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I hope deaths don’t come in threes but since I’m superstitious in that way I hope penning a few words about the passing of two memorable baseball people on the same day last week will avert a dreaded trilogy. On Thursday January 21 Bobby Bragan passed away in Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 92 and Curt Motton died in the Baltimore suburb of Parkton, Maryland at the age of 69 after a year-long battle with stomach cancer.

Neither were household names – Bragan, a backup catcher, had a career BA of .240 and Motton, a reserve outfielder on the great Oriole teams of the late 1960s/early 70s, hit only .213 in less than 600 ABs spread over 8 seasons - but both contributed lives of significance to the game that they loved.

Bragan hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, one of six sons who became involved with baseball on some level though Bobby was the only one to make the big leagues. He came to the majors in 1940 as a shortstop and catcher on the non-contending Phillies. In 1943 he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers and came into the orbit of Branch Rickey. Asking for a raise upon being traded (as most players did in those days), Bragan told me that Rickey looked at him ever-present cigar in hand and eyebrows flapping and said, “Son, you are going to be sitting on the bench so much that they are going to call you Judge.”

Bragan stayed with the Dodgers in a backup role through 1947. His fierce initial opposition to Jackie Robinson’s arrival that year actually played an important role in his future career as coach and manager. “I don’t want to be a goat for a mess that I didn’t make,” Bragan told Rickey firmly in his authoritative Southern drawl. Rickey disagreed totally with Bragan’s views – he once defined prejudice brilliantly as “strong opinion without cause.”

But he took notice of Bragan’s ability to defend a position, however disagreeable to him. He saw a potential leader in Bragan who by the end of the Dodgers’ pennant-winning season of 1947 had become one of Robinson’s closest friends on the team and a leading advocate of the cause of integration for the sake of better baseball.

In 1948 Bragan became a manager for Fort Worth in the Brooklyn farm system, a city that ultimately became his home and where his Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation stands as a leading force in the city’s philanthropic community. He also managed in Hollywood for the Dodgers and then for the Pirates when Rickey took over in Pittsburgh in 1951. He managed for parts of 7 seasons in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Atlanta compiling a 443-478 record for a .481 winning percentage.

Bragan had a rollicking sense of humor. Managing a poor Milwaukee team in their last year in Wisconsin in 1965, he told a group of fans, “You will soon be getting rid of me but I am taking the whole team with me.” An accomplished piano player, Bragan told me he was instructed in the basics on a 65-key piano in his family home by one of the African-Americans in the employ of his father, a contractor whose full name was George Washington Bragan Jr.

In the introduction to Bragan’s chatty informative book, YOU CAN’T HIT THE BALL WITH THE BAT ON YOUR SHOULDER: THE BASWEBALL LIFE AND TIMES OF BOBBY BRAGAN as told to Jeff Guinn (Fort Worth, The Summit Group, 1993) his friend Howard Cosell aptly observed that Bragan showed “the capacity for growth at any age.” In my last conversation with Bobby in early 2008, he told me he had just come back with his wife from voting for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary of Texas.

***Curt Motton was known and beloved only to fans and players and front office personnel on of the great Oriole teams of the 1960s and 1970s. Born in Louisiana but raised in the baseball-rich area around Oakland, California that produced so many great players like Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, naming only a few, Motton couldn’t break into an outfield of Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson with Merv Rettenmund and Al Bumbry later coming along. But he knew and exuded the Oriole way as a minor league coach and an advance professional scout in his later years.

I will always remember when Motton told me his variation on one of baseball’s oldest clichés: “You never are as good as you look when you are winning but you could be as bad as you are when you are losing.”

I hope I have exorcised any more untimely passings for the time being anyway.
And remember brilliant art critic John Ruskin’s great adage: “The only wealth is life.”

Ciao for now!
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