Branca pleased to call Robinson a friend
Last living teammate of baseball icon visits Fenway Park
BOSTON -- Jackie Robinson Day at Fenway Park on Sunday afternoon included the last living Brooklyn Dodgers teammate of Jackie Robinson's on April 15, 1947, when he broke the color barrier in baseball.
Ralph Branca, the 21-game winner in 1947 who is also Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine's father-in-law, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"I was happy to be his friend," said the 86-year-old Branca. "After we got out of ball, I'd see him at various award dinners. We went to the racetrack every once in a while. We'd golf together. He was a friend. Being the leader of the race and not really brought up to be that position, he handled [it] admirably. He was just a special kind of a guy.
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"What he did had to be totally out of character. [Dodgers architect 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. Then Rickey said, 'Now you can behave like Jackie Robinson.'"
Branca was clear, too, that much of what he saw happen to Robinson was cruel. No matter what, Branca said he always did his best to protect Robinson by throwing quite far inside if he had to. Branca recalled how the day Robinson first played in the Majors wasn't, at first, looked at as a landmark. The newspapers weren't going wild and crazy over it.
"No, to be truthful, I don't think anyone knew the significance of it," Branca said. "It was a new era, new territory and nobody really was conscious of what was happening, even the newspapers. The next day, the New York papers -- pretty sharp -- they never mentioned he was breaking the color barrier. They said Jackie Robinson didn't get a hit, but he walked, he bunted successfully and he scored a run. That's all they said. They didn't say that the color barrier was broken. That's unbelievable to me."
Branca still recalls when Robinson first entered the Dodgers' clubhouse.
"I was in the locker room when Jackie walked in," Branca said. "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 blocks -- four black families, about nine families of Italian extraction, two Irish, two German, two Jewish. Blacks, I played with them, went in their houses, they came into mine. Seeing Jackie meant nothing special or different to me."
Valentine started a Little League in Robinson's name in Connecticut. When Robinson's number was retired league-wide in 1997, Valentine was the Mets' manager and President Bill Clinton was in attendance at Shea Stadium in New York. Valentine met Robinson a few times.
"I wish I could reflect personally, but obviously Jackie Robinson did what was needed for the game of baseball, he did what was needed for America," Valentine said. "He was exactly the right guy to do the exact right thing. Branch Rickey chose him, and he took a big step forward for mankind."