Friday, April 28, 2017
I know, it's been a long time since I have posted a new story and illustration. Sometimes life just gets in the way of things that are fun, and this blog is one of those fun things that gets elbow.
I came back from my Christmas break to find my studio completely wiped out due to a busted pipe. The reconstruction took over a month, and then several more weeks passed before I was settled back in to work. Then I had to leave town for two weeks to write for a sports memorabilia auction house in New Jersey. Tack on top of all that the daily running of my regular design business, and my time was pretty booked up.
Then there was the finishing and publication of 21. This journal has been a project I've been working on for more than 6 years, and after a few starts and stops, I finally got it to where I was happy with the cost, quality and length. With this publication, I have an outlet for my work that is easier and more spontaneous than a full-blown hard cover book, but also has the quality and content of my The League of Outsider Baseball.
Even though I have not posted anything lately, I really have been working on new stories and drawings. Really. Some of the pieces I am saving for the next issue of 21, and others I just haven't gotten around to finishing up to my satisfaction.
That's the problem when you're doing something that has no clear direction, like "The Infinite Baseball Card Set". As you all know, I rarely have any consistent "theme" or "story line", rather, I like to just write and draw whatever and whomever I feel like at the time. Usually this works out best, I like the spontaneity of it, and it keeps me from feeling like it is becoming a job. But, on the other hand, sometimes the shotgun way of researching leads me in so many different directions I fail to wrap up any of them.
That's pretty much what's happened in the last 6 months or so. This bottleneck has been compounded by the heavy amount of work I put into the last issue of 21, plus the self-promotion that goes along with a self-published work. So, not only have I been side tracked by 21, but I am also continuously torn between publishing a story/illustration on the blog or saving it for a future 21.
I guess that's a better place to be than to have severe "writer's/artist's block", because I am producing an awful lot of quality work - it just hasn't seen the light of day yet. I'm going to be publishing a new story within a few days. What it will be, I have no idea yet! Like I said, I have many to choose from, it's just a matter of selecting one and tidying it up for publication.
Just to spread a little expectation around, here's a few of the close-to-completion pieces I have in the arsenal:
• Joe DiMaggio - His Lost 1943 Season with the Santa Ana Army Flyers
• Jack Kloza - The Forgotten Home Run Champion
• Sam Bankhead - The Real Player Behind "Fences" Troy Maxson
• George Selkirk - A Scapegoat for Doing Nothin' Except Playing Ball
• Morris Buttermaker - A Special "Where Is He Now?" Interview
• Happy Evans - Utility Man for the Greatest Negro League Team of All-Time
And there's much more in the pipeline, but I'll leave the list at that for now. So please keep checking in with me here at The Infinite Baseball Card Set. It's a bit sporadic at the moment, but when I get the bottleneck plunged out, we should have some quality baseball obscurities flowing from the tap!
And if you haven't already ordered a copy of the Spring 2017 edition of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball, do so now - I just received the second shipment of copies in this week and they're going fast...
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Today I'm sending the files for the newest incarnation of 21: The Illustrated Journal of Outsider Baseball to the printer. The idea for this journal began with a blog I started in February of 2010 with this very blog, “The Infinite Baseball Card Set”. While the website was and still is fun, I longed to create something that I could hold in my hands; so, in 2011, I put out a 20 page test edition of 21, which featured Jewish ballplayers. While a good first step, I wasn’t quite happy with the result and followed it up in 2012 with a 40-page hardcover volume 2 of 21. I was much happier with this, but it proved too costly to self-publish, and the run was limited to 100 copies. What this second volume did do was convince Simon and Schuster to publish The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes, my 240 page hardcover book that was very well reviewed when released in 2015.
Moving forward, I decided that I wanted to try another edition of 21. At 72 pages, this shorter journal format allows me to (hopefully) publish a few issues a year and gives me the flexibility to do some additional features, such as a demonstration of an illustration in process, historical uniform research, and book reviews. I spent more than two years experimenting with different layouts, finally settling on this final one.
Although this volume was written and illustrated solely by myself, in the future I would like to collaborate with other baseball historians, fans, and writers. I think 21 can bring something new to the table that fans of baseball history have been waiting for. I’m not aiming to start an academic journal; there are plenty of those already. Instead, I would like 21 to be a colorful trip through baseball’s past, the stories told just like the ones passed down to me by my father and grandfather.
Some of the characters you’ll meet in 21 are well known, but I try to focus on their little-known aspects, such as Lou Gehrig’s college career. Other players will be more obscure: I’m pretty sure that no baseball historian has ever written about Al Gizelbach or Karl Scheel. Some, like Johnny Wright, have been mentioned in books or articles, but their whole story never told in full - until now. This is what 21 is for. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did putting it together.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
When I was a kid back in the late 1970's, my dream was to be a relief pitcher for the New York Mets. Many a summer afternoon I would daydream about hearing the roar of the Shea Stadium crowd as the helmet car took me out of the bullpen and onto the field. I'd imagine PA announcer Jack Franchetti's voice bellowing "Now pitching for New York... number 21... Gary Cieradkowski..." echoing around the ballpark as I fired in my warm up throws to Ron Hodges behind the plate. With the exception of the helmet car and some slight details, my daydream was no probably no different than any other boy's since the turn of the century.
Growing up on Chicago South Side in the 1930's, Dick Sipek's daydreams were no different - with one major exception that is - his was completely devoid of sound. No PA announcer to herald his big moment, no roar of the crowd, not even any ribbing from the opposing bench. See, Dick Sipek was deaf.
Dick was the second of John and Emily Sipek's four kids. The family shared an apartment on Chicago's Komensky Avenue with Emily's widowed father who had immigrated from Bohemia at the turn of the century. Around the age of five, the boy lost his hearing. Even Dick himself had no idea how or why it happened - some said it was due to a fall down the stairs and others put the blame on some kind of illness. Regardless of the cause, back in 1930's Chicago, there wasn't too many career avenues for a person afflicted with hearing loss. Schools didn't offer any kind of special needs programs like today, and soon Dick fell far behind the progress made by his other classmates. Fortunately, John and Emily Sipek enrolled their boy in the Illinois School for the Deaf, located in Jacksonville. In an environment geared towards his unique disability, Dick flourished academically and became an honor student.
The school gave its students vocational training in jobs that people with hearing loss could competently hold when they graduated. Sipek trained as a baker, but what he really wanted was to play in the major leagues. Dick possessed all the basic elements of a professional athlete - he was strong, fast, and co-ordinated. He played basketball and was an all-state back in football, but baseball was his true love. While most people with a handicap such as Sipek's would have thought a career in pro ball was beyond his grasp, the Illinois School for the Deaf had a person on staff who proved just such a thing was possible. The school's baseball coach was none other than former New York Giants ace Luther Taylor. Besides winning 116 big league games from 1900 to 1908, Taylor, like Dick Sipek, was deaf. Taylor was the second deaf player in the majors after William Hoy, who began his big league career in 1888 and was still in the league when Taylor made his debut. In accordance with the parlance of the time, both deaf players were saddled with the nickname "Dummy", which didn't have as nasty a meaning back then as it does today. In fact, William Hoy referred to himself by his nickname until he passed away in the 1960's.
At first Taylor tried to make Sipek into a pitcher like himself, but the kid wanted to play everyday and insisted on the outfield. Taylor's coaching helped Sipek develop into a first-class ballplayer, and the old pitcher's example allowed him to believe that making the major leagues was indeed possible. World events would also inadvertently contribute to making Sipek's dream come true.
America's entry in World War II drained the ranks of professional baseball of most of the game's stars. By 1943 many players who normally would have never been able to crack a major league roster were now playing in the big leagues. The Washington Senators had a New York City garbageman on vacation playing in the outfield and one-armed Pete Gray was burning up the minor leagues on his way to the major leagues. It was in this environment that Dick Sipek got his big chance.
In 1943 Coach Taylor contacted his old friends at the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds and told of his star pupil. The Giants brushed him off, but Warren Giles, GM of the Reds, took Taylor's word for it and signed the kid, sight unseen, to a professional contract. The Reds assigned the 20 year-old to the Birmingham Barons, who in turn farmed the kid out to the Erwin Aces in the Appalachian League. After three dozen games Sipek was hitting well over .400 and the Barons recalled him to see what he could do in Birmingham. Right from the start he made a good impression with his hustle and drive. If at first people were skeptical of Dick's ability to play without hearing, he quickly put them to rest. His teammates warmed up to the rookie whose jovial personality put them at ease. Most of the team willingly learned some American Sign Language and his roommate, Kermit Wahl, went so far as to familiarize himself with the whole alphabet and key words. What couldn't be said with sign language was taken care of with a handy pad and pencil and over the years he'd become quite proficient in lip reading. Everyone's biggest fear was, of course, communication in the outfield. Though he was often referred to as a "deaf-mute", Sipek had lost his hearing after learning how to talk, so he could sound out words when needed. While saying "I got it" helped him out half-way, Barons' manager, Johnny Riddle, came up with a simple, but effective plan to deal with his deaf outfielder. He put Sipek in right field and instructed the center fielder and second and first basemen to let Sipek take any ball he called for. If he didn't call for it, the ball was theirs. It worked: Sipek made just 5 errors all season.
By the end of 1943 Sipek has batted .336 with a pair of homers. As a side bonus, the Rickwood Field fans voted him their favorite Baron of 1943. The Black fans who sat in the segregated right field bleachers took a particular liking to Sipek, and passed the hat amongst themselves, collecting $7.50 in nickles and dimes as a token of their admiration. He came back the next season and hit .319, again earning the fan's vote as the most popular player on the team. As a side-note, one of Sipek's teammates that summer was a fifteen year-old lefty named Joe Nuxhall. Sipek's stats in Birmingham earned him a late-season call-up to the Reds, who like every other Major League team, was hurting the loss of quality players to the war effort. Though he didn't get into any games that year, newspapers opined that he'd be a Reds outfielder in 1945. They were right.
The 22 year-old joined the other young hopefuls at the Reds spring training camp in Bloomington, Indiana. Because of the war, big league teams were required to hold spring training close to their home parks instead of the warmer climates of Florida and California. From the start, Sipek emerged as a good prospect for the big club, and he cemented this evaluation when his 9th inning home run beat the Cubs in an April 7th exhibition game before 7,000 soldiers at Fort Knox. When the team broke camp and headed to Cincinnati to begin the 1945 season, Dick Sipek was with them.
Wearing number 21 on his back, Dick Sipek made his major league debut as a pinch hitter on April 28 at Crosley Field. Batting for catcher Joe Just, Sipek drew a walk from Blix Donnelly of the Cardinals. He was sent up to pinch hit again the next day but was struck out by Ken Burkhart. Sipek would have to wait almost a month before he had his first major league hit, a pinch hit single that scored a run against the Phillies on May 16. In the meantime, his teammates learned to adjust to having a hearing impaired player in their midst. Just like in Birmingham, Sipek's good nature made him fit right in, and soon he was "one of the boys". Due to his hearing loss, Sipek was, of course, exempt from military service. Although the loss of his hearing was almost complete, he could hear extremely loud noises. When his teammates found out about that, they exploited it for all it was worth, dropping large objects behind his back and accusing him of faking his disability by chanting "Go to the army! Go to the army!"
Though most of his 82 appearances with the Reds in 1945 were as a pinch hitter, Sipek did play 31 games in the outfield, split between left and right field. Over the course of the season he was charged with two errors for a .972 fielding average, ranking him number 40 of 66 National League outfielders. This was just below the league average of .977. Sipek made his last appearance in the majors on September 29 against the Cardinals. Pinch hitting for pitcher Howie Fox. Sipek popped out to shortstop, freezing his major league batting average at .244 with 6 doubles, a pair of triples and 13 RBI.
The next spring saw the return of all the former ballplayers from the service. Players like Dick Sipek were relegated to the minors. The Reds sent him to their top farm team in Syracuse but after only hitting .245 he was sent to a series of lower minor leagues. As his baseball career was winding down, his personal life picked up. While at the Illinois School for the Deaf, Dick had met fellow student Betty Ann Schmidt. The couple married in 1947 began planning a family. In 1948 Sipek was sent to the Reidsville Luckies of the Carolina League where he hit .318 with 13 homers. He stayed with the Luckies for four summers where he became a favorite of the Reidsville fans. A broken collarbone ended his career in 1951 and he returned to Illinois.
By now the Sipek's had a son, Ron, and the family would eventually grow to include two daughters, Janice and Nancy. They made their home in Quincy, Illinois, where Betty Ann grew up and Dick put his high school training to use working for the Bueters Bakery. Both Ron and Janice lost their hearing and went on to attend the Illinois School for the Deaf. Ron followed in his father's athletic footsteps and and was the quarterback for the schools undefeated 1969 squad. Nancy did not develop hearing loss but her son eventually did.
After working in the bakery for many years, Dick took a job as custodian at St. Mary's Catholic School in Quincy. The old ballplayer spent the rest of his life sharing his memories with countless young kids with hearing disabilities. One of the stories Sipek liked to tell was of meeting another ballplayer who also triumphed over what seemed like insurmountable odds. One afternoon in 1946, Sipek, then playing for the Syracuse Chiefs, headed onto the field for batting practice and passed a Montreal Royals player who was headed to the locker room. That player was Jackie Robinson, then in his first season of professional baseball. Sipek asked Robinson "how you feeling?" and Jackie replied "I'm good, good", then, acknowledging that he knew of his handicap, added "keep it up". Dick then said "You're black and I'm deaf - the two of us are the same". The two ballplayers then shook hands and parted ways, one on his way back from becoming the third deaf player in the majors, the other on his way to breaking baseball's color barrier.
Although he wasn't a star, Dick Sipek's 82 games in the majors proved that deaf players could make it in the big league, inspiring several generations of children to look past their handicaps. Sipek lived to see another deaf player in the major leagues when Curtis Pride took the field for the Montreal Expos in 1993.
Dick Sipek passed away in 2005 at the age of 82. Although he never heard the roar of the crowd, he sure knew what it was like to be a major league ballplayer.
Back in 1989, my very first client as a graphic designer was Will Arlt, owner of the late Cooperstown Ball Cap Company. They made the greatest reproductions of old-style ballcaps ever. The company is no longer around, but don't worry, it is re-emerging in a slightly larger form as the Ideal Cap Company. Anyway, I traded my services for caps, I thought (and still do) they were the greatest thing ever made out of wool, and every delivery bearing the Cooperstown label made me rip the box open like a kid at Christmas! Ever once in a while Will would slip in an unsolicited cap. One of those was a 1944 St. Louis Browns cap. It had a brown bill, white crown with orange and brown stripes - the friggin' ugliest cap before the Astros and Padres dirtied up the 1970's. For some reason I really came to like this bastard cap, wearing it often and getting comments from more fashion-minded folks and every so often a wink from an oldster who'd mumble "hey, the Brownies!"
The Browns are the goats of baseball history. Even their greatest moment, winning the 1944 American League pennant, is dismissed as an anomaly brought on by wartime deprivations. At a glance, that's pretty much correct - after '44 they just sank lower and lower, settling into position as the league's whipping boy and occasional headline grabber when owner Bill Veeck would stage one of his wacky stunts. The Browns were also known for their hiring of one-armed Pete Gray, who perhaps more than anything else underlined the desperate straits major league baseball found itself in during World War II. But just like everything else, peel back the skin and there is much more under the surface: One can make the point that by hiring Pete Gray, The St. Louis Browns destroyed any chance their franchise had in turning around their fortunes. Yeah, I said it: Pete Gray destroyed the Browns.
The Browns team that won the pennant in 1944 did so by expert management by skipper Luke Sewell. He cleverly platooned his players and was able to secure the services of a few guys who, because of their defense plant jobs, could play only on weekends. Often disparaged as a bunch of cast-offs and boozers, that perception is only partly correct. Sure they had some first-class tipplers like Sig Jakucki and Mike Kreevich, but on a whole the quality of players the Browns fielded wasn't any worse than what the Yankees were putting in pinstripes at the time. After the excitement of the 1944 season, The Browns had formed a tight-knit team that carried themselves with pride. Despite losing the World Series the team had confidence going into spring training that they had essentially the same group of guys and the rest of the American League was, if anything, weaker due to the draft.
The only thing the Browns lacked in 1944 was popularity in their own home town. St. Louis was a Cardinals town and had been since the 1920's. Even though while traveling on the road fans flocked to see the upstart Browns, attendance at their home games, even when in first place, was much less than the Cardinals. Management knew they needed a little something more than just fielding a good team. Enter Pete Gray.
Like many American boys he grew up with a passion and talent for baseball. Unfortunately a fall from a delivery truck crushed his arm and it had to be amputated just above the elbow. Unlike many boys who would have given up his dream of playing professionally, his disability only made Pete bear down harder. Through countless hours of practice he developed his own way to adapt his body to play the game he loved.
For fielding, Pete stripped out all the padding on his glove to make it light and easy to manage. After catching a ball he would raise the glove to his right stump letting the ball roll backwards out of the pocket, down his wrist and against his chest. He then pulled his fingers out of he glove, now clamped securely under his stump, and let the ball roll into his hand. Performed in one well-practiced motion it seemed to defy gravity and sportswriters all around the country made Pete demonstrate it in every town he passed through.
At the plate Pete utilized a 38-ounce bat, heavier than the norm. Holding the bat aloft with his one hand he left a space at the bottom of the bat where his missing right hand would normally have been. He get the bat in motion earlier than a two-handed player and later on in the big leagues this would lead to his downfall. But at a lower level of ball Pete could compensate successfully. He even worked out a way to control his bat in order to bunt - Pete was a very fast runner and he used this that speed to his advantage.
It's hard to say whether or not Pete would have been picked up by a minor league team had it not been for the war. So many players were in the service that the low minors were signing anything they could get their hands on, only to see them slip away as the majors siphoned off the best and then just as fast would in turn lose them to the draft. With only one arm, Pete wasn't going overseas and he first broke into organized ball with the Three Rivers Renards of the Canadian-American League in 1942. Batting a staggering .381 he was bought by the AAA Toronto Maple Leafs but was sold because of an incident that occurred during spring training: Hiding behind a potted plant in the lobby of the Leaf's hotel, skipper Burleigh Grimes eavesdropped on Gray criticizing his management abilities.
Now property of the Memphis Chickasaws, Pete hit .289 and had only 8 errors for 1943. Not too bad but the next year he positively dominated the Southern Association by hitting .333, 21 doubles, 9 triples and even slugged 5 one-handed homers. He stole 68 bases and in the outfield his fielding percentage was a perfect 1.000. On top of that Pete won the league's MVP Award. A side-show? Yeah, but he also proved he could play ball professionally. An MVP Award is an MVP Award and they don't hand those things out for charity cases.
Now I can go one and easily turn this into a feel-good piece on Pete Gray's determination and how how he inspired countless disabled American servicemen returning from the war but that's not what I want to do. Baseball history is littered with testiments to Pete Gray's courage and determination. Hell, there was even a television movie about it. By the same token I can slip into socially-conscious spiel about how sick and twisted the racial sensitivities were at the time that when the lack of talent was so bad, Major League Baseball in all it's Jim Crow glory couldn't see to sign some of the hundreds of qualified blacks in the Negro Leagues. Instead they chose to utilize a 15 year-old kid (Cincinnati's Joe Nuxhall), a 36 year-old garbage man (Ed Boland of Washington), a one-legged war veteran (Bert Shepperd, again of Washington) and of course, a one-armed guy named Pete Gray.
Where I aim to take the rest of this story is to make the argument that The Brown's signing of Pete Gray in essence became the torpedo which sank the franchise.
The Browns that turned up for spring training was essentially the same team that won the league pennant the previous year. The common perception of the team was of one that was in perpetual shock of how far above their station they had come and that no one had even a slight glimpse of hope that the team would repeat in 1945. None of that is true. Through the long hard summer of '44 the Browns had been forged into a cohesive team. Because Luke Sewell had cleaned house when he took over as skipper, none of his players had gotten used to long futile careers with a bad team. The Browns of 1945 were eager youngsters and seasoned vets. They were winners and knew they were just as good or better than the rest of the American League. There was no reason they couldn't expect to repeat.
Enter Pete Gray. Maybe if he was a whole, healthy young ballplayer it would have gone easier. It's one thing to have a new young buck brought up to the big club fresh off of an MVP season in the minors. But this guy had one arm and along with that came the press freak show eager to cover the whole thing. For a bunch of guys serious about defending their pennant in a tough war year, a side-show was the last thing they needed.
If he sat on the bench or maybe just gave catching and throwing exhibitions during batting practice, maybe everything would have gone well. But Pete Gray was a St. Louis Brown for one reason only: to attract fans to the ballpark. And that wasn't going to happen with him riding the pines in the dugout. The Browns needed to play the guy.
Inserting a novelty into the lineup of the defending American League champions spelled trouble from the outset. The other guys knew Pete was there as a freak attraction. As major leaguers, they all knew that this wasn't no Southern Association and real pitching with real curveballs was going eat this guy alive. And the flawless motion that he used to field his position? To his teammates that added up to one thing: extra base hits for opposing batters. On top of all this, who was going to have to take a seat while the one-armed guy made history? Mike Kreevich, that's who.
Kreevich was a former White Sox prodigy who nearly drank himself out of the game only to find redemption on The Browns. He hit just over .300 in 1944 to lead the team and although he was up there in age, was still a valuable cog in The Browns machine. Still a heavy drinker, losing playing time to a one-armed guy just sent Kreevich spinning out of control. By being an everyday player helped keep Kreevich sober and responsible. Being platooned with Gray not only threw off his timing at the plate but took away the lifeline to sobriety he precariously clung to. The other players looked on in shock as management appeared to want to sacrifice their success on the field for some modest bump in attendance. The team's cohesiveness broke down.
As infielder Ellis Clary eloquently put it: "He screwed up the whole team. If he's playing, one of them two-armed guys is sitting in the dugout pissed off."
The press, used to poking fun at the Browns lowly status now turned the novelty of Pete Gray against them as well. How lousy are The Browns players that management has to dig down and come up with a cripple to play on the team? The rest of the team seethed with resentment as they tried to hold it together and win the pennant.
The race was pretty tight. Detroit won it all and while the Browns finished in 3rd place, they were only 6 game behind the Tigers. Pete Gray played in 77 games that season and batted .218. How much better could Mike Kreevich have done had he been the team's constant outfielder? We'll never know, but it's not that far of a jump to assume Kreevich's bat could have been the deciding factor in winning, say, 6 or 7 games that season. The same could be said for team spirit. How much of a difference did it make with the press side-show that surrounded Pete Gray. How much did it get in the heads of the players, knowing that management seemed to be sabotaging a pennant for box office success?
What the hell do I know? I'm just a simple artist born more than 25 years after the Browns won their only pennant. But I can say that things such as this really makes the game of baseball so fascinating to me, even after 40-something years on the planet. Just think about it - if the Browns had repeated in 1945, that could have signaled the resurgence of their team. Maybe they wouldn't surpass the Cards as St. Louis' favorite boys, but what if they stayed contenders? St. Louis had supported 2 teams for decades and with a decent record, who's to say support wouldn't dwindle away like it did when the team sank to the bottom of the standings and stayed there for the next 7 years. Look at Chicago. The Cubs and the White Sox exchanged seasons futility for decades and still attracted enough fans to continue sharing the same city. Philadelphia is another example. Both the A's and Phils stunk up their respective leagues for years, yet remained side-by-side residents of the same burg. Maybe it would have been another 2-team city that would have lost a team to Baltimore in 1954.
And just think about it: What would the San Diego Padres colors have been had the Browns stayed put? Things like that are likely to keep an avid baseball fan up at night with the night terrors...
Just to wrap this whole thing up, I don't want to overlook what an accomplishment it was for Pete Gray to make it to the big leagues. Sure, he was a gimmick used to attract fans, but he wasn't an Eddie Gaedel or a Jackie Mitchell. Pete really did hit .333 at Memphis and was MVP of the Southern Association. The man could play ball - just not at a major league level. As an inspiration to people all over the world, his story is a life lesson in perseverance and for that I tip my well-worn Cooperstown Ball Cap 1944 St. Louis Browns cap to him!
If you'd like to read the best book on the 1944 Browns and their pennant winning season get yourself a copy of David Alan Heller's book "As Good As It Got." Heller does a hell of a job profiling all the players on this fascinating team, puts wartime baseball in perspective and takes you through the entire '44 season, demonstrating how this remarkable team captured their one and only pennant.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Except for scattered clumps of disheveled, half crocked men back-slapping one another and chirping kids darting back and forth from the light of one street light to another, the parking lot was mostly deserted. Ralph could see his fiancee's Chrysler parked at the far end of the fenced-in player's lot, but he didn't move until she gently took his elbow and guided him through the doorway and into the October night. The security guard at the door nodded and Ralph could detect what he perceived to be a wry smile turn up the edges of his mouth. As his fiancee Ann took one side, family friend, Father Pat Rowley, sidled up on the other, and the threesome crossed the long emptiness of the Polo Grounds parking lot.
Ralph's ears could still hear the echoing of the cheers reverberating in the air, or was it a deafening silence? He couldn't tell.
As the little group paused while Ann fished around in her clutch for the keys to the Chrysler, Ralph looked at Father Rowley and asked "Why me?"
Without hesitation the Jesuit priest replied "Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
And so he did.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I knew the name "Ralph Branca" ever since I could remember. I was born twenty years after he threw that single pitch that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant, and both the teams in the game no longer existed anymore, yet that game and the players who took part were as a part of my childhood.
Everyone I grew up with had an endless supply of family stories about where so-and-so was when Branca gave up that home run: My grandma was working in a cookie factory and the game was so important that it was broadcast to the workers over loudspeakers. An uncle of mine was 7,800 miles away in war-torn Korea and listened via Armed Forces radio as the pennant was snatched away from his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I had a friend who could send his grandfather into a snarling, swear conjuring rage just by imitating Russ Hodges' dreaded call of "the Giants win the pennant! the Giants win the pennant!" And thirty years after that home run it was humiliating to me when the shortstop on my team yelled "nice one, Branca" after I gave up a cheap home run that lost us a ballgame. It wasn't a playoff game, or even the 9th inning, but man, it was an insult that cut worse than any swear word we had in our already salty vocabularies.
No other moment in sports history comes close to that single game in October, 1951. Countless non-fiction books have been written about the '51 pennant race, the game, what happened to the home run ball, and the players after the cheering died down. Thomson's home run has been employed as a plot device for shelves of fiction novels and TV shows, and hardly an autobiography of a person alive in 1951 could escape mentioning where they were on that day.
Ralph Branca grew up a New York Giants fan, an irony not lost on bitter Brooklyn fans many years later. After a high school tryout with the Giants ended with their scouts telling the tall string bean to get lost, Branca enrolled in NYU and soon his physique developed into an imposing 6'-3", 205lb. After his freshman year at NYU, the 18 year-old found himself on the mound in Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger. This was 1944, and unlike most of the wartime replacement players rushed into the majors just to keep the game going, Branca and his 95 mph fastball had what it took to stick.
He bounced from the high minors and Brooklyn in 1945 and when the veterans came back from the war in '46, Branca was good enough to make the club full time. Manager Leo Durocher used the big righty as a spot starter and reliever, all the while letting the kid soak up the knowledge passed down to him by the Dodgers' two grizzled veterans, Kirby Higbe and Hugh Casey. In one of the most exciting pennant races up to that time, the Dodgers fought the Cardinals tooth and nail into September. Durocher turned Branca loose down the stretch and his pitching helped land the Dodgers in a best-of-three playoff with St. Louis for the National League pennant. Branca was tapped for Game 1, but the Cardinals scored three runs and knocked him out of the box in the third inning. The Dodger bats couldn't rally, and Brooklyn lost the game 4-2. They were then crushed 8-4 in Game 2 and the Cardinals went to the World Series.
Ralph Branca blossomed into the Dodgers' ace the next year. At the age of 21, Branca had now matured into a confident, although sometimes cocky, starter. He tempted fate by wearing number "13" - something superstitious ballplayers avoided lest they anger the baseball Gods. Not Branca. For him 13 was a lucky number. He led he league in starts and came in second with 21 wins that got the Dodgers into the World Series. But, as great as he was on the mound in '47, Branca was always prouder of what he did off the field that summer.
Nineteen forty-seven was the year Jackie Robinson integrated the game, and Ralph Branca was right there for the whole spectacle. While several Dodgers were openly hostile to Robinson, most of the other players simply ignored the newcomer. Not Ralph Branca. The ace of the staff went out of his way to befriend Robinson, and the two men laid the foundation of a friendship that would last until Jackie's death in 1972. It was Branca who unhesitatingly stood next to Robinson on Opening Day, and told skeptical teammates that unless they were blind, it was easy to see that they could win the pennant with Robinson as their teammate. It was Jackie's powerful drive to win that eventually won over his teammates, but a small part of his acceptance has to be credited to Ralph Branca. On trains in between games the pitcher ate his meals with Robinson and then encouraged him to join his teammates in the shower after a game instead of waiting until everyone had finished. To have the Dodgers' number one pitcher in his corner went a long way to making Jackie feel a bit more accepted.
Branca won one game and lost one as the Dodgers fell to the Yankees in the '47 Series. The next summer he had 10 wins under his belt at the all-star break when he was pegged in the shin by an errant throw during batting practice. The injury developed into an infected bone lining, and he spent three long weeks in the hospital. In the meantime, the Dodgers blew the pennant to Boston. The next season Branca's arm just wasn't the same. His 13-5 record looked good when printed in the sports section, but the velocity was no longer there and he was pitching on smarts most of the time. By 1950 he was relegated to the bullpen, number 13 called in only to mop up after a game was already blown or just to soak up some innings.
Then, the following spring, the heater came back. All the throwing he did in the bullpen the last two years contributed to reviving his ailing arm. Ralph became a spot starter and the Dodgers seemed to have the 1951 pennant wrapped up going into September. For his part Branca had a great 13-5 record, but then the wheels came off the Brooklyn pennant train. After being a dozen games in front, the team played .500 ball for the rest of the year. Branca dropped seven games and couldn't nudge his win number past that number 13. The Giants went on a 37-7 tear and remarkably caught the Dodgers on the last day of the season.
The best-of-three series for the pennant began with Ralph Branca on the mound in Ebbets Field for Brooklyn. Branca gave up just six hits, but two of them were home runs by Monte Irvin and a game winner by Bobby Thomson, and the Dodgers lost 3 to 1. The next game was played in the Polo Grounds and the Dodgers crushed the Giants 10-nothing.
Now the pennant came down to a winner-take-all Game 3. Big Don Newcombe held the Giants back and took a 4-1 lead into the ninth. Now Newk tired, giving up a run on a pair of singles and a double. Bobby Thomson, hero of Game 1, came to the plate and rookie Willie Mays knelt menacingly on deck. With runners on second and third with one out, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen looked to his bullpen. Two righties were up and throwing, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. Dodgers coach Clyde Sukeforth told Dressen that Erskine had just bounced a curve in the dirt, and just like that it, number 13 jogged out of the bullpen and into infamy.
It was in the dark hours after Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard Round the World" that Branca asked Father Rowley "why me?" and received the important answer of "Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
Branca was now the most reviled man in Brooklyn. His name was cursed from Flatbush to Green Point. While many a man would have wilted or cracked under the stress of it all, Branca took Father Rowley's advice to heart. He posed for goofy and humiliating publicity shots with Thomson during the World Series and even sang a dopey novelty re-working of “Because of You” with his foe. Some might have looked upon all this as a guy making the best of a bad situation, but for Brooklyn fans, seeing Branca make nice with the man who snatched the pennant from them made Number 13 a hated man.
In the aftermath of the playoff loss, coach Clyde Sukeforth lost his job and many thought the same should have happened to Branca. Whispers opined that the only reason the pitcher wasn't traded to the Browns or some other backwater team was because in the off-season he had married his fiancee, Ann, whose family owned the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, if Branca was now untouchable, that didn't mean his uniform wasn't - come spring the front office forced Branca to turn in his number 13 and replace it with what was hoped to be a luckier number 12 instead. Despite all the publicity surrounding the pitcher ditching his unlucky digits - there were photos Branca dumping the old jersey in a garbage can - he never got a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Dodger fans after that fateful pitch to Thomson.
In the spring of '52 Branca was playing cards in the clubhouse when his chair tipped backwards and he landed on a coke bottle. The heavy glass container knock his spine out of line and Branca was never an effective pitcher again. He was out of baseball by 1956, a once promising career now reduced to a single bad pitch.
Instead of shrinking into the shadows and avoiding any reminder of that terrible day, Branca leveraged his part in social history into a new line of work. For better or for worse, everyone in the Metropolitan area knew the name "Ralph Branca", and he turned this into a lucrative career in insurance. As an executive in Manhattan throughout the 1960's, Branca frequently ran into his old teammate Jackie Robinson who was an executive himself with Chock Full of Nuts Coffee.
While lesser men would have spent their remaining years bitter about the bad shake baseball had given them, Branca spent the rest of his life giving back. He became a leading figure in the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which lent a helping hand to old ballplayers who needed financial help. The old pitcher also appeared frequently with Bobby Thomson at autograph signings and TV shows that marked the October 3 anniversary of the "Shot Heard Round the World". Branca was a graceful figure in defeat, yet as inspiring as he was, he had a deep secret he kept to himself.
As early as 1953, Branca knew that the Giants had installed an elaborate sign-stealing system in the Polo Grounds. A spotter with a telescope hidden high up in the Giants office windows in the scoreboard relayed the opposing catcher's signs via a buzzer system. The pitch was signaled to the batter who could choose to use this insider knowledge or not. As Giants players were traded off the '51 club, word eventually made its way back to Branca and by the 1960's the Giants sign stealing plot was an open secret.
What kind of inner strength did it take for him not to scream out to the world "Thomson knew what was coming!"
The whole affair was given the big league treatment in Joshua Prager's indispensable book "The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World". The pitcher later told interviewers that his friendship with Thomson was never the same after Prager's 2008 book because Thomson refused to even acknowledge the sign steeling scheme to Branca. Standing next to Thomson at all those card shows co-signing thousands of baseballs suddenly lost its appeal, and the two drifted apart. Still, Branca was gracious enough not to speak his mind as long as Thomson was alive. Those words spoken to him back in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds made all the difference in how he led his life since 1951 and he stuck to it.
So, Ralph Branca passed away this past month. Of course, all the headlines went something like "Ralph Branca, who gave up 'Shot Heard 'Round the World,' dies" or "Ralph Branca, beloved Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ home run, dead at 90". It was inevitable, and something Branca himself probably would have smiled at. After all, he proved he was strong enough to bear that cross.
Notes on the Illustration: I was originally hesitant to do a Ralph Branca story and illustration. Whenever a ballplayer dies there's always a glut of hastily written tributes, especially on the internet, and I didn't feel like I could add anything worthwhile. However, a fella named Shaun that I met at a presentation I gave last summer sent me a very well thought out and inspirational email about Branca's passing, particularly stressing the pitcher's strength of character in the aftermath of the home run. Because of Shaun's eloquent and personal take on Branca's passing, I was persuaded to do a piece on him.
When it came time to starting the drawing, I knew I wanted to depict that dreaded number "13" on his back. It was simply too ironic and iconic not to. That done, I then ran into the problem of what background to choose. I did a few different ones showing the Polo Grounds box seats, and then one of him in front of the section of wall where Thomson's homer sailed over, but it just didn't seem right. Then I thought up the background you see now. Since the Giants had the hidden telescope in the office windows in the center field scoreboard, I knew that was the only background for this card. The Chesterfield sign, the green scoreboard and those dark, mysterious windows... it just made sense.
Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/sports/mlb/article116826993.html#storylink=cpy