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Miracle at Coogan's Bluff

September 30, 2001

I Timothy 6:6-19

by Tony Grant


Miracle at Coogan's Bluff

Baseball has a certain atmosphere: Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjacks, bleacher bums, passionate crowds booing the umpire, the crack of the bat, the smell of an oiled glove, foul balls, hot dogs with mustard and onions.

Baseball is important. For some people it is the most important thing in life. While broadcasting a Yankees game, Phil Rizzuto learned that Pope Paul VI had died. He commented on the air, "Well, that kind of puts the damper on even a Yankees win." [Martin E. Marty, "Taken out of context," Context, May 1, 2001, 8.]

Baseball is a game where miracles can happen. Once, when a batter stepped into the box and made the sign of the cross, Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra, said, "Let's just leave God outta this, okay?"

But sometimes, God seems to interfere with the game. Take the miracle of Coogan's Bluff, for example. It was Fifty years ago, October 3, 1951. The time is 3:58 p.m. in New York City, the Polo Grounds, also known as Coogan's Bluff, home field for the New York Giants.

The Giants are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were always bitter cross-town rivals but at that time they were battling in the best-of-three National League pennant playoffs. Only six weeks before, the Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13 games. In a whirlwind finish, they had gained 13 games in six weeks to force a playoff.

Now it is the bottom of the ninth in the deciding game of the playoffs. Larry Janzen, the Giants pitcher, retires the Dodgers in the top half, but the Giants are behind 4-1. Dodger fans are leaving their seats leaping down the bleacher stairs to be near the field to rush out in celebration when the game ends. The Dodger pitcher, Hall of Famer Don Newcombe, is tiring. He gives up another run to make it 4-2 Dodgers. Then two more runners get on second and third, and Dodger manager Charlie Dressen decides to give Newcombe the hook, and bring in Ralph Branca to face Bobby Thomson and win the game.

Branca was a good pitcher. In 1947, he won 21 games with an E.R.A. of 2.67. But Branca does not know that - according to credibl+e accounts - Giant manager Leo Durocher has posted a telescope in their centerfield clubhouse to steal the catcher's signs, relaying them to the batter via the Giant bullpen.

Then the miracle happens. Branca winds up and delivers a fast ball. Thomson hits it into the fifth row over the 315 foot sign in left field. Game over. Giants win. Dodgers--ahead most of the season, most of the playoff series, most of the game--lose. This one home run gives the Giants the 1951 pennant in arguably the most exciting sports event in modern history. Nothing, no game, has ever come close.

But that moment haunted Ralph Branca, who was sighted after the game still in uniform, lying face down, fully prone, head hidden in his hands. You have to know how much Branca loved the game. In Branca's family, "You separated church and state, not church and sport." Cleanliness was next to godliness, but so was baseball. God played baseball. For the faithful Brancas of the game, every ball sailing into legend, every pitch bouncing past a catcher, can be to a degree attributed to an unseen force, the Almighty Umpire, deciding who wins—not the Dodgers that day in 1951.

Ralph Branca you see was on the wrong side of the miracle at Coogan’s bluff. This raises a question that we do not often consider. When we talk about miracles, we talk about winners and survivors. Does that mean that God is not with losers? A football player makes a winning run or a winning catch, and he kneels down in the end zone and thanks God. Does that mean that God is not with those eleven players on the other team.

Or let us get more serious than sports. I know that some people would say that nothing is more serious than sports, but let us be real. During the attack on the WTC, there were many survivors. There were even spectacular cases were people were not killed. One policeman was evacuating the building after it was hit by the plane. He was on the 80th story when the tower collapsed. He rode it to the bottom. He had severe leg injuries, but he survived. And we say of those survivors, God was with them. That was a miracle. But what about the approximately 7000 who did not survive? Was God not with them? That is not usually a question that we ask. Let us turn to scripture for some answers.

I Timothy 6:6-19

ITM6:6 reads, "But godliness with contentment is great gain." The word translated as "contentment" is autarkeias. It also means self-sufficient or resourceful or satisfied.. We have a word in English that comes directly from this Greek word. The English word is autarky meaning self-sufficiency or independence. What the scripture says is that we are not self-sufficient in and of ourselves. We are self-sufficient with regard to the things of this world because of our godliness. We are content because we find strength and power within ourselves to live, and we find that strength and power through our relationship with God.

The human tendency is to judge things by outward physical result, and this is true even of the things of the spirit. I won the game; therefore, God is with me. I survived, therefore, God is with me—implying that God is not with those losers who did not survive. But this is an unbiblical and unspiritual way of looking at things. Not only that but ultimately in terms of physical things we all lose. We see this worked out all the time in sports. Yesterday’s big time winner is often today’s loser. We saw that yesterday when Alabama played South Carolina. Alabama is the team that in past years has been the big time football power, winning the national championship several times. USC has been well not so good. Now things have changed.

And ultimately we all lose in that we die. Thus if our estimates of what is important stem from this life alone, then we are losers. The only winners are those who realize that there is something beyond the material that makes everything, even physical life itself, seem unimportant.

Perhaps I Timothy is recalling the words of Job, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). It is an attitude that we find throughout scripture. In LK12, in the parable of the rich fool, Jesus assures us that storing up earthly goods, cannot satisfy the hunger of the soul.

V8 of ITM6 reads, "And having food and raiment let us be therewith content." We have all we need; we ought to be content, but often we are not. Our dissatisfaction arises not because of needs but because of desires. We always want more, and the desire for more leads to temptations that trap us.

One craving leads to others, and those others to still others, and we plunge ourselves into a downward spiral of destruction. Verse 9 drives home the point that these cravings lead to ruin and waste, instead of the "great gain" of verse 6. The chain of events in verses 6-10 moves to its ultimate point: first it is noted that we desire the wrong things (material wealth), then we fall into temptation and are caught up in senseless and harmful desires, in which we are irrevocably ruined and wrecked.

Having correctly described the human situation, the author states in v10, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." He is not arguing that the love of money is the one and only root of all evil under the sun. There are other causes of evil besides the love of money--love of fame, for example.

In verse 17, the theme again returns to those who "are rich in this world." They are rich in the things by which the world judges success. They have money; they have recognition; they have respect. They are contrasted with believers, who as v17 says do not "trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who giveth us richly all things to enjoy." The wealthy are wealthy in this world only. What I Timothy is saying is that the present will soon be past, and today’s man of means is tomorrow’s dead dog—to but it bluntly. Therefore our ambition should not be for the things of this world, but for the things of God.

There is a little book called The Cloud of Unknowing" written by an anonymous English monk in the late fourteenth century. It reads, "Lift up your heart to God with an humble impulse of love; and have himself as your aim, not any of his goods. Take care that you avoid thinking of anything but himself, so that there is nothing for your reason or your will to work on except himself." [p119] The Cloud of Unknowing points to a failing among God’s people that we must be careful to guard against. We offer up our prayers to God but many times our motive for prayer is not God but the goods of God.. we pray because we want something from God. You could argue that in that case, we do not love God; we love what we can get from God. Again, the Cloud of Unknowing point out that we spend our time thinking about everything but God. We fill our hearts and minds with all kinds of things that seem so important right now, yet with the passage of time, all those things that seem so important today and all the people that are so important today will dim to mere footnotes in history.What I Timothy is saying is that Christians are a people who have understood this and have focused on the important stuff, namely God. And this is not optional behavior. The Theologica Germanica says, "The scriptures, the truth, and the faith proclaim that sin is nothing but a turning away on the part of the creature from the unchangeable Good toward the changeable. This is to say that the creature turns from the Perfect to the imperfect, to separateness to the partial, and preeminently to itself."[p61] This is the definition of sin. Sin is turning away from God and focusing on things that are not God; The Theologica Germanica goes on to say that is exactly what the devil did. The devil’s fall from grace was brought about because he began to think more about I and me and mine than God.

Christians are a God focused, God-centered people, and this is true whether of not circumstances are favorable. Outward circumstances have noting to do with our relationship to God. If God grants us success in this world, we say praise God, I know God is with me. If God does not grant us success in this world. We say praise God. I know God is with me.

Ralph Branca’s Faith

That returns us then to the original question. What is it like to be on the wrong side of someone else's miracle? Have you been there? I Timothy 6:6 says, "there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment," but how do you find contentment when by a fluke, by a chance, by a wrong turn, or by a mistaken choice you find yourself crushed by someone else's triumph? He wins; you lose. She cheers; you gnash your teeth. There are always winners and losers in ball games, and in life, but if you lose because an unseen force makes it so, how can you live in contentment? How can you feel at peace when what you feel is cheated?

Ralph Branca could answer that question. "Hours after Ralph Branca had thrown the most infamous pitch," recalls Sal Maiorana, "on which Bobby Thomson had hit the most famous home run to end the most famous game in baseball history, Branca stood face-to-face with a priest named Father Pat Rowley."

"Pat, why me, tell me why me?" Branca asked. "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't run around. Baseball is my whole life. Why me?"

Father Pat, who happened to be the cousin of Branca's fiancée, looked at Branca's long, sorrowful face, and answered, "God chose you because He knew you had faith and strength to bear this cross."

Father Pat Rowley was a dean at Fordham University. He was assuring Branca that Bobby Thomson was not just meant to hit that homer; he was meant to hit it off one man. "Ralph, God knows your faith is strong enough to bear this cross," Rowley said.

Now when I read that story, I thought How could Father Rowley say that. What kind of comfort is that. What kind of an explanation is that? God let this happen to you because you are strong enough to bear it. Let me be weak then O Lord. Who wants that kind of miracle? No one, but sometimes unexpected things happen, things that we do not understand, and we get the short end of the stick so to speak.

Was God a Giants fan that day in 1951? Did God have it in for Brooklyn? No. But having said that have we not all sometimes been victimized by unseen, unanticipated, events? Quirky circumstances have sometimes left us losers, and we want to shout at the world, like a grade school child in a recess ball game, "That's not fair!"

I Timothy would agree with us. Life is not fair, but then this life is not supposed to be our aim and goal. Again, I Timothy 6:6: "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment." Our contentment is in God. This does not mean that when life hands us poison instead of tomato soup, that we should suffer in silence.

Ralph Branca had his faith; he had his godliness. That did not stop him from feeling the loss. Most of us have faith, too. But it is easy to grow uneasy, unsatisfied, questioning and resentful. Life, at times, makes us want to take our ball glove, our laptop, our wrench, our school book, paper work, and throw it to the ground in disgust. One of Branca's teammates threw down his glove, nearly all hung their heads, and in their locker room after the game, it was as silent as a morgue. The loss was a tough tough thing to deal with. Yet ultimately Father Pat was right. Ralph Branca could deal with the loss because of his faith. His faith gave him a different perspective on things.

Ralph Branca was one of those called the poor in spirit. Have you ever thought about the meaning of that beatitude of MT5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The phrase "poor in spirit" seems rather strange. It is the opposite of what we would have expected. Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who have discovered that we are nothing in and of ourselves. That all our accomplishments are soon forgotten if they are ever noticed at all, that all our hopes and desires and anxieties about the things of this earth quickly fade away. In the end, Ralph Branca could deal with the fact that he gave up a home run in the most important game of his life. He could deal with it because he knew that fifty years later few people would know about it and fewer still would care. He could deal with it because it was not the most important thing in his life.

God was the most important thing in his life. V12 says we should pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. We should "fight the good fight of the faith," knowing that no matter what, God is with us, with us through thick and thin, winning or losing, with us always and everywhere. that is the perspective of a Christian. It is not a worldly perspective, but a spiritual perspective.

There was a miracle at Coogan's Bluff. The miracle was Ralph Branca’s faith that sustained him in tough circumstances. That same kind of faith, that same kind of miracle, is available to you through and in Jesus Christ. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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