Friday, February 12, 2010

'Mr. Baseball' Bobby Bragan was a central figure in Cuban baseball

Bobby Bragan as Almendares' managerWhen Bobby Bragan died last month at age 92, he was remembered as a popular and beloved former major league player, manager and executive who earned the nickname "Mr. Baseball."

An infielder and catcher for the Phillies and Brooklyn Dodgers who later managed the Pirates, Indians and Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Bragan also was a central figure in Cuba's now defunct winter baseball league.

So much so that he was elected into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame by the Miami-based Federation of Professional Cuban Baseball Players in Exile in 1997.

Bragan, who managed Almendares of the Cuban League for four winters between 1952-58, was the winningest American manager, leading the Scorpions to 164 victories and is the only American manager to win two Cuban League pennants (the 1953-54 and 1954-55 seasons).

Bragan also had another connection to baseball in Cuba. He was a member of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers team that brought Jackie Robinson to spring training in Havana as a prelude to his breaking of baseball's color barrier.

In writing about the 50th anniversary of that historic spring training for The Miami Herald, I interviewed Bragan in 1997. He was very candid about the tensions Robinson's presence raised among the Southern Dodgers players, including himself, the rumblings of a player revolt among those Southern Dodgers.

"I was born and raised in Birmingham [Ala.]," Bragan said of his attitude that spring training. "Any time a black came to my house, he went through the back door. If he drank water at a bus station, he drank from a black fountain and I drank from a white fountain. If he went to the men's room, he went to a black [men's room]."

For that article, Bragan gave this account of a meeting with Dodgers president Branch Rickey:

Rickey: "Not you nor anybody else is going to tell me who to play. It doesn't make any difference whether a guy's skin is purple, white, green, black or blue. He [Robinson] is going to play if he's going to do more than the other guy. Do you understand that?"

Bragan: "Yes sir."

Rickey: "Would you rather be traded, or would you rather play with him?"

Bragan: "I'd rather be traded."

Rickey: "Are you going to play any different because he's here?"

Bragan: "No, I'm not."

Bragan wasn't traded and eventually came to change his views on Robinson.

Playing with Robinson "was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Bragan said. "Those people like myself who might have been a little slow joining Robinson at the breakfast table, we were fighting to see who would eat with him. It was a real transition."

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