Monday, January 23, 2012

A Moment In Time - Audiobook Review

Title: A Moment In Time: An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace
Author: Ralph Branca, David Ritz
Narrator: Traber Burns
Unabridged Length: 6 h, 45 m
Published by HighBridge Audio, 2011
Genres: Biography & Memoir, Sports

From the Publisher:
Ralph Branca is best known for throwing the pitch that resulted in Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” the historic homerun that capped an incredible comeback and won the pennant for the Giants in 1951. And so Branca was on the losing end of what many consider to be baseball’s most thrilling moment, but that notoriety belies a profoundly successful life and career. A Moment in Time is the remarkable story of a man who could have been destroyed by a supreme professional embarrassment—but wasn’t.

My Review:
When I was a young kid, I was a baseball fanatic. This was in the early 1960s and the New York Yankees were my favorite team. I watched the CBS Game of the Week each Saturday, and it was called by Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. I listened to the Cincinnati Reds on clear channel WLW radio at night and I followed the box scores in our daily paper. I also collected baseball cards back when one had to buy them in one-card or five-card packs, with each pack having a stick of gum. Back then, you bought baseball cards sight-unseen, which led to trading among friends.

I ended up with some historic cards in my collection, from the mid to late 50s. One of them happened to be a card with the photo of the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hitting the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ralph Branca to dramatically end the three-game playoff for the National League pennant in 1951. My dad shared with me the significance of the card, as this event took place a few years before my birth. He also shared his memories of all of the baseball greats from the late 40s and early 50s, what he considered the golden age of baseball. When I was in elementary school in the early 60s, the books I checked out from the library were exclusively biographies of major league baseball players from the 40s and 50s. I knew of all of the top players in that era.

Fast forward many years. In October when I saw that we were offering a review copy of the newly released A Moment In Time in our Solid Gold Reviewer program through Audiobook Jukebox, I decided to take a closer look as the title gave me a nostalgic feeling. What I didn’t know at the time was the rest of the story.

The central point of this autobiography of Ralph Branca is October 3, 1951. It’s the bottom of the 9th inning of the last game of the 3-game playoff for the National League pennant between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The winner will play the New York Yankees in the World Series. The game takes place at the Polo Grounds, the home ballpark of the Giants. The Dodgers lead 4-2, with the Giants at bat with two on and no outs. Ralph Branca is called in from the Dodger bullpen in relief of Don Newcombe. The batter is Bobby Thomson. On a 0-1 pitch, Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” a walk-off 3-run homer, and found his place in baseball history as the hero while Branca, a very good pitcher, is forever remembered as the goat.

If there was no more than this moment in time, there would be no reason to write this book as it’s been well covered for decades. But there is a lot more to Ralph Branca and a whole lot more to this central point of the story which made this a fascinating listen.

A Moment in Time does a great job of following the life of a kid with a dream to play major league baseball, growing up in New York, the baseball center of the world in the 30s through the mid 50s, with three great teams. Branca tells of achieving his dream by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 18 in 1944. By 1947, he was a top pitcher and started during the All-Star Game. Traber Burns is the voice of Branca for the audiobook. I think listening to the audiobook is a great way to experience A Moment In Time as it sounds like Ralph Branca is talking directly to me, telling his story, while we are sitting in my den.

Branca tells his life story in the major leagues in a changing era; as that same 1947 season, Jackie Robinson became his Dodger teammate, breaking the color barrier in baseball. Branca and Robinson became close lifelong friends. Other African-American players to soon join the Dodgers included Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. That team also included Pee Wee Reese (from my hometown), Duke Snyder, and Gil Hodges; all great players.

Back to that fateful day in 1951; it never should have happened as the Dodgers led the Giants the entire season, peaking at a 13 game lead on August 11. After that, the Dodgers somewhat slumped and finished the remainder of the season 26-22. On the other hand, the Giants all of a sudden were on fire, winning a remarkable 37 of their last 44 games to tie the Dodgers on the last day of the regular season, setting up a three-game playoff, which ended with Thomson’s 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th of the third game. It was an incredible comeback for the Giants, after being down 13 games in the pennant race.

Incredible indeed, as Branca learned from a Detroit Tigers teammate 3 years later, a player for the 1951 Giants. The Giants had an edge that coincided exactly with their comeback. Giant manager Leo Durocher concocted an elaborate sign stealing scheme, giving their hitters a major advantage, as they knew each pitch that was coming.

Branca did not make this public as he didn’t want to come across as a whiner. Instead, he had a good life after baseball. He had married the girl of his dreams, had been a highly successful insurance salesman, and teamed up with Bobby Thomson on the baseball memorabilia circuit from the late 80s on. He and Thomson had become friends, even though they never talked about the sign stealing scheme until the story broke in a feature article in the Wall Street Journal by investigative reporter Joshua Prager in 2001, near the 50th anniversary of the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Branca had been asked by Prager for input for the article but refused to assist, even though he had known the details since 1954. He did it out of respect for his friend Thomson.

With the death of Bobby Thomson in 2010, Branca decided it was time to tell his story, at age 85. A Moment In Time was published 60 years after the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

There are many great baseball stories in A Moment In Time and some even better life stories. This book works great in the audio format, as the author is simply telling his life story. Traber Burns seems to channel Ralph Branca in his performance. While Branca is now 85 years old, Burns sounds perhaps 65 which really works well, as the story could have just as well been told 20 years ago and still had the same impact. If you like old baseball stories and are a fan of major league baseball, give this book a listen. If you want a good feel for American life in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, give this book a listen. Baby-boomers who listened to baseball as kids on their transistor radios or collected baseball cards will find A Moment In Time an entertaining trip into nostalgia.

A review copy of A Moment In Time was provided by HighBridge Audio through the Solid Gold Reviewer program of Audiobook Jukebox.

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