Pondering the Meaning of Branca’s Jewish Roots

Richard Sandomir
August 15, 2011
The New York Times

For Shel Wallman, a co-editor of the Jewish Sports Review, the searching question, if rather high profile, was not uncommon: should Ralph Branca, historic goat, get to join the magazine’s list of official Jewish athletes?

Wallman, whose publication has come out six times a year for 14 years, weighed the competing information. Branca had been raised Roman Catholic and had in fact credited his Christian faith with having helped him endure six decades of regret and abuse. But now it had been revealed that Branca’s mother was Jewish and that he, by traditional Jewish law, was considered Jewish, as well.

For Wallman, the decision — he might have called it a ruling — was straightforward, and, to him, anything but Talmudic. Branca, he said, had not been a practicing Jew. Case closed.

“He could say, ‘I’ll practice the Jewish religion from here on’ — we wouldn’t add him,” Wallman said.

Wallman was not alone on Monday coming to terms with Branca’s startling late-life revelation. Branca said he had never known of his mother’s Jewishness until a reporter did research proving it this year.

The revelation of Branca’s Jewish roots, nearly 60 years after he gave up the pennant-winning home run to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson on Oct. 3, 1951, is now being absorbed and assessed by Catholics and Jews; priests and rabbis; Brooklyn Dodgers fans and aficionados of Jewish baseball history.

Where does a man long remembered for infamy fit in? Is he now a Jew? Is he still a Catholic?

“Of the roughly 17,000 guys who’ve played professional baseball, precious few are Jews,” said Scott Barancik, who runs the Jewish Baseball News Web site. “Anytime you see the list grow, it’s fulfilling. It’s a heartwarming story: a guy comfortable in his Catholicism finds his past is more nuanced than he thought.”

But is it more than nuance? Is there naches, or pleasure, in knowing that Branca’s mother was a Jew?

Even more, is it possible that Jews could do this newfound brother a spiritual mitzvah by absorbing some of the guilt Branca felt for giving up the home run to Thomson?

“We’re experts at assuming guilt,” said Barancik, a Jew. “So I’ll take responsibility for that home run.”

Bill Kent, the president of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, responded to news of Branca’s Jewishness with a wisecrack.

“Well, I wouldn’t hold it against her,” said Kent, who is Jewish.

If Branca belongs on a list of Jewish athletes other than Wallman’s, it might be the one at jewishmajorleaguers.org, between Lou Boudreau, the Hall of Famer, and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. His landsmen in Brooklyn Dodgers history would include Moe Berg, Harry Eisenstat, Goody Rosen, Cal Abrams and Sandy Koufax.

Koufax and Hank Greenberg are the most famous Jews in baseball history. Branca, for all we knew until Monday, was a Catholic who asked counsel from a Jesuit priest after the Thomson home run.

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Dodgers fan, lawyer and Harvard professor. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.” (Koufax, of course, knew he was a Jew.)

Dershowitz, in fact, theorized that Branca, to his eyes as a boy, did not pitch “Jewishly.”


“Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh,” he said. “Branca was straight-on; you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

Note: Dershowitz said he turned to atheism (at 13) after Branca’s fateful pitch to Thomson.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who turned memories of her rooting for the Dodgers as a girl from Rockville Centre on Long Island into the autobiographical “Wait Till Next Year,” said that hearing of Branca’s Jewish background prompted an immediate discussion with her husband, Richard Goodwin.

“I’m Catholic and my husband is Jewish and he said, ‘Oh, we get blamed for everything; now we’ll get blamed for this!’ ” she said from Concord, Mass., referring to Thomson’s home run. “I said, ‘No, he was brought up Catholic.’ And my son Joe said, ‘I’ll get double blame!’ ”

William Donohue, a Yankees fan who is the president of the Catholic League, said he was impressed to learn that Branca’s mother had instilled in her family a tolerance of Jews, blacks, Irish, Germans and Italians in the Branca family’s neighborhood in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

“She sounded more open-minded at the time than some Catholics were,” he said. “At the time, Catholics were very ethnically oriented. Jews were more inclined to reach out.”

David Zaslow, a rabbi in Ashland, Ore., was raised in Coney Island a devout Dodgers fan, with Branca one of his heroes. “Everybody in Brooklyn loved Ralph Branca,” he said. “All of us identified with him for his sorrow, for the heartbreak itself, when he made that pitch.”

Knowing that Branca’s mother was Jewish made Zaslow think this was a new step in the old pitcher’s life. “This is a very Jewish story — even the story of not knowing you’re Jewish,” he said. “Thousands of people every year discover they have Jewish roots.”

But in Flushing, Queens, Irving Aks, a child of East New York, had his doubts.

The day before Branca’s fateful pitch, Aks said, he sneaked into the Polo Grounds carrying a funeral wreath his brother made that he planned to rest at home plate to celebrate the hoped-for baseball death of the Giants. He said he slept in a custodian’s closet and the next day retrieved the wreath from its hiding place in the ninth inning, with Brooklyn ahead, 4-1.

Branca’s pitch undid his mission, and Aks left the wreath at his seat in foul territory in left field.

Aks simply found it too much to believe that Kati Branca never celebrated a Jewish holiday or divulged to her 17 children that she was born Kati Berger.

“I can’t believe there was never a hint,” said Aks, who is Jewish. “Through the years, she had to say something, observe something. I can’t believe she went through life, as a Jewish mother, and you don’t know from Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur or Pesach? It’s hard to believe.”

Branca will never, it seems, celebrate his inclusion in the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y., where the baseball inductees include Koufax, Berg, Ron Blomberg, Saul Rogovin, Art Shamsky, and Mike Epstein, who was once nicknamed Super Jew. But Branca, who was 88-68, with a 3.79 earned run average, not a bad career record, is excluded.

“I, too, am from Mount Vernon and always felt an affinity for Mr. Branca,” Alan Freedman, the director of the hall of fame, wrote in an e-mail. But, he said, consideration of a nominee is not based on the parents’ or grandparents’ backgrounds, but on whether he was raised Jewish and considers himself a Jew.

Another slight for Branca.

“Here’s a good question,” Barancik said. “If you’re a Jewish baseball fan, would you rather find out Ralph Branca had a hidden Jewish past or that Bobby Thomson did? All things being equal, give me Thomson.”

Joshua Prager and Hunter Atkins contributed reporting.