Branca Headed For Jewish Sports Hall?

Stewart Ain
August 16, 2011
The Jewish Week

The revelation that Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca has Jewish roots (his mother was Jewish, but he was raised Catholic) has created such a stir at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack, L.I., that Branca will be considered for induction into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum housed there — albeit through the back door.

Branca, yes the Branca who threw the pitch that Bobby Thompson of the Giants hit into the left field stands to win the 1951 pennant, may now be embraced by the Hall of Fame for the sportsmanship he exhibited in the 60 years after that historic event.

“We have a George Young Award named for the former general manager of the New York [football] Giants that we give to those who are not Jewish and who have done some good deed that we want to recognize,” said Alan Freedman, director of the Hall of Fame.

An avid baseball fan himself, Freedman said he saw the bond Branca and Thompson developed over the years as they toured together talking about the “shot heard ‘round the world.”

“They were good for baseball,” he said. “Our nominating committee will be meeting in the next week or two, and with so much talk around the Y about Branca’s Jewish roots, I will ask that they consider him for the award.”

Branca’s Jewish heritage, as first reported in the New York Times, came as a surprise to many, including Branca, 85.

“Halachically, there might be an argument to be made that he is Jewish,” Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and an expert on Jews in sports, said referring to Jewish law. “It’s an intriguing story. But I think he should be considered a good guy who likes Jews, and to me that is sufficient.”

The news comes at a time when the number of Jewish players in major league baseball — from Ryan Braun to Kevin Youkilis to Ike Davis — is at an all-time high, Gurock pointed out.

“I think there is a minyan or close to it,” he said. “I think it’s a temporary phenomenon. They come from such places as Florida and California that have large Jewish populations. I’ve heard that a significant number of them want to play in 2013 in a world competition representing Israel because under the Law of Return all Jews can receive Israeli citizenship.”

The disclosure of Branca’s Jewish ancestry is reminiscent of other notables who were unaware of their Jewish roots. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for instance, said it was “obviously a major surprise to me” when she learned in 1997 that her parents were Jewish converts to Christianity and that her grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Branca’s aunt and uncle were also killed in the Holocaust, according to documents discovered by The Times.

Freedman noted that Branca was a best man at the wedding of Arthur Richman, the late baseball writer and executive with the New York Mets and Yankees, who is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame next April.

“Branca played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the most intensely Jewish area, and the fact that he had a favorable disposition to Jews is not surprising,” Gurock said.