THE MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY….AND THE BITTERNESS OF LIFE (Ralph Branca, R.I.P.)

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Like nearly all who have ever been entrusted to close a game with a Major League pennant or World Series championship on the line, Ralph Branca was a fine pitcher trying to cap a solid season when he yielded “The Shot Heard Round the World” in the final game of the three game series that decided a tie between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of the 1951 regular season. Yes, he had been in a slump, but his manager had entrusted him with the first of the three game series and Branca had lost a tough pitcher’s duel to the Giants’ Jim Hearn. Plus, he was basically the only option left when the third game came down to the bottom of the ninth and Brooklyn needed someone to relieve their tiring ace Don Newcombe.

What happened next is still arguably the most famous moment in American sports history, when Branca (nearly as used up as Newcombe), gave up a home run to Bobby Thomson and elicited this….

…likely the most famous call in American sports.

Whether the issue was physical or psychological, Branca, who had been a three-time All Star and a thirteen-game winner that season, never recovered and spent the rest of his career in mediocrity, with no chance for redemption.

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Years later rumors that the Giants had used the age’s version of electronic spying to steal pitch signs, in a manner that some players themselves credited with helping them mount a miraculous comeback during the regular season, were more or less confirmed (that is, as confirmed as any conspiracy ever can be). Thomson may or may not have been tipped when he hit his famous home run. He claimed not.

Branca remained sanguine. He was from the old school. Thomson still had to hit it, didn’t he?

Even if he knew what was coming.

Funny thing. If Bobby Thomson had lined out to third, he wouldn’t have been remembered by anyone but hardcore baseball fans when he passed in 2010. If Branca had retired the side–that is, been successful–he would likely not have been remembered any better.

Baseball is the greatest sport because it’s the cruelest. No other sport tests the nerves quite as much because no other sport is so defined by failure. And in no other sport is one man’s failure so deeply tied to another man’s success.

The really memorable failures belong mostly to pitchers. Nobody would have remembered if Bobby Thomson and the guy on deck behind him–a rookie named Willie Mays–had struck out.

Every pitcher knows this on some level. Every pitcher knows in his gut that lasting failure is one pitch away and he knows it in a way that no hitter or fielder ever quite does, unless and until they make their own spectacular mistake. In baseball and every other sport, everybody else finds out the hard way.. or not at all.

The pitcher always knows. Even if that moment hasn’t yet come for him, he knows it might. And if that moment never came, he knows it could have.

Nobody was forced to live with a colossal failure longer than Ralph Branca, and no one could have borne such an unfair stigma with more grace.

In his own quiet way, he made a memory even better than Bobby Thomson’s.

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