Fun Times at the Ballpark

Bobby Bragan_arguing call
A familiar sight: Bobby Bragan nose-to-nose with an umpire. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bobby Bragan was talking about one of the many times he got thrown out of a game for a run-in with an umpire.

“I said: ‘If you don’t mind, before I leave I’ve got a message for the pitcher.’ So I walked out to the mound.  He followed me to the mound. I said: ‘I need to talk to the third baseman now.’ He followed me over there. The umpire had called the police so I’m leading this policeman and I tell him: ‘Hey, I need to talk to these players before I leave.’”

Bobby is laughing at the memory of the 1952 Texas League game between his team, the Fort Worth Cats, and the Oklahoma City Indians in Oklahoma City. “I led him to all of the positions and then walked off the field with him.  It was fun.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan bows in mock politeness as he gets thumb from amused umpire Gerry Van Keuren. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t like Bragan. He was the hot dog manager of the Hollywood Stars, a hot dog team that needed a mustard factory to cover it. One of the Stars, Carlos Bernier, was even handed hot dogs by a fan in centerfield during a game in Salt Lake City in 1962 when he played for the Hawaii Islanders. “The hot dogs,” Bernier recalled later, “are still in centerfield in Salt Lake City.  I never touch them. If he give to me after the game, I eat it. Why not?  When I finish a ballgame, I hungry all the time.”

The post-game radio show of every Stars game ended with announcer Mark Scott saying: “And remember sports fans, whether you win or lose, always be a good sport.”

Scott’s signature signoff was a homily of sorts but it was never enough to cover the antics of Bragan and Bernier.

Bragan guided the Twinks from 1953-55; Bernier was the darling of Star fans like actor George Raft for five seasons (1952 and 1954-57).

“He was never, never out,” Bragan said of Bernier. “He could be thrown out by 10 feet but to Bernier he was never out.”

Bernier slapped an effeminate umpire nicknamed “Sweets” after being called out on strikes in a game late in ’54 season. “Kind of like you’d tap a girl on the cheek,” Bragan added.

Bernier was leading the first-place Stars in hitting and stolen bases at the time. “Carlos was suspended the rest of the year. We finished in a tie and lost the playoff. Losing Carlos cost us the pennant.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)

Bragan was so upset with the umpiring in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in 1955 that he used eight pinch-hitters in one batting spot. “I told them when they got to the plate not to take a pitch, just call time and I’d send another hitter up,” he explained. “In other words, it wouldn’t be possible for them to get a walk or strike out. I used all the players I had in the dugout.”

“If you’re going to make a joke of this game,” Bragan said to the umpires, “I’m going to show you how to really make a joke of it.”

After being ejected from a game for excessive arguing, Bragan sent the Stars’ batboy out the next inning to coach third base in his place. As the batboy trotted toward the coach’s box, the home plate umpire said, “Don’t let Bobby make a fool of you, son.”

“He’s not,” the batboy replied. “I’m enjoying it.”

Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bragan’s theatrics were captured in a LIFE magazine photograph showing him lying at the feet of an umpire, still arguing after being tossed out of an exhibition game. “I tried to find creative ways to let them know when they were wrong,” he said.

After losing a 21-inning game that Bragan thought should’ve been stopped after the previous inning because of curfew, he sent coach Gordon Maltzberger to meet with the umpires at home plate the following game. Watches lined Maltzberger’s arms from wrists to elbows. An alarm clock hung around his neck.  “He was ejected before he got to home plate,” Bragan said, laughing.

Bragan was booted from another game for drawing in the dirt after arguing that an opposing player missed touching a base.  “I was trying to make a deep impression on the umpire that he had blown it.  I said, ‘You know, when they invented this game, they put home here and first, second and third. You’re not supposed to just touch two or three of them.  You touch all of them.”

Bragan was catching for the Stars when he turned in his finest performance – a strip tease following a disputed call on a bunt play.   “I took my mask and laid it down. ‘This is where the ball was,’ I said. ‘It stopped right here.’”

“Get that mask out of there,” the umpire said.

Instead, Bragan placed his catcher’s mitt on top of the mask.

Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)
Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)

“The next thing I know off comes my breast protector and the shin guards. I laid my equipment down on my way back to the dugout. Then I took my shirt off. By that time, it was time to go.  I was just trying to do something to show him up.”

After a bat-throwing incident “to show up an incompetent umpire,” Bragan was declared unfit to manage in the major leagues by Charlie Dressen, a former Brooklyn Dodger manager who piloted Oakland in 1954. “He acts like a busher on the field,” Dressen claimed.

Bragan went on to manage seven seasons in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and the Braves both in Milwaukee and Atlanta. He became president of the Texas League, headed the national governing body of the minor leagues and established the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation.  That’s when I was asked to write remarks for him to deliver at a baseball event in Fort Worth, Texas, honoring Joe and Jack Hannah for their contributions to education and music as teachers and members along with Joe’s son, Lon, of the popular cowboy music group, Sons of the San Joaquin.

The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

I was in the audience when Bragan delivered the comments verbatim without notes. In 11 years of writing speeches for corporate executives, I had never seen anybody do this. I said as much to Bobby afterwards.

This started a telephone friendship that spanned nearly a decade. I sent several photographs I had of him arguing with umpires. Bobby signed them along with a copy of the LIFE magazine photo. He sent me a baseball card picturing him with his six brothers – the “Seven of Diamonds” he called it.

The last time we talked was in 2008. I asked Bobby about a game in 1943 when he was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Louis “Bobo” Newsom was pitching.

“The bases were loaded,” Bobby said. “Bobby Fletcher was the hitter. It was a 3-2 count and I called for a fastball. And he threw a spitball. It went down into the ground and through me. The run scored from third base. When you’re aware of a spitball, you’re ready for it. I went back to retrieve the ball and threw it to him but it was too late.”

Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was infuriated because Newsom didn’t let Bragan know a spitball was coming.  Leo confronted the temperamental pitcher in the dugout leading to a heated argument that ended with the manager telling team president Branch Rickey, “Get rid of Bobo! I don’t want to see him anymore.”

Bobo was suspended and sent packing to another team. He pitched for nine teams in the majors, winning 211 games while losing 222.

“Your memory is remarkable,” I told Bobby.

“Thank you,” Bragan replied, “I appreciate that. And I appreciate your call very much. We’ll visit again.”

When Bobby died in 2010 at the age of 92, I thought about how the disdain I had for him as a kid had turned into respect and admiration. I was reminded of how he came out of retirement in 2005 to manage one game for the independent Fort Worth Cats and, for old time’s sake, was ejected for arguing an umpire’s call. “Fun time, Gaylon,” Bobby wrote on one of the photos he sent. Indeed, it was a fun time and Bobby Bragan had the most fun of all.