Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up the home run to Bobby Thompson that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, carried the goat's burden with grace and dignity over the decades.
Branca, who died Wednesday at age 90, threw a fastball that Thompson drilled into the left field stands of the Polo Grounds, culminating a Giants comeback from 13 and a half games back in August. When asked by a sportswriter if the Giants could catch the Dodgers, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen asked if the Giants were still in the league. Stirred by Dressen's gibe, Leo Durocher's Giants came back to tie the Dodgers, resulting in a three-game playoff won by Thompson's homer in the last inning of the final game.
The moment known as "the shot heard around the world" received years of literary examination, including Don DeLillo's description in his novel "Underworld," parts of which The New York Times quoted in its front-page obituary Thursday. New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith wrote a classic immediate account that has an understated grandeur that outlasts DeLillo's overwrought language.
Branca and Thompson, who died in 2010, forged a close friendship over the years, often appearing at autograph-signing events. The relationship was strained when Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager disclosed a Giants sign-stealing scheme, involving a telescope behind the Polo Grounds' distant scoreboard, a buzzer and simple signals to tell Giants hitters whether a fastball or curve was coming.
Thompson admitted that he'd been tipped off several times during the Giants' hot streak to overtake the Dodgers. But Thompson insisted that he hadn't been told that Branca would throw a fastball.
After Prager's report, Branca often stated that he believed that Thompson did know what pitch he'd be throwing. Branca also said he'd heard about the sign-stealing system in the early 1950s as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
Claiming that Thompson had been tipped off detracted from Branca's earlier dignified acceptance of his fate. After the home run, a priest told Branca that he'd been chosen by God to show how to overcome suffering, a consolation that Branca accepted.
Prager went on to write a book, "The Echoing Green," which was not so much about the sign stealing revelations as about how the event shadowed the two men's lives.
The 6-3, 225-pound Branca's brilliant early career quickly declined after the famous home run. Branca said a freak injury from a clubhouse accident caused his career's demise and that his pitching was not harmed by the trauma of giving up the home run.
Branca's death will not end the controversy and examinations of Thompson's home run. Merkle, Branca and Buckner are an unholy trinity whose egregious moments gained baseball immortality.