The Catholic baseball star who just learned that he's Jewish

The Catholic baseball star who just learned that he's Jewish August 15, 2011

The sports world is wrapping its collective head around this surprising news: it turns out that a well-known player for the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers, a lifelong Roman Catholic, is in fact Jewish — and has close relatives who died in Auschwitz.

The New York Times reporter Joshua Prager has the scoop:

Earlier this summer, Ralph Branca met me at a country club in Westchester where he lives, extending the arthritic hand that 60 years ago this October threw the baseball that became the most famous of home runs, the “shot heard round the world.”

I knew the old pitcher well. A decade before, I had written in The Wall Street Journal that in 1951, the New York Giants used a spyglass to detect which type of pitch opposing pitchers were about to throw them at the Polo Grounds, their Harlem home. They had stolen the sign for Branca’s second fastball on Oct. 3. (The batter ultimately denied using it.)

We entered the dining hall. Branca wore black shoes, chinos, a collared white shirt with three buttons. I had not seen the pitcher since the 2010 memorial service for Bobby Thomson, the batter who had felled him. Thomson had been the quieter of the two — a Glaswegian, a Protestant, a tenor, and Branca a New Yorker, a Roman Catholic, a bass. And it was clear on this summer Friday as we walked past the buffet that although arthritis in his lower back slowed Branca, he remained at 85 undiminished: broad and tall with big feet, big ears, big brown eyes and a big nose that had been bigger still before an operation to clear his sinuses. He was still pitching, too, insurance if not baseballs, and he greeted a waitress by name.  Susan showed us to a table by a large window.

Branca folded his bare arms and looked out onto the golf course. I asked if he had mentioned to anyone the reason for our lunch — the second revelation I had recently told him. He said he had told his wife, Ann.

“I said,” recalled Branca, “‘do you know you married a Jew?’”

Branca’s mother, Kati, immigrated to the United States in 1901 from Sandorf, Hungary. (The town is now Prievaly, Slovakia.) Her maiden name was Berger. I had included this fact in the book I ultimately wrote about the Thomson home run, “The Echoing Green.” A psychiatrist from Brooklyn named Michael Bennett had read it, and he e-mailed me last December wondering if Kati was Jewish.

I telephoned Branca. Best he knew, his mother had been a Catholic all her life. He encouraged me to let him know what I found.

Read what he found at the link.  And the Times even has a follow up, talking to religious experts about this discovery.

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