Baseball's my game
by Shannon Bartlett | © Washington State University
"Bobo's my name, baseball's my game," says Frederick Charles "Bobo" Brayton as he sits down across from me. His face crinkles into a grin. "That's what I tell everybody."
At age 81, Brayton doesn't appear intimidating--former Washington State University catcher Scott Hatteberg describes him as "a Yogi-Berra-type guy"--but Bobo's career overwhelms me. Brayton won 1,162 games in his 33 years at WSU and was honored as the co-namesake of WSU's baseball field.
Brayton played baseball with his father in Birdsview, Washington (near Mount Vernon), from the time he was eight years old--and not your everyday father-son game of catch. Dad pitched for a local team and would practice those pitches with Bobo.
Seventy years later, Brayton recalls his father.
"He never did anything without me," he says. But Herbert died in a logging accident in July 1936. "[My dad] was bringing in the last log before lunch," Brayton says of the accident. "A snag fell and hit him."
Brayton maintained the character learned from his father throughout his life: helping his family; in college; during the World War II draft; and, of course, through 44 years of coaching.
However, WSU wouldn't have Bobo were it not for a roller rink. In '43, planning to attend Western Washington University, Brayton ran into friend Dick Morgan at Hamilton Skating Rink. Morgan was starting at WSC, playing football, and Bobo thought Dick's plan sounded better than Western.
Three days later, Brayton's stepfather "put my trunk on a train," and Bobo hitched to Pullman. He was heading toward Vantage, when the late summer sun caught up with him. "Evening found me standing on a prairie outside of Ellensburg," he says. "I just about gave up."
But he pressed on, making his way to Spokane, staying at the YMCA, and then heading to Colfax the next morning. In Colfax, Brayton walked down "the longest road I've ever seen in my life. It was so hot." Once he reached the end, he bought a 7up--to this day he remembers that drink--and hitched to Pullman. There, he stumbled across athletic department worker Shorty Seaver and was introduced to Babe Hollingbery. "Babe commented on how great my legs looked," Bobo says.
Bobo played football, basketball, and baseball his first year. In fact, basketball was where Brayton got his nickname. When the basketball team rode trains to away games, Bobo got motion sickness. Teammate Bob Renick would walk down the train aisle teasing people, Brayton says. "Bob would yell, 'Come see Bobo, the dog-faced boy,' like in the circus. I was too sick to be mad."
Before he could finish his WSC education, Brayton was called to serve in '44. After a stint in the Air Corps (where he was boxing heavyweight champ in his extension, knocking out people "colder than a fritter"), Bobo briefly defected to UW because of the G.I. bill. Fortunately, by February '45, he was back at WSC.
Bobo married Eileen Lyman December 21, 1947. On New Year's Day 1948, they fought their way from Kirkland through a snowstorm, running out of gas at their doorstep in Pullman.
Herbert Brady Brayton was born September '49--"the apple of my eye," Bobo says--and after Bobo graduated with a degree in physical education in '50, the young family moved to Yakima, where Bobo began coaching Yakima Valley College baseball.
"The first season ['51] we didn't win the division, and I was really disappointed," Bobo says of the YVC team. But his players came back with a vengeance, winning the division the next 10 straight seasons and the State Junior College Championship nine times.
In 1959, an accident nearly ended Bobo's life. While he was pitching warm-ups, a line drive shot back, hitting him in the head. "I was on my hands and knees on the mound," Bobo says. "It should have killed me, but it didn't." Brayton began wearing a batting helmet whenever he coached.
The helmet was what pitcher Mel Stottlemyre first noticed when joining the '61 YVC team. "He was very aggressive in practices," Stottlemyre says, "and he knew what he wanted." After finishing 7-2 that year, Stottlemyre signed with the Yankees and eventually won a World Series ring before becoming New York's pitching coach. "I taught Mel that sinkerball," Brayton says. "He made a living off that pitch."
The same year Stottlemyre was perfecting his sinkerball, rumors swirled about Buck Bailey's retirement. When Buck and the Cougars played at YVC, he and Bobo took a walk on the field. "I said, 'What's with this job over at WSU?'" Bobo recalls. "Buck put a big ol' raw hand on my shoulder and said, 'Charlie, they're treating me like I'm from I-de-ho.'"
Buck did retire, and Bobo was hired in '62. Pat Crook, number one catcher for Buck, caught for Brayton that first year. "I knew it was going to be tougher than playing for Buck Bailey," Crook says. "Bobo had us work out more. We came in third in the conference, behind OSU and Oregon."
Unfortunately, Buck would not get to see his protégé coach for long. In '64, Bailey died in a car accident.
Now Bobo had a legacy to carry--and he met it head-on. The '65 team sailed through the northern division and played Cal-Berkeley for the championship. "These kids I brought in, they made up their minds that they were going to the College World Series," Brayton says.
And they did. The team beat Cal--a fitting tribute to Buck--and headed to Omaha. There, WSU became famous for playing the then-longest game in CWS history: 15 innings against Ohio State, with OSU finally winning 1-0.
Brayton continued coaching division-winning teams, capturing the title every year from '70 to '79. The team again made the World Series in '76.
Many of those '70s games included arguments with umpire C.J. Mitchell--good-natured, of course. Today Mitchell praises Brayton for his innovations in college baseball playoffs. Brayton worked on that while president of the American Baseball Coaches Association Rules Committee. "Teams couldn't beat the Trojans, for example," Mitchell says, "Bobo made brackets where you get in [the playoffs] different ways. Basketball picked it up from baseball. He won't take credit for it, but I'd give him credit." Former WSU sports media director Dick Fry agrees with Mitchell. "The present playoff system is largely a result of Bobo's preparation and influence," Fry says. "His hand in there is unmistakable."
The essence of Bobo, according to his players, colleagues, and friends, is that everything he did was for the good of baseball.
Brayton was an assistant coach in the '72 Pan-Am games in Nicaragua and took pitcher Joe McIntosh with him. The American team became baseball ambassadors. "We played all over," McIntosh says. "In Managua, Granada, and Leon."
Back in Pullman, Brayton orchestrated the building of Bailey Field in the late '70s. After problems at the old place (located where Mooberry track is now) with players hitting line drives into the "Lake de Puddle" center field, Bobo knew it was time to rebuild.
First, he raided the torn-down parts of Sick's Seattle Stadium, including bleachers and foul poles, and sold them in a fundraiser--but kept a few bits for the WSU field. "The first fence at Bailey field was from Sick's Stadium," he says.
Now, with the money he needed, Brayton got to work. "He'd go out each day, dig around in the dirt, and one day a field appeared," Bobo's son, Fritz Brayton, says. Fellow Cougars pitched in. WSU football coach Jim Walden helped put in the first-base retaining wall; players carried bricks; several farmers built the center-field fence with 10-foot-high plywood boards. "I had a heart operation one December," says Brayton. "I come back out in January, and it's 10 degrees or less, and farmers were putting seats together with bolts. I just stood there and cried."
With the improved field, the Cougars went on winning. Brayton had his 700th, 800th, and 900th wins in '83, '85, and '88. In '88, they won 52 games.
1988 also marked the rise of John Olerud. Brayton describes "Oly" as speaking softly and carrying a big stick. "I always started my lineup by putting J.O. in the number three spot," he says.
Even in "The Show," Bobo's rules stuck with Olerud--such as not playing catch in front of dugouts to keep foul lines and grass edging intact. "It wasn't that it was wrong, because guys in the big leagues did it," Olerud says. "But at Washington State, you didn't."
Following on Olerud's major league heels was Scott Hatteberg, current Cincinnati Reds player. Like Olerud, Hatteberg says Bobo stays with him. "I still hear his voice in my head when I'm on the field sometimes."
Bobo has staying power in the minds of everyone who's known him. "We learned a lot more on the field than just baseball," says Rob Nichols, an infielder from '86-'90. Bob Stephens, pitcher and assistant coach in the '60s, says Bobo always kept in touch with players. "When you graduated, you didn't leave the program," Stephens says, "You became a bigger part of it."
These days, Bobo and Eileen tend their Red Cougar Ranch. The couple has a menagerie of animals: four horses, four cats, two dogs, a mule, even a goose. They owned 11 horses in the '60s, Eileen says. "When we were younger, we did a lot of trail riding," she explains. Bobo pats Grande, an older quarter horse, and whispers, "You gonna outlive Bobo?"
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