he sent me to the Detroit osteopathic clinic and they found out my back was really thrown out of whack; my pelvis was tilted and my left side went up an inch and a half,” said Branca who was also a three-time All-Star during his 12-year career. “I could throw hard on some days, but not on others. In the end, all I really needed was a stilt on my shoe to prop me up a bit. I just wasn’t smart enough to take care of myself.”
However, in the end, despite the injuries, All-Star appearances and big games Branca pitched in during his career, the 81-year old still misses the fans from Brooklyn.
“Dodger fans were just the greatest. They understood the game and respected the opposition. Stan Musial was called ‘Stan the man,’ that nickname was given to him by the fans in Brooklyn,” said Branca, whose eyes still burn with the intensity of a major leaguer. “When he came to bat, they gave him a standing ovation. I don’t think that happens anymore. The other aspect of it was the ballpark. Ebbets field was just so intimate. It was built very tight on the field, there wasn’t much room in foul territory and because of that, I don’t think there was a bad seat in the house. You were always on top of the action.”
If the love of the fans in Brooklyn was important to Branca during his playing career, the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants may be a close second. However, back when Branca played, every team treated every game like it was against a hated rival.
“We never talked to the opposition, especially the Giants,” said Branca. “Just hi and hello and that’s it. If they weren’t on Brooklyn, I didn’t want anything to do with them. That’s how it should be. Nowadays, they get on first, they have a conversation and then once they get to second, they have another. It’s different now, they’re in a union; they’re all brothers. Because of free agency, the guy you run into a few times this week could be your teammate next season.”
For some people, imagining baseball without multi-million dollar endorsement deals, video games and DVD box sets, highlighting every past glory and achievement, is almost unimaginable. But for Branca and a small contingent of fans, this is what baseball was and hopefully what it could be sometime in the future; a game played at 110 percent by great athletes, that care about the community they live in and have the time to talk to their barber and butcher on the way to work every day.
Nowadays, the chances of seeing A-Rod or Derek Jeter and their wives at the same church on Sunday as the people that live in the area is as impossible as seeing the Dodgers come back to Brooklyn. Ralph Branca would not only have gone to the church service, he would have shook your hand afterwards the same way he’d shake it today…with conviction and benevolence.