Baseball killed Ray Brubaker. Since 1947, when the Indianian died in the dugout of a minor-league park in Waterloo, Iowa, that’s been his narrative. Ever a baseball lifer, Brubaker was an old-timer with a tough spirit who broke into the professional game at age 19, but his ailing heart literally couldn’t handle the drama of a ninth-inning rally one night in America’s heartland.
By and large, that narrative is true. While managing the Class B Terre Haute Phillies, Brubaker brushed off his players’ requests that he stay at the team hotel that night and recover from what he described as a case of indigestion. His lone concession was allowing a player to coach third base while he remained in the dugout and out of uniform.
Trailing 3-1 entering the top of the ninth, the Phillies scored twice to knot the score. Ten minutes later, Brubaker slumped on the bench. Players rushed to his aid. The umpire summoned a doctor and an ambulance. Taken to the clubhouse, Brubaker was pronounced dead from a heart attack. He was 54. Players wept at their lockers. The 3-3 game wasn’t resumed.
That myopic narrative’s mistake is its labeling of Brubaker as a one-chapter baseball story, a sad tale of a minor-league infielder (23 seasons) and manager (13 seasons) literally dying at work. Left out is his fortune of missing both world wars, of playing and managing for the New York Yankees’ system for 14 years in Oakland, his decision to quit baseball and open a tavern, his short-lived attempt to become a Pacific Coast League umpire, his return to managing, his offseason career as a high school principal and coach, and the half-season he spent guiding Anniston’s Southeastern League expansion team, the 1938 Rams.
“Baseball was the life and love of Ray Brubaker,” reporter Jerry Jurgens wrote in The Daily Times of Des Moines, Iowa. “The likable and talented Terre Haute manager could spin yarns by the hour as long as listeners cared to remain … On the playing field he was a fighter, as most managers are, and he was a peach of a guy to know, even casually.”
In Anniston, Brubaker took over a first-year team from manager Lena Styles, who’d once played for Connie Mack and resigned in midseason to enter private business. The Rams were 36-56 when Brubaker first donned a Rams uniform. His first game, in Mobile on July 14, produced a 9-2 win. In early August, the “peach of a guy” defended the previously underperforming Rams during an appearance at the Anniston Rotary Club.
“These boys are hustling out there on the field and giving everything they have,” he said. “Some of them are young and inexperienced, and if they make an error, blame me, don’t blame them. I can take it, and it might hurt the boy.”
Around town, the Rams’ improvements weren’t unnoticed. In a story headlined, “Rams are reinspired under Ray Brubaker; soar from basement,” Anniston Star sports editor Marshall Johnson noted that the team had won six of its last seven games and moved out of last place and ahead of Montgomery. It was one of the few times that inaugural season that Rams fans saw an on-field return on their investment.
Brubaker told Marshall that “we’ve got a lot of good prospective players here,” and that it wasn’t unrealistic to reach fifth place in the eight-team SEL before the season ended. In his rotary club speech, he told attendees that “most of the boys we’ve got on the club are in the process of developing as ball players. Don’t be too bitter when one of them makes an error; instead, encourage them and I think they will respond by becoming better players in future years.”
As the season’s end drew near, Brubaker agreed to an odd baseball promotion — he and Dewitt Carmichael, an Anniston Star sports writer, would swap places during a game on the final weekend. Carmichael would manage the Rams. Brubaker would cover the game from the press box and write the newspaper report. (He was a high school principal, remember, and had attended Earlham College in Indiana.) It was a promotion that would only happen in the lower level of the minor leagues, where hometown media often were openly and enthusiastic cheerleaders for their local teams. Carmichael’s journalism, though, may have strayed a bit too far for the manager’s liking.
“I am as new to this job as Mr. Carmichael is to managing,” Brubaker said, “but as we are critics of each other, there should be improvement either way.”
Carmichael’s newspaper colleagues didn’t waste time jabbing him over the Rams’ inability to find a suitable uniform. “Those who were around when he was trying to find a uniform that would fit said Whiskers’ main trouble was his belt,” The Star wrote, referring to Carmichael by his nickname. “Being an addict of suspenders since the safety pin and overalls age, he is not accustomed to the waistline pressure. He finds belts binding at mealtimes.”
The Carmichael-led Rams lost to Gadsden, 4-2, at Johnston Field that Saturday. In his bylined report the next morning, Brubaker made a point to mention his replacement’s quirky approach to managing.
“Whiskers spent the early part of the game completely relaxed, seated in a chair in the shade of a large umbrella coaching at third base and planning his strategy,” Brubaker wrote. “Mrs. Carmichael did her best to cheer him on by telegraphing him in the fourth inning that she had decided the picture show would be ‘much funnier’ and hoped that the Rams would ‘win in spite of you.’ The agitated Whiskers carried on nobly, however.”
In a note, The Star’s editor included this after reading Brubaker’s story: “We got more out of the one-day swap than the Rams!”
That promotion aside, the Rams didn’t accomplish Brubaker’s goal. They finished 62-86, seventh in the SEL. But they were demonstrably better under his guidance, going 26-30 during his brief reign and rekindling hopes that the Rams’ finances and fan support would allow the team to return in 1939. In December, Brubaker signed with the Baltimore Orioles, who assigned him to manage their farm team in Dover, giving the would-be sports writer a bit part in the Rams’ 10-season existence. He’d go on to manage eight more seasons with mostly lower-level teams.
A few hours after Brubaker died in Waterloo, three of his players walked from their hotel to the office of the Waterloo Courier and knocked on the door. It was Sunday morning, a little after 2. They couldn’t sleep. They wanted to know what had been written about Brubaker, whom they adored.
A reporter gave them copies of the paper and asked one to describe Brubaker. “The best ever,” the player said. “He was like a father to us fellows and he was a great guy to play for.” Al Ney, a Courier sports writer, retold a story about spending several hours that month in Brubaker’s hotel room, listening to the baseball lifer’s insights on the game.
“But Ray was willing to talk more than baseball,” Ney wrote. “He talked newspapers, politics and just about anything else that usually comes up during an ordinary conversation. His death was like a baseball game in one respect — once the play is over, it can’t be played over.”
Ney’s point was journalistic hindsight. What if Brubaker had taken his players’ advice and rested in his hotel room? Would that night have taken a more pleasant path? “And, who knows, perhaps, if Ray Brubaker’s time was near anyway, he’d have rather gone the way he did — watching a ball club he was proud of — rather than lingering for a few weeks or months.
“Baseball needs all the men like Ray Brubaker it can find.”