Ralph Branca: true to his religion?
Bobby Thomson was immortalized for his home run in 1951 — “the shot heard ’round the world” — that won the pennant for the New York Giants over their hated rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ralph Branca, who had a successful but short career as a member of the “Bums,” is mostly remembered as the pitcher who surrendered Thomson’s homer. That at-bat is known as one of, if not the, greatest moments in baseball history.
After the game, Branca was understandably distraught. His pitch cost the Dodgers the pennant! But he didn’t let his anger and frustration diminish his faith or detract from connection to the Almighty. In fact, this painful experience strengthened his faith in God because it was his faith that helped him cope with the loss, one that still pains him to this day.
In a recent New York Times interview with Joshua Prager, Branca revealed that after the game a Jesuit priest approached him and offered words of consolation. He said that, “God had chosen him to yield the home run because God knew his faith was strong enough to sustain him through what would follow.” Branca agreed; and thus, Prager notes, “Ever since, even as the goat endured public discourteousness for 60 years, he praised God, reciting every morning and night the ‘Our Father,’ a ‘Hail Mary’ and a couplet of his own: ‘Make me worthy of your love; make my love worthy of you.’”
I know of numerous people that have abandoned their faith after suffering a significant loss in their lives. As a result of their struggle they concluded that either God does not exist, for if God existed He would never allow evil to prevail, or that God is not good, and they didn’t want to associate with a “bad” God.
Had Branca used this moment in time to question God’s motives and leave his faith, it would have been understandable. The personal attacks and public embarrassment he endured over the loss of the baseball game were more than excessive. The fact that he was able to maintain a heart full of faith throughout this ordeal was nothing short of remarkable. While Branca may have lost the baseball game, he emerged victorious in the most important game: the game of life.
Recently, Branca’s faith was tested again in a more subtle but perhaps equally significant way. After some research, it was confirmed that his mother, a practicing Catholic, was born Jewish. According to traditional Judaism, this makes Branca a full-fledged Jew. His mother, who lost several siblings in the Holocaust, hid her Jewish background from family and friends after receiving permission from her parents to marry out of the faith.
Branca’s reaction to the news was intriguing. He remarked, “Maybe that’s why God’s mad at me — that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion. He made me throw that home run pitch. He made me get injured the next year. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.”
I don’t believe in assigning our failures and hardships in life to specific sins that we have committed. Good or bad, God deals with us in ways that we will never understand. My purpose here, however, is to make the following observation: The ease and willingness with which Branca turns to God for help in resolving the difficulties and challenges in his life are something that we can all learn from. When faced with the reality that he was practicing a “strange” faith for the last 85 years, he immediately expressed his feelings in connection to God. His faithful attitude embodies the rabbinic teaching that one is required to praise God equally in the good times and the bad times. Through thick and thin, Branca uses his faith as a vehicle to find contentment and peace. While he may never fully recover from the psychological effect of surrendering the home run or being misled for so many years about his family’s religious heritage, his ability to keep God at the center of his life is truly praiseworthy.
Being faithful is the foundation for any successful relationship. Indeed, the Ten Commandments begin with two that speak of our obligation to believe in God: Know that there is a God and that there is none other than He. It is only once the basis for our relationship with God has been solidified that we can focus on the details of the relationship and accept the other eight commandments and the multitude of other obligations that are part of religious observance.
I don’t know whether Branca will fully embrace his Jewish identity as an 85-year-old man. But it appears certain that his faith and belief in God will never falter. If he was able to keep the faith while enduring personal attacks and public mockery from devoted Dodger fans, then certainly this news will not be able to shake him. As an Orthodox rabbi, I believe that Branca, as the son of a Jewish mother, is a Jew, despite the fact that he has practiced Catholicism all his life. While we may never agree on which religion offers the true path to salvation, I have deep respect and admiration for the faith that Mr. Branca has shown throughout his life.
And so, Mr. Branca, welcome to the Tribe. No matter how you lead your life, continue to keep God in the center.