After hitting bottom, Gene Brabender rings in a new year and a new life

John Steadman

January 11, 1993|By John Steadman

It's more than a regained World Series ring. For Gene Brabender, no game ever presented the problems he faced when he fell away from the human race. The Orioles, as sometimes happens, were told of his plight but forgot him as just another player from the past.

And there yesterday, attending a Pikesville baseball card show, he related how seven years ago the world had closed in on him. He had been in the construction business in Black Earth, Wis., and took loans at an almost impossible 20-percent interest to buy building materials and equipment.

When the jobs were finished, the owners were slow to pay. A bank, true to form, pressured him for money he didn't have. Things slumped to such a state that Gene even sold his tool box -- and then the one possession he didn't want to give up, his 1966 World Series ring. The bank accepted it as collateral and eventually decided to advertise its sale to settle the debt.

Brabender was more than down on his luck. He retreated into the woods of Wisconsin and became a recluse. He didn't want to see anyone. His wife had divorced him, he lost the tools he used to make a living and, of course, the World Series ring was no longer on his finger.

"I also lost my self-respect," he said. "Problems compounded themselves. It was easier to be alone and brood. Mental depression was a killer. When you are as low as I got, all you want is a can of beer and a television set. Nights are long and you wait for the light of day. Then the same cycle over again. Deep depression had grabbed hold of me."

How bad was it? "Total oblivion," he answered.

What changed the pattern and let you get back on your feet?

"The support from friends and family was always there," Brabender said. "I knew I had to get my act in gear. I didn't go to church, haven't in a long time, but I prayed a lot and talked to God in my own way. That all helped with my recovery."

From bankruptcy to trying to regain solvency and Brabender, happy to report, has made it. He's still in the building trade and works with his hands. Things are looking better. He has the ring again, now stored in a safety deposit box, and the man he has to thank for it, Donald Schaefer, never charged him after personally buying it back from the bank.

Unfortunately, Schaefer, who was an executive with Business Brokers of America and living in Madison, and his wife were killed in an automobile accident. Schaefer only wanted to help a man who deserved a chance and hadn't hurt anyone but himself.

"I knew Gene had some problems," said a former teammate, John Miller, "and it makes you feel good to see him bounce back the way he has."

Boog Powell, who also played with Brabender, was elated with the way he picked himself up and won the fight to regain personal dignity and now doesn't need to hide his face in shame.

Brabender was born in Madison, Wis., but moved to Black Earth as a child. "The town population was about 700," he remembers. "It was so small we didn't have 100 students in the high school, counting boys and girls."

His strength made him a folk hero (he could bend a spike with his fingers) and he threw a baseball with impressive velocity.

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed him for their farm system but, after his first season, he injured his arm. He was set to be released but a minor-league manager, Spider Jorgensen, thought it premature to do so. Meanwhile, Brabender, for six weeks, threw a ball against a wall at the Vero Beach (Fla.) training camp to rehabilitate his arm.

"I think that, more than anything else, made the Dodgers aware of how much I wanted to pitch," he said. "When I started throwing balls against that wall, I couldn't toss any more than five feet. My arm was killing me but I wasn't going to give up. I stayed with it, hour after hour."

Then the military expressed an interest and he tried to join the army reserves but was rejected because of back problems. He was later called for a draft exam in Milwaukee and a different doctor approved.

"I was inducted as fast as you could blink an eye," said Brabender. "The doctor said if I could play baseball then I could just as easily be a soldier."

Shortly thereafter he was stationed as an MP at Aberbeen Proving Grounds and played on the baseball team, where the alert Walter Youse, then scouting for the Orioles, learned the Dodgers had left him unprotected on the Spokane roster. He was eligible for drafting.

"I had gotten out of service only two weeks before and was pitching for Managua, Nicaragua, in the Winter League when players started coming up to congratulate me," Brabender remembered. "They heard, before I did, Baltimore had drafted me. What a break. The Orioles, players and management, were great. I could never say a bad word about the way I was treated in Baltimore."

So Brabender becomes a comeback story measured by human proportions. "Maybe it was part of my bullheaded German determination but God played an important role," he says. "It's hard to describe. You have to have faith."

Gene Brabender again has self-respect, a job, is capable of paying his bills, and looks at a World Series ring, on occasion, to realize it's symbolic of a man who was in the depths of despair but got back on his feet to pursue life and, yes, to smile again.

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