Pedro Bragan has seen a lot in his 31 years with his family’s business ties to minor-league baseball in Jacksonville. His family has presided over 2,300 wins and 2,063 losses in Jacksonville — and he has plenty of memories and treasures to prove it.
Bragan’s office resembles something of a baseball museum. It is filled to the brim — and beyond — with antique jerseys, autographed baseballs, vintage pennants and other relics and souvenirs. This business refuge has been home to reminders of his most precious associations and memories related to his family’s long-time connection to Jacksonville and the national pastime.
Atop his cluttered desk is a simple nameplate that bears the name and a title he soon will relinquish — Peter D. Bragan, President.
Centered on the front of his sturdy wooden desk is a still-vibrant metal sign that long served as baseball’s standard admonishment to players. The red-and-white “NO PEPPER” display once proudly graced Wolfson Park, the Suns’ original home field. Wolfson was Jacksonville’s primary ballpark before it was demolished in 2002 in favor of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
“That’s a unique thing, that Pepper sign,” he said. “People will say ‘What the hell does that mean? No Pepper.’ They don’t understand it,” the ever-demonstrative Bragan said.
Such mid-20th-century signage served as a not-so-subtle reminder to players taking part in a then-popular pregame ritual — a hand-eye coordination batting and fielding game known as pepper. Playing the game, which required a batter to try to return soft-toss pitches in the form of a one-hop ground ball, often chewed up the carefully manicured sod near home plate. This became a continuous source of irritation for groundskeepers.
Bragan said stadiums began retiring the signs as the game faded into obscurity. And, as his thoughts drifted to a different era, he lamented that pepper has become something of a lost art.
“The guys would get out there and start playing Pepper, and they’d chew the grass up in no time, so all the ballparks had ‘No Pepper’ signs. Now, you never see ’em. Nobody has ‘No Pepper’ signs anymore because the guys don’t play pepper. They have their organized batting practice,” the 64-year-old owner of the Suns said.
To the right of his desk is a cabinet designed to display more than 100 autographed baseballs. Atop the cabinet is a corked bat that has been split in half to reveal a hollowed footlong core and its illegal fillings.
“I think there was a period there in the late ’80s, early ’90s where you could probably say 15 percent [of players] were trying to use corked bats,” Bragan said. “It’s illegal. By replacing the center wood with cork, you don’t hurt the integrity of the bat, but you lighten it up by two or three ounces, so now you get more bat speed. You can get to that big-league fastball.”
The bat came into Bragan’s possession nearly 20 years ago, when a visiting Chattanooga Lookouts player whose name has long since been forgotten, swung and connected with a pitch at Wolfson Park. His bat shattered and exposed several pieces of cork that had been jammed into the core.
The player was tossed and given a suspension, and he was fined several hundred dollars.
And Bragan had himself a souvenir and a story worth retelling for generations.
Bragan’s uncle, Jim Bragan, happened to be president of the Southern League at the time and let his nephew keep the bat to add to his collection.
“It’s a unique collectible, because you always hear about corked bats, but you never see ’em,” Bragan said during a recent exclusive interview with The Florida Times-Union. “And there this one is exposed and ripped open. It’s always been a neat oddity.”
But these and other personal artifacts won’t be in the office at the Baseball Grounds for much longer.
For Bragan, these items have an increased meaning as the 2015 season runs its course. He is selling the team in September to Ken Babby, who already owns the Akron RubberDucks, a minor league team in Ohio.
“Babby wanted it bad,” Bragan explained. “He has a plan to own several teams. He just happened to come through Jacksonville. He had his little boy with him and happened to come to a game. It was a Friday or Saturday night when we had a good crowd of enthusiastic people, and he loved everything he saw. He liked the market, the crowd, the ballpark and everything about it. That’s what he told me later.”
Bragan said he has received many offers throughout the years, but he never expected to reach his bottom of the ninth this soon. He and his accountants had valued the Double-A Southern League affiliate of the Miami Marlins at roughly $16 million. Babby’s offer was significantly more and immediately piqued Bragan’s interest.
“I wasn’t even thinking about selling when Babby came, but then he said ‘Twenty something,’ and I said ‘Are you kidding me? Let me talk to my wife.’ ”
Still, there has been a struggle coming to grips with the reality that awaits as he approaches his second-to-last homestand.
Has he had second thoughts?
“I have. I really have, but it’s time for me to move on. Daddy [Peter Bragan Sr.] had to die as the owner of the Suns. There was no way he was going to sell it. But I don’t have to, and I don’t have a son or daughter, so it’s my time. And at the number this man offered, Daddy would be saying ‘Sign them papers, boy.’ ”
Bragan’s voice softened as he reflected on his father, who died in 2012 at age 89.
The elder Bragan bought the Suns in 1984 after selling his automobile dealership in Birmingham, Ala. His family has a rich history in the game, distinguishing themselves not only in minor-league towns, but in major-league cities as well. His dream was to own a team, and he and his son had a memorable and successful ownership run for the next 28 years.
“That first year after he died, I’d get up and go down the hall [at the office] to ask him something,” he said, his trademark Southern drawl trailing off.
Carrying on without his lifetime business partner just hasn’t been the same.
“Daddy. I miss him all the time, you know? We were not only father and son, but we were partners. It’s lost some of its great appeal to me. And I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm for the job.”
A vintage baseball glove that belonged to his father easily is one of Bragan’s most-treasured items.
“There’s a video of me and him throwing on Father’s Day out there,” he said, motioning to what is now known as Bragan Field inside the Baseball Grounds. “He’s actually just bare-handed, and I have this glove. It just has a special meaning because it’s his. I like putting it on. It has a great feel to it,” he said as he repeatedly pounded his fist into the heart of the mitt.
The thick leather glove, which has no laces on the fingers, has been without its original Nokona label for many years. It’s been in the Bragan family since the early 1940s.
“That glove was probably from a left-handed pitcher or an outfielder on the Phillies that my uncle [infielder Bobby Bragan] said, ‘Hey, could I get one of those extra left-handed gloves and give it to my younger brother?’ And that’s how he got the glove.”
But it was a small metal pin that surprisingly evoked the most excitement from the man known around these parts as Pedro.
He said his father was a 13-year-old paperboy in Alabama. Badges were issued then to young boys who would be distributing newspapers. The badges were used to designate routes and for circulation purposes. The Bragan badge bears the inscription: “253 ALABAMA PAPER CARRIER 1936.”
“In the ’30s, they actually issued badges to the paperboys,” Bragan explained. “And he was evidently the 253rd paperboy that was in the whole state of Alabama.”
Bragan says he also has jerseys representing each of the teams that played in Jacksonville during his three decades with the team — and special-occasion jerseys.
“I’ve got the one that says Expos, and ones from when we do a military night or a pink night,” he said.
From 1985 to 1990, the team was renamed the Jacksonville Expos because of its affiliation with the Montreal Expos.
“I’ve got all of them. I’m going to get some kind of museum to spread those out and display ’em better,” he said with pride.
Bragan hopes to create a museum downtown to not only house his office treasures but to tell the story of Jacksonville’s connection with the sport he loves.
“I envision a museum that only opens Saturday or Sunday, and then have it where you set up a bunch of school kids to come during the week. The real diehards, the kind of people that tour the country to see other ballparks, would come, sure, but that would be a small percentage. I would think more people would be Jacksonville [locals].”
Bragan also says he wants to start the Peter Bragan for Better Baseball Foundation, which will provide scholarships and projects that will help create better baseball facilities at local schools.
He’s not taking an easy route to retirement. He’s also writing a memoir, which could be titled “Six Flags Over Bragan Field,” as a nod to the six championships the Jacksonville Suns have won during the Bragans’ ownership.
Just like a game that features nine innings, his book will have nine chapters. The first chapter, he says, will be “The Bragans of Baseball,” detailing the family’s baseball legacy. Other chapters will include ballparks he’s visited, big leaguers he’s met, devoted fans and managers, with plenty of stories about daily life in the minor leagues.
But first, Bragan and his wife, Nancy, will take a well-deserved trip to Hawaii. They have purchased land in Ponte Vedra Beach, where they eventually plan to build a house.
“We’re never going to leave Jacksonville,” he said. “Jacksonville is home now.”
Taking a look around his office, Bragan says wisdom uttered by his father stands out more than anything else.
“Nothing beats working hard,” Bragan said. “Sometimes you’re not as smart as the other person, or as good-looking or clever, but ain’t nobody can outwork you if you apply yourself. Hustle. Hustle all the time. I think that is the biggest thing that makes everybody successful. Come early, stay late and work while you work. That’s what daddy taught me more than anything.”
Bragan then took a seat in his chair. He crossed his arms, sat back and smiled as he surveyed the trinkets and keepsakes in his office that soon will be packed away until the museum gives them new life.
“Yeah, shoot,” he said slowly, “It’s been fun.”
Frances Hanold: (904) 359-4538