Ralph Branca, Admired Brooklyn Dodgers Pitcher, Dies at 90

Arriving on the major league scene as an 18-year-old in 1944, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca led a forceful 12-year career, winning 88 games, totaling 829 strikeouts, and registering a 3.79 ERA. Branca, a Mount Vernon native, died Wednesday morning at a nursing home in Rye at 90, according to a tweet posted by his son-in-law, former major league manager Bobby Valentine.

As with many talented athletes, his injury-shortened career was blemished by a single moment in time: the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” During a 1951 National League playoff game, the 6’3” pitcher gave up a three-run homer to the Giants’ Bobby Thomson, resulting in a 5-4 loss and a Dodgers defeat in the pennant playoff series.

However, despite a career overshadowed by a single play, Branca’s life is better characterized by a single relationship: Branca’s acceptance of Jackie Robinson as a friend helped to bridge the gap between Robinson as the first African American in the MLB and his less-than-accepting teammates.

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 “There were players who were hostile to Jack and tried to provoke him. Ralph was one of the players who supported him openly,” Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, told our magazine in a 2014 interview with Branca. “Jack liked and admired him as a friend even after he [Ralph] left the Dodgers.”  

Born in 1926 to an Italian father and Hungarian mother, Branca, the 15th of 17 children, grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood with black, Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbors.

“Where I lived, on 9th Avenue in Mount Vernon, black families lived right next door to me. They came in my house, I went in theirs,” he said. 

Teammates Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn Dodgers office on February 12, 1948, the day Robinson signed his contract. Branca signed his several days earlier.

This background of respect and acceptance undoubtedly encouraged his support of Robinson, particularly during the 1947 opening ceremony when Branca boldly stood next to Robinson as he prepared to break baseball’s color barrier for the first time. His brother John called him crazy for doing so, warning Branca that he could have been shot if there was an assassination attempt on Robinson’s life.

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“I would have died a hero,” Branca responded.

If Valentine’s tweets, the myriad obituaries published this morning, and Branca’s portrayal in the movie 42 are any indication, he undeniably did die a hero. 

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