The man who threw the ball that became the greatest home run in baseball history and perhaps the most indelible moment in American sports is, it turns out, the son of a woman who was born and raised Jewish. Joshua Prager breaks the news today in the New York Times that Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca’s mother, Kati (née Berger), a practicing Catholic who never told her son about her real background, was actually the child of Hungarian Jews who was identified as Jewish when she arrived at Ellis Island; at least two of her siblings died in the Holocaust, at least one at Auschwitz.
The superb article abounds with the 85-year-old Branca’s jovial personality as well as fascinating tidbits (like that the first home run he ever gave up in the majors was to a Jew, Phil Weintraub). Prager is the author of a book on the home run—yes, it is very much a big enough deal as to warrant its own book—which argues that the Giants would at times unsportingly steal catchers’ signs so that batters would know what type of pitch was coming next.
The Dodgers and the New York (baseball) Giants—bitter crosstown rivals—ended the 1951 season tied for the National League pennant after a tremendous Giants comeback in August and September. On October 3, the teams played
a one-game tiebreaker the final game of a three-game tiebreaker series at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ homefield in Harlem. The Giants entered the bottom of the ninth down 4-1, but Bobby Thomson slugged his three-run homer off Branca (as rookie Willie Mays watched from the on-deck circle) to walk off with the win. The iconic event has been immortalized as the great moment of postwar Americana in the opening section of Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, among other places, and for many is crystallized by Russ Hodges’ immortal play-by-play: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” This news about Branca’s heritage does not change the outcome of that pitch, that game, or that season (the Giants in fact lost the World Series to their other inter-borough competitors, the New York Yankees). It does not even change the fact that Branca was and remains a believing Catholic. But it does serve to further confirm Jews’ sneaky centrality to American mass culture and the all-powerful branch of it called sports.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.