Baseball is the reason I am writing this book, the reason I’ve led a life worth reexamining and dissecting. Baseball is the passion that carried me from childhood to manhood. It is how I fought my way from the working class to the middle class. Were it not for baseball, I would not have met Ann, my wife, the mother of our daughters, and my dearest friend for the past sixty years. Baseball has excited my mind, stirred my soul, and brought out the best in me. I look at baseball deeply. Most of us whose lives have been defined by baseball do. Of course, it’s principally a sport—a beautiful sport based on a poetic geometry. It is a game played outside of time. You play it not until the clock runs out, but until there is a clear winner. That takes as long as it takes. It is a pastoral game usually set inside a city. You play in a pasture—an urban pasture—where an expanse of grass calls you to the competition. Of course, you can also play on the dirt field of a farm, a sandlot, or a concrete street. Wherever you play, though, time is suspended. Like millions of other kids, I lost track of time whenever I played—playing through breakfast, lunch, dinner; playing until the very last rays of daylight disappeared; playing under the glow of a street lamp or a full moon; playing with the hope that the game would never stop and that real time—any time but baseball time—would never resume. The dream was to turn life into a baseball game.
Over time, as that dream came true, I saw other dimensions of the sport. It was a proving ground where character was developed or destroyed, enhanced or corroded. It was where racial animus was resolved or exacerbated. Because I was privileged to play when society was undergoing radical change, I got to see firsthand—from the dugout and the mound—baseball’s reaction, for better and worse. I got to see—and feel and embrace—community. The Brooklyn baseball community was like no other; Brooklyn Dodger fans were the most knowledgeable. The Brooklyn ballpark was like no other. These were things I loved with all my heart: this proving ground, this social transformation, this extraordinary community.
The bigger story, then, speaks to the spirit of our country and our sense of the possible. It is about optimism, hope, and fairness. The smaller story—my personal story—benefits from those strong American values but also involves tremendous frustration and unforeseen corruption. The drama of ongoing disappointment is central to this narrative. At some point, reason and rage clashed head-on. For years, I struggled with anger and resentment.
This book represents the resolution of that resentment and the dissolution of the rage. To be called a goat—as I was—for more than half a century hurt like hell, especially when I knew that the team who tagged me with that label had implemented an elaborate and outrageous system of cheating. I had learned about the cheating less than three years after it happened. Yet for many long decades I kept quiet. I was advised to capitalize on and expose the scheme. Go to the press. Write a book. Do something. 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.
Bobby Thomson’s home run off me in the 1951 playoff was termed “the shot heard ’round the world” and called the most dramatic moment in sports history. If it was shown once on television, it was shown a million times. No one could forget what had happened that afternoon in the Polo Grounds—not me, not the country, not history itself. I had to endure the moment in silence. I saw silence as my shield of dignity. I wanted to shout “Fraud!” but my nature wouldn’t allow it.
Then, on January 31, 2001, journalist Joshua Prager broke the scandal in the Wall Street Journal and five years later published an exhaustively researched book scrupulously documenting the cheating. After the initial article came out, Bobby Thomson, by then my friend of many years, called and said, “I guess you feel exonerated, Ralph.”
“I don’t know about that,” I replied, “but my tongue has certainly been loosened.”
I’m grateful for that loosening. And I’m also glad that the loosening comes when, instead of still toiling in my mid-twenties, I’m reflecting in my mid-eighties. Time not only heals, but time also offers perspective. Seen through the misty glow of history, a story from a distant era takes on a romantic tinge. And the era of New York baseball of the forties and fifties when three winning teams—the Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants—dominated the headlines may be the most exciting years in all baseball. Looking back 60-plus years to a time when players—myself included—took the bus and subway to the ballpark and worked menial winter jobs to support our families, I can’t quite believe the remarkable changes I’ve seen in this long lifetime. I cherish those changes just as I cherish that sacred time when, as a boy and young man, I never could have imagined baseball—or, for that matter, the world—in its present form. There’s also an essential fact that, modesty aside, I want this book to establish: I was a damn effective pitcher. It pains me to be remembered for one unfortunate pitch—and, unfairly, a pitch surreptitiously signaled to the hitter—as opposed to a hurler who, for a number of years, had good stuff.
Finally, I must warn you that I write from the point of view of a self-proclaimed old-timer. I make no apologies for that designation. I love being an old-timer. Hell, I may be the ultimate old-timer. I feel like I’ve seen it all and done it all. I can truthfully say that I’ve paid the dues to tell the news. And even though I will try to recapture the fire and energy that at one time burned within the heart of an 18-year-old rookie breaking into the majors, be aware that this is a highly opinionated old-timer—who’s about to spin a baseball yarn unlike any you’ve ever heard.
© 2011 Ralph Branca with David Ritz