SABR

Bobby Bragan

This article was written by David Fleitz and Maurice Bouchard.

Bobby Bragan was a backup catcher whose pinch-hit double in Game Six of the 1947 World Series was his final moment of glory as a major-league player. However, Bragan left an enviable legacy as a manager and executive at the major and minor-league levels. He managed three major-league clubs, developed the farm system of the nascent Houston Colt .45’s, was president of the Texas League, served as president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the umbrella organization for all minor leagues), and then built a new career in public relations for the Texas Rangers. His self-avowed greatest achievement, though, is the more than 400 scholarships awarded through the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation. 

Robert Randall Bragan was born Robert Randall Downs on October 30, 1917, in Birmingham, Alabama, the second son of Walter Lee and Corinne (Roberts) Downs. After Walter died in 1921, Corrine met and married George Washington Bragan, Jr., a widower with two young children. George adopted Corinne’s two sons, Walter Lee, Jr. and Robert, who never considered anyone other than George to be their father.1 From the tragedy each endured, George and Corinne created a loving, close-knit family that eventually grew to seven sons and two daughters.

The Bragan boys, who worked after school, nonetheless found time to play baseball. Four of them eventually signed professional contracts. Robert, a shortstop, was the best of the lot. After graduating from Phillips High School, he accepted a baseball scholarship to Birmingham’s Howard College, now Samford University, Bragan left after one semester when he was offered $65 a month to play for the Panama City (Florida) Pelicans in the Class D Alabama-Florida League. 

Bobby, five feet eleven and weighing 175 pounds, spent the 1937 season with Panama City, where he hit .285 with 56 runs batted in. Before the start of the next season, the Pelicans sold his contract to the Pensacola (Florida) Pilots of the Class B Southeastern League for $500. A strong-armed, good-fielding shortstop, he batted .298 for Pensacola in 1938. The next season, Bragan hit .311 with twenty-nine doubles, ten triples, and twelve home runs. The Phillies, who had a working agreement with the Pilots, took notice. 

The Phillies bought Bragan’s contract in early 1940 and invited him to spring training. Bobby performed well during the exhibition season, and manager Doc Prothro gave him the starting job with a $2,500 salary. In his memoir, Bobby wrote, “I was lucky in that I was in the right organization at the right time trying to win a job at the right position.”2 Bragan, a right-handed batter, was used sparingly to start the season, getting in only as an occasional defensive replacement. But with regular shortstop George Scharein struggling at the plate, Bragan got the start in Pittsburgh on April 30. He played errorless ball and had his first major-league hit, a single off Pirates reliever Ken Heintzleman that scored two runs. From May 9 on he was the Phillies’ regular shortstop for the rest of the season. 

Overall, Bragan batted .222 in 132 games with seven home runs and forty-four runs batted in for the last-place Phillies. Defensively, he had a .936 fielding percentage, lowest among the National League’s regular shortstops. He was an adequate major-league shortstop at best, with a good throwing arm but poor speed. During the offseason life changed for the twenty-three-year-old Bragan. He had been courting Frances Best, known to all as Gwenn, who was still a high school senior. The relationship got serious and the couple married in a secret ceremony on March 2, 1941. The marriage lasted until Gwenn’s death in 1983. 

Bragan played all 154 games at shortstop for the Phillies in 1941. He raised his batting average to .251 with sixty-nine runs batted in, but struggled against curve ball pitchers. Opponents exploited his weakness against the breaking ball and Bragan slumped the following season, hitting just .218 in 109 games. Bobby recognized that he did not have the talent required to succeed in the majors as an infielder, so he volunteered to catch. He caught a full major-league game for the first time on July 30, 1942 and filled in as a part-time shortstop and catcher for the remainder of the season. 

On March 24, 1943 the Phillies sent Bragan to the Brooklyn Dodgers for minor-league pitcher Jack Kraus and an undisclosed amount of cash. While the trade barely registered in the sports pages of the day, it was a seismic event in the life of Bobby Bragan. At Brooklyn’s spring training camp in Bear Mountain, New York, Bragan met the Dodgers’ new president and general manager, Branch Rickey. Bragan later said that no one had a greater impact on his life than Branch Rickey.

With rosters unsettled during the war years, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher used Bragan as both an infielder and a catcher in 1943 and 1944. It was during this time that Bragan decided he wanted to be a manager. “My reasoning was simple,” he explained years later in his memoir. “Even in war ball, so to speak, I couldn’t stay in a major-league starting lineup. Playing at my best, I still was skilled enough only to be a reserve. And when the war was over and the best players got back, marginal players would quickly be cut. My luck was to be playing for Leo, so I could watch the best and learn from him.”3

Though married with two children (son Robert, Jr. was born in 1942 and daughter Gwenn was born the next year), Bragan was called into military service on April 19, 1945, but was not sent overseas. He was discharged in late January 1947, and immediately traveled to Havana, Cuba, where the Dodgers were conducting spring training. Bragan, twenty-nine, had missed two full major-league seasons.

In Havana, Bragan discovered that he would be a teammate of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major-league player of the twentieth century. Bragan was one of several Dodgers who objected to the presence of Robinson on the Brooklyn club. As Bragan recalled years later, Branch Rickey called all five recalcitrant players into his office, one at a time, and stated that if Robinson was talented enough to make the team, then he would open the season with the Dodgers. “If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Rickey,” replied Bragan, “I’d prefer to be traded to another team.” Rickey then asked if Bragan would play differently if Robinson was his teammate, to which Bragan answered in the negative. “No, sir,” he said, “I’d still play my best.”4 This answer seemed to satisfy Rickey, and when the 1947 season began, both Bragan and Robinson were Dodgers.

As the season wore on, Bragan’s attitude changed. He grew to respect Robinson, not only for his playing ability, but also for his courage and dignity in the face of relentless abuse from opposing managers, players and fans. Bragan dropped his trade request, and by the spring of 1948, he and Robinson had formed a friendship that lasted until Robinson’s death in 1972.

Bragan spent the 1947 season as a bullpen catcher and late-inning defensive replacement. He appeared in only twenty-five games, batting .194. In his only appearance in the World Series against the Yankees, he had a pinch-hit double in the sixth inning of Game Six.

Bobby opened the 1948 season with the Dodgers, but in June he was offered a job managing the Fort Worth Cats, Brooklyn’s Class AA farm club in the Texas League. Bragan was thrilled with the offer and accepted immediately. Overall, he had played in nearly 600 big-league games, including 415 at shortstop and 140 as a catcher. His lifetime batting average was .240 with fifteen home runs.5

As a player-manager Bragan caught sixty-seven games and hit .274 for the first-place Cats, who went on to win the postseason playoffs and the Texas League championship. They then faced the Birmingham Barons in the Dixie Series, capturing that title as well. In 1949, Fort Worth easily finished first in the regular season but lost in the league finals. 

Bragan managed the Cats for three more seasons, finishing second, fourth, and second. He continued to write his own name on the lineup card most days, playing in 309 games from 1950 through 1952. Bragan maintained that as the catcher he was uniquely positioned to manage the game, especially the pitchers. 

In 1953, Rickey, then the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, tapped Bobby to manage the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League—a club that had won the PCL pennant in 1952. Bragan played in ninety-eight games in 1953, while leading the Stars to their second consecutive pennant. After the season,em>The Sporting News named him its Minor League Manager of the Year, noting the players were “inspired by Bragan’s fighting leadership.”6 After Hollywood finished second in 1954 and third in 1955, Rickey hired Bragan to manage the Pirates for 1956. 

The Pirates were loaded with talent, most of it still raw, and Bragan was determined to mold it in the “Rickey-Durocher” image. Mostly, it didn’t work. Future Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were at least two seasons away from All Star status. Shortstop Dick Groat especially did not thrive under Bragan’s caustic comments and frequent fines; the future National League MVP considered quitting baseball more than once during Bragan’s tenure as skipper. Pittsburgh finished seventh in 1956 and was on its way to another seventh-place finish in 1957, when GM Joe Brown fired Bragan in August. Bobby later admitted that he had tried too hard, was too much of a taskmaster and perfectionist, and was not the right manager for the Pirates of the late 1950s. 

Hank Greenberg, general manager of the Cleveland Indians, hired Bragan to lead the Indians in 1958, but two weeks after the hiring Greenberg was fired and replaced by Frank Lane. Bragan was dismissed after only three months and later recalled that Lane broke the news by saying, “I don’t know how we’ll get along without you, Bobby, but starting tomorrow we’re going to try.”7

For the 1959 season, the forty-one-year-old Bragan returned to the Dodgers organization as manager of the PCL Spokane Indians. Ever the teacher, Bragan had a particularly beneficial effect on twenty-six-year-old Maury Wills, who was about to start his ninth year in the minor leagues. Bobby turned him into a switch-hitter and encouraged him to use his speed to steal bases. By 1962, Wills was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. 

In 1960 Bragan joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as the third-base coach under Walton Alston. After the season Gabe Paul, general manager of the expansion franchise in Houston, offered Bobby the farm director position. Bragan’s dream was to someday manage the Dodgers, but the gravitational pull from Texas, where he and Gwenn still lived, was too great and Bobby accepted Paul’s offer. 

Bragan enjoyed the challenge of building a farm system and scouting for talent in 1961, but by 1962, after a disagreement with the owner, Gabe Paul quit and was replaced by Paul Richards. Bobby spent a miserable 1962 as Houston’s bullpen coach. The move to Houston, he later claimed, was the biggest mistake of his baseball life.

When Milwaukee offered Bragan $35,000 to manage in 1963, he wasted little time accepting. The Braves were fresh off a fifth-place finish in 1962, but Bragan’s style did not wear well in Milwaukee, and the club slipped to sixth place in 1963 before finishing fifth again in 1964. As lame ducks in Milwaukee in 1965, the Braves team endured a very angry fan base and critical press corps. The Braves won eighty-six games despite a season full of problems. Bragan considered it his finest managerial effort. It was Bragan who persuaded twenty-six-year-old Phil Niekro to go back to the minors in 1966 to develop his knuckleball.

The Braves, in their first season in Atlanta, led the league in runs scored, but their pitching was weak, and Bragan was fired in August. Beginning in 1969, Bragan served seven seasons as president of the Texas League, a post that allowed him to continue living in his adopted hometown of Fort Worth.

Ever the innovator, Bragan brought the designated hitter to his league in the early 1970s, and then as a member of the Baseball Rules Committee was instrumental in instituting the Designated Hitter in the American League in 1973. He also called for interleague play, synthetic grass at all stadiums and more domes. A three-year stint as president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues followed, after which Bragan, at the age of sixty-one, became an assistant to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. 

Four years later Bragan took a post in public relations for the Texas Rangers. He worked in that capacity until he was well past his eightieth birthday, giving speeches and making public appearances on behalf of the team. Bragan was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. Also in 2005, at the age of eighty-seven, Bragan managed his former team, the Fort Worth Cats, for one day, surpassing Connie Mack as the oldest manager in the history of professional baseball. As late as 2009, Bragan was listed as a special assistant for community relations in the Texas Rangers front office. 

Bragan and Gwenn had been married for forty-two years when she died in 1983. On March 27, 1985, Bobby married Roberta L. Beckman; the happy marriage lasted until Roberta died in 1993. Bragan continued in his role as chairman and CEO of the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, going to the office at least three days a week. 

Bobby Bragan died in Fort Worth, Texas at age ninety-two on January 21, 2010. He is buried in Fort Worth’s Greenwood Memorial Park.

 

Sources

Bragan, Bobby, and Jeff Guinn. You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder: The Baseball Life and Times of Bobby Bragan. (Fort Worth: The Summit Group, 1992.

Duvall, Bob. “Whatever Became Of ---,” Baseball Digest, February 1971.

Bragan Hits 2 Homers; Phils Beat Reds, 3-1.” Chicago Daily Tribune. June 19, 1940, p. 25.

Edgar G. Brands, “Perini, Stengel Majors’ Top Men.” Sporting News. December 30, 1953.

Effrat, Louis. “Giants Bow To Phils, 11-2, 6-5; Losing Streak

Now Six Straight.” New York Times. September 3, 1940, p. 23

“Jimmy Bragan Dies.” Birmingham (Alabama) News. June 3, 2001, p.1.

“Phils Top Reds, 4-2, As Bragan Stars.” New York Times. July 31, 1942, p. 19.

“About Bobby Bragan.” Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation. http://www.bobbybragan.org: 2009.

“Ancestry World Tree Project.” Ancestry.com

Alabama. Jefferson County. 1910 U.S. Census, population.

Alabama. Jefferson County. 1920 U.S. Census, population.

Alabama. Jefferson County. 1930 U.S. Census, population

Bedingfield, Gary. “Bobby Bragan.” Baseball in Wartime. http://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/bragan_bobby.htm: 2009.

“World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918.” Database and images. Ancestry.com. http://www.ancestry.com: 2009.

Maurice Bouchard phone interview with Bobby Bragan, January 15, 2010.

Fred Claire, “Bragan an Ageless Wonder,” interview with Bobby Bragan, mlb.com, August 18, 2005.

Debb Harris, designer. “Bobby Bragan.” Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.2009.

 

Notes

1. Research into the Bragan and Downs families was conducted by Maurice Bouchard, using the 1910 and 1920 United States Census; the information was confirmed in a phone interview with Bobby Bragan on January 14, 2010.

2. Bobby Bragan and Jeff Guinn, You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder, p. 55.

3. Bobby Bragan and Jeff Guinn, You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder, p. 112.

4. Bobby Bragan and Jeff Guinn, You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder, pp. 3-4.

5, Statistics found at Baseball Reference web site.

6. Sporting News, December 30, 1953.

7. Bobby Bragan and Jeff Guinn, You Can’t Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder, p 229.

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