Sporting events have always been a favorite pastime for Americans. For some, sports are a great escape from the day-to-day monotony of everyday life. For others sports are far more important, almost more important that life itself.
I suppose that’s one reason we’ve all laid blame on individuals when our favorite teams stumble on the playing field.
One of those sporting field “goats” from long, long ago passed away this week at the age of 90.
He became forever known as a “goat” because of one pitch he threw more than 65 years ago. He became vilified by fans of his team, blamed for his team’s loss on the final game of the regular season, a loss that knocked his team out of World Series competition.
To set the stage, the 1951 baseball season was highly anticipated. The “Whiz Kids” Philadelphia Phillies had been champions in 1950 and were again among National League favorites. They were mentioned as pennant contenders right along with two teams from New York – the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.
As the season progressed, it was the Dodgers who began putting distance between themselves and the Giants as the National League season progressed. On the other side, quite naturally, the New York Yankees were on their way to yet another American League pennant.
All eyes of the baseball world were focused on the Yankees in the American League and the Dodgers in the National. By mid-August, Brooklyn had built a 13-1/2 game lead over the Giants. Yes, the baseball world was preparing for another October classic between the Yankees and Dodgers.
That’s when things turned sour for Brooklyn and good for the Giants. While the Dodgers began a late-season slump, the Giants began winning. With each victory, New York trimmed a little from what most believed was an insurmountable lead by Brooklyn. On Sept. 20, Brooklyn had 10 games remaining, the Giants had only seven and the Dodgers enjoyed a 4-1/2 game lead.
As is often the case in sports, however, the improbable happened. The Giants won all seven of their remaining games. On the final day of the season, Brooklyn needed only to beat the Phillies to claim the pennant. They lost 9-8, setting up a three-game playoff with the Giants for the National League crown.
The Giants won the first game 3-1 behind home runs by Bobby Thomson and Monte Irvin. Ralph Branca was the losing pitcher in that one. The Dodgers evened things with a 10-0 win in game two behind the pitching of Clem Labine and home runs by Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Andy Pafko and Rube Walker.
In the deciding game, Brooklyn scored three in the top of the eighth inning and took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth behind ace pitcher Don Newcombe. After a couple hits, it was 4-2 with Giants’ runners on second and third. Dodger manager went to the bullpen can summoned Branca, who’d been the losing pitcher in game one, to face Bobby Thomson.
Branca was a fast ball pitcher and Thomson a fast ball hitter. Despite that, Dodger manager Chuck Dressen brought in Branca because he’d seen Carl Erskine, also warming up for the Dodgers, throw a few curve balls into the dirt.
You know the rest. Branca delivered a fast ball and Thomson hit a home run over the short left field fence in New York’s Polo Grounds. It became known as the “Miracle of Cougan’s Bluff” and the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” While Thomson became a hero, Branca was labled a “goat” for giving up the homer to Thomson.
Branca had to live with that the rest of his life, although time, it’s often said, helped heal the wounds. For those of us who grew up in the era, especially those of us who really liked the Brooklyn Dodgers back then, Branca’s pain was our own.
Long ago, I forgave Branca. It wasn’t his fault. Dressen could have brought in Erskine to face Thomson. Even beyond that, it’s hard to believe how the Dodgers could see a 10-1/2 game lead evaporate and why they even had to be in that three-game playoff with the Giants.
Ralph Branca was labeled a “goat” for giving up that home run. In reality, he was the “Scapegoat” for a Dodger team that simply blew it over the last month of the season.
The World Series was hardly worth watching that season. The Yankees beat the Giants four games to two, while the Dodgers’ players went about their separate ways, headed away to their homes and to the off-season jobs most Major Leaguers had in those days before free agency spurred the mammoth salaries earned by today’s players.
Young boys around the nation had learned a lesson about joy or disappointment in the outcome of sporting events.
And, one young boy, in particular, went about the business of sorting his baseball cards once again; it was something to do until Springtime brought another baseball season.
Ralph Branca died last week. He was 90 and had spent much of his life explaining one particular pitch that no one seemed to want him to forget.