On Wednesday the sports world learned that former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca passed away at the age of 90. While Branca was known more for his infamous pitch to the New York Giants Bobby Thomson that game NY the National League pennant in 1951 , the Mount Vernon, New York native should really be remembered for much more, especially in today’s world where everyone needs a trophy and our memories tend to be quite short.
Branca spent a lifetime after giving up that home run making lemons out of lemonade, and lived a life of service, charity, smart business acumen and grace, all important aspects that apply to anyone today. His 12-year Major League career began with great success, and ended with injury and an 88–68 record largely with Brooklyn, but he parlayed that success, and being a tough luck loser, into some amazing messaging in life, as he passed in and out of baseball and business, even through his sometimes mercurial and always engaging son-in-law former Major League manager and player Bobby Valentine.
Branca could have fallen into the woodwork of sports, a footnote on an unfortunate incident that short circuited a career. Instead he learned and eventually found a way to embrace adversity, gaining much more fame, and in turn helping so many others in their life challenges, than he would have if he would have drifted off into the distance as just a pitcher. He never backed away from the challenge of answering the same questions over and over again, and made a pretty nice side career (his primary career became the insurance business) with Thomson on the baseball speaking circuit. Hos work supporting the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which helped former players down on their luck, was a side note in his life, but it impacted hundreds of players who did not rebound well when careers came to an end on someone else’s turn. He also should be remembered for being one of the first Dodgers to stand up for Jackie Robinson and all the challenges he faced during his first days breaking baseball’s color barrier.
Did Ralph Branca have it easy when infamy came calling? No. But he lived and embraced life with all the curves thrown at him, something which we all need to remember. Some of those lessons.
We learn more from losing than from winning. Branca’s famous line after serving up the home run was “Why me?” he found answers in a Jesuit priest who showed him that this was his cross to bear and he should find ways to grow from the experience as a person. He took that ill-fated pitch and made it into a positive motivating force in his life going forward, all the way until his passing just before Thanksgiving. Branca learned that every moment is a teachable one, and we need to find the positive in the darkest days.
Extract and Build Your Brand From Experience. Like some others of his era, most notably Yogi Berra, Branca found a way to take that moment and build it into a brand that opened many doors throughout his life. He was known as the pitcher who threw the pitch for sure, but more often he became known as the guy who overcame adversity and showed that he could pivot and turn that negative into a positive for the long term. He extracted the positive elements of an unpopular experience and continued to tell that story to a large audience; one of overcoming adversity that never got old.
Use Life Experience To Help Others. Often times when he spoke as the years went on, Branca talked of how one pitch did not define his life, it enhanced it because he learned from it. He turned that negative into a positive for years to come, working to challenge those who challenged racism by staying involved with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, helping those former athletes down on their luck by attending fundraisers, and using his faith and fame in countless efforts with Thomson in charitable endeavors. While he was probably bitter from time to time and surely grew tired of the stories, he never let that slow his life’s work, and was always there to assist others in whatever way he could.
Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable. In any business we are going to be put into situations that aren’t perfect. For over 60 years, Branca’s “fame” and his platform usually tied back to a negative experience. Many times for sure, someone made light of such a painful moment without thinking, and that led to a few uncomfortable pauses in a conversation or a presentation. Yet no matter how uncomfortable that was, Branca found a way to move in and become comfortable with the difficult words and actions. There was a great deal of comfort in seeing how well this person handled adversity and thrived, a lesson which we can all learn from.
We Should Be Defined By Our Actions, Not Our Inaction. Ralph Branca could have thrown the pitch, ended his career and moved on to a life where few ever heard from him again. Instead he made a conscious choice to act, and act often, to find ways to use his negative experience and redefine his life and his life work. He never backed down from the challenge or the reference to announcer Russ Hodges famous call of Thomson’s home run, but he never let that one moment define his life. It marked a key moment, but he used that moment to grow, to learn, and to help others. It would have been much easier to fold up and run away to another path. Instead he embraced the path he was thrust on to and made great lemonade out of some lemons on what was a very public stage.
Was everything always rosy for Ralph Branca? Of course not. Was it always warm and fuzzy? No way. Still he found a way with class, dignity and humility to learn and use a very public teachable moment to redefine a life which could have gone a much different way. No one said any of this was going to be easy, but the lessons we can learn from Ralph Branca resonate with everyone today, even in a 24/7 social world which was different from many ways in the world when he was thrust into the headlines. He learned, adapted and thrived, and he will be missed. However his lessons of life should never be forgotten, they should be embraced, as they are timeless.
One pitch may have changed lives, but it was the rest of the delivery in life that made Branca a star.