“Even a guy who commits murder gets pardoned after 20 years…”

Ralph Branca died and my first thought was of a Frenchman.

But we’ll get back to that.

So a 25-year-old Ralph Branca, wearing a dusty white and blue uniform, threw a pitch up in Harlem on a cloudy day in early October in front of a half empty ballpark. One of, let’s say, 100,000 baseballs he threw toward a plate in his life. (No, I’m not doing the math to ballpark this.)

While we’re at it, how long does it take a ball traveling 88 mph to go 60 feet 6 inches? Half a second? (I’m not doing the math here either.)

Half a second, the batter connects, and 4 or so seconds later… your life begins.

And effectively ends.

What is it like to live another 65 years unable to escape a half second? This is not a new question. Larry King and his Brooklyn cohorts have been debating it publicly for, well, 65 years.

But lest we forget, this half second took place during a game. A pastime, actually, which Webster calls,“something that serves to make the time pass agreeably.” We’re not talking about a split-second decision on the beaches of Normandy here.

The optimist, the American, has a quick rejoinder to all of this. That half second granted Branca, the 15th of 17 children, access to the world. He was feted on TV and radio and the guest of honor in perpetuity among a certain demographic of NY society. For 65 years, he could attend any sporting event in the greater NY area and would immediately be recognized and treated as royalty.

Indeed, that half second granted Branca an audience with multiple Presidents. The Emperor of Japan likely knew his name.

The American too, preternaturally sunny, would emphasize the graciousness with which Mr. Branca handled this absurdity. For sure, every one of his obituaries did. The always pleasant disposition. His long and enduring friendship with the perpetrator of his misfortune, the Scottish highlander, Bobby Thomson. Never bitter, the very definition of grace. Branca understood, intuitively, that the moment wasn’t even his. It was the city’s, the country’s. He’d blanche at describing any of it, the pitch or its aftermath, as an “absurdity.” Indeed, this is the very tact DeLillo takes, if I’m recalling that 900 page monstrosity of his correctly.

Of course, I am not, and have never been, an optimist. I’m not sure I’m even an American. So I see it differently.

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Decades ago, one of the golf publications printed an interview with Gerald Ford, at the time safely ensconced in Palms Springs, enjoying the fruits of a hard-earned life. Ford’s life was now about golf, sun, and friends, and he carried himself with the dignity of an ex-President, steeled by the knowledge that he had led the country through a difficult period, even if his triumph was too opaque, and controversial, to be fully appreciated by the masses. Ford, like Branca, took the arrows well. Ford, like Branca, was a prisoner of circumstance. And Ford, like Branca, accepted his fate with grace.

But the interview ended on a discordant note, upended by a solitary throwaway comment from a friend, a secret service officer, or some other acquaintance of sorts at the end of the story.

“Sure, he takes it well. But you should see the teethmarks on his pipes.”

Unlike Ford, Branca did not need a surrogate to betray his true feelings; toward the end he himself began bearing his teeth, the public narrative be damned. For one thing, there’s the title quote of this post, from Branca, which even if taken out of context and made in jest throws a different light on the public’s Capra-esque view of his life.

Later, the furious tempest over the cheating allegations involving those dastardly Giants, with Branca, in his 80s, changing his tune, impugning Thomson, and expressing, with a strange but sad aggressiveness, the injustice of it all.

Then, the off-the-record comments and whispers after Thomson’s passing that Branca, perhaps understandably, sort of found the guy to be a nuisance after awhile.

Finally, there’s the ultimate indignity of the obituary. All but six of the 35 paragraphs The Washington Post gave Branca focused on that half second. The New York Times took it to another level, spending more time transcribing DeLillo than discussing any other aspect of Branca’s 90 year life.

And a Thanksgiving Day phone call to my 86 year old uncle on the Island? I expected some emotion, but not vitriol. How many others of Branca’s generation responded to his passing this way?

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So about that Frenchman…

The Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner, after spending the bulk of a recent interview with Jean Van de Velde trying to make the Frenchman’s life following his own half second—it was more like 30 minutes for poor Jean; even while watching live one had the feeling that 72nd hole would never end—more palatable for the American audience, gave up.

Lerner, evidently auditioning for 60 Minutes, in the end tried hectoring Jean into admitting that he not only doesn’t sleep, it’s a small wonder he can function. Lerner, for whatever reason, needed Van de Velde to say that his life, at least the important part, ended on that summer day in Scotland.

Van de Velde—if nothing else, God is an expert casting agent, because no man better looks or speaks the part he’s been fated to play—offered a forced laugh and tried to explain to this much too earnest provincial fellow in front of him that Carnoustie was but a solitary moment in a long and winding life…

Alas, Ralph Branca could have told him. Sometimes a moment is all you’re given.

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