By Linc Leifeste | September 26, 2013
Director: Andrew J. Muscato
“It’s about America. It’s really about, here’s Ralph Branca, who was labeled a goat and really wasn’t a goat. And he lived an American life.” So says the 85-year-old man himself late in the engrossing new documentary, Branca’s Pitch, which follows the former Brooklyn Dodger as he assists in the writing of his 2011 autobiography, A Moment in Time, with prolific ghostwriter David Ritz. If you don’t know who Branca is, he’s best known as the pitcher on the losing side of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the famous game-winning home run hit by New York Giant Bobby Thomson that capped the Giants’ improbable come-from-behind run to win the National League pennant and advance to the World Series. But before the baseball-haters tune out, realize that this documentary is not really, truly about baseball, any more than Moneyball was. It’s a moving story about life after disastrous failure, about trying to find the voice to define yourself differently than everyone else perceives you, and it’s also an interesting look into the fascinating craft of ghostwriting.
While Branca is best known for one infamous unsuccessful relief appearance, as the man himself points out repeatedly in Branca’s Pitch, that’s really not fair. Having grown up a New York Giants fan in Mt. Vernon, NY, he was the fifteenth of seventeen siblings and was signed at 17-years-of-age as a free agent by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943, having been given a tryout based on the plea of a letter his sister wrote to the organization. He finished his rookie 1944 campaign with a 3.04 ERA before going on to be a three-time All-Star, capturing 21 wins in his 1947 season alone and having the 10th best ERA in the National League during his ultimately ill-fated 1951 season. Additionally, Jackie Robinson made his MLB color-line-crossing debut in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers (interestingly Branca is the last surviving member of that 1947 Dodgers squad) and Branca was one of his supportive teammates, with whom Robinson became close. Of course, the lingering question is whether Branca is trying to convince the world that he’s a lot more than one surrendered home run or if it’s himself that he’s still trying to convince.
It’s apparent that from that fateful October, 1951 day on, Branca has been trying unsuccessfully to convince the world that he’s not damaged goods. From the picture on the field that day, with the Giants mobbing one another in the middle of the field while a dejected and lonely looking Branca walks alone, glove in hand, the other way, to the reports that Branca went into a rage in the clubhouse before breaking down in tears, it’s clear that Branca was humbled by his loss. Of course if he had bounced back the next season and went on to perform other great feats, things might have been different. But instead his career was basically over after that. He blamed his quick downward spiral on a freak accident involving a Coke bottle but it’s hard to wonder if his decline wasn’t more psychological than physical. And that is the beauty of the human experience captured so capably in Branca’s Pitch, how the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves are sometimes one and the same and how difficult it can be to know in both cases what is truth and what is a sales pitch.
The film features fascinating, moving vintage footage and photos from the early aftermath, including footage of both Branca and Thomson appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, one after the other, each joshingly serenading giant portraits of the other. While Thomson sings a semi-facetious song of gratitude, Branca sings a touchingly sad song ending on his sentimental claim he was ultimately the victor thanks to having married his wife after the 1951 season’s painful end. He also posed for a famous shot with Thomson, both men wearing big smiles as Branca jokingly has his hands loosely around the other man’s neck. The intended message is clear, that Branca is a good sport and self-secure, but is it convincing? Things get a lot more interesting in that regard when you consider that the reason for the Giants’ miraculous turnaround in 1951 (and even Thomson’s home run) might be that they were stealing signs, a claim convincingly fleshed out in Joshua Prager’s 2006 book, Echoing Green (and something that Branca had long been aware of). Prager reveals that Branca refused to be interviewed for his book, Branca claiming he didn’t want to be perceived as a sore loser.
While the film paints a tender portrait of a good man and a great athlete, it also makes it clear that Branca’s still bitter about the way his career wound down, justifiably so, especially considering that the team and player that brought it about were cheating the game of baseball. Some of the most moving moments in the film come when we are allowed to watch an elderly Branca sit and watch images of a younger version of himself giving up that home run and making that painfully funny Ed Sullivan appearance. It’s a reminder of how we are all continually evolving, alternately running from or longingly clinging to the past, and the damage that can ensue when a painful failing moment in time becomes your defining image in the eyes of the world.