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Branca had friend, teammate in Jackie

Former Dodgers pitcher recalls memories of 1947 as Robinson broke color barrier

Ralph Branca did not pitch on April 15, 1947.

Instead, Branca watched Jack Roosevelt Robinson, his new teammate and a man he would call his friend for more than a quarter-century, stride into the history books.

Former Dodgers Branca and Marv Rackley, who was inserted into the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as a pinch-runner, are the two living members of either the Dodgers' or Boston Braves' rosters from that Opening Day at Ebbets Field 67 years ago, when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Rackley, who is 92 and resides in South Carolina, could not be reached.

Branca first met Robinson on the morning of Monday, April 14, 1947, four days after Dodgers owner Branch Rickey announced that his club had purchased Robinson's contract from the Triple-A Montreal Royals. Monday was a workout day, and the Dodgers were to report to the ballpark in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn at 10:30 a.m. Because he lived in Mount Vernon, N.Y., approximately 25 miles from Ebbets Field, Branca always allowed for extra time and had arrived early. Outfielder Gene Hermanski, who lived in New Jersey, had done the same. At around 9:30, the clubhouse door opened, and in walked Robinson. Branca stood, extended his hand and said, "Welcome aboard." Hermanski followed suit.

Branca grew up on the same block with several African-American families in racially diverse Mount Vernon, and their children had been his playmates growing up.

"I didn't care about the color of his skin," Branca says. "I cared if he could help us win the pennant."

Branca was sizing up Robinson from the moment he walked in.

"He was 6-foot-1, 190 pounds," Branca says. "He had the perfect athletic body."

Branca was concerned, though, because Robinson was to play first base the next day in his debut at Ebbets Field. He had played shortstop in the Negro Leagues and second base with the Royals, but with Eddie Stanky entrenched at second, Robinson had to learn a new position.

"Jackie knew if he went out there and fell on his face, it might hinder or impede the entrance of blacks into baseball," Branca says. "He was about to become the first black guy in the big leagues, and he had to do it playing at a strange position."

The environment the next afternoon for the Dodgers' opener against the Braves was as perfect as it could have been for Robinson's debut. Of the 26,623 spectators, more than 14,000 were black.

"Brooklyn was a special place in the late '40s," Branca says. "Brooklyn people were magnificent, very intelligent and knowledgeable about life, and they were great, great fans. People were excited to see Jackie break the color barrier, and Brooklyn really was the place to do it, because the people were so fair-minded."

All the baseball players, however, were not.

As the players were introduced, some of the Braves refused to take the field. Branca lined up next to Jackie, a few players away from home plate, along the first-base line. Later, when Branca got home to Mount Vernon, his older brother John was incredulous.

"Are you crazy?" asked Branca's younger brother. Branca didn't understand. "You stood next to Jackie," John continued. "Suppose a guy wanted to shoot him and was a lousy shot and missed by three feet?"

Branca's response? "Well, I would have died a hero."

Robinson didn't get a hit that day, but he reached on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers' 5-3 win. The next day, the papers reported on his performance, and that was all.

"You'd think some newspaperman would have written about the significance of the day, but they only wrote about the game," Branca says. "I think it took Red Smith 15 paragraphs before he even said Jackie went 0-for-3, bunted a man along and scored a run."

The significance isn't lost on Branca.

"Young people today need to read the history books," Branca says. "They have to know that at the time Jackie broke in, people did not want blacks to move up in the world. They can't understand how it was 70 years ago, because Jackie changed it."

Robinson changed everything, with his ability on a baseball field and his ability to turn the other cheek.

Branca talks of Robinson's sheer athletic ability. He mentions Robinson's world junior and NCAA long-jump records, his football and basketball careers at UCLA, and the time when, with the hit-and-run on, Robinson drove a curveball that bounced in front of home plate into right field for a single, easily moving the baserunner from first to third.

Branca also marvels at Robinson's cool demeanor, the singular characteristic that compelled Rickey to choose Robinson to integrate baseball in the first place. Branca recalls an incident in Chicago when Robinson stole second base.

"Jackie thought he was safe, but the ump called him out," Branca says. "Jackie got up, took about two steps toward the umpire, then stopped, turned around and jogged off the field. Rickey had told him there were to be no incidents."

And there were no incidents, despite the miniature cotton bales, black cats and slices of watermelon tossed onto the field when the Dodgers were on the road. No incidents, despite the death threats and the constant stream of hateful slurs from spectators and opposing players and coaches.

Branca and Robinson were dinner buddies on the road. At home, Branca and his wife, Ann, would attend parties at Robinson's house. Often, a star musician such as Duke Ellington or Lena Horne or Billy Eckstine would perform in Robinson's backyard.

"Ann and I became part of the group, and Jackie became a leader," Branca says. "He wasn't geared for it, but he really became a leader for his race."

Lindsay Berra is a reporter for Follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra.