Former Texas A&M first baseman Jim “Bear” Bratsen earned his nickname because he could crush a baseball 500 feet, but his warm personality more often was a home run with people he met.
Bratsen, who earned All-Southwest Conference honors as a senior in 1975, died Thursday of pneumonia after being hospitalized for COVID-19 for almost six weeks, according to a family friend. He was 68.
Bratsen played at A&M from 1973-75. He was a teacher and coach at Navasota for more than three decades, retiring in 2009. He continued to work the third-base line gate at Blue Bell Park.
“He was a great coach, a great human being, a great husband, a great man, and he was a great father,” Bryan baseball coach James Dillard said. “He did everything right. He was a mentor to me in so many ways.”
Dillard’s first high school coaching and teaching position was in Navasota in 2004-05.
“He kind of took me under his wing and showed me the ropes,” Dillard said. “He made me feel welcome.
“I wish there were more words I could say that people could understand the kind of man he was. He’s a very special individual. He never knew a stranger and he was always going to make you feel welcome, no matter who you were or where you came from. People understood that if you were cool with Bear, [others around him] would welcome you with open arms. That’s the kind of influence he would have, not only on myself but other people as well.”
Bratsen earned his nickname at A&M.
“He was strong like a bear, so we just kind of nicknamed him Bear,” teammate Bill Raymer said. “I think anyone who followed the team back in the ’70s, they knew who the Bear was. He was liked by everybody. I don’t remember anyone not liking Bear.”
Bratsen batted .344 as a junior with eight home runs and 48 RBIs. As a senior he batted .335 with eight homers and 36 RBIs and was named the team’s Marion Pugh Most Valuable Player.
“He never talked about himself. He wasn’t trying to impress other people with what he had done,” said Raymer, adding that the statistics don’t tell the true story of Bratsen’s greatness because of the bats they used as the sport made the transition from wood to aluminum. “I can’t even describe how bad the bats were we used. Some of them looked like softball bats. I mean the barrel was about as thin as the handle was, and we had like three bats for the whole team.”
Raymer said with quality bats, Bratsen easily might have hit 25 homers a year. Raymer also knew batting third in front of Bratsen was ideal.
“I got great pitches to hit,” Raymer said. “People knew you didn’t want to get this next guy up with people on base, so they were trying to get me out. He was a tremendous player.”
Raymer, who was a year behind Bratsen, was eager when he got to A&M to meet the Paul Bunyan of the baseball field.
“I can remember [teammate] Paul Miller’s description of Bear was something like he swings a tree trunk and hits ropes,” Raymer said.
It proved to be accurate and Bratsen became Raymer’s best friend and best man at his wedding with Raymer returning the honor when Bratsen got married.
“I don’t really remember how we hit it off as friends,” Raymer said. “But for the three years we played together we were basically like brothers.”
Bratsen was from La Marque and Raymer from Houston, so they spent a lot of time with each other’s parents as well.
“His mother, who we would call Mama Bear, she was a great cook and Bear and I liked to eat,” Raymer said. “And she would make like 25 crispy tacos and we’d eat all of those.”
Bratsen was a left-handed hitter who led the team in home runs and RBIs his last two seasons, but also batted .330 for his career, finishing with more walks than strikeouts in all three seasons.
“He was in great shape,” Raymer said. “He would go out at night during the offseason, say at 10 o’clock, and run several miles, but he was a big, strong guy.”
Former A&M catcher Tommy Hawthorne said when Bratsen got his pitch, he almost always crushed it.
“I remember he hit one against Texas and absolutely obliterated it,” Hawthorne said.
Bratsen’s swing was the only thing about him that was mean.
“He always had a smile. He was always jovial,” Hawthorne said. “He was just somebody who was great to be around and a great guy. He was fun, somebody you could talk to who took life as it came. He was always generous and just an awesome individual. People looked up to him. People liked his calmness. He never really got excited. He was always kind of just Bear. He was a gentle giant, but he could absolutely hit the baseball.”
Coaching allowed Bratsen to help mold the next generation.
“You knew his demeanor around kids was going to rub off and he was going to be a great example for kids because he was a great example for us, his teammates,” Hawthorne said.
Bratsen’s mentoring extended beyond the classroom and baseball field.
“He was just a great family guy,” longtime A&M athletics trainer Mike “Radar” Ricke said. “He really liked the game of baseball, and he was one of those guys who had a positive influence on so many young men and he also had a very positive influence on my two older daughters who lived across the street. They all looked up to Bear. He was somebody who was very easy to talk to.”
Many of Bratsen’s players at Navasota took to social media to express their gratitude Friday.
“They talked about the way he pushed those kids. He made them better,” Ricke said. “And what you learned from him you would use later in life.”
Bratsen leaves behind a trio of sons — Kade, Krey and Kord. All three played baseball, and Krey was a four-year starter for the Aggies in center field. Dillard remembers the boys being in tow behind their father at Navasota.
“His boys are the way they are because of Bear,” Dillard said.
Kord Bratsen is the godfather of Dillard’s sons, 14-year-old Tag and 6-year-old Easton. Kord, who is a College Station fireman and paramedic, coaches the Brazos Valley Renegades during the summer.
“Bear had an influence on me, and now his son is having an influence on my two little guys,” Dillard said. “It’s kind of a neat little circle.”
The Bratsens have been a big part of the Dillard family from the start.
“My wife, Stephanie, also worked at Navasota High School for three years and her room was beside Bratsen’s room,” Dillard said. “Each day, she would stop by and get her Bratsen bear hug.”
Hawthorne said Bratsen was a gentle giant.
“He was a great guy. I mean, he was a solid, great guy whether it was in the dugout or in the dorm or on the field,” Hawthorne said. “He was just someone people enjoyed being around.”
That started at home.
“He was a great coach, and a great man, but he was an even better husband and father,” Dillard said. “We are judged on our children and our families and on that he made an A-plus.”