In life and especially in sports someone emerges as the hero and someone else the goat. It almost seems like a balancing act, Kind of like where there is darkness there is light, where there is bad there is good. On that fateful day October 3, 1951 Bobby Thomson was the hero and Ralph Branca was dubbed the goat. To understand the importance of the situation you need a history of New York baseball at that time. New York or more affectionately called “The Big Apple”, was the hub of baseball back then. The Yankees were in the midst of 5 straight World Series victories and the Brooklyn Dodgers were winning national league pennants with regularity. Then there was the New York Giants who always had an intense rivalry with the Dodgers. If you lived in New York you were identified in a large part by who you rooted for. Many Yankee fans were front runners. It was easy rooting for the Yankees because they seemed to always win. They wore suits to the games and ushers not only escorted them to their seats but wiped them off as an extra bonus.
If you lived in New York and were not a Yankee fan you might have been a Giant fan. Giant fans were more traditionalists. The Giants used to own New York baseball. At the turn of the century the Dodgers and the Highlanders (now known as the Yankees) were not very good teams. However the Giants were always contending for the pennant. A good number of Giant fans grew up Giant fans in the family tradition. Grandfathers and fathers taught their kids to love the Giants. They also grew up hating the Dodgers who they played 22 times a year. Giant fans were more of the middle of the road team as far as economics. They were not the elite like many of the Yankees fans were and they were not on the other side of the scale like most Dodgers fans. The Giants played in an ancient ball park called the Polo Grounds. They used to rent the Polo Grounds to the upstart Yankees until the Yankees built a new stadium which could be seen on a clear day from your seat at the Polo Grounds.
The third team the Brooklyn Dodgers had fans like no other. Because Brooklyn was a place in New York without very much going on for it, the baseball team was far more important to their inhabitants than fans of the other two. The Brooklyn fans were mostly blue collar workers. Their dominant language was Brooklynese which was actually an accent which pronounced words differently. For example back in the history of the Dodgers they got a former Yankee pitcher named Waite Hoyt late in his career. Hoyt hit a double one time and on his way to second base he pulled a muscle. A disappointed Brooklyn fan was heard saying “Hurt is hoyt.”
The Brooklyn fans were crazy about their team. A big event was going to their little cozy ball park. It only seated a little over 30,000. There were hometown signs on the fence and popular national advertisers. One of the signs was a local Tailor who advertised that if someone hit the sign on the fly they would get a free suit. The problem was that Brooklyn’s best outfielder Carl Furillo played right field and nobody can ever remember the sign being hit. The ballpark was built in limited space which explains its odd dimensions which included a very short right field. To counter that a big wall was built to hit over. Hitting that wall caused different problems for the fielder. The ball was liable to bounce anywhere after it hit courtesy of the angle and hardness of the hit. Carl Furillo became an expert playing the angles and it was an advantage for the Brooklyn team.
The Brooklyn players were part of the community. It was not uncommon to run into them at the grocery store or on the subway coming from the game. They were loved even when they had a bad team and their affection was so strong that they called the team “Dem Bums” as they still flocked to the ballpark. The fans had a band called the Brooklyn Sym phony which was named by their announcer Red Barber with the emphasis on the word phony. Their sound was awful, out of tune and lacking timing. But the Brooklyn fans loved them. They also had unforgettable fans like Hilda Chester who had a very loud voice and a cow bell that she rang constantly especially after a Dodger good play! As you can see the Brooklyn Dodgers were almost like a religion to Brooklyn inhabitants and their games were inflated greatly as to their importance. In that setting walked Ralph Branca in the third and final playoff game to determine who would go to the World Series.
Branca was called to relieve Don Newcombe who had pitched a wonderful game but was out of gas. Leading 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning the Giants got their first 2 men on base courtesy of hits. With runners on second and third and only one out manager Charley Dressen took Newcombe out. Walking the long walk from the bull pen was Ralph Branca. As Branca met Newcombe they had a little talk. “Don’t worry about it big fella, I’ll take care of everything.”, Branca reportedly said. Years later Newcombe quipped that “it only took 2 pitches but he took care of it alright.”
Branca put his foot on the pitching rubber. It was a place he had been many times and he felt comfortable. His first pitch was his best, a fastball right down the middle. Thomson took it for strike one. He was frustrated thinking he might not see a pitch like that again. Branca thought that he would throw his next fastball high and tight. It would be out of the strike zone and brush Thomson off of the plate and prepare him for a possible curve ball or fastball over the outside corner with later pitches. Unfortunately for Ralph there were no later pitches. Thomson turned on the fastball that would have come close to hitting him and slugged a low line drive down the left field line.
Everything happened so fast. The ball barely cleared the wall and the place was going crazy. Thomson was carried off of the field and the Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges was yelling into his microphone “The Giants win the Pennant, The Giants win the Pennant.” A dejected Branca was forced to take the long walk to the dressing room in defeat. What a lonely walk that must have been. Feeling like the goat, feeling like his world had come to an end and feeling like he let his teammates and his fans down all rolled into one.
In the Locker room Branca was crying. He stretched himself out on the steps between the outside door and the locker room area. A cameraman took a picture of him and won a prize for it. Branca face down obviously in misery clearly showed the agony of defeat. After a long while Branca got dressed and was walking across the parking lot to his car. He happened to see a priest and in a short meeting words of wisdom were given. Words that would stay with Branca for the rest of his life. “Why me? Why” , Ralph asked the Priest. “Because”, the priest said, “God knew that you were strong enough to carry his cross.”
Ralph Branca married his fiance just a 17 days after the tragic event. Even though many Brooklyn fans didn’t forgive him Branca was able to eventually forgive himself. He became good friends with Bobby Thomson and was even able to laugh about the hero and the goat labels. He was a leader in the foundation of B.A.T.S which helps former big league players who are struggling with their finances. After hearing of Brancas death in 2016 at the age of 90 Vin Scully the ex Brooklyn broadcaster said it best. “I was closer to Ralph than to any other Dodger,” Scully said, after hearing the news. “We traveled around the world and became very good friends. He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace. I was grateful for his friendship and I grieve at his death. He was a great man.”
Like Branca many of you are wondering why. Why did this happen to me? Why did I make this stupid mistake? Why did this go so wrong when I meant it to be so right? Like Branca, you need to take off those goat horns that are bringing you down. Whatever happened is over and done. Make the best of your experiences good and bad, but move on. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Quit living in the past and blaming yourself daily for past mistakes. You are not growing when you can’t get past the history that is holding you back. Why did this happen to you? The answer is the same as what the Priest told Branca. “Because God knew you were strong enough to carry his cross!