[Ralph] Branca folded his bare arms and looked out onto the golf course. I asked if he had mentioned to anyone the reason for our lunch — the second revelation I had recently told him. He said he had told his wife, Ann.
“I said,” recalled Branca, “‘do you know you married a Jew?’”
Branca’s mother, Kati, immigrated to the United States in 1901 from Sandorf, Hungary. (The town is now Prievaly, Slovakia.) Her maiden name was Berger. I had included this fact in the book I ultimately wrote about the Thomson home run, “The Echoing Green.” A psychiatrist from Brooklyn named Michael Bennett had read it, and he e-mailed me last December wondering if Kati was Jewish.
I telephoned Branca. Best he knew, his mother had been a Catholic all her life. He encouraged me to let him know what I found.
I passed the question to Michael Miller, a close friend and a professor of Jewish history in Budapest. He contacted a Hungarian Jewish genealogy group. And now, at the country club where Branca has lived since 1977, I laid before him the records that Miller and the group had found. They included:
¶ The 1884 marriage of Ignatz Berger and Antonia Gipsz, a ceremony at which Jakob Friedman, a rabbi in Sandorf, had officiated.
¶ The births of the couple’s eight children over the next 12 years: Kati, the eldest, and Miksa, Sandor, Irma, Fanni, Sandor, Moricz and Jozsef. (The first Sandor died as a toddler.)
¶ The mohels and sandeks who performed each bris and held each boy during the circumcisions.
¶ The arrival of Kati in the United States. On Nov. 17, 1901, a gatekeeper at Ellis Island categorized her as single, Hungarian, a seamstress, white, literate and “Isr”— Israelite, signifying a Jew.
And there was the death of Jozsef. On June 12, 1942, the Nazis deported him, his wife, Janka, their daughter, Helene, and their sons, Henrich and Ignatz. Jozsef was killed at the Majdanek concentration camp, his wife and children at Sobibor. Kati had two other siblings who remained in Europe. I did not learn how Moricz died. But helped by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, I later learned that Irma, together with her husband, Arthur Grünmandl, her daughter Paula and her son Oscar, died at Auschwitz in 1942, one year before Branca turned professional in Olean, N.Y., pitching at age 17 for Manager Jake Pitler.
When I had phoned Branca and told him that his mother, Kati, was Jewish and that thus, according to traditional Jewish law, he and his 16 siblings were, too, the loud man was quiet. But when I had told him of the murder of his uncle, Branca had looked for words. “Uh, oh, boy,” he had said. “My mother never mentioned this to me.”