When so many people are famous it stands to reason that many famous people are dying. The old “rule of three” (celebrity deaths come in threes), as Salon’s Nico Lang noted earlier this year, no longer applies in the age of Internet fame and “nonstop collective mourning.” That said, a trio of deaths since Election Day might be worth thinking of as a unit: The passings of Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, and William Trevor, which within days of Donald Trump’s victory came as particularly dispiriting blows. The integrity each brought to their field of endeavor and the dignified manner of their public comportment stand in contrast to what the president-elect brings to this moment. Something bigger seems to have been lost with the loss of them.
More recently, there was was the death last Wednesday of former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca. Baseball fans and many New Yorkers still know Branca for giving up the infamous pennant-winning (or pennant-losing) home run to the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson on October 3, 1951. After the game a crushed Branca asked his fiancee’s cousin, a Jesuit priest: “Why me?” The priest responded: “Ralph, God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.” Branca in fact carried the weight of it for many years, a burden I wish I’d been more appreciative of the day that I met him.
I think I was a sophomore in college; unquestionably I was more foolish than wise, no matter how good I believed my intentions to be. Branca had come to Fordham University in the company of friend and long-time Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda, who in the mid-1980s was at the height of his celebrity, appearing at corporations and campuses to give what amounted to motivational speeches. When LaSorda finished his presentation, I approached Branca for an autograph. I was thinking of a gift for my father—a dedicated Giants fan who had long regaled his sons with the story of Thomson’s home run. While everyone else crowded around Lasorda, I told Branca what I wanted, who I wanted it for, and why. I remember what I handed to him: A pen and a sheet of college-ruled paper I’d torn from the spiral notebook I offered as a writing surface. He wordlessly complied—indeed, he seemed wearily accustomed to such requests—and handed the pen, paper, and notebook back to me. In the days and weeks that followed, I came to think of his eyes as haunted, a detail I shamelessly worked into my retelling of the encounter, a way to make myself part of a story that had nothing to do with me.
Do I remember when I came to regret it—not just the manner in which I asked for his autograph, but also my needless and selfish embroidering? Not precisely, though I gradually did become more awake to what it must have been like for Branca, and more sensitive about the pressure on people who perform and risk failure in public—not only but especially athletes, onto whom so much is projected in both so collective and so personal a way. What I do remember is coming on this passage in Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, the long, lyrical opening of which is given over to that October afternoon in 1951 and the shot heard ’round the world:
Pafko at the wall. Then he’s looking up. People thinking where’s the ball. The scant delay, the stay in time that lasts a hairsbreadth. And Cotter standing in section 35 watching the ball come in his direction. He feels his body turn to smoke. He loses sight of the ball when it climbs above the overhang and he thinks it will land in the upper deck. But before he can smile or shout or bash his neighbor on the arm. Before the moment can overwhelm him, the ball appears again, stitches visibly spinning, that’s how near it hits, banging at an angle off a pillar …
[Russ Hodges] says, “The Giants win the pennant.”
Four times. Branca turns and picks up the rosin bag and throws it down, heading toward the clubhouse now, his shoulders aligned at a slant — he begins the long dead trudge.
The shoulders aligned at a slant, the “long dead trudge.” By all accounts, Branca—who was ninety when he died—bore the cross with great grace. He would eventually make peace with his part in what many consider the most famous moment in baseball, becoming friends and touring with Thomson on the nostalgia circuit that kicked into high gear in the late 1980s. That was after I’d asked him for an autograph. And it was well before he learned that his mother was Jewish, which would have made him and his sixteen Catholic siblings Jewish as well. “Maybe that’s why God’s mad at me—that I didn’t practice my mother’s religion,” he told the New York Times. But as that report had it, he said it “with a smile that perhaps betrayed newfound reflection on his baseball fate.”