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Jackie Robinson Newsbeat

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Posnanski: A Baseball Story

Then there was Bobby Bragan, who would confess that he was willing to give up his career to make this stand. In later years, he explained: He saw blacks as inferior to whites. He did not know how to tell his family and friends that he was playing baseball with a black person. He did not see this as hateful or even objectionable; it was simply his view of the world. Bragan asked to be traded.

The Dodgers didn’t need him. He was a backup catcher who was only good for a few dozen at-bats. He was popular in the clubhouse, and he was one of those players who makes the season more enjoyable for everyone. Such players are not exactly disposable. But they certainly are not essential. There seemed no reason for Rickey to deal with Bragan’s mutiny.

Branch Rickey was many things, some of them admirable, some of them less so. But, above all, he was shrewd. And that day, he saw something in Bobby Bragan that Bragan did not see in himself.

“If Jackie Robinson can play the position better than another player,” Rickey said after summoning Bragan, “then regardless of the color of his skin Jackie Robinson is going to play. You understand that Bobby?”

“Yes sir,” Bragan said.

“And how do you feel about this?”

“If it’s all the same with you, Mr. Rickey, I’d like to be traded to another team,” Bragan said.

And then, Bragan would remember, Branch Rickey leaned back. Maybe he puffed on his cigar. Maybe he didn’t. He asked Bobby Bragan a question.

“If we call Jackie Robinson up,” Rickey asked, “will you change the way you play for me?”

And here, at last, Bobby Bragan was forced to confront what kind of man he was.

“No sir,” Bragan said. “I’d still play my best.”

That was what Rickey wanted and needed to hear. He dismissed Bragan and made a note in his mind: Bobby Bragan would be OK. Bobby Bragan had it in him to change.

Of course, Bragan didn’t think so. He went into the season bitter. But he began to watch Robinson from a distance. There wasn’t an overnight conversion.”I learned,” Bragan would say. “Not fast. But I learned.” The more he watched Robinson, the more he felt — despite himself — something like grudging respect. The guy could play ball; Bragan thought he was the Dodgers’ best player more or less from his first day. Robinson kept his head down. He did not try to engage teammates in conversation. He ignored the persistent taunts from the crowds and the opposing benches. Bragan at fired avoid Robinson on the train, but soon he found himself drawn as if magnetized. He would sit two rows away. He would sit one row away.

And then he sat next to Jackie Robinson. They didn’t talk much, and they didn’t talk about anything, in particular — just baseball stuff. Something about a pitcher. Something about a play. Maybe Bragan told a little joke. Maybe Robinson smiled. Maybe Bragan — again, in spite of himself — felt good that he could break Robinson’s hard exterior.

Then, they would sit next to each other again on the train. And again. Robinson joined a card game Bragan was playing. Few things can connect people quite like playing cards. Bragan would find himself sitting next to Robinson in the dugout, and they would talk, and when Bragan heard his family and friends and others discount Jackie Robinson, heard them call him less than a man, Bragan found dissent welling up inside him. “Wait a minute,” he would think. “You don’t know him.” And, to his surprise, he found himself saying that out loud.


 

 

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