Baseball lifer Bobby Bragan died last week at the age of 92. The man did just about everything in his career, arriving in the majors as an infielder with the Phillies in 1940, learning to catch and becoming the backup backstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers a few years later, transitioning to managing first at the minor league level (where he won championships with the Fort Worth River Cats and Hollywood Stars) and then in the majors (going 443-478 with the Indians, Pirates, and Braves, getting fired in midseason all three times). A protege of Branch Rickey, who hired him to skipper both Fort Worth and Pittsburgh, he managed future Hall of Fame players such as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews. After moving onto coaching, he then served as president of the Texas League, and later of the minor leagues’ governing body, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. His was a full, rich life.
Bragan last made headlines in 2005, when he came out of retirement at 87 years old for one game to become not only the oldest manager in professional baseball history (beating Connie Mack by a week) but also the oldest manager to get ejected; he was tossed on the heels of the ejection of one of his players. Around the country, he’s been memorialized as the last manager of the Braves’ Milwaukee era, the first of their Atlanta era, and as Fort Worth’s foremost ambassador to the sport, a man simply known as “Mr. Baseball.”
As a Brooklyn resident and a Dodger fan, to me the most compelling part of his career is the transformation Bragan experienced during his four seasons in Brooklyn (1943-1944, 1947-1948, with two seasons missed due to military service). It wasn’t for his hitting (.258/.306/.324 during his Dodger days, highlighted by a game-tying pinch-double in Game Six of the 1947 World Series) but rather for his initial opposition to and ultimate championing of Jackie Robinson, whose breaking of the color barrier afforded him a front-row seat to an earth-shaking change. During the spring of 1947, Alabama native Bragan supported Dixie Walker’s infamous petition stating that he didn’t want to play with Robinson. Unsympathetic, manager Leo Durocher roused his team at 1 AM andtold them, “Take the petition and, you know, wipe your ass.”
Bragan soon paid a visit to Rickey’s office. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Randy Galloway:
I will always treasure the Alabama-native drawl telling me this one from long ago:
“Mr. Rickey, well, since you asked, sir, I got to admit, I don’t want no colored boy playing on the Dodgers.”
And so, in 1947 the Jackie Robinson story was about to begin in Brooklyn, and general manager Branch Rickey, whom Bobby claimed to have admired and feared “as much as God himself” told the Dodgers’ backup catcher, “Bobby, I ought to get rid of you, but you know what, I don’t think I really believe that’s in your heart, what you now tell me about this young man [Robinson].”
Within six months of Bobby meeting Jackie in spring training, and Jackie breaking baseball’s color line, Bragan began a family friendship with Robinson that would last until Jackie passed away, and then continued with Jackie’s widow.
“Knowing Jackie Robinson turned my life around,” Bobby always said.
From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ken Sugiura:
Bragan initially resisted Robinson, as did other teammates, most of them like Bragan raised in the South. Bragan even sought to be traded rather than play with Robinson.
That changed when the team took a two-week road trip early in the season.
“On those long train rides, that’s when I really started to get to know Jackie,” Bragan told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s entry into major league baseball. All of us did, actually. This man was about class, culture and courage. All my prejudices begin to slowly fade.
“I started off that trip determined to have nothing to do with Jackie. But when that trip was over, the team goes back home, then, when the second road trip started, I was one of those jockeying to sit next to Jackie on the train. Jackie Robinson, the person and the ballplayer, changed my views, and changed my life.”
Profiled as the leadoff personality in Donald Honig’s The Man in the Dugout: Fifteen Big League Managers Speak Their Minds (you can read the entire chapter via Google Books), Bragan elaborated:
Jackie won the respect of everybody by sheer guts and ability. Nobody ever came into the big leagues under less favorable circumstances, and he handled himself beautifully and he played like a demon. he was one of the greatest ballplayers ever to come down the pike.
Being Jackie Robinson’s teammate was one of the best breaks I ever got. Watching what he had to go through helped me. It helped make me a better, more enlightened man, and it helped me to have a future in baseball as a manager because later on I was gong to have to manage fellows like Felipe Alou, Maury Wills, Henry Aaron, and plenty of other black players. If I hadn’t had that experience with Jackie, I don’t think I could have done it. It was a breakthrough for me, a great experience that I learned from and built upon later in life.
Jackie and I became good friends. Side by side we mourned our great loss in the same pew at Mr. Rickey’s funeral. The respect and admiration that we shared for our mutual “father” served to cement our friendship.
A gifted raconteur, Bragan had a lighter side as well, particularly when it came to his managing career. After finishing above .500 in three straight years in Milwaukee (1963-1965) but failing to climb higher than fifth place in a 10-team league, he recalled, “I told them in Milwaukee that I was leaving, and I got the biggest ovation I ever got… But I’m taking the team with me.” Former Star-Telegram columnist Jim Reeves retells a scene from Bragan’s autobiography:
In the foreword to Bragan’s book, “You Can’t Hit the Ball with the Bat on Your Shoulder,” Howard Cosell called him “baseball’s Music Man … Elmer Gantry in uniform.”
Cosell tells about the day in 1957 when Bragan, then Pittsburgh’s skipper, was sitting at the piano in Howard’s Manhattan apartment, playing and singing “Mack the Knife,” when he was interrupted by a call from Pirates GM Joe Brown. Bobby took the call, talked for a couple of minutes, then resumed singing.
“What did Joe want?” Cosell asked.
“Mack the knife is … back in town,” Bragan sang, then added a new verse. “Joe Brown just fired me.”
Judging from all of the testimonials to Bragan that have surfaced, he cemented many a friendship during his time in the game. He’ll be missed.