Cooperstown Confidential: Bobby Bragan’s remarkable life

Bobby Bragan was not particularly successful as either a major league player or manager, but his career was incredibly noteworthy, highly unorthodox, and utterly fascinating. Bragan, who died last week at the age of 92, lived as full a baseball life as anyone, replete with episodes of color, controversy and redemption.

As a player, Bragan lasted seven seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers, in a career splintered by service in World War II. Bragan didn’t hit much, batting .240 with 15 home runs in 1,900 at-bats. Here’s what’s odd. The two positions he played most frequently were shortstop and catcher. How many catcher-shortstops have you ever heard of in the major leagues? Not many names come immediately to mind, other than someone like Bert “Campy” Campaneris, a longtime shortstop who put in token time as a catcher as part of a publicity stunt. (There was also Cesar Tovar, a second baseman who played a little bit of shortstop and, like Campaneris, played part of one game as a catcher.) The two positions are incongruous, requiring completely different athletic skills, and usually featuring two distinct body types. But Bragan put in significant amounts of time at both positions, playing 415 games as a shortstop and 140 games as a catcher.

By the late 1940s, Bragan had become one of the Dodgers’ backup catchers. He was still with the team in the spring of 1947, coinciding with the arrival of a pioneer and future Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson. As fellow Hardball Times writer Steve Treder so eloquently pointed out in a recent post over at Baseball Think Factory, Bragan was not exactly one who embraced the major leagues’ first African-American player of the 20th century.

“Bragan was an ardent anti-integrationist, one of the most vocal members of the 1947 Dodgers opposed to Jackie Robinson’s presence on the team,” Treder writes. “But once the season unfolded, and he observed what Robinson went through and how he handled it, Bragan began to greatly admire Robinson, and he saw that he’d been wrong all along, that what he’d been taught to believe was nonsense. Bragan became a vocal champion of integration. It takes a big person to be that self-aware, and to grow that way.”

Indeed. Perhaps it was that willingness to grow that made Bragan a natural to manage after his playing days, which ended with Brooklyn in 1948. Bragan became one of the game’s most intelligent and innovative managers of the ’40s and ’50s, excelling at two different levels in the minor leagues. Bragan never carried that success over to the major leagues, but he certainly made an impression on those he encountered along the way.

Bragan had a temper, as evidenced by the anger he showed toward umpires. But he didn’t just throw tantrums; he tried to make statements with his actions. As a minor league manager with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, Bragan once sent the Stars’ batboy onto the field to act as the team’s third base coach. Bragan felt the umpires were making a farce of the game, so he decided to escalate the farce by using his batboy in an expanded role. He showed his dislike for another umpire’s decision by sending up eight consecutive pinch-hitters—all for the same batter. In perhaps his most outlandish maneuver, Bragan responded to being ejected from a game by completely stripping off his uniform while on the playing field. It was one of 13 times that Bragan earned ejections during a tumultuous 1954 season.

Bragan toned down his act only slightly once he reached the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956. The ejections came with less frequency, but with no less ferocity. On July 31, 1957, Bragan drew the heave-ho from umpire Stan Landes for holding his nose after a questionable call. A few minutes later, Bragan suddenly reappeared. He strolled casually onto the field, holding an orange drink with a straw in his hand. Bragan leisurely made his way over to the umpires, offering each of the four men a sip from his drink. “It was my major league debut as a clown,” Bragan told the Associated Press after the game. “I’m fed up with these guys. They won’t even listen to a legitimate complaint.”

The umpires became less inclined to listen after the offer of the orange drink. The chief of the umpiring crew, Frank Dascoli, vented his anger at Bragan during a postgame interview. “He’s a busher, a clown and a comedian,” Dascoli fumed to the AP. “By pulling that stunt, he vindicates anything that ever happened to him.”

Bragan’s overt displeasure with the umpires overshadowed his sense of innovation. He dared to do things differently at a time when conservative play was the norm.

As manager of the Pirates, Bragan sometimes batted his best hitter first (instead of the more traditional spot of third in the order) and his pitcher seventh (instead of ninth). Under Bragan’s theory, once he cleared out the pitcher’s spot the first time through, the eighth and ninth-place hitters would become the tablesetters for the top of the order. Bragan also employed a lineup based primarily on batting average. He batted Dale Long, his leading slugger, in the leadoff spot, and then followed up with Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente, his two best hitters for average. Bragan continued to arrange his order by batting average, with the highest averages followed by lower ones.

Critics derided the non-traditional lineup as “Bragan’s Brainstorm,” but the unorthodox batting orders actually seemed to help. In 1956, the Pirates improved by six games over their 1955 record. Unfortunately, a poor start to the following season resulted in Bragan being fired and replaced by Danny Murtaugh.

Bragan surfaced again to manage the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Braves. With the Braves, he encouraged slugger and future home run king Hank Aaron to steal more bases, a strategy that most managers of the day would not have pursued with their cleanup hitters. In his first season under Bragan, Aaron stole 31 bases.

Even after his retirement, Bragan continued to show a penchant for the unconventional. In 2005, Bragan became the oldest person to manage a professional baseball game, at 87 years, nine months, and 16 days. Coming out of retirement for one day to break Connie Mack’s record by one week, Bragan managed the Ft. Worth Cats of the independent Central League.

Fittingly, he was ejected in the third inning.

In addition to managing and playing, Bragan also enjoyed a third career. During the 1970s and ’80s, he worked in the public relations department of the Texas Rangers. As part of his duties, Bragan delivered speeches, put in appearances at promotions, and generally fulfilled his duties by being Bobby Bragan. A master at telling stories, Bragan could entertain for hours. He liked to spend time in the Arlington Stadium press room, where he played the piano for the media during dinner, giving them an interesting diversion on hot summer nights in Texas. Given his outgoing personality, it’s no wonder that Bragan became known as “Mr. Baseball” in the Fort Worth area.

Bragan won’t ever make the Hall of Fame for what he did as a player or manager. But when it comes to experiencing the game over the course of seven decades, it would be hard to top the resume of Bobby Bragan.

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Comments

  1. BlftBucco said...

    Another recent catcher/shortstop that comes to mind is Dave Roberts (The 1972 #1 pick by the Padres). Unlike Campaneris & Tovar he played multiple games at each position 152-C/40-SS.  In fact he played multiple games everywhere in the field except pitcher.

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Bucco, good call on Roberts. He was a legitimately versatile player. I remember one year he was a free agent, and it seemed everyone wanted to sign him, since versatility was the in-vogue attribute at that time.

  3. Joe R said...

    That 1963 season was arguably Aaron’s best offensive season, too. 2nd highest career EqA and RAP (Runs Above Average Position), and his highest RC and RARP.

    And of course, just saying the Pirates of 56 were 6 games better understates it. They were dramatically improved, by 15 games in xW-L. Obviously it wasn’t all him, but non-traditionalism might have helped a little bit, there. Of course, the dangers of being non-traditional is that the gains are often so marginal, that you get run out of town whenever failure happens.

  4. BlftBucco said...

    Yeah, I remember when the Astros signed him as a free agent.  Something like 1.1 million for 4 years.  It was a ridiculous contract at the time for a utility player.  ~Seems like nothing now.

  5. Gilbert said...

    I remember Bill Almon playing C for the A’s and thinking that with him and Mike Heath, a catcher who also occasionally played in the IF or OF (BB-Ref shows him with a day at SS) that they could have one-upped Charlie O by having both players shift thru 9 positions in a game.
    I suppose it would not have been a farce to see former C’s Brandon Inge or Craig Biggio at SS.

  6. Paul said...

    The only players to play 100 games at C and 100 games at SS are Bragan and Jack Rowe.  Rowe last played in 1890 and probably was not a “squatting” catcher.

    At 50 games, there are 11 players, Bragan, 9 19th century players (Rowe, Jimmy Peoples, Doggie Miller, Mike McGeary, Sport McAllister, King Kelly, Jack Doyle, Lave Cross, Bill Craver), and Moe Berg.  Moe started out as a shortstop and transitioned to catcher which is an odd career arc.

  7. Brandon Isleib said...

    @Gilbert:

    About 2.5 years ago, I interviewed Almon and asked him about that game catching, as well as other things; the interview’s never been published, but I’ve kept the answers.  Here’s his story behind the catching game.

    “I can’t remember if the 24-man roster was in effect or if the A’s had wanted to carry another pitcher that year, but they only wanted to carry two catchers.  They approached me and asked if I had ever caught, and I said, “No, but I wouldn’t mind learning,” figuring it would increase my value as well. 

    So I caught in the bullpen a lot, and when we were losing that much to the Royals, manager Jackie Moore came up and said, “Do you want to get your feet wet catching?”  Garry had tossed a lot of BP that year, so they brought him in to pitch.  He had a running fastball and a curveball; he wanted to throw a knuckleball, but I shook it off.”

  8. Tom Keyser said...

    I loved these somewhat manic middle infielder types who brought so much intensity to the game, both as players and skips. I’m thinking Bragan, Stanky and (the prototype), Leo Durocher. Umpires and writers frequently reviled them for their spitfire behaviour but they were genuine individualists during a conformist age. And, dammit, they cared.
    R.I.P Bobby.  .  .

  9. BillVZ said...

    Gilmore Field(stadium), the Hollywood Stars both players and cast, managers Bobby Bragan, Fred Haney and a loving fans all a part of PCL baseball in Los Angeles at it best in the 40’s and early 50’s .Fond memories of wonderful baseball.

  10. Stan Sackler said...

    Before Bragan took over for the Hollywood Stars, they had another young man who they converted from catcher to shortstop: Ray Boone. He, of course became an American League All Star at short, and his son Bob became an All Star catcher!

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