Saturday, June 8, 2013

Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats: Ralph Branca

Don't forget to check out other articles in the "Forgiving Baseball's Scapegoats Series:"

"1 out, bottom of the ninth, Branca pitching.  Bobby Thomson takes a strike call on the inside corner.  Bobby hitting at .292.  He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center..Brooklyn leads it 4-2...Branca throws..."  Everything was calm, matter of fact with just an edge of desperation in the voice of Russ Hodges to this point.  Not even a full beat later all hell broke loose at the Polo Grounds and the lives of two baseball players would forever be changed.

Some of the Dodgers questioned how it had ever gotten to this point.  In the first game of a doubleheader on August 11th, Ralph Branca beat the Braves to increase the Dodgers' first place lead to 13 games.  With just over a month and a half left the Dodgers started looking forward to their match up with the American League in the World Series.  They went 10-10 over the next 20 games.  Not terrible but it should be just fine to keep a fairly sizable lead in a pennant race.  The only problem was that during that time the Giants played 18 games and won 17 of them, including 16 in a row, and three head to head against the Dodgers.  Just a few weeks after reaching the 13 game lead the Giants were just six back and charging fast.  The lead hovered around five or six games for the next few weeks but on September 16th, with a doubleheader sweep of the Cubs, the Giants got it down to 4 1/2 games.  Then down to three, to two, to one and finally, on September 29th, the second to last day of the season the league was tied at the top.  The Giants had gone 12-1 to finish out the year and the season ended with a  tie for first.  The Dodgers had blown a 13 game lead and would have to play a best of three playoff against the Giants to see who would go on to the World Series. 

The first two games were a split so the entire year came down to these nine innings.  Don Newcombe entered the 9th inning with a 4-2 lead.  He had allowed only 4 hits and 2 walks to this point in the game and it looked like the Dodgers were in the clear.  Newcombe could have made our list of Baseball's scapegoats but the arguments against him are too ridiculous to even address at length.  Suffice it to say a few idiots decided to unfairly give him the reputation of being unable to win the big game.  So entering the 9th he was cruising to a win and the World Series. 

Just like the regular season the Giants kept after it.  The inning started with a single, followed by another single.  Brooklyn needed just three more outs without giving up two runs and they would be NL champs.  Newcombe had a history of tiring late in the game so Charley Dressen called to the bullpen after the two singles.  Clyde Sukeforth answered, listened, gave a quick answer and yelled out.  "Branca, Roe and Labine get loose."

There was immediate activity in the Brooklyn pen.  Seven bodies moved.  The jackets came off.  The arms started twisting and catchers masks got pulled on.  Fans in the outfield, Giants fans likely, hung over the wall of the outfield and taunted the Dodgers pitchers as the ball popped into the catchers gloves.  On the field, Newcombe got a pop out to Gil Hodges for the first out and everything seemed fine.  The pitchers, if they were watching the game, may have relaxed a bit but kept throwing to get loose.  When Whitey Lockman doubled to score Alvin Dark, Dressen had seen enough.  The phone in the bullpen rang again.  Dressen had little time.  "What do you got?"  Sukeforth knew the drill.  He gave a quick, succinct answer.  "Branca's throwing ok.  Labine just bounced a curve ball."

There was very little choice for Dressen.  "Gimme Branca."  Dressen ambled out to the mound and took the ball from Newcombe.  "Hell of a job Newk." He patted Newcombe on the ass as he walked off the mound, frustrated, knowing this would again go down as "another Newcombe collapse". Branca made the slow, very long walk from the bullpen in the Polo Grounds.  Standing at the mound, a welcoming committee, were the Dodger legends: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges.  They were waiting to hear the strategy. How do we pitch this guy?  What does he like to hit?  Dressen's suggestion.  "Go get this guy."  That was it.

Cue Russ Hodges:  "1 out, bottom of the ninth, Branca pitching...Branca throws..."  Everything was calm, matter of fact with just an edge of desperation in the voice of Russ Hodges to this point.  Not even a full beat later all hell broke loose at the Polo Grounds and the lives of two baseball players would forever be changed.  "There's a long drive.  It's gonna be, I believe... The Giants won the pennant!  The Giants won the pennant!  The Giants won the pennant!  The Giants won the pennant!  Bobby Thomson hit one into the lower seats of the left field stands!  The Giants won the pennant! and they're going crazy. they're going crazy!"

There was silence in the Dodgers locker room.  It was another year of hearing "wait until next year."  Branca didn't make it to the locker room.  He tore uniform number 13 off and sat on the clubhouse steps weeping.  Whether he knew how long he would be remembered for the one pitch or whether it was just the emotion of another lost season, Branca had been with the Dodgers since 1944 and had struggled to get rid of the label of "Bums" with the rest of the Dodgers legends.

Similar to Pesky, Branca was a gracious, humble man who dealt well with the attention over the years.  Unfortunately for Branca, he did not become the living legend that Pesky did in Boston.  There are many reasons you can't blame Ralph Branca, here are just a few:

1.  The Dodgers blew a 13 game lead.  For a pitcher that only plays once every few days Branca cannot blow every game by himself.  Branca lost seven times between the first game of the August 11th double header (which he won putting the Dodgers up by 13 games) and the end of the season.  He also won three.  During his seven losses the team scored only 16 runs (4 times only scoring one run).

2.  Dodger pitchers were tired by that point.  The Dodgers only had three starting pitchers make more than 20 starts throughout the season.  Newcombe made 36 starts, Preacher Roe made 33 starts and Branca made 27 starts.  The next closest was Carl Erskine with 19.  Further, while most pitchers today have a pitch count or a season inning limit, pitchers of this era would pitch until their arm would break.  Newcombe ended the season with 272 innings pitched, Roe had 257 innings pitched and Branca 204 innings pitched.  Branca himself said years later "we had a short pitching staff.  Charley Dressen...had five guys who he used extensively, and the pitchers ran out of gas."

3. The two big hitters in the Dodgers lineup slumped at the same time.  Pee Wee Reese, the leadoff man, was hitting .314 as Branca won game two of the August 11 double header. From that point on his average would drop as low as .281 before rebounding for a .286 final season average.  Reese also hit a total of 10 Home Runs for the year (he was not a power hitter) but all of them came before August 11.  Duke Snider was, however, the power hitter in the lineup.  He would hit a total of 29 Home Runs in 1951, including one in each game of the August 11 double header.  After August 11, he would hit only three more for the season and only one during September.  Snider admitted in his autobiography that this helped the collapse:  "The Giants started coming like gangbusters, and at that same time, Pee wee and I both started to slump.  When a baseball team has its leadoff hitter and its number thee hitter in slumps at the same time, its not going to score many runs."  Snider's accuracy can be seen in Branca's low run support after August 11.  Snider also said in an interview years later: "I had a very bad September, felt very bad about it.  A couple of hits here, a couple of hits there, and we wouldn't have had a playoff.  You take it personally.  I think everyone did.  Pee Wee didn't have a good September and he and I would talk about it and try to analyze the situation driving to and from the ballpark.  It was something you had no control over; still at the time, I was very concerned."  I am definitely not implying that the blame should all shift to Snider and Reese.  I am just saying that in the overall collapse, their simultaneous slumps played a big part.

4. The Dodgers woke the sleeping Giants.  Charlie Dressen, Dodgers manager, was a disciple of Leo Durocher, from Leo's days with Brooklyn.  Dressen wanted nothing more than to prove that he had surpassed his former mentor.  On July 4 the Dodgers beat the Giants in both games of a double header.  Dressen made a comment after the game "Those two beatings we gave them knocked them out of it.  They'll never bother us again."  The real turning point again came in the first week of August.  The Dodgers swept the Giants in three games before facing off against Boston for the August 11 double header.  One of the quirks of Ebbetts Field was that the ventilation system allowed some conversation to be overheard from locker room to locker room.  It was a league wide "secret".  After the three game sweep the Giants' locker room was a somber place.  New York wasn't making a sound so the noise coming from the Dodger clubhouse was easily audible.  Several of the players took advantage of the situation and made sure their comments about how bad the Giants were (especially targeting Durocher) were spoken in the direction of the vents.  The Giants were angry and became determined on payback.  Add to that Dressen's published comment "the Giants is dead" and the sleeping Giant was definitely starting to wake up.

5.  Charley Dressen changed his pattern when Branca came into the game.  Dressen was a great strategist.  He would often tell his team "just hold them until the 7th inning.  I'll figure something out."  More often than not, he did.  In the years to come Gene Mach (keep reading this series of articles and you'll get there) would be accused of over managing a game.  Dressen may have been guilty of the same.  The pitchers coming in from the bullpen were used to the routine.  Dressen would take the ball from the pitcher.  Wait on the mound for the reliever to arrive and then discuss the batter before starting their warm ups.  Dressen would tell them where the hitter liked the ball, what type of pitch he liked and where to pitch him.  It happened every time...except this time.  The wording of his short statement to Branca vary from "Go get 'em." to "Get 'im out." but he not only didn't give Branca the normal information he didn't wait for him to reach the mound.  In his autobiography, Snider gave his view from Centerfield. "When Branca got about five feet from Charlie, Dressen flipped the ball to him...and headed back to the dugout...I noticed Dressen's absence and I'm sure some other Dodger players did too, and I thought to myself, 'Oh-oh. Charlie's worried'.  That made me worried too."  The problem wasn't just the broken routine, it was the difference in personnel.  Roy Campanella, one of the greatest Catchers to ever play the game, had one of the great baseball minds and could control a game from behind the plate as well as anyone in history.  Campanella had the complete confidence of the pitching staff and if he called a pitch the pitchers knew it was the right pitch to throw.  But Campy was not in the game.  He was injured and couldn't play so Rube Walker, the back up Catcher who would play in a total of 36 games in 1955 (including this one), was handling the catching duties.  Walker was a good Catcher but there was only one Campy.  Knowing that Branca and Walker had worked together so little Dressen needed to take charge and tell them both what Thomson would be looking for.  The talk may or may not have changed the course of history, but it likely would have helped steady the situation and bring some normalcy to the abnormal moment.

6.  Campy was not the only injured player. While many other players were out there despite the aches, pains, knicks and bruises that come with the long baseball season, others just couldn't make it through the year.  Campanella was a tough guy.  He won an MVP award while catching with a broken hand so severe that he couldn't squeeze the glove closed or grip the bat properly.  If he couldn't play you knew it was severe.  The important one (other than Campanella) was Clyde King.  The term closer didn't exist yet.  Relief pitchers were not "specialists" they were pitchers not good enough to start.  The late 1940's and 1950's saw the emergence of relief pitchers with players like Joe Page of the Yankees but the everyday use of relievers was over two decades away.  Clyde King appeared in 48 games for the 1951 Dodgers, the most of any of their pitchers, and only started three games.  King would save only six games that year but he went 14-6.  "I was 13-4 in early August.  I had a chance to win twenty games that year, and I came down with tendinitis...If I hadn't hurt my arm, I would have been the guy who would have pitched to Bobby Thomson."

7.  Probably the most important of all, the Giants were stealing signs.  Ever been at a game where the Catcher goes out to visit the mound, then after the next pitch goes right back out?  There's a reason for it.  Ever wonder why the Catcher drops so many different signs down before the pitcher decides to throw? There's a reason for it.  The other team is always trying to get an advantage and stealing signs is one of the oldest tricks to get the advantage.  Teams can develop some pretty elaborate systems to steal signs.  The Philadelphia Phillies, in the early 1900's, had a telegraph wire running from centerfield through the third base coach's box.  A Phillies' employee with a telescope would operate the system and give one pulse for a fastball and two pulses for a breaking ball.  This system was eventually discovered and the Phillies were punished (the punishment may have been that they had to still be the Phillies for the next 80 years).  The 1940 pennant winning Detroit Tigers used a rifle scope to steal signs.  Hank Greenberg (that's right, another Hank Greenberg reference, get used to it) told how they had a man standing at the bullpen wall "watching the game".  If he kept his right arm on top of the wall the batter could expect a fastball and if the right arm dropped down the batter could expect a curveball.  Some batters don't want signs.  The Tigers at the start of the 1900's had their own system and told Ty Cobb what to look for.  He told them he could hit without the help and, of course, he did.  Back to the 1951 Giants.  The Dodgers were convinced they were stealing signs.  Dodgers coach Cookie Lavagetto was positive:  "Hell, we knew they were getting them.  I talked about it with Charley Dressen.  I said 'Charley, you notice when we come here, we never fool anybody?  We throw a guy a change of pace, he seems to know what's coming.....Whatever he had out there he had a good system."


  1. I didn't realize how elaborate the stealing signs system was. That's actually pretty clever of them.

  2. Growing up as a kid, listening to the call of "The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant" was what baseball was all about. The call is just as special as the actual home run.
    Baseball is a funny game. It is 162 games(154 back in 1951). Crazy things happen in those games. In my mind the Giants did win the pennant, Ralph Branca did not lose the pennant.
    I was surprised that Branca lost 7 games in the last 45 days of the season.
    I did know that Dressen had made the comment that the Gisnts were dead. Did not know about the ventilation system at ebbets Field.
    I also knew that Campy was a great leader but it was interesting to learn that he did not play in this game.
    Great research as usual.


  3. Branca was 10-3 with a 2.66 ERA and allowed just 6 home runs over his first 28 appearances (132 innings) of 1951. Over his final 14 appearances (72 innings), including the two playoff games, Branca went 3-9 with a 4.38 ERA and allowed 13 home runs. His ERA ballooned by 1.72 runs. Branca had a better WHIP (1.24) over his final 14 appearances than he did over his first 28 (1.33), so it seems his biggest problem was giving up the long ball. No one player can take full responsibility for the Dodgers' collapse, but Branca certainly was one of the goats and he certainly deserves his share of the blame.


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