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Part One: The Kings of Brooklyn
back in 1932, the time had come to quit dodging the issue of Brooklyn's baseball nickname. After years volleying between Bridegrooms, Superbas, and Robins — and less formally, Bums — the official choice had come down to two: Dodgers (the shorthand version of the Trolley Dodgers of lore) or Kings, a new choice harkening back to Kings County, as Brooklyn was the seat of the borough.
Dodgers won out, and happily so, giving the team and its fans a name rooted firmly in franchise history and unique in sports culture.
But in what turned out to be the final decade of Major League Baseball in Brooklyn, in the nascent days of the Dodger pitching tradition, kings did emerge, with the mound their throne. Their memories linger, flickering in black and white, in stories too often summed up in shorthand but that are, as you'll see, much more complex.
For the first five years of the 1940s, the United States was a country in search of victory and peace. In Brooklyn, World War II had been an encompassing distraction from the struggles of a team that had won only two NL pennants since World War I. As the latest conflict ended and the soldiers who survived were coming home, Brooklyn refocused as a city firmly in search of a title.
The first key Dodger pitcher to emerge from that era was Ralph Branca, in some ways a guinea pig for a team turning its emphasis to developing a tradition of arms. He made his major-league debut on June 12, 1944, five months after his 18 birthday and six days after D-Day. Branca embodied the internal, infernal contradiction of the postwar Bums, achieving regular-season greatness punctuated by postseason heartbreak. His name has long since become branded by devastating disappointment, but that acid link diminishes how much Branca meant to the Dodgers.
Born in 1926 in Mount Vernon, New York, Branca came into MLB service like a sailor handed a mop. The Dodgers were down by six runs when he entered his debut game, down nine in his next. In his first 17 career appearances, the Dodgers neither led when he entered nor won when he exited, and his ERA for the season in 44â ..." innings was an immature 7.05.
As a 19-year-old, Branca was shipped out to St. Paul for the first half of the 1945 season before returning to the Dodgers in July. He was predictably uneven, pitching 2 1/3 ... "shutout innings in his season debut July 18 in the second game of a doubleheader for what we would now call a save, before allowing five runs in 1 2/3 ..." innings of his first start four days later. Taking the mound again on July 27, Branca won his first big-league game with eight innings of two-run ball against the Braves, only to get knocked out by the same team with none out in the third inning on August 3.
Branca announced himself as a pitcher to be reckoned with in the second game of an August 9 doubleheader against the Reds, the day Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Branca allowed a run in the first inning, then two unearned runs in the third. But he stayed in the game, throwing shutout ball — nine innings of it — all the way through the 12, when an RBI single by Babe Herman finally made him a winner. While no pitch count is available for the game, based on the 49 batters Branca faced (six hits, seven walks, 11 strikeouts), the 19-year-old likely threw at least 150 pitches, if not closer to 200. The 12 innings remain the second-most by a teenager in Dodger history, trailing only Rex Barney's 14 innings in 1943.
This was the first of four consecutive complete games for Branca, who split the decisions despite a 1.38 ERA. In fact, the young right-hander started 12 of the Dodgers' final 52 games in 1945 and finished with a 2.45 ERA. At times it was a wild ride — including 10 walks in six innings September 1 at the Giants — but he finished the year with a 1–0 victory at Philadelphia and an 8–1 complete-game victory at the Polo Grounds. Branca remains the all-time leader among teenage Dodger pitchers in games, starts, complete games, innings, and strikeouts, throwing twice as many innings before turning 20 as latter-day Dodger phenom Julio Urías.
Despite an 87–67 record, the '45 Dodgers finished 11 games out of first place in the NL, but starting the following year, Brooklyn would be in every pennant race for the next 10 years. Branca played an important role many times over.
Leading the NL in 1946 by as many as 7 ½ games on July 2, the Dodgers found themselves in a dogfight throughout the second half of the season. Branca was kept on a leash until September 14, when he was scheduled for a one-batter start — yes, that's right — against the Cardinals. After Branca faced switch-hitting leadoff man Red Schoendienst, Dodger manager Leo Durocher planned to counter the Cardinals' lefty-heavy lineup by flipping to southpaw Vic Lombardi beginning with the second batter.
"I turned to [coach] Charlie Dressen and said, 'Are my eyes fooling me, or is that ball really jumping?'" Durocher said. "Charlie said it was jumping all right, and when [catcher] Bruce Edwards turned to me and motioned that Branca was really tearing his glove off with each pitch, I told Lombardi to sit down and forget about everything."
Moment in the Sun: Ed Head
A natural southpaw, he became a right-hander as a teenager after a car accident nearly cost him his left arm
No-hit the Braves on April 23, 1946, in his first start in 21 months because of military service
Never pitched in big leagues again after that season, finishing career at age 28 with a 3.48 ERA (98 ERA+) in 465 innings
Branca pitched a shutout that day and again September 18 against the Pirates. Brooklyn and the Cardinals finished the season tied at 96–58, and the Dodgers joined in the first of two best-of-three playoffs during Branca's career — the 20-year-old starting the first game at Sportsman's Park. With the score tied 1–1 in the bottom of the third inning, Branca gave up two runs. He was replaced with two out, but the Dodgers never claimed the lead or the pennant.
In 1947, the year of Jackie Robinson's breakthrough, Branca broke out at age 21 as a premier pitcher. Making a league-high 36 starts and throwing 280 innings (second in the NL) — 163 after July 1 — Branca went 21–12 with a 2.67 ERA (154 ERA+) and was on the NL All-Star team. Only Ewell Blackwell and Warren Spahn had more wins above replacement that year. On July 18, the two-year anniversary of his big-league debut, the highflying Branca retired the first 21 batters he faced before Enos Slaughter's eighth-inning single left him to settle for a 29-batter one-hitter against the Cardinals.
"I had a good curveball," Branca said. "I could throw the ball 95 miles an hour, I had control and I was coachable ... As a kid I would dream about playing in the big leagues, and here I was, 21 years old, a Dodger and an All-Star."
Clinching the pennant 10 days before the end of the season, Brooklyn reached the World Series for only the second time since 1920, inaugurating the Boys of Summer era.
Branca started Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium and was perfect for four innings, preserving a 1 — 0 Dodger lead. In the fifth, however, Joe DiMaggio's infield single not only gave New York its first baserunner, it set off a cascade of six straight Yankees to reach base, five of them scoring.
"Looking back, my inexperience hurt me," Branca said, "because I started pitching in a hurry. I was grabbing the ball and throwing it and not taking my time, pressing, and I ended up wild."
Branca came back in relief during a Game 3 Dodger victory and once more in Game 6, when he was the winning pitcher in a wild, 8–6 triumph that set up the first winner-take-all championship game in Dodger history, one that the Dodgers lost, 5–2.
For the next two seasons, Branca repeated as an All-Star, though again occasionally riding out bucking broncos at the ballpark — on June 25, 1949, Branca pitched a complete-game, 17–10 victory at Pittsburgh in which he allowed five runs before he got an out and 17 baserunners in all. That October brought another disappointment. After the Dodgers and Yankees split 1–0 games at Yankee Stadium, Branca started Game 3 at Ebbets Field, pitching in a 1–1 tie with two out in the ninth inning, when Johnny Mize singled home two runs. After the Dodgers' Luis Olmo and Roy Campanella hit cork-but-no-champagne solo homers off Joe Page in the bottom of the ninth to take it to extra innings, Jerry Coleman's RBI single off Brooklyn reliever Jack Banta proved the difference. The Yankees won the Series in five games.
Once 1950 arrived, Branca — still only 24 but passing the 1,000-inning mark in his career — was increasingly relegated to the bullpen, his ERA soaring to 4.69 (88 ERA+). But the less rigorous schedule seemed to serve him well, and he had something of a renaissance in 1951. Branca delivered a 1.40 ERA in nine relief appearances to start the season before jumping into the rotation on May 28, with the first of four consecutive complete games. On August 11, it was his go-the-distance, 10-strikeout, 8–1 victory over the Braves that put the Dodgers a season-high, ostensibly insurmountable 13 games ahead of the Giants with 49 to play.
Branca finished August with back-to-back shutouts. On the second of those games, on August 27, he hadn't allowed a hit heading into the ninth inning.
"I knew I had the no-hitter so I was really busting it, and I strained my arm," Branca said. "And subsequently, I pitched effectively enough, but I didn't throw as hard."
Though his ERA was still below 3.00 as late as September 21, Branca, like other Dodgers, grew more inconsistent — yet the team couldn't afford to use him any less. After allowing four runs in three innings on September 15, he was asked to start again on two days' rest; in that outing, he allowed 13 baserunners in 5 2/3 ..." innings. He pitched three more innings out of the bullpen on two days' rest September 21, then started on three days' rest September 25 and didn't record an out.
When Branca opened the first game of the best-of-three tiebreaker playoff against the Giants at Ebbets Field, it was a day after he pitched 1 1/3 ..." innings in the all-hands-on-deck, 9–8, 14-inning, season-saving victory at Philadelphia. Branca pitched admirably against New York, allowing three runs in eight innings. None other than Bobby Thomson hit the game-winning home run in this game, a two-run drive in the fourth inning into the first row of the seats in left-center — a ball that would have been an out, perversely enough, at the Polo Grounds — that put the Giants ahead to stay in a 3–1 victory.
After the Dodgers won the second game behind Clem Labine's shutout, Don Newcombe took the mound in the winner-take-all NL finale and pitched into the ninth inning, leading 4–1. Carl Erskine and Branca were throwing in the bullpen behind Newk, who allowed a one-out, RBI double that put the tying run on base and the winning run at the plate in Thomson.
"It [had] looked like to the world and everybody else that we're going to clinch this pennant finally," Erskine recalls. "But the phone rings, and I couldn't hear [manager Charlie] Dressen, but I could hear Sukeforth — Clyde Sukeforth was our bullpen coach, and he was a former catcher himself. And I heard him say to Dressen, 'They're both ready.' [Dressen] must've asked him which one has got the best stuff or looks the best or something, and Suky said, 'Erskine's bouncing his overhand curveball.'
"On that day, Campy was hurt, and Rube Walker was the catcher. And the Polo Grounds had the longest distance to the screen behind home plate — there was a big area back there. Rube Walker was, as the old Texas guy told me once, 'slower than pond water.' He was an outstanding catcher and outstanding hitter — good power, but he was slow as molasses. So now, try to piece together: Did Dressen say, 'We don't want any wild pitches with Walker catching'? ... That's the only clue I have of how he made the choice between me and Ralph."
Branca, who had thrown 201 innings since May 1, made his way into the game. The first pitch was a get-ahead pitch, down the middle and dangerous, but Thomson took it for strike one. The next pitch had been meant to be wasted, but Branca aimed it. Thomson swung.
"He hit it with an uppercut," Branca said. "It had overspin, and he hit it down the line, and it was sinking, and all I could remember saying was, 'Sink, sink, sink,' and it just did go in. It went in like six inches over the wall. Probably went over the wall at 300 feet.
"And from there to the locker room, I don't remember. I remember getting in the locker room and sitting on the steps, and I remember [Dodger team photographer] Barney Stein taking pictures, and I think it was [Associated Press sportswriter] Will Grimsley who gave me a hard time, wanted to talk to me, and I said, 'Just leave me alone, just leave me alone.' And that's about what I remember. I sat there a long time, and the guys drifted out, and finally I went up and took a shower and got out of there."
Branca left Ebbets Field with his fiancée, whom he was set to marry in 17 days.
"When I finally got out to the car, Ann started to cry," he said. "And she had a cousin who's a priest, Father Pat Rowley, and I said to him, 'Why me?' He said, 'God chose you because he knew your faith would be strong enough to bear this cross.'
"And I accepted that."
His teammates did likewise. There was internal scuttlebutt at the time, documented decades later by Joshua Prager in the Wall Street Journal, that the Giants had set up an elaborate scheme in '51 to steal signs, though Thomson forever denied being tipped off on the pitch. Either way, according to John Thorn, Branca wasn't considered a villain inside the Dodger organization, partly because everyone knew how hard he had been worked.
"Somebody was gonna throw that pitch," Thorn says, "and everybody knew that the Giants had that extra help. It was unstated at the time, but everybody knew it then. It was common knowledge. The fans knew nothing about it."
But Branca didn't have much left in him to change the post-homer narrative. Having thrown 1,250 big-league innings by age 25, Branca threw only 234 after turning 26. The easy story was that the Shot Heard 'Round the World did him in, but the reality was that his arm had already been through a grinder, and a spring training injury in 1952 — when he slipped on a waxy floor and his pelvis landed on top of a Coke bottle — all but ruined him. He pitched eight shutout innings on June 27 that year, but made only one start for the Dodgers the rest of the season.
After Branca allowed six runs in the fifth inning of a 20–6 loss to the Giants on July 5, 1953, the Dodgers bid Branca farewell. He pitched scattered innings for the Detroit Tigers and Yankees in 1953 and 1954; spent the Dodgers' World Series title year of 1955 in the Giants' farm system, of all places; then made a brief comeback attempt with Brooklyn in '56, pitching two shutout innings that September, but he was done.
With 16.3 wins above replacement, Branca ranked 33rd in Dodger history, 16th among Brooklyn arms. To say the least, Branca would have preferred that for the rest of his life, 99 percent of the baseball-loving world didn't reduce his career to a single pitch. But he always kept perspective.
"Life has been good," he said early in 2013. "I'm healthy outside of walking slowly. My brain works, and in January I finished my 87th year. That's how the Italians put it. The Italians have it right."
Branca's connection to the Dodgers spanned generations. His wife, Ann, was the daughter of former Dodger co-owners James and Dearie Mulvey. Dearie herself was the daughter of Stephen McKeever, co-owner of the Dodgers with Charles Ebbets when Ebbets Field was built. The Brancas' daughter Mary married Bobby Valentine, the onetime hot Dodger prospect who later embarked upon a memorable managerial career.
"I was closer to Ralph than to any other Dodger," Vin Scully said after Branca passed away at age 90 in 2016. "We traveled around the world and became very good friends. He carried the cross of the Thomson home run with dignity and grace. I was grateful for his friendship and I grieve at his death. He was a great man."
If Ralph Branca's reputation has wrongly been reduced to a moment, perhaps Preacher Roe's has been overdubbed by a name.
To be fair, Elwin Charles Roe (born in 1916 in the Arkansas town of Ash Flat, whose population didn't break 500 until the 1980 census) had one of the better nicknames in baseball history. In his SABR biography of Roe, Warren Corbett rounded up the explanation — sorry, explanations:
Well, it was like this: "One day when I was three years old my Uncle Bathis — my daddy's only brother — asked me what my name was. I said to him, 'Preacher.' Don't know why I said that, but it's stuck with me ever since."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brothers in Arms"
Copyright © 2018 Jon Weisman.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Joe Davis 7
Quick Notes On Sourcing And Statistics 11
All-Time Dodger Pitching Leaders In Wins Above Replacement 13
Pregame: The Ancestors 17
Part 1 The Kings Of Brooklyn 37
Ralph Branca 38
Preacher Roe 46
Carl Erskine 51
Don Newcombe 58
Johnny Podres 77
Part 2 The Two Emperors 87
Sandy Koufax 89
Don Drysdale 117
Part 3 The Post-Koufax Generation 131
Bill Singer 134
Claude Osteen 136
Don Sutton 141
Part 4 The Modern Classicists 169
Tommy John 172
Andy Messersmith 180
Burt Hooton 185
Bob Welch 193
Jerry Reuss 201
Part 5 El Toro And The Bulldog 211
Fernando Valenzuela 212
Orel Hershiser 234
Part 6 The International Rotation 255
Ramón Martínez 258
Chan Ho Park 269
Ismael Valdez 279
Hideo Nomo 289
Part 7 The Hired Hands 301
Kevin Brown 302
Zack Greinke 307
Part 8 The Bullpen Aces 315
Part 9 The Magnificent 343
Clayton Kershaw 345