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Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Ralph Branca, famous father-in-law

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- So, the old ballplayer was asked, if he had to give a scouting report on Bobby Valentine, what would he say?

"Who?"

Bobby Valentine.

"Bobby who?"

You know, your son-in-law.

Only then did 86-year-old Ralph Branca let on that there was nothing wrong with his hearing, and that his brain cells were still firing just fine, the way you'd expect they would for a guy who says he has an IQ of 160.

Ralph Branca
L-R: Former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, David Robinson, Rachel Robinson and Mets manager Willie Randolph celebrate Jackie Robinson Day at Shea Stadium in 2007.

"Unfortunately, some writers, because they have a way with words, they think they're smarter than ballplayers," Branca said. "I don't know how many writers have an IQ as high as mine."

Branca was sitting in an empty classroom at the James P. Timilty Middle School in Roxbury on Tuesday morning, having just spoken to an auditorium full of kids about Jackie Robinson. He was here at the invitation of the Red Sox, who have made it a point to celebrate Robinson's birthday.

Robinson would have been 93 on Tuesday; he died 40 years ago. George Mitrovich, the civic leader and Larry Lucchino pal who had made it his mission to have Robinson awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously a few years ago, has helped organize this event for 10 years now. Former Red Sox star Tommy Harper has been a frequent participant.

But Branca was uniquely qualified to speak to the Timilty kids about Robinson. He was a star pitcher on the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers when Robinson broke the color line. He had refused to sign the petition circulated by some Dodgers teammates vowing not to play if Robinson was on the team, had extended his hand and said, "Welcome aboard" to Robinson in the clubhouse, and had stood next to Robinson when the team was introduced on Opening Day -- much to the consternation of Branca's brother.

"I got home that day," Branca told the kids, " and my brother said, 'What are you, nuts?'

"I said, 'What are you talking about?'

"He said, 'What if someone had tried to shoot Jackie but had lousy aim and hit you instead?'"

Branca paused. "Then I would have died a hero," he said.

The kids loved it.

Branca won 21 games for the Dodgers that season, helping pitch them to the World Series. But like Bill Buckner, his career has been defined by a single moment -- he was the pitcher who gave up the home run to Bobby Thomson in the 1951 playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants, a home run that became known as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

But in Boston, he has a chance to become the most famous father-in-law in town. He was at Fenway Park on Monday night for a charity event in which Valentine was a participant, and took advantage of the occasion to stand up and sing "God Bless America."

"I told the crowd I was auditioning to sing at the first game of the World Series," said Branca, who made a point of letting the Timilty kids know where his rooting interests now lie, wearing a long Red Sox scarf on the stage.

Ralph Branca
He welcomed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, helped them win their only World Series title … but Ralph Branca, shown here moments after Bobby Thomson's home run, is remembered mostly for "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

His daughter, Mary, married an up-and-coming young Dodgers player named Bobby Valentine in 1977.

Did Branca have any qualms about his daughter marrying into baseball?

"I didn't know Bobby that well at the time," Branca said. "I just told her, 'Well, just be careful.' They met, they started dating, for like 2½ years, and they got married.

"Thirty-five years now. We're very tight now."

About that scouting report …

"You know, he says he invented the [sandwich] wrap," said Branca, showing he's not above teasing his son-in-law.

"You're going to get out of Bobby a personality you've never seen before," he said. "This guy has so much energy. He goes and goes, and he's very fan-conscious. He'll be out there talking to fans, making friends, making fans.

"They're going to find a guy full of life, very bright, aware of the fans, aware of the media, just a sharp guy and a very, very good manager. He always has a whole bunch of things going on. He can't do just one or two things at a time, it's got to be five or six or maybe 10. They're going to love him here."

No, Branca said, he wasn't surprised that Valentine gave up a comfortable gig at ESPN to return to the dugout.

"Deep down he wanted to manage," Branca said. "He wants to win a World Series. That's in his heart. He never said it, but I know it's in his heart."

There were some early reports that the selection of Valentine didn't set well with some Red Sox veterans, though the players quoted publicly on the topic, such as Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, have all spoken enthusiastically about him. How does Branca think he'll be received in the clubhouse?

"Well, I would hope they would watch and wait, take their time, see him in action, see what he does, learn something about him," Branca said, "and they'll find out some of these stories about him are baloney.

"In Texas, if he sat in the dugout he couldn't see the field, so he stood on the top step. They called him 'Top Step,' you know. And in New York a lot of guys like to write negatively. Bobby would say he knows the rule book better than anyone else. Well, that's a statement of fact to him. I wouldn't bet against him. He knows the rulebook upside down and inside out."

There is the public Valentine and the private man. Branca said there is little difference between them.

"He's very giving," Branca said. "He's been like a son. That's the best I can say about him. He's part of the family."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.