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The whine heard round the world
Brooklyn Dodgers still fuming over Thompson’s homer

Jul 17, 2001 6:01 AM

In sports there are winners and there are also whiners. You can list Ralph Branca as a whiner.

A half-century after the fact, the ex-Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher now alleges that the home run he served up to Bobby Thomson that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants ”” the shot heard around the world ”” was the result of cheating. Branca claims the Giants stole his signs and that Thomson knew exactly what pitch was coming.

Well, as Al Smith used to say “lets look at the record.”

In the first game of the playoff series, Thomson hit a home run off Branca. Being as that game was played at Ebbets Field, there’s no way the Giants could have set up any elaborate system for stealing signs. In the second game, played at the Polo Grounds, Clem Labine shut out the Giants. Either the sign stealing was ineffective or, more probably, there was no system in place to steal signs.

This whole business of stealing signs is overrated. Teams have been doing it with varying success since the dawn of the game. I recall many years ago asking Ted Williams to autograph a ball. Williams related that one day at Fenway Park the Red Sox had stolen all of the Cleveland Indians’ signs and they knew in advance every pitch Bob Feller was throwing. The result was that Feller threw a one-hitter, a bloop single by Bobby Doerr.

In the final analysis, execution is what matters.

At the most critical juncture of their careers, Thomson succeeded and not Branca. The Dodger pitcher has termed the alleged sign stealing as “despicable.” What’s truly despicable is Branca’s pathetic attempt to alibi his own failure and trying to tarnish the glory of baseball’s most dramatic moment.

In 1947, a 21-year-old Branca won 21 games for the Dodgers. But he never again approached that record. Branca was 13-12 in 1951 and went downhill from there, finally being dealt to the Detroit Tigers.

His major league career was over before he was 30.

Branca is one of those figures noteworthy in baseball history, not for what they accomplished, but for what was accomplished against them. Tony Lazzeri is rightfully a member of the Baseball Hall Of Fame but even his plaque at Cooperstown notes that he was struck out by Grover Cleveland Alexander with the bases loaded in the climatic game of the 1926 World Series. And Vic Wertz enjoyed a fine career but he is remembered only for his long drive that Willie Mays made a fantastic catch on in the 1954 World Series.

Origins of the Game

Researchers have discovered in two New York newspapers, dating from 1823, references to a game called “base ball” being played at that time. This, of course, predates Abner Doubleday/Cooperstown by 16 years. And I’ve been told by members of the society for American Baseball Research that references to a game similar to baseball can be found during the time of the Revolutionary War.

Historical truth can be elusive. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down the cherry tree and maybe Samson didn’t kill 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass and maybe Doubleday didn’t invent baseball. What seems likely is that baseball wasn’t invented by any single person, but simply evolved. But Doubleday/Cooperstown/1839 is a good reference point and I’m content to live with that. When myths collide with truth, it’s sometimes better to accept myths.

All-Star Review

Once upon a time, the Baseball All-Star Game was a legitimate contest between the two leagues. Managers kept their best players in the game right to the end in an honest attempt to win. Now everybody gets into the game just like spring exhibitions. Maybe it was bound to happen as interleague play and the free movement of players between the leagues have blurred the distinction between the two circuits.

The office of league president has been eliminated and all the umpires are under the single jurisdiction of the commissioner’s office. The game itself has become a mere appendage to a television happening that includes a Home Run Derby, made-for —TV features, special awards and countless (and pointless) interviews with managers and players.

Past All-Star Games provided fans with memorable heroics from players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Carl Hubbell, Stan Musial and Willie Mays. The most memorable happening from last week’s game was Tommy Lasorda falling down on his big derriere.