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Mr. Bragan’s special day

June 8, 2012

(Next weekend, I will work my final shift for The Associated Press after nearly 13 years and begin preparing for my next phase of life as a Presbyterian minister. The best part of being a journalist has always been getting to meet extraordinary people, co-workers as well as people who became subjects for stories.  One of my most enjoyable days in the business was the day I interviewed former major leaguer Bobby Bragan. He was never a household name, unless you lived in Dallas-Fort Worth. But Mr. Bragan was a part of baseball history — the good and the bad, and he owned up to the bad. He was best known for the years after his baseball career, which he spent trying to improve the lives of others — and making them smile. After I wrote this story, which appeared in newspapers on Aug. 13, 2005, I received a note from Mr. Bragan loaded with compliments, a copy of the story from the Boston paper and an envelope filled with baseball cards. I was really moved by this. Journalists don’t get notes like that very often, so when they do, it’s memorable. He didn’t send it because I was anything special — it was just the kind of thing he was always doing, making people feel better about themselves. Bobby Bragan died in January 2010 at the age of 92. Here’s a snapshot from a special day for me,  interviewing him about the special day being planned for him.)

Bragan’s Day

Bragan’s latest tale will involve the day he topped Connie Mack

By MATT CURRY=

Associated Press Writer=

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ With a glimmer in his eye, Bobby Bragan launches into another story from baseball’s Golden Age, finishing with a hearty laugh and his trademark, “Isn’t that somethin’?”

Most listeners are familiar with the subjects from history books or grainy film footage. But the 87-year-old Bragan brings them to life with reverence and wit _ after all, he personally knew folks like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.

Bragan will add another colorful story to his collection Monday when he spends the day managing the minor league Fort Worth Cats. At 87 years, nine months and 16 days old, he’ll become the oldest manager of a professional baseball game, topping by a week the mark set by Hall of Famer Connie Mack in his final game, in 1950.

Bragan first managed the Cats in 1948 and has been earning good will in Dallas-Fort Worth ever since. He’s been a favorite on the local speaking circuit, and his youth foundation has given more than $800,000 to public school students since 1992. His No. 10 jersey was the first retired by the club in 2003, after the former Dodgers’ farm team was revived as an independent team.

Cats president John Dittrich is among those touched by Bragan’s kindness, even calling him a second father. Many more are proud to call Bragan their friend.

“He is to baseball around here what Tom Landry is to football and what Ernie Banks is to Chicago,” Dittrich said. “People call him ‘Mr. Baseball.'”

Bragan still goes to his Fort Worth office every day and likes to hand guests a baseball card featuring Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who will be honored at Bragan’s lifetime achievement award gala in December. He also offers greetings with another card showing him and his wife Betty receiving honorary degrees from Texas Wesleyan University.

He loves to sing and play the piano, produces CDs with gospel songs and baseball standards like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and has written an autobiography called “You Can’t Hit the Ball with the Bat on Your Shoulder.”

Cats publicist David Hatchett came up with the idea of bringing the beloved Bragan back to top Mack, whom Bragan recalls shaking hands with several times. Dittrich quickly approved.

“It’s a real tribute,” said Bragan, who last filled out a lineup card in 1966.

Bragan’s takeover will make an assistant out of the usual Cats manager, 80-year-old Wayne Terwilliger, who earlier this season joined Mack as the only octogenarian managers in baseball history. Former Los Angeles Dodgers great Maury Wills will serve as one of Bragan’s coaches. Wills starred for the Cats in the 1950s.

Bragan plans to wear slacks instead of uniform pants at the game as a tribute to Mack, who won five World Series while managing in civilian clothes.

But he won’t treat the game against the Coastal Bend Aviators as an exhibition.

“I’m sure I’ll have a meeting with players, and say, ‘Let’s don’t slow down because I’m here,’ ” Bragan said. “Don’t play any different because I’m 87 years old.”

Bragan was born in 1917 to a large family in Birmingham, Ala.

“I was one of seven boys and two girls, so my mother cooked 30 to 40 biscuits every morning,” Bragan said.

All the boys were involved in baseball, including his brother Peter, who is still principal owner and president of the Jacksonville Suns. Another brother, Jimmy, who died in 2001, was a major league coach and longtime president of the Southern League.

In 1937, Bobby Bragan made Panama City’s Class D club, earning $65 a month. He broke into the majors in 1940 as the starting shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies. He hit .240 over seven seasons with the Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers.

In ’47, Bragan was a 29-year-old backup catcher for the Dodgers when Rickey brought in Robinson. Bragan acknowledges being among the players who initially told Rickey he would rather be traded than play with Robinson. He remained, though, and Robinson turned him and other players around “with his character, his conversation and his playing.”

“To me, Billy Graham is the greatest person of the 20th century,” Bragan says now, “but Mr. Rickey and Jackie Robinson rank real high with their contributions to humankind.”

Bragan began the following season with Brooklyn, but Rickey wanted to bring up Roy Campanella. So he offered Bragan the managerial job with the Fort Worth Cats, then part of the Dodgers’ system. He took over in July and stayed with the Cats for five years, winning two Texas League pennants.

Bragan managed seven seasons in the big leagues, beginning with Pittsburgh in 1956 and ’57. He was with Cleveland the next year then went to Milwaukee in 1963 to manage the Braves. When the team relocated in 1966, Bragan became the first manager of the Atlanta Braves. His career record was 443-478.

“The biggest ovation I ever got came in Milwaukee when I told them I was leaving,” Bragan said. “But it got real quiet when I said I was taking the team with me to Atlanta.”

If history is any judge, Bragan may put his own fun-loving mark on his first managerial appearance in nearly 40 years. A famous old photo captures him reclining comfortably on the ground with his arms behind his head and his legs crossed while an unamused umpire shows him the exit.

“If something looks like it’s going to be close, I may be tempted to file a protest,” Bragan said with a wry grin. “When you’re 87 years old, there’s nothing wrong with going home early.”

¶   ___

¶   On the Net:

¶   Fort Worth Cats: http://www.fwcats.com

¶   Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation: http://www.bobbybragan.org

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