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Ralph Branca on payback and being Jackie Robinson's friend

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  April 15, 2012 08:00 PM

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Ralph Branca, who threw out the first pitch today, told a great baseball story when he came up to the press box.

On July 18, 1947 at Ebbets Field, Branca was working on a perfect game against the Cardinals when Enos Slaughter spiked Jackie Robinson, stepping on his calf. Robinson was playing first base.

“I said, “I’ll get that SOB for you in the next at-bat,’ ” Branca said. “Jackie said, ‘No, no, no, you keep pitching like you are.’ He understood my pitching was more important.”

When Slaughter came up again in the eighth inning, he had a single to break up the perfect game. Branca settled for the shutout.

“I cussed myself,” Branca said. “I said, ‘You meathead, you shouldn’t have listened to Jackie. You should have knocked him on his ass.’ ”

Branca also spoke about the day Robinson joined the Dodgers.

“The day before we played Montreal in an exhibition game, the Dodgers played their farm club in Montreal," he said. "The next day we had a workout and I was in the locker room when Jackie walked in. I walked over and shook his hand. ‘Welcome aboard.’

"All I could think was can he help us win the pennant, can he help us win games. I didn’t think about the color of his skin because I lived on a block that was the United Nations of all – four black families, about nine families of Italian extraction, two Irish, two German, two Jewish. So it was a League of Nations on my block. Blacks, I played with them. Went in their house, they came into mine. Seeing Jackie meant nothing special or different to me."

But Branca realized how important Robinson was to society.

“Jackie was the first to break the color barrier, not just for baseball, but for the whole country and eventually the world. So he was a leading man," Branca said. "Being first is the toughest.

"What he did had to be totally out of character. [Dodgers GM Branch Rickey] said, don’t get into any arguments or any fights. Behave yourself, for three years. I knew how Jackie was, totally out of character. He was feisty, he was fiery, he was competitive. But he turned the other cheek, like it says in the Bible, he just turned the other cheek for three years."

Branca said he was proud to call Robinson a friend. And if he could have done it again, he would have dusted Enos Slaughter for him.

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