Why Branca? Assessing Dressen’s Options
Ralph Branca passed away at the age of 90 on the day before Thanksgiving. It was a singular moment in time—he was called in by Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in the third and deciding game of a playoff to determine the National League pennant-winner in 1951, needing just two outs to get the Dodgers to another World Series against the Yankees—but Branca’s pitch to Bobby Thomson resulting in the “Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” home run was one of those iconic moments in baseball history that make baseball junkies thankful for the historical heritage of America’s National Pastime.
As the victim of Thomson’s home run—a victim perhaps twice over because of revelations that later surfaced about the Giants’ using a powerful spyglass to steal opposing catchers’ signs from their center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds—Branca fairly asked, Why me? In fact, Dressen probably felt he had no other choice.
Taking a 4-1 lead into the last of the 9th, three outs away from the pennant, Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen needed Don Newcombe to go the distance, exhausted as he was from having now faced 87 batters in 22⅔ innings in three games over five days just to keep Brooklyn’s hopes alive for the pennant. The reason why was because the underlying reality, which Dressen surely knew, was that the Dodgers no longer had a bullpen worthy of the name. But after a pair of singles and a double made the score 4-2 with the tying runs in scoring position, only one out, and Bobby Thomson coming to bat, Dressen knew Big Newk could go no further.
He needed just two outs. But who was he gonna call?
Clyde King, who Yankee fans of a certain age remember as one in a long line of managers George Steinbrenner hired and fired in the 1980s, had been the ace of the Dodgers pen . . . until throwing 23⅔ innings in 11 games in 27 days from July 26 to August 22 took such a toll on his arm that he was never the same again—as in, really, never. At the time, King was 14-5 with 5 saves and a 3.36 ERA in 38 games out of the bullpen. He appeared in only 10 games the rest of the way in 1951, pitching just 14⅓ innings, and had a 10.67 earned run average, then pitched 58 more games and had an ugly 5.16 ERA the next two years before leaving his big league pitching career behind. So . . . no King to come save the day.
Dressen had 27-year-old Bud Podbielan available. While King’s absence caused Dressen to virtually demand complete-games in games that could be won from his starting pitchers, it was Podbielan who pitched the most innings in relief for the Dodgers in their hectic month of September to hold back the surging Giants. Podbielan was the winning pitcher in relief of Newcombe’s intrepid 5⅔ innings of relief in the 14-inning season-finale against the Phillies that set up the playoff for the pennant.
But Podbielan had pitched in only 54 big-league games in parts of three seasons, rarely in the high-stakes situation he was thrust into in that game against Philadelphia. Given his relative inexperience, it is highly unlikely Dressen even considered him in a game of this magnitude, the very pennant at stake with just two more outs needed.
Dressen also almost certainly did not consider either Johnny Schmitz or Phil Haugstad. Schmitz had given up four runs in four innings in his previous appearance and was a southpaw, against whom the right-handed Thomson so far in his career was batting .385 with 10 hits, including a pair of doubles and a homer. And in 1951, Thomson was 2-for-2 against Schmitz. The right-handed Haugstad was awful in September, giving up 9 runs in 7 innings, including a homer to Mr. Thomson.
With Clem Labine having pitched a complete-game victory the day before to keep the Dodgers’ hope alive, Dressen was left with only three possible options from his core of starting pitchers. Preacher Roe, his 22-3 record on the season notwithstanding, was not in the mix because recent arm problems had made him ineffectual. That left Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine, both warming up in the bullpen, getting ready for this moment.
Why Branca? Dressen has been criticized for calling on Branca because Bobby Thomson treated him like a batting-practice pitcher in 1951. For the year, Thomson was 4-for-12 against Branca, including two home runs since the beginning of September. The second of those was the difference in the Giants’ victory—and Branca’s loss—in the first playoff game. And Branca in general had not pitched well of late. After starting the season 12-5 with a 2.60 ERA, Branca was 1-7 with a 5.71 ERA since the beginning of September, although he did pitch well—8 innings, 3 runs allowed—in the first game of the playoff.
Why not Erskine? Carl Erskine was 16-12 on the year, 8-6 with a 4.83 ERA in 19 starts, and 8-6 with a 3.97 ERA in 27 relief appearances. The standard narrative of why Branca and not Erskine is that Dressen made his decision after Oisk bounced a pitch warming up in the bullpen. The subtext of how his decision is portrayed is along the lines of Dressen losing his grip, not thinking clearly in a fraught moment with everything—everything—on the line. What was he thinking, letting Branca pitch to Bobby Thomson, who had been especially unkind to Mr. Branca the last three games they faced each other, including the game-winning long ball two days before? Thomson, however, was also batting .333 against Erskine (3-for-9) with two homers, both back in May.
What was Dressen thinking? He might have been thinking that Erskine was having control and location problems in his most recent appearances. In his three previous games—two starts and one in relief—Erskine had given up 8 walks, only one intentional, in 12⅓ innings. And he had averaged 4 walks in 9 innings in 38⅓ innings since the beginning of September, compared to 3.6 per 9 in 151⅓ innings through August. Upon hearing of Erskine’s bounced pitch while warming up to enter the game, Dressen may have been reminded of the young right-hander’s lack of control of late and concluded Oisk was too much of a risk with two runners in scoring position, representing the tying runs, and the pennant on the line.
And so, Charlie Dressen may have decided Ralph Branca was his only choice to pitch to the Giants’ Bobby Thomson.
NOTE: I cover this and other aspects of Dressen’s decisionmaking concerning the third and final game of the 1951 playoff in the chapter, “Charlie Dressen’s Worst Day at the Office,” in my recent book, The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Here’s the link to the publisher’s website: