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Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who gave up the famed “Shot Heard `Round the World” that still echoes six decades later as one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, died Wednesday. He was 90.
His son-in-law, former big league manager Bobby Valentine, said Branca died at a nursing home in Rye, New York.
Branca was a three-time All-Star and spent 12 seasons in the majors, but he will always be known for just one pitch.
Brought in from the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth inning during the deciding Game 3 of the National League playoff in 1951, he gave up a three-run homer to Bobby Thomson that gave the rival New York Giants a stunning 5-4 victory.
The line drive into the lower deck at the Polo Grounds prompted the frenetic call, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” from announcer Russ Hodges and set off a wild celebration for the home team as Thomson breezed around the bases while Branca, wearing his unlucky No. 13 jersey, trudged off the mound.
Thomson, who also homered off Branca in Game 1, capped a wild comeback for the Giants, who trailed the Dodgers by more than a dozen games heading toward mid-August.
For the next 50 years, Branca and Thomson often appeared together at card shows, corporate events and baseball functions, re-telling the story of the home run that grew into a sports legend. They always were friendly at the affairs, sometimes even teaming up to sing about the big moment.
But it wasn’t until many years later that it was revealed that the Giants had a little extra help, too.
That’s when it came to light that the Giants employed a telescope-and-buzzer system that season to steal signs from opposing catchers. With that advantage, Giants hitters got a boost in their swings.
And for years, the question remained: Did Thomson know the high-and-inside fastball from Branca was coming?
Thomson firmly asserted that no, he didn’t get a sign in advance. A three-time All-Star himself, Thomson stuck to that claim until he died in 2010 at age 86.
Branca, however, wasn’t so sure about that.
In 2003, the Giants’ stealing operation was finally brought to light in full detail in a story in The Wall Street Journal.
A little while later, Branca and Thomson saw each other for the first time at an event in Edison, New Jersey. They talked in private for five minutes, about a secret they’d both known about but never shared.
Later, they spoke about their discussion.
“It’s been a cleansing for both of us,” Branca said then. “He knew that I knew. It’s better this way.”
“To me, it was a forbidden subject,” the right-hander said. “And I didn’t want to demean Bobby or seem like I was a crybaby.”
Said Thomson: “It was like getting something off my chest after all those years. I’m not a criminal, although I may have felt like one at first.”
And then, hour later, Thomson and Branca appeared together in Manhattan at the New York baseball writers’ dinner. In front of a ballroom full of fans, they took turns singing about the fateful pitch and swing, to lyrics written to the old standard “Because of You” – a reprise of the act they performed when the same dinner was held in January 1952.
Branca was 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA in his career. He spent the first 11 years with the Dodgers, then played for Detroit and the Yankees before returning to Brooklyn for a final game in 1956.