Commentary

Bragan was friend to all who knew him

Forth Worth icon, who died Thursday, will be missed by baseball world and beyond

Updated: January 27, 2010, 9:53 PM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- I loved Bobby Bragan's voice. It was his signature, his calling card. Some would probably call it gruff. Every time I heard it, I thought of single-malt scotch, a good cigar and Sinatra singing somewhere in the background.

There was humor beneath Bragan's husky rasp and that unmistakable lyrical southern Alabama drawl that made men smile and women turn their heads.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bragan
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images Bobby Bragan gives tips in the dugout during spring training with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964. Bragan also managed the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.

That I will never pick up the phone and hear that voice on the other end again is a heartbreak that's almost too painful to imagine.

I've been calling Bobby a friend for most of the past four decades now, but that hardly makes me unique. Anyone who met Bobby Bragan was his friend. That's just the kind of person he was.

He died late Thursday at his home on Fort Worth's west side and, to be frank, this city will never be quite the same again. You don't lose an icon like that and not feel it for a long, long time.

Somewhere around my office I have a CD of Bragan playing the piano and singing some of his favorite tunes. I've heard him recite "Casey at the Bat" from memory. Even at 92, you halfway expected Bobby to break into a soft shoe and a song at any moment.

He did just that -- the song at least -- much to delight of those who attended his Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation Gala back in late October, singing at the piano with his daughter.

I just figured Bobby would live to be a hundred, no problem. He'd slide into second base at The Ballpark, dance with Ruta Lee and manage another Fort Worth Cats game to celebrate.

"He was really struggling with a deep cold over the last 10 days or so," his great friend and former Rangers manager Bobby Valentine said late Thursday night from his Connecticut home. "He didn't have that energy in his voice.

"I should have called him yesterday ... I should have called him."

Normally I like breaking news. It's something I've attempted to do as often as possible over the past 40 years or so. But telling Bobby V. that Bragan was gone was painful for both of us.

We are dealing with the loss of one of the great ones. He was a true renaissance man. He was amazing, so incredibly special.

-- Former Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, on Bobby Bragan

I knew by the lilt in his voice when he picked up the phone, even though it was after midnight on the East Coast, that Valentine hadn't heard the news. It hit him like a thunderbolt.

"We are dealing with the loss of one of the great ones," Valentine said. "He was a true renaissance man. He was amazing, so incredibly special.

"He had such great knowledge of baseball, such retention. He could talk baseball on one hand, recite poetry on the other. There was no one else quite like him."

Bragan and Valentine both had Dodger roots, and maybe that's why they forged such a friendship. Or maybe it's because in a lot of ways they were so much alike. They were baseball men, true showmen. Both had that rare understanding that life is more than just a game and in that understanding they were able to see every new day as something special and precious, alive with possibilities.

"He was everything to my baseball life," Valentine said. "For the last 30 years he was one of my biggest supporters. He called me in Japan about every 10 days, had my number memorized.

"He truly did love me and I truly did love him and always will. When I go to bed tonight I'll say a prayer and thank Bobby for all those years and all that wisdom."

Just last week, Valentine said, he had Bragan and his father-in-law, former Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, on the phone together, laughing and talking and reminiscing about Burleigh Grimes' spitball.

In the foreword to Bragan's book, "You Can't Hit the Ball with the Bat on Your Shoulder," Howard Cosell called him "baseball's Music Man ... Elmer Gantry in uniform."

Cosell tells about the day in 1957 when Bragan, then Pittsburgh's skipper, was sitting at the piano in Howard's Manhattan apartment, playing and singing "Mack the Knife," when he was interrupted by a call from Pirates GM Joe Brown. Bobby took the call, talked for a couple of minutes, then resumed singing.

"What did Joe want?" Cosell asked.

"Mack the knife is ... back in town," Bragan sang, then added a new verse. "Joe Brown just fired me."

Like I said, the man had a sense of humor.

Bragan loved people, and you felt that when you were around him. You felt his warmth, his sincerity, his desire to somehow change your life for the better.

I'm sitting here, looking at a cross pinned to a card that he slipped into my hand -- he had a pocket full of them -- at his gala back in October.

The card has the poem "The Cross in My Pocket" printed on one side. On the other is contact information for the Bragan Youth Foundation and the quote, "Ask me and I'll tell you how to get to heaven."

Between the lines, Bragan had scrawled in his own hand, "Obey God and leave all the consequences to him."

Now he's blazing the trail again, as usual.

Bobby never worried about consequences. He lived life as if God had made every day just for him. And maybe he did.

Somehow, I figure I'll hear that voice again some day. It makes me smile just to think about it.

Jim Reeves is a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and will be a frequent contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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