Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Branca’s Pitch: The Man Who Threw the Shot Heard ‘Round the World

In its heart of hearts, baseball is a neurotic sport. The best games, decided in the late innings, all come down to a simple question—who will choke, the pitcher or the batter? The statistics always favor the pitcher, but fans live in constant hope of that dramatic walk-off homerun. We have been conditioned to it after seeing so many of them over the years. None is as indelible in sports fans’ collective memory as the ninth inning game-winner Bobby Thomson hit off Ralph Branca to secure the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants—the so-called “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” However, Branca had not cracked.  He made his pitch: high and inside, a terrible homerun ball.  Thomson just knocked it out anyway.

There is more to this story than fans realized, but Branca had to live with the results just the same.  Viewers will learn the truth behind baseball’s most iconic game and how it changed the three-time All-Star’s life in Andrew J. Muscato’s documentary profile, Branca’s Pitch (trailer here), now available on DVD from Strand Releasing.

For years, every time Thomson’s homerun was replayed on television, Branca grinned and bore it, like a good soldier. A family man with a prosperous life insurance business, Branca’s post-baseball career was considerably more success than most of his contemporaries, but that one moment in 1951 dogged him nonetheless.  Finally, Branca decided to tell his story, enlisting the help of prolific ghostwriter David Ritz.

You might very well have some of Ritz’s work on your shelf.  Originally inspired by Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues, Ritz has somewhat specialized in co-writing the memoirs of jazz, blues, and R&B artists like Jimmy Scott, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Nathalie Cole, and B.B. King. Ritz also happens to be a Brooklyn guy, so he and Branca get along famously.

In addition to a sports doc, Pitch also explores the largely overlooked relationship between a famous memoirist and their ghostwriter (or credited co-writer in Ritz’s case). Cynically, we often assume this is a rather cold-bloodedly commercial relationship, but a genuine friendship blossoms between Branca and Ritz.  At one point, Ritz describes Branca’s voice as quite intelligent and well educated, but still a little bit “street,” which seems to fit the co-writer’s sensibilities like a mitt.

Ritz and Muscato both convey a sense that Branca can go days or even months without thinking of the fateful pitch, but as the macro years pass, he still bitterly resents being defined by that one pitch, especially since facts have since come to light suggesting the Giants late season surge just wasn’t cricket.  (Well reported in numerous sources, readers can reference Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green for specific details or wait for Pitch to reveal all in due course.)  He is both at peace with the past and deeply outraged—a contradiction Ritz argues he is wholly entitled to.

Executive produced by oh-so former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, Pitch nicely captures baseball’s influence on American culture and the cathartic relief Branca experiences when his side of the story finally enters the public discourse. It is a sports doc, but also a publishing story.  Recommended for baseball fans and New Yorkers of all stripes, Branca’s Pitch is now available for home viewing from Strand Releasing.