NEW YORK – Ralph Branca’s career was defined by that one high-and-inside fastball.
The Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up Bobby Thomson’s famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that still echoes more than six decades later as one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, died Wednesday. He was 90.
His son-in-law, former MLB and Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, said Branca died at a nursing home in Rye Brook, New York.
Branca was a three-time All-Star and spent 12 seasons in the majors. Brought in from the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth inning during the deciding Game 3 of the National League pennant playoff in 1951, he gave up a three-run homer to Thomson that gave the rival New York Giants a stunning 5-4 victory.
The one-out line drive into the left field lower deck at the Polo Grounds prompted the frenetic call from announcer Russ Hodges, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” The team and its fans celebrated wildly as Thomson breezed around the bases while Branca, wearing his unlucky No. 13 jersey, trudged off the mound.
“You know,” Branca told The Associated Press in 1990, “If you kill somebody, they sentence you to life, you serve 20 years and you get paroled. . . . I’ve never been paroled.”
Thomson, who also homered off Branca in Game 1, capped a sensational comeback for the Giants, who trailed the Dodgers by more than a dozen games heading toward mid-August.
For the next 50 years, Branca and Thomson often appeared together at card shows, corporate events and baseball functions, re-telling the story of the home run that grew into a sports legend. They always were friendly at the affairs, sometimes even teaming up to sing about the big moment.
“I was closer to Ralph than to any other Dodger,” Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said in a statement. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace.”
It wasn’t until many years later that it was revealed that the Giants had a little extra help.
That’s when it came to light that the Giants employed a telescope-and-buzzer system that season to steal signs from opposing catchers. With that advantage, Giants hitters got a boost in their swings.
And for years, the question remained: Did Thomson know the high-and-inside fastball from Branca was coming?
Thomson firmly asserted that, no, he didn’t get a sign in advance. A three-time All-Star himself, Thomson stuck to that claim until he died in 2010 at age 86.
Branca, however, wasn’t so sure about that.
In 2001, the Giants’ sign-stealing operation was detailed in a story in The Wall Street Journal.
A few days after that, Branca and Thomson saw each other for the first time at an event in Edison, New Jersey. They talked in private for five minutes, about a secret they’d both known about but never shared.
Later, they spoke about their discussion.
“It’s been a cleansing for both of us,” Branca said then. “He knew that I knew. It’s better this way.”
“To me, it was a forbidden subject,” the right-hander said. “And I didn’t want to demean Bobby or seem like I was a crybaby.”
Said Thomson: “It was like getting something off my chest after all those years. I’m not a criminal, although I may have felt like one at first.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5