50 Years Later, a Loser Wins


Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer


If Ralph Branca played baseball today, he'd be called a sap or a sucker, or worse.

Almost 50 years ago, he served up the pitch that Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants sent rocketing into the left field seats in the old Polo Grounds for what is considered the most memorable home run the game has ever seen.

A few years later, Branca learned that the Giants had been stealing signs from his Brooklyn Dodgers and nearly every other team they faced in their stretch run to the 1951 National League pennant. But from that day until last week, when a story in The Wall Street Journal revealed the extent of the Giants' chicanery, Branca was resigned to take that secret to the grave.

``To me, it was a forbidden subject,'' he said Sunday. ``And I didn't want to demean Bobby or seem like I was a crybaby.''

Think about that for a moment. Ballplayers are better than ever in every sport at every level, from rec leagues to the pros. Yet you can't point to even one today and say with certainty he would have accepted his fate with silence or anything approaching the dignity that Branca, now 75, displayed over the years.

Let the same thing happen to a ballplayer today and he'd turn up at a news conference tomorrow flanked by his agent and an army of publicists demanding an investigation. After all this time, all Branca ever sought was a private moment with Thomson to share a secret each man anguished over alone for five decades.

``I didn't want to tarnish one of the legendary moments of the game,'' Branca said, fittingly, on the day when the two men shared a podium as the 50th anniversary celebration of what became known as the ``Miracle at Coogan's Bluff'' began.

We are coming off a weekend in sports devoted to the exact opposite sentiment. The whole idea of the XFL is to make a mockery of the game, to pull back the curtain, pump up the volume and lay bare what few mysteries remain.

If the coach makes a bad call, a sideline reporter is in his face immediately, demanding an explanation. If an official blows a call, we hear his tortured rationalization a second later — in stereo. If a player holds, hooks or hits an opponent late and gets away with it, we're encouraged to cackle along with him.

Sad as it may seem, the XFL and impresario Vince McMahon didn't invent the behavior; they only encouraged and exaggerated it. If the opening weekend crowds and the TV ratings were any indication, we're going to be served up this kind of stuff more and more. The NFL avoids that message at its own risk.

Gaining an edge, playing fast and loose with the rules, is as old as sport itself. Stealing signs from the opposing catcher signaling his pitcher was being done long before the Giants' launched their operation in 1951. They used a telescope and had an electrician install a bell-and-buzzer system to relay the information from their clubhouse beyond the centerfield wall to the dugout.

What differentiated their scheme from dozens of previous ones was better technology; that, and the fact that for dozens of years, no one who knew what happened that summer breathed a word of it in public.

``It was like getting something off my chest after all those years,'' said Thomson, 77. ``I'm not a criminal, although I may have felt like one at first.''

Over time, he and Branca became best friends. They made appearances together, linked by their roles in one of baseball's greatest dramas, yet neither one willing to admit what he knew. After the story broke, Branca called Thomson and the words spilled out. Sunday night, at the New York baseball writers' dinner in Manhattan, they replayed their conversation in person.

``Sure, I've taken signs, obviously, in the not-very-nice way the Giants did it,'' Thomson said. ``But did it happen on that fateful pitch? No, it didn't. If you want to believe me, that's fine. If not, OK.''

Branca's response was perfectly in character.

``I don't care whether he had the sign or not on that pitch. It's irrelevant — he hit a good pitch. But I would like to know, without the sign stealing, could they have won?''

We'll never know the answer to that one, but it's worth remembering that things are not always what they seem. Fifty years later, the man we thought was one of sport's biggest losers turned out to be one of its biggest winners.

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Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org