One of the most frequent questions asked of us when people learn that we’ve spent our entire life working in professional baseball is “How did you get into the baseball business?” Well, the answer is not simple and it did not happen in a customary manner.
It was February of 1974. A nervous young man, just 23 years old and fresh out of Southern Illinois University approached the door of the Bragan residence in Fort Worth, Texas. He had been invited to the home by Bobby Bragan. He had never actually met Bobby Bragan, nor anyone else who had worn a major league baseball uniform before. Save a couple of vacations, he had barely been out of the State of Illinois. He didn’t know what to expect when he was ushered into the den on Calmont Street in Fort Worth.
What he found was a “life” — a “baseball life.” Actually, he entered into one man’s baseball life and was born into his own.
The party at the Bragan residence was an anniversary celebration and we were a last minute addition to the party!
We had penned a letter to Bobby, who was President of the class AA Texas League at the time, looking for a job. It was among hundreds of letters written to baseball teams and leagues from the New York Yankees to the Walla Walla Padres, seeking to break in to baseball in some capacity — ANY capacity! The encouraging note from Bobby Bragan inviting us to visit him any time we were “in his neighborhood,” enticed us to get in the car and drive all night from Carbondale, IL to Fort Worth, TX.
We arrived in Fort Worth late on a Friday afternoon and as luck would have it, caught Bobby just as he was walking out the door of his office. A group of friends and family were gathering at the Calmont Street home of Bobby and Gwen Bragan to celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary. Bobby did not have time to “interview” me at his office as his presence was demanded at home. Now, those of you who know Bobby can probably predict what happened next. Of course, he invited us to the party! Knowing him as we do today, 40 years hence, the events of that evening, or any of the events that followed, would not come as a surprise to me or anyone else who truly knew Bobby Bragan.
We were greeted at the door by Gwendolyn Best Bragan, who graciously invited us into the home, escorted us to the den and announced our arrival. Needless to say my heart was in my throat and I could barely breathe. We were about to meet Bobby Bragan, a man whose name was known to me as a famous major league manager and whose face was familiar to me as the baseball card atop a rubber banded stack of cards of the Milwaukee Braves. As I said, I had previously only dreamed that I might someday meet a real, live person who was actually on a baseball card!
In the middle of the room was a small piano, and seated at the piano was Bobby Bragan. This was hardly what I had envisioned when I thought about meeting the man whose baseball card was in my pocket. I knew that Bobby had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series and that he had managed players like Hank Aaron, Maury Wills, Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn, Roger Maris and Roberto Clemente. I am not really sure what I expected, but I know I did not expect him to be playing the piano and leading a room full of people in a sing-along.
There were pictures and plaques on the den walls from floor to ceiling documenting the spectacular life and career of this marvelous man. We played all sorts of games, like “cahoots” and a fun game in which everyone in the room asks questions of the group, answers are privately noted on paper and then papers are exchanged with the idea of trying to figure out whose answers are now in the hands of others. We went out for Chinese food at “Jimmy Dips” (one of Bobby’s favorite spots) and then returned to the den for more fun, singing a seemingly endless array of songs, with Bobby never failing to know the words to any song we shouted. Late in the evening, we came across an old record which Gwen had placed on the cabinet of the record player. It was a song called “You Can’t Hit The Ball With The Bat On Your Shoulder.” We played the record a few times while Bobby committed the words and music to memory. Then, we sang our hearts out and acted it out in “mime!” Later, Bobby would write his memoirs and the book title was — you guess it — You Can’t Hit The Ball With A Bat On Your Shoulder.
Needless to say, I left the house that night with a job. In fact, we didn’t even leave the house. We were invited to spend the night in the spare bedroom! We’ve been “in baseball” every day since and owe it all to Bobby Bragan. I have my dad, Bob Dittrich, to thank for my love of baseball and for my love of music, particularly the kind of music that Bobby Bragan also loves. It turned out to be a lucky day when we walked into the Bragan home and into the life of Bobby Bragan.
Since that day, I’ve learned a lot about Bobby. I realize that there are many others who have also benefited from his generosity, from players, coaches, umpires and executives to people in the business world outside of baseball. When Bobby retired as a “baseball man” after being involved in professional baseball as a player, coach, field manager, scout and executive for all or parts of 7 decades, he formed the BOBBY BRAGAN YOUTH FOUNDATION to provide college scholarship money to youngsters in the 8th grade as they entered high school with the ultimate goal of a college degree. As of this writing, nearly $1.5 million dollars has been awarded to Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation scholarship winners. It has been my privilege to serve a term as Board President and to continue to serve on the Executive Committee of Bobby’s foundation.
Bobby passed away on January 21, 2010 at the age of 92. He was at home, in the evening, after driving himself to work at the Bragan Foundation office and back home on that very day.
Many of the people in our baseball industry and in the Fort Worth business community as well as many of the scholarship recipients consider Bobby a “mentor,” or may claim to be a “protégé” of Bobby Bragan. But I am certain that no one can claim that relationship more firmly than me.
Nowadays, there is a popular expression — “Get a life!” I got one. I got it from Bobby Bragan, because he shared his with me, as he had done for so many others. Bobby was a man who really understood what it meant to live life to the fullest and to help all those with whom he comes in contact to do the same.
Bobby Bragan’s legacy lives on through his foundation and the many people he has helped both in and out of the baseball world. One of his favorite quotes goes something like this: “When I die, what I spent will be gone. What I saved will go to others. But, what I gave will remain with me forever!”
No doubt, the contribution to the world made by Bobby Bragan continues.
With endless love and loyalty, your protégé, John Dittrich
John Dittrich is a veteran of 40 years as an executive at all levels of professional baseball, including both affiliated and independent teams. He has been a leader in the development and launch of successful venues and professional baseball franchises around the country. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @johndittrich.