Jewish or Not, the Pitcher Was a Mensch

Jonathan S. Tobin
August 15, 2011
Commentary Magazine

Sixty years ago Ralph Branca earned baseball immortality by throwing the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit for a home run that ended the 1951 National League playoff in which the New York Giants broke the hearts of Brooklyn Dodger fans. Images of Branca lying face down weeping in the Dodger clubhouse after the game ran in newspapers around the country. But Branca was no sore loser. He is remembered today as much for the fact that he always reacted to his unwanted celebrity with grace and good humor and even become friends with Thomson in later years.

But despite all the ink that was spilled about him over the years a feature in today’s New York Times by Joshua Prager reveals that there is an angle to his story that has never been revealed until now: Branca’s mother was Jewish and many of his aunts, uncles and cousins perished in the Holocaust.

Prager is the author of a book about the 1951 playoff published 10 years ago that revealed the fact that the Giants were stealing opponents’ signs at home games that year. This was a piece of history that retrospectively dimmed the luster of the Giants victory and made Branca’s fateful pitch seem a bit less culpable. The material he found about Branca’s family subsequently prompted questions and after some digging Prager discovered that, unknown to the pitcher, his mother was born and raised a Jew in pre-World War Two Hungary. But when she married an Italian-American Catholic she concealed the truth about her identity from her 17 children as well as never mentioning the fate of the family that she left behind.

This is particularly interesting not just because it might add another name to the set of Jewish Baseball Cards but because Branca was just as much a symbol of the power of faith as he was of failure. In the immediate aftermath of the home run, a Jesuit priest told Branca that perhaps God had chosen him to throw the fateful pitch because He knew his faith was strong enough to sustain him. The priest was right about that as Branca’s unfailing patience and civility enabled him to survive the opprobrium to which he was subjected then and in the years since.

According to Jewish religious law the fact of his mother’s Jewish birth makes Branca a Jew. Yet although, as Prager points out, Branca may now be considered to rank 8th on the list of lifetime wins by a Jewish pitcher in the Major Leagues with 88 (Ken Holtzman is first with 174 and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax is second with 165), nothing can change the fact that Branca was born, raised and has lived his 85 years as a faithful Catholic. But there is no question that no matter which group can lay claim to him, he was always a mensch.