He would cut radio commercials wearing his uniform and stirrup socks, and speed to practice in his wheat farmer’s overalls. Tossed out of a baseball game once, he hid under the stands beneath a blanket and sombrero and continued to flash signals. He taught generations to bunt and cover first, and he taught his best pitcher ballroom dancing. He’d zing an outfielder for playing a fly ball “like a blind dog in a meathouse” and then counsel another through a slump or a family crisis.
He won 1,162 games, but that wasn’t what built the stadium that bears his name.
He built it. By hand.
This was the substance, but surely not the sum, of Frederick Charles “Bobo” Brayton, the baseball legend of Washington State University who died Saturday after a long illness at the age of 89.
That’s right. Impossible as it may seem and indomitable as he was, even Bobo could be sawed off.
“Sawed him off” was his defining phrase, of course – applicable to life at the plate and just life in general. Bobo’s gift was being a savant at the former without letting it smother the latter.
Oh, and there was this: long before college athletics discovered branding, Washington State had Bobo Brayton.
“He was a Coug if ever there was a Coug,” said Bob Stephens, who first pitched for Brayton and then coached under him.
The connection was made in the toughest of times, out of need and opportunity. His father died in a logging accident when Brayton was 9, and after helping provide for the family he packed a bag and hitchhiked from the Skagit County hamlet of Bird’s View in September 1943 to enroll at Wazzu, where he’d earn eight letters in football, basketball and baseball.
He left twice – to join the Army Air Corps for World War II, and to coach at Yakima Valley College for 11 years – before succeeding his old Cougar coach and another outsized character, Buck Bailey, whose name Brayton first slapped on the field he built.
“Washington State was his kind of school, and the people here were his kind of people,” said Pat Crook, a player on Brayton’s first Cougar team in 1962. “He always said they were people he could count on.”
And they proved it in helping build his field. He paid them, often in showmanship.
“I went to a homecoming parade back in the ’80s,” said WSU athletic director Bill Moos, a former Cougar athlete who became a regular hunting and story-swapping partner of Brayton. “You had the band and the cheerleaders and galloping behind them on Main Street on horseback – with his 1940s gray ‘W’ sweater and a leather football helmet – was Bobo. You’d have thought it was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Everybody went crazy.”
He was also the heart-and-soul of WSU’s golden era of coaches – Jack Friel, Jack Mooberry, Marv Harshman, Ike Deeter, Jud Heathcote. Legends all, and not always for their won-loss records.
But Brayton won like crazy, too – 21 conference titles in 33 seasons and two trips to the College World Series. His teams played defense, ran the bases and were hardened by his piercing glare.
In the process, his players became part of “the family” – and then regaled each other with stories about their one-of-a-kind coach.
Stephens probably lays claim to the best one, from when the Cougars headed out on a two-week road trip and his dance class professor, Jane Erickson, warned Brayton that his pitcher’s passing grade might not survive all the absences because “this guy is no Fred Astaire.”
But Bobo was. And in California, he summoned Stephens to his hotel room for a lesson.
“I’m not dancing with you,” Stephens protested.
“Oh, yes you are,” the coach ordered.
“I had to live with that for a long time,” Stephens said. “But he’s a hell of a dancer – and he was true to his word to the teacher.”
Crook’s favorite involves Brayton leading a caravan of state cars carrying the Cougs home from an Oregon road trip and getting nailed for speeding by a state trooper. Sending Crook, a senior, ahead with the others, Bobo hunted down a judge at a service-club luncheon and talked his way out of the ticket.
And when Crook got his party lost temporarily in Portland, he found the leadfooted coach waiting for him at the appointed rendezvous in Umatilla, wondering “Where ya been?”
And Moos recalls sitting in a blind near Othello, passing a fruitless day of bird hunting tooting “Washington, My Washington” – the WSU alma mater – on duck calls.
Yes, he was that much of a Coug.
And more. Brayton insisted that upon his death, a scholarship endowment bearing his name could not be accessed until the Cougar baseball schedule was posted on his gravestone.
Miss him we will. But he won’t let us miss a game.
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