Home Video Hovel: Branca’s Pitch, by West Anthony
“I stayed in my room for three weeks. I couldn’t face anybody. I couldn’t believe they had lost. And I must admit, I was a coward. I used to break people’s chops and give people a hard time when the Dodgers won. But I avoided all the Giant fans for I don’t know how long. I ate in my house. I wouldn’t go out. I didn’t want to see nobody.” — Bobby McCarthy, Brooklyn Dodger fan
“Jerry comes out of the store. He says, ‘What do you think?’ I say, ‘About what?’ He says, ‘Thomson’s home run.’ I didn’t say a word. I went back inside, unplugged my radio, and I dropped it into a big barrel we threw trash in. I went and got a baseball bat we had behind the counter, and I smashed that goddamn radio into pieces so small you’d have had to be an atomic scientist to put them under a microscope to see them.” — Bill Reddy, Brooklyn Dodger fan
“I had a boyhood buddy named Noel Moran. Noel’s grandfather was watching the 1951 playoff game against the Giants, and he was in his eighties. When Branca threw the pitch, and Thomson knocked it out, he bent over, called Branca a ‘dago bastard’, spit at the screen, and keeled over dead.” — Joe Flaherty, Brooklyn Dodger fan (from the book Bums: An Oral History Of The Brooklyn Dodgers by Peter Golenbock)
Even if you didn’t live in Brooklyn, even if you weren’t alive in 1951, if you’re a Dodger fan you know about The Shot Heard ‘Round The World — the home run hit by New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson that robbed Brooklyn of their ’51 pennant, a pennant that seemed entirely assured to Dodger fans until pitcher Ralph Branca’s fateful fastball got knocked out of the park by Thomson. Baseball fans who couldn’t give a crap about the Brooklyn (or Los Angeles) Dodgers are familiar with Russ Hodges’ triumphant shout from the broadcast booth: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!!” (And really, after the second one, he was just rubbing it in.) It was perhaps THE infamous baseball moment of the radio era, just as Bill Buckner’s 1986 World Series error for the Boston Red Sox was the infamous moment of the TV era, and Steve Bartman’s interference with a foul ball during a 2003 Chicago Cubs playoff game was the infamous moment of the internet era. But time really does heal all wounds, and assuming one still doesn’t harbor a grudge toward Ralph Branca, a documentary about the man would seem to be a welcome thing… ESPECIALLY if someone had brought to light an astounding tidbit of information which suggests that Thomson’s home run was not achieved by entirely honorable means.
Well, Branca’s Pitch is partly that documentary. It’s also a documentary about Branca’s ghostwriter David Ritz, and his creative process, and his collaboration with Branca on the Dodger pitcher’s autobiography, and sure, a documentary about THAT would also be a welcome thing — the idea of someone making a living by telling the story of others in their voice is a fascinating one — but although the lives of these two men do intersect, it just feels like one subject too many. Each man and his respective achievements would be better served by their own film, but director Andrew J. Muscato tries to cram two narrative threads into his film, and, as a consequence, Branca’s Pitch feels like it is constantly being distracted from its true purpose, which should have been the exposing of a colossal act of dishonesty that takes a new look at The Shot Heard ‘Round The World.
Ralph Branca himself appears as an unassuming, humble man in his 80s who still works at an insurance company, tapping away on a computer (which leads me to believe that when our parents complain about not knowing how to use e-mail, they’re just looking for our attention) and sometimes playing golf. He seems at peace with the events of six decades ago, and there is a certain nobility in his demeanor in the face of historical events. David Ritz, meanwhile, appears as the eccentric writer he possibly is, wearing glasses with kooky frames, his arms covered with tattoos; these two men forge an alliance as they collaborate on Branca’s book, and even seem to become friends, but every time Ritz appears on screen, you want to wave him away and get back to Branca. The film does a pretty good job of explaining the circumstances of the playoff game and what happened on the field that day — although the director conveys the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with a weird rapid-fire montage that includes odd flashes of religious imagery that might make sense if Branca had said anything significant about his religious beliefs — and we see Branca’s stoic demeanor in the aftermath (with the notable exception of his post-game radio interview, now legendary among fans of Howard Stern’s radio show, where it was frequently played after someone humiliated himself: “Let me alone, will ya?… Why me, why me, why did it have to be me?”). But when the former Dodger, talking about the fastball pitch that Thomson hammered, finishes the scene with the words “Unbeknownst to me, he knew what was coming” halfway into the picture, the viewer is suddenly hurled down a rabbit hole into a realm where everything we thought we knew about this moment in baseball lore is turned inside out.
Enter Joshua Prager, a journalist who revealed to the world that the Giants had schemed to steal pitching signs from the Brooklyn catchers in order to anticipate pitches — if you know what pitch is coming, you have a better idea which way the ball is going to break, and thus a better chance of hitting it. Depending on your sense of justice — or which team you root for — this is a potentially explosive revelation, yet Muscato makes little of it; maybe it’s because Branca is apparently at peace with it; maybe the director doesn’t think it’s that important; maybe the story pales in comparison to the sports scandals of the present day (I’m looking at you, A-Rod); or maybe it’s because he keeps coming back to David Ritz, who becomes increasingly unnecessary as the film goes deeper into Branca’s story, thus diluting its potency. It seems that some kind of moral outrage is called for, but only Prager comes close to expressing it — everyone else seems to have moved on, and it doesn’t help that Muscato doesn’t interview anyone beyond these three men (and Ritz’s editor) to get another perspective on the story. The only other moment in the entire picture that comes close to riveting is the revelation that Branca had an incredibly lovely singing voice (he and Bobby Thomson sang on the Ed Sullivan Show some time after the game — Branca could have been a crooner; Thomson… feh), but in all other regards it feels like a wasted opportunity.
In the end, Branca’s Pitch ends up looking less like a documentary and more like a pleasant but toothless promotional film for Ralph Branca and his autobiography. For longtime fans of Dem Bums, they can perhaps take heart in the knowledge that the man who suffered more than any other on October 3, 1951 has come to terms with that tumultuous moment in his past, and has made peace with his lot in life. But those who are looking for a first-rate sports documentary will have to look elsewhere, because the filmmakers had the potential for a killer story, and they let it roll right past them.