A baseball story

Bobby Bragan didn't want to play with Jackie Robinson, but when he did, it changed him forever

AP Photo

When Bobby Bragan was young and in the minor leagues, people used to call him “Nig.” This was because he was of a darker complexion than most. He found this to be a funny and fitting nickname, and he embraced it. Bobby Bragan grew up in Alabama. The only black people he knew were servants and the people who worked for his father’s construction company. He did not see African-Americans as fully human, and he did not even consider that his nickname might be offensive to anyone until he reached the Major Leagues, and a teammate told him.

Bragan began his big-league career as a shortstop. He couldn’t hit much, and he was an erratic fielder … to say the least. In 1940, as a rookie, he made 49 errors and a year later he made 45 more. He realized that his future wasn’t bright at shortstop, so he offered to become a catcher. It was a wise baseball decision. He was traded to Brooklyn in 1943 and a couple of years later went to war. When he was discharged in 1947, he traveled straight to Cuba and the Dodgers spring training. He had himself a job as a backup catcher.

You might remember that Dodgers spring training in 1947 was unlike any other. That was Jackie Robinson’s spring.

There have been numerous books written and movies made about that spring and about the Dodgers’ players near revolt against Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Even so, the details are a bit murky. The Dodgers’ most popular and accomplished player the year before had been an outfielder from Georgia named Dixie Walker. He  hit .319 with 116 RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting to Stan Musial. People in Brooklyn loved him so much, they called him “The People’s Cherce” — “Cherce” being Brooklyneese for “Choice” — and his passion for baseball made him an indomitable force in the Dodgers clubhouse.

Dixie Walker, as you probably know, did not want Jackie Robinson or any other African American in the Major Leagues. He would later say that this was not personal enmity but because of pressure from home; Walker owned a hardware and sporting goods store in Alabama, and he worried that playing with a black player would crush his business. Others believed Walker’s racism to be much stronger than that.

Whatever the motivations, Dixie Walker went about trying to start a player revolt. He had no trouble finding followers. Kirby Higbe was a hard-throwing hell-raiser from South Carolina and the grandson of a Confederate soldier. According to Jonathan Eig’s excellent book “Opening Day,” Higbe boasted that he built up his arm throwing rocks at black children (Higbe added, almost as a defense, that “they threw as many rocks as we did”). Hugh Casey was a hard-drinking relief pitcher from Atlanta, and his feelings about black people were as unambiguous as Higbe’s. Carl Furillo was a self-proclaimed hard hat from Pennsylvania whose rough view of the world left little room for empathy.

And then there was Bobby Bragan, the backup catcher, who was just trying to stay in baseball.

Most believe Walker started an actual written petition; he denied this. There have always been questions about the petition and the group — some have said that shortstop Pee Wee Reese and second baseman Eddie Stanky were moderately involved. As the winds of history became clearer, Dixie Walker would say he never led any sort of revolt at all.

Whatever the details, manager Leo Durocher discovered that something was happening. He made his point clear.

“I don’t care if a guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a (bleepin’) zebra,” he reportedly told the team. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”

Then Branch Rickey came down and brought each of the potential traitors into his hotel room. He talked them in a personal way. He asked Furillo how he could possibly be against a man trying to make something of himself after he had seen his own father struggle for work after coming from Italy (Furillo reportedly broke down and apologized and promised he would give Robinson a chance). Higbe was defiant. He wanted, demanded, to be traded. Two weeks into the season, he and four others were sent to Pittsburgh for Al Gionfriddo and cash.

Rickey was about to trade Dixie Walker to Pittsburgh as well … but he just couldn’t do it. Walker was a critical part of the Dodgers success. And Rickey wanted to believe — maybe even NEEDED to believe — that Walker loved the game and winning too much to miss the obvious: Jackie Robinson was a helluva ballplayer and would make the Dodgers better. This was the core of Rickey’s proselytizing, that if ballplayers could only see Robinson as a teammate they would stop seeing him as a black man.

Then there was Bobby Bragan, who would confess that he was willing to give up his career to make this stand. In later years, he explained: He saw blacks as inferior to whites. He did not know how to tell his family and friends that he was playing baseball with a black person. He did not see this as hateful or even objectionable; it was simply his view of the world. Bragan asked to be traded.

The Dodgers didn’t need him. He was a backup catcher only good for a few dozen at-bats. He was popular in the clubhouse, and he was one of those players who makes the season more enjoyable for everyone. Such players are not exactly disposable. But they certainly are not essential. There seemed no reason for Rickey to deal with Bragan’s mutiny.

Branch Rickey was many things, some of them admirable, some of them less so. But, above all, he was shrewd. And that day, he saw something in Bobby Bragan that Bragan did not see in himself.

“If Jackie Robinson can play the position better than another player,” Rickey said after summoning Bragan, “then regardless of the color of his skin Jackie Robinson is going to play. You understand that Bobby?”

“Yes sir,” Bragan said.

“And how do you feel about this?”

“If it’s all the same with you, Mr. Rickey, I’d like to be traded to another team,” Bragan said.

And then, Bragan would remember, Branch Rickey leaned back. Maybe he puffed on his cigar. Maybe he didn’t. He asked Bobby Bragan a question.

“If we call Jackie Robinson up,” Rickey asked, “will you change the way you play for me?”

And here, at last, Bobby Bragan was forced to confront what kind of man he was.

“No sir,” Bragan said. “I’d still play my best.”

That was what Rickey wanted and needed to hear. He dismissed Bragan and made a note in his mind: Bobby Bragan would be OK. Bobby Bragan had it in him to change.

Of course, Bragan didn’t think so. He went into the season bitter. But he began to watch Robinson from a distance. There wasn’t an overnight conversion.”I learned,” Bragan would say. “Not fast. But I learned.” The more he watched Robinson, the more he felt — despite himself — something like grudging respect. The guy could play ball; Bragan thought he was the Dodgers’ best player more or less from his first day. Robinson kept his head down. He did not try to engage teammates in conversation. He ignored the persistent taunts from the crowds and the opposing benches. Bragan at first avoided Robinson on the train, but soon he found himself drawn as if magnetized. He would sit two rows away. He would sit one row away.

And then he sat next to Jackie Robinson. They didn’t talk much, and they didn’t talk about anything, in particular — just baseball stuff. Something about a pitcher. Something about a play. Maybe Bragan told a little joke. Maybe Robinson smiled. Maybe Bragan — again, in spite of himself — felt good that he could break Robinson’s hard exterior.

Then, they would sit next to each other again on the train. And again. Robinson joined a card game Bragan was playing. Few things can connect people quite like playing cards. Bragan would find himself sitting next to Robinson in the dugout, and they would talk, and when Bragan heard his family and friends and others discount Jackie Robinson, heard them call him less than a man, Bragan found dissent welling up inside him. “Wait a minute,” he would think. “You don’t know him.” And, to his surprise, he found himself saying that out loud.

The Dodgers in 1947 were superb, Dixie Walker hit .300 again, Eddie Stanky walked 100 times, and the group that soon would become known as the Boys of Summer — Robinson, Reese, Furillo, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider — began to come together. The Dodgers won the pennant. As Bragan would say, players of all racial viewpoints lined up with Jackie Robinson to collect their World Series checks.

Dixie Walker was traded after the season to Pittsburgh. Two players returned in the deal, Billy Cox and Preacher Roe, would become full-fledged Boys of Summer. Hugh Casey lasted in Brooklyn a few months longer and then, largely because of his ineffective pitching, was released. While pitching for Pittsburgh later that year, Casey twice threw at Jackie Robinson, hitting him once in the knee. The two men glared at each other. Three months later, Casey was out of baseball. Jackie Robinson was named the league MVP.

And Bragan? He got a big double in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, and he stuck around for a few games the following year, but he was done as a player. Bragan knew that managing was his only way to stay in the game. He went to Fort Worth, where he served as a player-manager. Then to Hollywood for a couple of years. In 1955, he was hired to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was hired by a man named Branch Rickey. Over the years, he managed in Cleveland briefly and in Milwaukee for a while. He was not especially successful, but he had some good ideas — he was one of the first managers who tried to put his best players at the top of the lineup, regardless of how fast they were. He thought the extra at-bats made up for the lack of RBI opportunities. For instance, he put power-hitting Felipe Alou in the leadoff spot and tried power-hitting Mack Jones or Eddie Mathews in the No. 2 spot. His teams did score a lot of runs.

Brayan and Robinson became friends, real friends, the sort who would go to each other’s houses for dinner occasionally, the sort who would happily embrace whenever they came across each other. And Robinson was always proud that Bragan became known as a man who would treat people fairly, honestly, no matter the color of their skin. There are numerous examples, but the most famous happened in 1958, when Bragan was hired midseason to manage a minor-league team in Spokane. There was an angry young, black shortstop on that team who had been in the minor leagues for eight years. He was utterly miserable — both toward himself and everyone around him. “I had just about given up on myself,” the young shortstop would write. The young shortstop was Maury Wills.

Bragan took an interest. He talked to Wills every day. He boosted Wills’ confidence, spoke the good things he saw. “You have gifts,” Bragan told him. “You belong in this game.” Bragan noticed something in Maury Wills’ swing — mainly that he had real trouble swinging from the right side — and convinced him to become a switch-hitter. Bragan and Wills worked together every day on switch-hitting. And when he showed an acumen for it, Bragan called the Los Angeles Dodgers repeatedly to say, “You need a shortstop. I have your shortstop right here.”

You know the story of Maury Wills, of course. He would win the 1962 MVP Award when he stole 104 bases scored 130 runs. Many credit him for altering the game. Thing is, Maury Wills knew in 1958 that Bragan was one of the men who at first refused to play with Jackie Robinson. He knew it, and his instincts would have been to not trust such a man. But by then — more than a decade later — Bobby Bragan was a different man. His generosity of spirit had been hard earned. His enthusiasm and newfound color blindness were irresistible. Maury Wills has credited much of his success in baseball and life to the friendship and mentorship of Bobby Bragan.

In 1964, Robinson wrote an underappreciated book called “Baseball Has Done It” about integration. He asked Bobby Bragan to write about his feelings.

“I think it’s just a matter of becoming acclimated to the thing by association,” Bragan wrote. “I was exposed to integration daily under the shower, in the next locker, on the bus, in the hotel and many conversations. … All this adds up to a tolerant attitude, a little more understanding of the situation than if we’d never left Alabama.”

A year later, Branch Rickey died. In the church, in the same pew, sat Jackie Robinson and Bobby Bragan. Jackie Robinson talked afterward about how Branch Rickey changed his life. Bobby Bragan talked about the same thing.

Bragan spent a long life in the game of baseball; he died just five years ago at the age of 92, and to the very end of his life, he was involved in the game, with teaching baseball to kids. One reporter asked him to name his greatest contribution to baseball, and he could have talked about Maury Wills, he could have talked about some of his managing maneuvers, he could have talked about the many players he helped during a 70-year life in baseball. He could have talked about his one at-bat, and one hit, in the World Series.

Instead, he said his greatest contribution to the game was getting out of it. He ran out of steam as a player in 1948. “Roy Campanella,” Bragan said proudly of the first black catcher in the Major Leagues, “took my place.”’