Jews and Baseball: New Takes on a Historic Game

This week marks the 60th  anniversary of New York Giant Bobby Thomson’s epic winning home run off of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca.  In mid-August, media sources reported that Branca, a practicing Catholic, was actually ethnically Jewish.  GTJ had a chance to speak with the investigative journalist who first tracked down the evidence of Branca’s Jewish ancestry.  Read more below as Joshua Prager, a Wall Street Journal Senior Special Projects writer and the author of “The Echoing Green” — a book exposing the cheating scandal surrounding this famous game — discusses sports, Branca, Jewish identity, and more.  (Answers are paraphrased from a longer telephone interview.)

Bobby Thomson’s home run (and the equally iconic call ) nicknamed “The Shot Heard Round the World” is still viewed as the top play in the 100 + year history of Major League Baseball.  In today’s age of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ reality stars and an entertainment market that constantly seems more specialized and fragmented by the day, how would you explain this moment’s importance, not just to baseball but society as a whole?

This was a moment that played out like a movie script.  In 1951, baseball was by far the most popular sport in the country.  The NFL, college football, and the NBA were not nearly as popular as they are today.  The game was between the two biggest rivals in all of sports (the Giants and the Dodgers) who both played in New York City, which at the time was the epicenter of baseball.  At one point, the Dodgers were up thirteen and a half games, and this went down to a single playoff game. Also, this was the first live nationally televised sports event. The newsreel was combined with the famous radio call by Russ Hodges and replayed in movie theaters across the country.

The result of these factors, and others detailed in my book, “The Echoing Green”, made for a moment that transcends sports. Just like people can tell you where they where when Pearl Harbor was bombed, they can tell you where they where when this home run happened. The home run landed in the writing of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Don DeLillo, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, and John Steinbeck. The TV shows MASH and the Simpsons and the movie The Godfather have also referenced it.

I assume that, in those days, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a large following in the Jewish community. If there is one things that Jews are good at, it’s making someone else feel guilty. So I have to imagine having a whole community view him with that “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” glare we do so well had to be very trying on him. What was the community’s reaction to the heartbreaking (at least to Dodger fans) ending and how hard was this on Branca?

At the time, one in every three Brooklynites was Jewish and Cal Abrams was a Jewish player on the Dodgers so there was a strong contingent of Jewish Dodger fans. The moment was extremely tough on Dodger fans. The famous Jewish lawyer Alan Dershowitz, for example, said this was the moment that turned him into an atheist.

The moment was also extremely challenging for Branca. His life was divided into two parts, before the home run and after it.  Branca is a religious Catholic and an overall good person.  Religion can’t do more than it has done for him. His Catholicism was a comfort to him and helped get him through this life-changing event. A priest told him that God chose him because of the strength of his faith.

Jews have always taken pride in their sports stars, and this seems especially true with baseball. Knowing someone in a professional sport is Jewish — be it Edelman with the Patriots, our local boy Jeff Halpern with the Caps, Ryan Braun, or even the lesser known players like the Nationals’ own Jason Marquis — makes me want to cheer for them. (That is, unless the Penguins signed a Jewish hockey player. I’m pretty sure I’d still hate him.) Do you think there is something different about Jewish culture that leads us to idolize sports stars?

Any minority takes pride in its athletes.  Chien Ming Wang, for example, was watched by millions in his native Taiwan every time he pitched.  When my great-grandmother came to this country from Russia she kept a piece of paper by her bedside with two things written on it in English so she could repeat the words to others. One was “Phi Beta Kappa” as my mother earned this honor. The other was “Sandy Kofaux” because he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur. Jews are still excelling at baseball. Recently there were three Jews in the All Star game: Ian Kinsler, Kevin Youkilis, and Ryan Braun. (Author’s note: As much as we would love to adopt them, Strasburg and the two Zimmermans on the Nats are not Jewish).

With regards to Branca finding out about his Jewish roots, Branca remembered to me that he was a Shabbos Goy, which to him elevated his experience over his genetics.  He was a religious Catholic at the time and he still views himself as Catholic and not Jewish. However, learning that his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust struck him more powerfully than finding out that his mother was listed as an Israelite when she arrived at Ellis Island. And bringing to light the forgotten deaths of his Uncle Jozsef and Aunt  Irma was very meaningful to me.

With Yom Kippur just around the corner, what do you think of the problem of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports compared to the traditional problems  (e.g. stealing signs, a pitcher doctoring a baseball, etc.)? Are these all just necessary evils to gain an edge (aka the old saying that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying) or are our professional sports leagues in need of some major reflection?

I talk about this in my book, “The Echoing Green”. It is understandable why players use steroids, given the massive amounts of additional money they stand to earn playing baseball. While stealing signs with the naked eye from second base or the dugout is kosher, what the Giants did in 1951 went far beyond this and was certainly not okay. Both sides can do steroids, but only one side can watch from centerfield with binoculars as the Giants did. One guy watched for the sign. He then hit a button denoting which type of pitch was going to be thrown. A man in the bullpen received this information via buzzer and signaled the batter. Even more than the effect it had on play, the cheating affected the men involved because it’s a secret they had to carry for many years.  When I first confronted Bobby Thomson with evidence of the cheating, he immediately told me, “It’s something I’ve never been proud of.” And when we first met to discuss it, he began to cry.

While this generation’s Ralph Branca (Bill Buckner) is not Jewish, he has now been taught a little bit about our people via our pop culture ambassador, Larry David.  Any other future stories you would like to investigate surrounding Jews and Sports?

When I first started out at the Wall Street Journal, I often wrote of three different topics I knew well: baseball; people with disabilities, because of a spinal cord injury I suffered at age 19; and Judaism, as I grew up in an Orthodox family.  I got two of those topics into this story. Perhaps one day I’ll write a story that involves all three.