Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Shot Heard 'Round the World and Ralph Branca -- the Jewish Catholic Pitcher

Almost every year we hear of a famous person who suddenly discovered or revealed that they had Jewish roots. The list includes Madeline Albright, champion ice skater Oksana Baiul, John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke, and Wesley Clark.

Yesterday, in an article on the New York Times sports pages, Joshua Prager reported that Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who served up the fastball that Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants turned into the "shot heard 'round the world" in 1951, was also a member of the tribe. The resulting home run gave the pennant to the Giants, who then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees.

It turns out that Branca's mother, a practicing Catholic who had baby Ralph baptized, was herself the daughter of Jewish parents in Hungary. She never told the boy about his Jewish heritage. It was discovered only because Prager, in writing a book about the home run, mentioned that Branca's mother's maiden name was Berger. With the help of genealogists in Hungary, Prager found the documents that provided the proof that she was indeed Jewish.

You can read the whole story in this lengthy article from the Times. We'll share with you just one vignette, as reported by Prager after meeting Branca for lunch at a Westchester country club:
Our Friday lunch at the club ended. I mentioned to Branca the approaching Sabbath.
“I have to get my money from Mrs. Lichtenfeld,” Branca said.
What? I asked. Branca explained. He told me that as a boy in Mount Vernon, he had lighted the stove for a Jewish neighbor every Friday night. He had been a Shabbos goy, doing something that was forbidden for Jews to do on the Sabbath.
Here was a memory that elevated experience over genes, that affirmed Branca’s sense of self. He was a Catholic, not a Jew.
"If I was Jewish, I couldn’t have done it,” he said. He added, “I’m not going to sell my soul for a penny.”
Here's a look back at that memorable day when Branca and Thomson made baseball history -- "The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!"  Enjoy.

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