Posts Tagged ‘Milwaukee County Stadium’

The Last of the “Lame Ducks”

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Remember Bobby Bragan? The bent-backed big-bellied curse of Brooklyn and Birmingham and the fair-haired best buddy of Branch Rickey before that kid infielder Jackie Robinson came along, Bragan was his generation’s Bobby Cox. He could bait an umpire by just being there, but was at his best while shuffling to the mound, muttering under his breath. And the umps would yell at him: “What did you say Bragan? What was that?” It seems a required part of Braves’ baseball even now, a “given” on the single-sheet job description: “Must know the game. Must hate umpires.”

Bragan was that, and classically Birmingham fat, aging gracelessly as the players got younger around him. So Bragan would come out of the dugout, muttering about the unfairness of it all (carrying his Denny Lemaster hook — “oh thank God, he’s pulling Lemaster”) and you would swear he was going to lose his balance, tipping forward as he walked. I never thought he was that heavy, but back in 1965 Milwaukee Braves fan would razz him, ceaselessly, relentlessly, cruelly: “Go on a diet Bobby,” and “you’re a pig, Bragan.” He was of a “type” — a southern boy who was okay behind the plate, a player forever of the verge of being something more than just average. Neither a peripheral great nor even mediocre, Bragan was one of those guys you put in the line-up until someone better comes along. There is a whole community of guys like Bragan wandering through the underworld: Dennis Menke and . . .  well, Dennis Menke.

Bragan would have been a forgettable character, were it not for his memorable 1947 decision to circulate a petition from white players saying they wouldn’t play with Robinson, whom Rickey had brought in the break baseball’s color barrier (and transform the Trolleys from a very good to a great team). Bragan even asked Rickey to trade him: he would not play with a black man. You have to wonder what Bragan was thinking. Did he really believe Rickey would send Jackie packing because his second string catcher was a racist? Bragan quickly changed his mind. “After just one road trip, I saw the quality of Jackie the man and the player,” Bragan later remembered. “I told Mr. Rickey I had changed my mind and I was honored to be a teammate of Jackie Robinson.” Trumpets. Organ music. Fade.

Bragan never lived down that moment, but he tried. He pushed Maury Wills to the majors when he was a minor league manager in Spokane, praised Rickey as the person who had “made me a better man,” and became one of baseball’s smartest and most well-respected administrators — as head of the Texas League and then head of the governing body of minor league baseball. In the 1980 he started the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation, which raises money for scholarships to keep kids in school and was elected into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. But back in 1965, Bragan was viewed by the people of Milwaukee as anything but a hero. Bragan was the manager of the lame duck Milwaukee Braves, who had announced the previous year that they would be moving to Atlanta. Milwaukee partisans were shocked — and angered. 

When a group of local businessmen sued, the Braves were forced to stay an extra year in Milwaukee. Bragan, the on-field symbol of the Braves’ ownership bore the brunt of Milwaukee’s anger, but he was never known for being a stoic (or knowing what the word meant). You could see him seeth, and the more he seethed the more fans let him have it. As I remember it (and I was there — blessedly), the anger towards the Braves and Bragan culminated on a hot August day at Milwaukee County Stadium when Bragan walked to the mound to remove a pitcher (probably Lemaster, but I can’t remember for sure) and on the way back to the dugout he motioned in Rico Carty from left field. Carty had just misplayed a fly ball and Bragan was punishing him — in public, humiliating him front of the fans. On purpose. And the Braves fans just let him have it. And I mean they let him have it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought the fans in front of me, along the third base line, were going to come out of their seats. And Bragan looked up into the stands and just smiled and nodded his head: yes, yes, I took him out. So go do yourself. You know, whatever else you might think about Bragan, he knew when not to give a damn.

Bobby Bragan died last week in Fort Worth, Texas.  Major League Baseball paid homage to Bragan in a public notice that quoted Bud Selig. “He was a dear friend of mine for nearly 50 years,” Selig said. “He had a long and wonderful baseball career as a player, coach, manager and executive.” What the announcement failed to mention is that the group of Milwaukee businessmen who forced the Braves to spend ’65 in Milwaukee was organized and led by prominent local car dealer — named (oh yeah) Bud Selig. Selig was convinced that the Braves, and Bragan, owed their home town fans something more than a single press release and an empty stadium. 

Bobby Bragan was 92. Actually I kinda liked him.

Roberto Clemente

Friday, September 4th, 2009

The Nats will host Roberto Clemente Night on Friday night when they face off against the Florida Marlins. As I recall, I saw Roberto Clemente play six or seven times, almost all of them in Milwaukee County Stadium. This must have been in 1964 and 1965 — at the peak of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I saw him two more times after that, in 1969 or 1970, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Clemente was only 25 when he played on that great 1960 world championship team that took the series in seven games from the Yankees — the one where Bill Mazeroski hit the walk-off in the ninth inning of the sevnth game. Clemente was young, just 25, and hit .314 for the season.

Clemente won the MVP award in 1966 at the age of 31, his greatness established: he hit .317 with 29 home runs and he had 202 hits. He was a hitting machine — at the end of the 1972 season (just before he was killed), his hit total stood at exactly 3000. He had at least three more good years left in him in baseball, a lot more in life. The Clemente years were good years for the Pirates: they won a world championship in 1960 and 1971 and Clemente was surrounded by good players, some of them were very good: Matty Alou and Dick Groat and Don Hoak and Willie Stargell and Al Oliver and Bill Mazeroski and legendary pitchers Vern Law, Harvey Haddix and Bob Friend.

I remember Clemente playing right field, but I don’t have any specific memory of him hitting and I remember the way that he ran because it was so distinctive. He was scary quick, midwest quick. And you knew, when you saw him play, that he had a very special ability. I had heard he had a legendary arm and I saw it — once — though I don’t remember the exact details. Close enough thought: I remember the game. It was in Milwaukee County Stadium and it was a day game featuring the home team lame-duck-no-account 1965 headed-out-of-town (I’m still bitter about those) Milwaukee Braves against the mighty Pirates. The Braves were at bat with two outs, but there wasn’t anyone special at bat (like Aaron or Mathews); but some light hitting lug — and I didn’t much like many of them anyway. It was someone like Woody Woodward or Dennis Menke or someone like that. I would like to think it was Menke, one of my least favorite players. Dennis “boot ’em” Menke.  

Anyway, whoever it was came up and hit a scorcher down into the right field corner (a hell of a hit) and tore around first and the ball was hit on a line just inside the first base bag. The ball headed to the corner and it took one high bounce against the green wall. And Clemente went and got it and caught it on the bounce as it came off the wall and Menke (or whoever) headed to second and just kept going. A clear triple. And Clemente turned and rifled the ball over the head of the second baseman and into third where Pirate third sacker, young Bob Bailey was waiting.

I remember it well: the ball caught up with Menke about halfway between second and third and Menke looked at the ball as it passed him. I saw his head turn. Everyone saw his head turn. And Bailey just kind of spread his legs and leaned down and the ball took one bounce and Bailey applied the tag and flipped the ball to the ump. We were all on our feet with Braves fans (what there were of them) ready to cheer this fantastic triple and the air just came out of the stadium and everyone, just everyone, kind of looked at their shoes and shook their heads and went back to their popcorn. What was amazing about it really was that when Bailey applied the tag, Clemente was already halfway to the dugout — he was on the lip of the infield grass. And I remember thinking: well, I saw that.

Clemente two