Before tweeting, we had legends
Anyone can have a bad day at the office, but few will outdo Ralph Branca. His workday of woe happened at age 25, and it nagged at him for the rest of his life.
Branca, a former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who died last week at age 90, was the victim, along with Dodgers fans everywhere, of the "Shot Heard ‘Round the World" in October 1951. That blow, emotional and physical, was delivered by Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants, who hit a Branca fastball over the left field fence at the Polo Grounds to win the National League pennant.
Called one of baseball’s greatest moments, the legendary shot can still be seen on YouTube; video captures the leaping joy that sports can deliver, and radio announcer Russ Hodge’s soaring call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" Young men skip and clap as they round the bases, and an older one, the third base coach, spins like a 5-year-old whose delight is so overwhelming he doesn’t know what to do with his body.
Baseball lore is preserved in narrative, and this one stayed with Branca. It was later said that the shock ruined his baseball career. He’d had three all-star seasons before and never had another, but Branca said that was because he hurt his back in spring training the next year and he never regained his form.
In ensuing years, Branca at times seemed to resent his fate.
"A guy commits murder and he gets pardoned after 20 years," he once said. "I didn’t get pardoned." Similarly, he complained, "Nobody remembers that at 21, I won 21 games. All they remember is the homer."
But Branca moved on to a career as an insurance salesman with a sideline of raising money for a charity that helped old ballplayers. He became friends with Thomson and they did charity events and baseball shows together. He seems to have achieved an admirable sense of equanimity, even though it was later claimed that the Giants that season used a telescope to steal opposing catchers’ signals. Branca believed it; Thomson denied he knew what pitch was coming.
That "the shot" has endured raises the question of whether contemporary highlights can do the same. We have our doubts. Consider that the game was seen live by a tiny audience compared with the reach of media today. There were not a million Twitter posts and Facebook shares.
In the 1950s, a moment had time to grow into a story – through radio, newspapers and movie reels. Before fans had their fill, the moment was fixed in legend.
And in those days, sports heroes and goats went back home when their careers were done to old neighborhoods or small towns in the Midwest.
They did not resurface on Dancing With the Stars. Their youth lived on in collective memory. For Branca that was something of a burden, not so for Thomson.
He said, reflecting the heights that sports also can reach in an instant: "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It may have been the best thing that happened to anybody."
– Valley News