The second problem was establishing a means for distributing the money donated by The Equitable. After another meeting between the company and the commissioner's office, B.A.T. was born. It was set up as a charitable foundation, not a pension fund, with all overhead and administrative costs to be covered by the commissioner's office. In other words, every penny of the $260,000 would go directly to the former players for emergency financial help.
Assistance from B.A.T. is open to anyone, regardless of age, who has ever played or umpired in a major league game, a group that includes about 4,500 people. A 17-man board of directors reviews applications for assistance. The directors include president Branca and vice-presidents Joe Garagiola, Bob Gibson and Rusty Staub, plus 10 other former players, 1 current player and 2 representatives from The Equitable. Branca was named president (an unpaid position) because of his experience as an insurance broker and pension consultant. Frank Slocum, a writer who was an assistant to commissioner Ford Frick in the '60s, is the executive director.
Information about the organization is circulated to all former players through a B.A.T. newsletter mailed by the organization but paid for by the commissioner's office. If a player wants assistance he can apply to B.A.T. but the organization also hears from concerned friends of beleaguered ballplayers and will look into helping someone who hasn't come forth himself.
By becoming the organization's president, Branca renewed his close association with baseball after a long absence. When he retired in 1956, he went straight to work in the insurance business and has been there ever since, while living the good life with his wife, Ann, in Rye, N.Y. Before B.A.T., Branca's only regular involvement with the game was through yearly visits to the Dodgers' spring training camp and through his son-in-law Bobby Valentine, who's now manager of the Texas Rangers.
"He's in it up to his ears now," says Valentine. "Every time I call him, he's off to a board meeting, or to a meeting at the commissioner's office, or something to do with the project. I couldn't even get him out to play golf last off-season."
For Branca, it's a labor he does for love. "There are ex-players out there whose lives have taken some bad hops," he says from his office at the National Pension Service. "We are trying to provide discreet and meaningful help to these men, doing it in the spirit of friendship rather than charity."
The only reminder in his office of his 12-year pitching career (88 wins, 68 losses) is a painting of Ebbets Field. That bitter moment at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951, when Thomson's homer beat the Dodgers for the National League pennant, still comes back to haunt him, but he hopes that won't always be the case. He says, "Today, when children read about the home run, that's all they know me for. People who saw me pitch remember I was pretty good—no, a helluva pitcher. It does get tiresome. Maybe B.A.T is a chance for people to remember me for something besides the home run."
Branca has his own special memory of pitching in the Polo Grounds. It was his major league debut on June 12, 1944. Five days before, he had been at NYU, and now he was coming on in relief for the Dodgers against the Giants. The first three hitters to face him were Buddy Kerr, Bill Voiselle and Johnny Rucker. Not exactly Murderer's Row, but then, Branca was only a teenager. And how did he do? Three up, three down, all on strikes. He looked like a bargain at $400 a month.
Now, 43 years later, Branca is the guy who signs the checks B.A.T. issues to former players. He admits to having choked back a few tears as he listened to the gratitude of some of the nearly 40 men B.A.T. has helped. "We expect to assist a lot more in the future," he says. "We've found that some of these men have too much pride to step forward and ask for help. But one of the things we guarantee in this program is that we do it discreetly. We won't reveal names. The public will never know who these players are. In fact, we use code letters and numbers on the files. The three vice-presidents, Frank Slocum and I are the only ones who know who is getting the money."
So far, according to Branca, the money has been issued for a variety of needs including hospital bills, overdue mortgage payments, funeral expenses and plain day-to-day survival. A committee is also investigating entrepreneurial ventures to increase the fund because, despite The Equitable's contributions, the total money available annually to more than 4,000 former ballplayers is less than the $400,000 average yearly salary of one current major leaguer. B.A.T. is also exploring the possibility of establishing a job placement program and a retirement home for ballplayers.