For Branca, an Asterisk Of A Different Kind

Ralph Branca always drew upon the strength of his Roman Catholic faith to live with having surrendered baseball’s most famous home run. But then came a revelation out of left field.

August 15, 2011, The New York Times

Earlier this summer, Ralph Branca met me at a country club in Westchester where he lives, extending the arthritic hand that 60 years ago this October threw the baseball that became the most famous of home runs, the “shot heard round the world.”

I knew the old pitcher well. A decade before, I had written in The Wall Street Journal that in 1951, the New York Giants used a spyglass to detect which type of pitch opposing pitchers were about to throw them at the Polo Grounds, their Harlem home. They had stolen the sign for Branca’s second fastball on Oct. 3. (The batter ultimately denied using it.)

We entered the dining hall. Branca wore black shoes, chinos, a collared white shirt with three buttons. I had not seen the pitcher since the 2010 memorial service for Bobby Thomson, the batter who had felled him. Thomson had been the quieter of the two — a Glaswegian, a Protestant, a tenor, and Branca a New Yorker, a Roman Catholic, a bass. And it was clear on this summer Friday as we walked past the buffet that although arthritis in his lower back slowed Branca, he remained at 85 undiminished: broad and tall with big feet, big ears, big brown eyes and a big nose that had been bigger still before an operation to clear his sinuses. He was still pitching, too, insurance if not baseballs, and he greeted a waitress by name. Susan showed us to a table by a large window.

Branca folded his bare arms and looked out onto the golf course. I asked if he had mentioned to anyone the reason for our lunch — the second revelation I had recently told him. He said he had told his wife, Ann.

“I said,” recalled Branca, “‘do you know you married a Jew?’”

Branca’s mother, Kati, immigrated to the United States in 1901 from Sandorf, Hungary. (The town is now Prievaly, Slovakia.) Her maiden name was Berger. I had included this fact in the book I ultimately wrote about the Thomson home run, “The Echoing Green.” A psychiatrist from Brooklyn named Michael Bennett had read it, and he e-mailed me last December wondering if Kati was Jewish.

I telephoned Branca. Best he knew, his mother had been a Catholic all her life. He encouraged me to let him know what I found.

I passed the question to Michael Miller, a close friend and a professor of Jewish history in Budapest. He contacted a Hungarian Jewish genealogy group. And now, at the country club where Branca has lived since 1977, I laid before him the records that Miller and the group had found. They included:

• The 1884 marriage of Ignatz Berger and Antonia Gipsz, a ceremony at which Jakob Friedman, a rabbi in Sandorf, had officiated.

• The births of the couple’s eight children over the next 12 years: Kati, the eldest, and Miksa, Sandor, Irma, Fanni, Sandor, Moricz and Jozsef. (The first Sandor died as a toddler.)

• The mohels and sandeks who performed each bris and held each boy during the circumcisions.

• The arrival of Kati in the United States. On Nov. 17, 1901, a gatekeeper at Ellis Island categorized her as single, Hungarian, a seamstress, white, literate and “Isr”— Israelite, signifying a Jew.

And there was the death of Jozsef. On June 12, 1942, the Nazis deported him, his wife, Janka, their daughter, Helene, and their sons, Henrich and Ignatz. Jozsef was killed at the Majdanek concentration camp, his wife and children at Sobibor. Kati had two other siblings who remained in Europe. I did not learn how Moricz died. But helped by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, I later learned that Irma, together with her husband, Arthur Grünmandl, her daughter Paula and her son Oscar, died at Auschwitz in 1942, one year before Branca turned professional in Olean, N.Y., pitching at age 17 for Manager Jake Pitler.

When I had phoned Branca and told him that his mother, Kati, was Jewish and that thus, according to traditional Jewish law, he and his 16 siblings were, too, the loud man was quiet. But when I had told him of the murder of his uncle, Branca had looked for words. “Uh, oh, boy,” he had said. “My mother never mentioned this to me.”

Branca took hold of the papers, a burden of identification suddenly real. I asked how his wife had responded to his newfound past. “You’ve always practiced, you’ve always been a Catholic,” she had said. They hadn’t spoken of it since.

Branca ordered a Caesar salad, and I asked if he was interested in learning more about Judaism. There was much to tell, starting with the fact that the worst day of his life, 60 Octobers past, had been a minor Jewish fast day.

“I know enough,” he said. “I know their customs, Passover Seder.”

Kati had raised her children to be open-minded, to accept the Jews, blacks, Irish, Germans and fellow Italians who packed the 4.21 square miles that made up Mount Vernon, N.Y. Their town was teeming with new last names, with the turning over of new leaves. And as is often the case with those who take up a new religion, it was Branca’s mother and not his father who was the more devout Catholic, he said. She saw to it that the children were baptized and confirmed. She frequently went with Branca to Mass during World War II. And she gave him a medallion of St. Christopher to wear when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944. (Through three and a third innings, the Christian martyr warded off all dangers save a solo homer by Phil Weintraub — one of four Jews in the league.)

Back at the country club, Branca eyed four duffers through the restaurant window. “Maybe that’s why God’s mad at me — that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion,” he said. He was smiling but sincere, a Job wondering about the root of his suffering. “He made me throw that home run pitch. He made me get injured the next year. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.”

For Branca to posit that the home run, the great hinge of his life, was a curse was a striking departure for him. Hours after it flew, a Jesuit priest had put forth to the Catholic pitcher an explanation of his victimhood that rang true: God had chosen him to yield the home run because God knew his faith was strong enough to sustain him through what would follow. Yes it was, thought Branca. And so ever since, even as the goat endured public discourteousness for 60 years, he praised God, reciting every morning and night the “Our Father,” a “Hail Mary” and a couplet of his own: “Make me worthy of your love; make my love worthy of you.”

Branca paused from his lunch to let forth a burst of philosemitism — declaiming the health benefits of kashrut and circumcision, the synonymy of Judaism with charity, leadership, patriotism, brains.

“When I was in school, the smartest kids were the Jewish kids,” he said. I pointed out that he was one of them. (He went to New York University.) Branca answered, “I didn’t know that.”

Branca had to find room for his Jewishness in his life story, and quite literally. His autobiography, “A Moment in Time,” was due out in September. He inserted two sentences.

Branca’s roots may well increase sales among the People of the Book. In 1951, one of every three Brooklynites was a Jew, and many held as fast to their chosen team as to their inherited religion. But when word gets out that the great goat was doubly chosen — that the baseballer most identified with victimhood was born to a Jewish mother — will his landsmen hold him dear?

Branca swore good-naturedly when I mentioned that his 88 victories were the eighth most among Jewish hurlers. “If I didn’t get hurt, I’d be No. 1,” he said.

I wondered what it was like for Kati Berger to become Katherine Branca, to leave a Jewish home in Europe at 16 and start a Christian home in America a year later. I phoned Bill Branca, Ralph’s manager and nephew, and wound up talking to his mother, Mildred. She was 86, had been married to Branca’s brother John, and told me a story.

Mildred had once visited Kati’s sister Fanni, who had immigrated to the United States. Fanni was openly Jewish and lived in a Jewish nursing home in upstate New York.

Fanni had told her that Kati had written their parents a letter from New York. In it, she had asked two questions. Would they allow her to marry a Catholic? Would they allow her to raise her children as Christians? Fanni told Mildred she had seen the letter and the letter her parents sent back. Yes and yes, they wrote. And so Kati had married John Branca, a trolley car conductor from Italy.

Over the years, Mildred said, Fanni shared with several of Ralph’s siblings that their mother was Jewish. She told his oldest sisters, Antoinette and Annunziata, and his youngest brother, Al.

“I used to question my mother about it,” Al, 83, said last week. “ ‘Are we Jewish?’ And she never would give me a definite answer. I don’t see why she didn’t come out and say it.”

Kati died in 1969, buried in a Catholic cemetery in New Rochelle. Ralph and Al are the last of her 17 children living.

I asked Branca what he and his mother would say to each other now that her secret was out. “Ralphie, I’m glad you know,” Branca said, channeling his mother. “Thanks, Mom,” he would say. “I’m glad I know.”

I have known Branca for 11 years. He is an honest man and has an astonishing memory. (In 1961, he won 17 straight games on “Concentration,” an NBC game show that measured recall.)

Given that Branca, like some of his siblings, also once visited Fanni, some may wonder how he never learned that his mother was Jewish. Some may wonder if, like his siblings, he had. “He should have known,” his brother Al told me.

But perhaps, as he says, no one told him. Further, not everyone is eager to pursue questions that might complicate his identity. As Branca told me when I first wrote about the Giants’ cheating: “People don’t want history changed.”

Our Friday lunch at the club ended. I mentioned to Branca the approaching Sabbath.

“I have to get my money from Mrs. Lichtenfeld,” Branca said.

What? I asked. Branca explained. He told me that as a boy in Mount Vernon, he had lighted the stove for a Jewish neighbor every Friday night. He had been a Shabbos goy, doing something that was forbidden for Jews to do on the Sabbath.

Here was a memory that elevated experience over genes, that affirmed Branca’s sense of self. He was a Catholic, not a Jew.

“If I was Jewish, I couldn’t have done it,” he said. He added, “I’m not going to sell my soul for a penny.”