WASHINGTON — If not for one fastball, hurled Oct. 3, 1951, pitcher Ralph Branca of the Brooklyn Dodgers might have faded from baseball memory. In a dozen big-league seasons, he won 88 games and lost 68, a workmanlike record, a ticket to obscurity.
But for an autumn afternoon long ago.
Facing the New York Giants with a 4-2 lead and the National League championship at stake, he threw a high fastball in the ninth inning to the Giants’ Bobby Thomson, a dangerous hitter.
And Thomson belted one of baseball’s most legendary home runs, a game-ending, pennant-clinching, bedlam-inducing (and since controversial) rocket into the left-field stands at New York’s old Polo Grounds. The three-run blast lives in lore as ‘‘the shot heard round the world.’’
The two teams, blood enemies, had been tied atop the standings on the season’s last day. After the riotous joy unleashed in their Harlem ballpark, the Giants moved on to the World Series, while the luckless losing pitcher, No. 13 of the Dodgers, was cast into sports ignominy.
Mr. Branca, who had been summoned from the bullpen to quell a rally and who bore the burden of his failure with quiet dignity for decades, died Wednesday at a nursing home in Rye Brook, N.Y.
In Mr. Branca’s time with the Dodgers, ‘‘Dem Bums’’ of the early postwar era, at once maddening and beloved, were good yet never quite good enough. After the loss, as grief consumed the denizens of Brooklyn, Mr. Branca, then 25, endured catcalls and death threats. Photographers and sportswriters pestered him, milking his anguish, and cranks harassed his parents.
Still, until late in life, he seldom griped about his fate, despite knowing that his crosstown foes were guilty of elaborate chicanery. For weeks in 1951, it was later revealed, the Giants had been able to decipher and take advantage of opposing teams’ on-field signs, using a covert system of electrical buzzers, buried wires, cryptic gestures and, most important, a telescope mounted high in their cavernous stadium.
In the latter half of the season, when Giants hitters were at bat in the Polo Grounds, they were tipped seconds in advance about whether a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming.
Mr. Branca, who was let go by the Dodgers in 1953 and joined the Detroit Tigers, said he learned of the skulduggery from one of his new teammates.
‘‘For years, I struggled with anger and resentment,’’ he recalled in his 2011 autobiography, ‘‘A Moment in Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace,’’ written with David Ritz. ‘‘I was advised to capitalize on and expose the scheme. ... But I refused. I didn’t want to be seen as a whiner, a sore loser, or a baby crying over spilt milk.
‘‘Take it on the chin. Accept the blow. Move on with your life. Or, best of all, forget about it, which proved impossible.’’
Journalist Joshua Prager detailed the long-rumored pitch-tipping in his 2006 book, ‘‘The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World.’’
Although sign-stealing is an ancient baseball art, and the rule book in 1951 didn’t explicitly forbid using mechanical devices as it does now, the Giants’ systematic spying violated an unwritten code. Only a half-century later, speaking with Prager, did many of the ‘51 veterans, including Thomson, sheepishly admit what they’d done.
And only after that did Mr. Branca begin talking about it publicly.
Thomson, who died in 2010, insisted that his historic home run was legit, that during his at-bat, he neglected to glance at the Giants teammate who was relaying pitch intel. But Mr. Branca — who became unlikely close friends with Thomson in their elder years — said in his memoir, ‘‘I didn’t believe him.’’
The scheme had been hatched weeks earlier, on July 19, with the Giants buried in the standings. And it continued through an epic late-season comeback dubbed ‘‘the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,’’ for a plateau overlooking the Polo Grounds.
By Sept. 30, after a 49-17 turnaround, the Giants had climbed from a low of 13 1/2 games behind Brooklyn to a first-place tie.
Baseball owned America back then. The Dodgers and Giants were the sport’s fiercest rivals, and their best-of-three playoffs for the title was the first to be televised coast to coast.
Mr. Branca, the opening game starter, gave up a fourth-inning homer to Thomson and lost a pitchers’ duel. Brooklyn prevailed the next day in a rout, forcing Game 3. In the bottom of the ninth, with runners on second and third and Thomson due up, Mr. Branca came in from the bullpen to preserve a 4-2 lead. He needed to get two outs.
A three-time all star in the late 1940s, a 21-game winner in 1947, Mr. Branca was no stranger to pitching in relief. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander would make 27 starts and 15 relief appearances in 1951, finishing with a 13-12 record and a solid 3.26 earned run average, before injuries took a toll and his career went down hill.
His second pitch to Thomson was up and in — just not up and in enough — and the Giants third baseman hammered it. ‘‘There’s a long drive!’’ play-by-play man Russ Hodges famously bellowed, channeling the home crowd’s sudden euphoria. ‘‘It’s gonna be — I believe!’’ The ball found the seats above the 315-foot sign on the high left-field wall.
Pandemonium ensued — baseball’s first big theatrical moment on national TV — with Thomson dancing around the bases; fans storming the field as Mr. Branca and the Dodgers trudged off; and Hodges shouting over and over, ‘‘The Giants win the pennant!’’
A defining photo shows Mr. Branca in tears, sprawled face down on steps in the visitors’ clubhouse.
Ralph Theodore Joseph Branca, the 15th of 17 siblings, was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., 25 miles from Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ old home. His father, an Italian immigrant, worked variously as a barber, plumber, mechanic, painter, and trolley conductor.
At age 85, Mr. Branca, a devout Catholic, learned that his late mother had been Jewish at birth in her native Hungary. The discovery was made by Prager, who found out that at least nine of Mr. Branca’s aunts, uncles, and cousins had perished in Nazi death camps.
After retiring from baseball in 1956, Mr. Branca worked in the insurance business. For 17 years, he also was chief executive of the nonprofit Baseball Assistance Team, providing financial help to ex-ballplayers down on their luck.
He leaves his wife of 65 years, the former Ann Mulvey of Rye; two daughters, Patti of Fort Myers, Fla., and Mary Branca Valentine, who is married to former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, of Redding, Conn.; and three grandsons.
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier with the Dodgers, Mr. Branca, unlike others on the team, tried to make him feel welcome. Robinson would remember the ill-starred pitcher as among the handful of players he was most fond of, and, in 1972, Mr. Branca was one of Robinson’s pallbearers.
So it was that in the agony of the playoff loss, as Mr. Branca sobbed on the clubhouse steps, ‘‘hiding my face in shame,’’ a hand reached out.
‘‘My teammates thought it best to leave me alone,’’ he recalled. ‘‘We were all shell-shocked. Only my dear friend Jackie, who knew me so well, came over and put his arm around my shoulder. ‘Ralph,’ he said, ‘try not to take it personally. If it weren’t for you, we would have never made it this far.’’’