A Baseball Story

Here on Jackie Robinson's birthday, wanted to repost this story I wrote a couple of years ago.

When Bobby Bragan was young, people used to call him “Nig.” He was of a darker complexion than most. He liked the nickname. Bobby Bragan grew up in Alabama. The only black people he knew served food and worked for his father’s construction company. 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, and he was an erratic fielder … an unhappy combination. In 1940, as a rookie, he made 49 errors. A year later he made 45 more. That's when he realized that becoming backup catcher was safer. He was traded to Brooklyn in 1943 and a couple of years later went to war. When discharged in 1947, he traveled straight to Cuba and Dodgers spring training. He wanted to reclaim his job as backup catcher.

That was Jackie Robinson’s spring.

That was also Dixie Walker's spring.

Dixie Walker was the most beloved player in Brooklyn. He was a gifted hitter -- he finished second in the MVP voting to Stan Musial in 1946 -- and, as Jonathan Eig writes in Opening Day, he had an aw-shucks Southern humility that drew people in. Musial was the Man in St. Louis. In Brooklyn, they called Walker "The People's Cherce" -- "Cherce” being Brooklyneese for “Choice.”

Walker is not at the heart of this particular story so we are not looking to delve into his motivations. What we know is that he tried to start a player revolt that spring to force the Dodgers to get rid of Jackie Robinson and refrain from integrating the game. He would express considerable regret about it in later years; he said that he had no personal issues with Robinson or African Americans in baseball but that he owned a hardware store in Birmingham and worried that playing with a black player would crush his business. You will make of that what you will.

Whatever the motivations, Dixie Walker went about trying starting his revolt. There might have been a written petition. It might have been done through whispers. 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 Eig, 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 was 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 from Alabama who was just trying to stay in baseball.

Walker probably believed that his popularity along with the support of numerous teammates would force the Dodgers to retreat. It was a terrible miscalculation, something he probably realized when a red-faced Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, address the whole team:

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

Then Branch Rickey himself summoned each of the potential traitors into his hotel room. He had a different speech for each of them. He screamed at Furillo: "How could you possible be against a man trying to make something of himself when you have seen the way people treated your father when he came from Italy?" (Furillo reportedly broke down and apologized and promised he would give Robinson a chance). He told Higbe he would trade him, and he soon dumped him on Pittsburgh.

Rickey wanted to trade Walker too ... but that was a lot harder than dealing a 32-year old journeyman pitcher like Higbe. Walker was the team's star and their most popular player. 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. The Dodgers would keep Walker all season.

Then there was Bobby Bragan, who told Rickey that he would give up his career to make a stand. In later years, He saw blacks as inferior to whites, plain and simple. And he did not know how to tell his family and friends that he was playing baseball with Robinson. He did not see this stance as hateful or even objectionable; it was his view of the world. Bragan asked to be traded.

And it would have been so easy for Rickey to trade him or release him. 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, yes, but that hardly seemed a reason for Rickey to deal with Bragan’s mutiny.

Branch Rickey was many things, some of them admirable, some of them less admireable. 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.

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.”

Rickey nodded and dismissed Bragan. He had made his decision. He would not trade Bobby Bragan.

Bragan didn't get it at first. 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 — a grudging respect. The guy could play ball; Bragan thought he was the Dodgers’ best player more or less from his first day. And he was tough. He 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. On the team train, Bragan felt himself drawn to Jackie Robinson. 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 1949 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 the Pirates GM, a man named Branch Rickey.

Later, Bragan 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 in the leadoff spot, regardless of how fast they were. That was a good thought.

And over the years, Bragan and Robinson became friends, real friends, the sort who would go to each other’s houses for dinner, the sort who would happily embrace whenever they came across each other. Robinson was proud of Bragan, proud of how he changed. In 1958, Bragan was hired midseason to manage a minor-league team in Spokane. There was an angry young, African American shortstop on that team who had been in the minor leagues for eight years. He was miserable — both toward himself and everyone around him. “I had just about given up on myself,” the shortstop would write. The shortstop was Maury Wills.

Bragan 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. And when Wills began to get switch-hitting down, 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. 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 he also knew that 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 at the age of 92 and to the very end of his life he taught 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."