By DOUGLAS S. LAVINE
When baseball fans remember Ralph Branca, they think of "the shot heard round the world." Branca served up the home run Bobby Thomson hit 61 years ago, Oct. 3, 1951, to cap off the New York Giants' dramatic pennant-winning drive over the Brooklyn Dodgers. I think of Ralph a bit differently. To me, he is someone who graciously shared his baseball life with me when I was a kid and provided me with memories that I still cherish.
Our families were close when I was growing up in White Plains in the 1950s and 1960s. Ralph, his wife Ann, and their two daughters lived three houses away. My father, an avid Giants fan, had become one of Ralph's best friends. I knew that Ralph had been a major league pitcher, but I never thought much of it; he was just a family friend. Ralph quietly made my father feel comfortable at his golf club, which had admitted very few Jewish members. His daughter Mary briefly worked as a hygienist in my father's dental office before marrying a talented young ballplayer from Stamford named Bobby Valentine.
When, at long last, the Mets became New York's National League team in 1962, my father and I became fanatical fans; I still am. Ralph invited me - when I was all of 13 or 14 - to interview Mets pitcher Roger Craig on his television show, "Branca's Bullpen." He also took my father and me to a New York radio studio to watch him do a post-game show with an unknown radio announcer with an aggressive, idiosyncratic style: Howard Cosell.
Ralph's connections got me into the Giants clubhouse to meet my father's, and my, hero, Willie Mays; gave me the chance to play golf with Joe DiMaggio; brought me into the Yankees dugout during an old-timer's game where I met Goose Goslin, Pie Traynor, and Frankie Frisch; and secured for me tickets to a variety of World Series games. Only as time passed did I come to realize that this was not run-of-the-mill stuff. It was Ralph sharing his infectious love of the game.
Two-and-a-half years ago, while exercising in a West Hartford gym, I began to have trouble breathing. The trainer called an ambulance. He saved my life. I woke up 12 hours later to learn I had just undergone open-heart surgery. Things look different after that experience. Over many weeks and months of convalescence, I came to realize that many of the things I had taken for granted should be treasured and that it is never too late to say "thank you."
Then last fall, I read that Ralph - who I had always believed to be an Italian Catholic - had learned that his Hungarian-born mother was Jewish, and that an aunt and uncle had died in death camps. About the same time, Ralph's son-in-law, Bobby Valentine was named manager of the Red Sox. The synchronicity of these events struck home. With some trepidation, I wrote Ralph to tell him that although I had not communicated with him since my father's funeral in 1995, I wanted to take him out to lunch to thank him for all his past kindness.
I heard nothing for weeks. Then on Dec.9 last year - which Ralph knew to be my birthday and my father's also - the phone rang and I heard Ralph's familiar voice. He said he'd be delighted to get together. What a birthday present!
So this past August, Ralph, now 86, Ann and I had lunch at Westchester Country Club in Rye. ( Before leaving West Hartford, I had checked Ralph's stats. A record of 88-66 between 1944 and 1956; a lifetime earned run average of 3.79; a 21-game winner in 1947 at age 21; and a three-time All Star. Impressive.) We talked over old times and I thanked him - very belatedly, to be sure -for all his generosity. He was as direct and playful and quick-witted as ever.
I asked him about Jackie Robinson. He recalled how he had lined up on the field with him on Opening Day in 1947, something several of his fellow Boys of Summer had refused to do. He minimized his gesture, noting that he had black neighbors and friends growing up in Mount Vernon.
I asked him about "the pitch." He said he had learned a few years after throwing it that the Giants had been stealing signs during the series, a fact confirmed only in recent years. Why hadn't he told anyone? I asked. It wouldn't have changed anything, he replied, matter-of-factly. I asked him if learning of his Jewish roots had changed his view of himself. Not really, he said. He was raised a Catholic and has gone to church almost every weekend for the past 80 or so years. Still, he delighted in exchanging "shaloms" with me and appreciated the book I gave him about Jewish baseball players. We also talked of his work, in years past, aiding older ballplayers who had fallen on hard times.
As I sat and talked with Ralph, and looked at him, I came to fully appreciate that in his own quiet way he had used his influence to help Jackie Robinson, on the world historical stage; my father, in a much smaller venue; and numerous older ballplayers down on their luck. I saw as well that he had treated me like a son, exposing me to experiences that most kids can only dream about. Baseball historians may always know Ralph as the man who threw the famous pitch, but I have been privileged to know him as a man of modesty, character and generosity.
Not surprisingly, he insisted on picking up the check. I agreed. But the next one is on me.
Douglas S. Lavine, a Superior Court judge, is a resident of West Hartford.