Book review: “A Moment In Time” — Ralph Branca
When I told him he was the fella who coughed up Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” naturally, the next question from the kid was, “Who’s Bobby Thomson?”
So I did what any dad would do in this situation. I read him an excerpt from Branca’s book. Actually, I laid out the situation first. “The Giants and Dodgers were tied for first place and this game was going to decide who would win the pennant,” I told him. That’s all he needed to hear to get hooked in.
As we cuddled in his bed, I quickly thumbed to THE page. I was very interested in hearing how Branca (who was one of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ best pitchers in their hey day) felt about losing the game, pennant, and possibly his dignity all on one pitch.
Branca doesn’t actually retell the famous moment until you get to page 146:
I was singing in the shower…I’m not saying that I wasn’t nervous. I was. I’m not saying that I wasn’t aware that this was probably the most important game in the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants…I tried to tell myself it was just another game, but who was I fooling?
Branca then chronicles every inning, before finally getting to that pivotal ninth inning:
Dodgers 4, Giants 2. Two on, no out. Tying run at the plate…Now it was Bobby Thomson coming to the plate, representing the winning run…Now it was [Dodgers manager Chuck] Dressen coming to the mound. Now it was Dressen signaling to the bullpen. [Dodgers starter Don Newcombe] was out and I was in. Now it was me making that long, long trek from the bullpen.
I entered the infield and passed by Jackie, who said, “Let’s get ‘em, Ralph.” I passed by Reese, who said, “No butterflies, Ralph. You’re gonna get ‘em.” As Newk left the mound, I told him, “Don’t worry, big fella. I’ll get them for you.”
Dressen handed me the ball. For a second I wondered if he was going to tell me to walk Bobby Thomson to get to Willie Mays. I’d had good luck with Mays. But all Charlie said was, “Get him out.”
I was facing Bobby Thomson, more determined than at any moment in my life, and prepared to pitch. I inhaled. I exhaled. I checked the runners, [Whitey] Lockman at second, [Clint] Hartung at third. I looked for the sign. Fastball. I delivered a fastball directly over the plate. It couldn’t have been any more down the middle. Thomson looked at it.
The Giants’ bench started screaming at Thomson for letting the pitch go by. They rode him hard. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I heard [Giants manager] Leo [Durocher] screaming at Bobby…
I looked for the sign. Fastball. I threw it high and inside. Thomson was waiting for it. Thomson attacked it with an uppercut swing, connected, and drove it to left field…
I thought it was going to sink. It had to sink. “Sink, sink, sink!” I watched [Dodgers left fielder] Andy Pafko running back to the wall. “Sink, sink!”
But the ball stayed up and cleared the wall by about six inches, landing in the left field seats…
I wanted to believe that I was dreaming. I didn’t want to believe that it was really happening. I wanted the pitch back.
But the ball was gone and the game was over…The pennant was lost.
You should know that A Moment In Time isn’t just the story of that incredible day — 60 years ago today — when Thomson and the New York Giants capped an incredible comeback.
This is a book about Branca, after all.
Branca was 18 years old when he signed his first professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1947, he went 21-12 with a 2.67 ERA. He was named to three All-Star Games and was just 21 years old when he was named the starter for Game 1 of the 1947 World Series.
To say Branca should be remembered only for the walk-off home run pitch he gave up to Thomson in ’51 would be contemptuous.
Yes, A Moment In Time chronicles — breath by breath — the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds before his 0-1 fastball to Thomson landed half a foot over the left field wall at the Polo Grounds.
But it also details the remarkable story of a man who was eager to serve his country at a time the Nazi’s were invading most of Europe:
Millions of teen boys like myself coveted adulthood and adult responsibilities. We wanted to grow up. We yearned to serve. The culture of impassioned patriotism informed our every move. And if we were either too young or disqualified from the armed services, we’d take that energy — that sense of do or die — to the field of sports. (Page 17)
And of course the book chronicles a sport that — in the 1940s and 50s — was more popular than any other. From a first-person perspective, you get to read about the lives of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and many others. So what if they’re Dodgers.
And that’s what makes A Moment In Time so fun and easy to read. It’s 223 pages of “shop talk” by a baseball player who grew up in New York, the hub of baseball during Branca’s young life.
In fact, Branca admits that as a teenager he grew up cheering for the Giants:
One day I was at the Polo Grounds as a fan, rooting for the Giants against the Dodgers. Two weeks later, I was there as a Dodger, pitching against the Giants. (Page 35)
At age 10, Branca visited the Polo Grounds, a 45-minute trip from his house in Mt. Vernon. He sat in the upper deck with his mother, brothers and sisters watching the “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals play a doubleheader against his beloved Giants while eating prosciutto, provolone and Salami sandwiches that his mom made. Branca was the 15th of 17 children born to Mrs. Branca. Sadly, four of his siblings died as children. This was the Depression-era after all, and diseases like diphtheria and rheumatic fever were common and not yet under control.
Now in his mid-80s, Branca (the quintessential old-timer) isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
In A Moment In Time, as a matter of fact, he lets loose something that had been burning inside him for years. A dirty secret that not too many people know. THE GIANTS CHEATED ON THAT DAY 60 YEARS AGO.
A reporter from the Wall Street Journal broke the story 10 years ago, but I don’t remember hearing about it until reading Ralph’s book this past week.
Evidently, beginning in late July, Durocher used wires, buzzers, and a German telescope to steal signs from opposing catchers and telegraph them to his hitters.
The Giants were 13 games back on August 11, but a 16-game winning streak brought them to within five games.
They would also win their last eight regular season games to force a tie atop the National League standings with the Dodgers. The Giants, who were just six games over .500 when Durcoher supposedly launched his elaborate plan, went 49-17 (.742) the rest of the way.
Branca had known about it since 1954 but never went public with it. He had let bygones be bygones and he and Thomson had become good friends by the time the story broke in 2001.
Once the Wall Street Journal article was published, though, Branca’s reputation went from “goat” to “whiner.”
Still, Branca writes that he’s had a great life:
The darkness of that day — October 3, 1951 — has been overwhelmed by a life filled with light. Father Rowley was right when, after The Pitch, he said, “God chose you because He knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.
I would give this book a full five out of five balls if it weren’t for the way Branca ends his book:
In 1951, the Giants didn’t win the pennant; the Giants stole the pennant.
All in all, A Moment In Time is a book that Giants fans and Dodgers fans will both enjoy reading, leaving Dodgers fans feeling vindicated and Giants fans feeling somewhat impugned.