Baseball Pioneer Stopped the Crying

Monica Bray stopped the crying on ball fields long before Tom Hanks issued his famous movie line. Bray was a true pioneer on the ball fields of Northwest Arkansas.

If you haven’t seen the movie “A League of Their Own,” it may be time to Google a scene. Just enter “There’s no crying in baseball.” What comes up will be fictional Peaches manager Tom Hanks scolding a female baseball player, producing big-time tears. It’s a classic, quoted by baseball fans forever.

The crying shame is Monica Bray doesn’t pop up in that Google search. She beat Hanks to that line by almost a dozen years. And, she gets no credit.

She also doesn’t get enough credit for the rest of the things she did as a pioneer in Little League baseball on the local and state scene more than 35 years ago as the first women’s coach for an all-boys team. Or before that, when she brought a collection of junior high girls together to form two girls softball teams when there were no women’s sports in Rogers.

It’s amazing stuff really. I knew of Monica Bray when our family moved to Rogers in 1993. She was a legend already, as an elite teacher at Westside Elementary School. My wife taught at Westside. Then, daughter Sarah did her student teaching under Bray at Westside, then taught third grade in the next room for six years before Bray retired after 31 years, all at the same school.

“Yes, I did my student teaching there and never left,” Bray said this week when I called her on the phone, the last interview in a string of six that included her two former assistant coaches and four former players.

What I learned was far more than what I’d picked up from the teachers in my family. The seed for this column was planted last winter when I had my eyeglasses repaired by Mike Kelso, one of Bray’s many former players. He asked if I knew about the most famous Little League coach in the state of Arkansas. I didn’t have a clue.

Kelso gave me the heads-up, then put me in touch with Brett Austin, another former Bray player and now the coordinating producer of SEC-ESPN Network. Austin had the best story, but two legal pads are jam-packed with wonderful stuff.

Austin delivered it in ESPN style in a phone interview from the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. You gotta hear this, he said.

“You’ve heard the Tom Hanks line, no crying in baseball, right?” he said. “I lived that way before then.”

Austin was pitching the critical game in the early 1980s when the Rogers Royals made history by taking a lady coach to the state tournament. State officials didn’t know of another female coaching a little league team at the time, much less one in the state Final Four.

But first the Royals had to get past the Springdale juggernaut in the district tournament after they battled back through the loser’s bracket. Austin was the starting pitcher in the final game.

“I walked the bases loaded,” he said. “I was looking for someplace to hide. It was horrible.

“Monica came out to the mound. I was about to tear up, about to lose it. I felt I’d let the entire team down. I was a nervous wreck.”

Bray looked into his little boy eyes and saw what was about to happen.

“She just said, ‘Brettly, there’s no crying in baseball. Suck it up. Don’t let it come out. You are our guy in the middle. Let’s get this done.’

“It was amazing. She was just trying to win a game, manage the situation. That’s what she did. She had a way of tapping into individual talents, figuring out the moments in big tournament ball. She did that day.”

The Royals went on to win, and a dynasty was formed. Eventually, her younger brother, Tom Woodruff, then working on his doctorate, joined her as an assistant coach, then became head coach in 1986 when big sister retired to become commissioner of the Rogers Little League.

Someone who grew up in Rogers said, “You grew up wanting to play for the Royals, and if you didn’t get picked, you hated them because they were going to beat you.”

The Royals eventually did win state, under Woodruff. By then, Bray was the league commissioner.

“I got to make the advance trip for the preparation,” Monica said. “That was a lot of fun, too.”

Monica Bray was all about serious baseball. She taught bunting skills and coached small ball, although the Royals always had a few mashers. But her thing was double steals and bunting, along with absolute preparation in all situations. Her background as an educator shined through with the way she coached.

“The motto in her classroom stands out,” said Sarah, my daughter. “I saw it the first day I came into her room. It says, ‘The reward for poor work is more work.’ The kids repeat it when she hands them back sloppy work.”

It was like that on the diamond, although she had legendary tactics to turn everything into fun. Some are now linked to Woodruff, the retired Rogers High baseball coach. But, he points to his “sis” in many cases.

“She found the Hells Angels bikers on Harleys to bring the boys into the park before the big games, the city championships,” Woodruff said. “Sis got the fire trucks. The kids rode them into the park with the sirens on. She found the guy with the airplane to fly the Go Royals banners over the park during the games. The kids loved it.”

Another year, the Royals arrived out of helicopters. Limos brought them a few other times.

Monica said, “Tom put that on me? Well, it’s probably so. There was enough serious stuff. The boys needed some fun, too. The motorcycles, I caught flak over that. Some were not very happy with that.”

She didn’t deny anything. When Austin’s story was told, she said, “Probably so. I probably did do that.”

Bray was the head coach for the Royals from 1979 until 1986, turning it over to Woodruff when their mother died. Rick Stocker, now director of recreation for Rogers, was her first assistant coach.

“I helped her the first three years,” Stocker said. “Tom and Jim, another brother, were busy and could be there from time to time. But I had time in the early spring. I had just graduated from college.

“What I saw in those first few years, Monica had a great eye for talent. She was very good at drafting players. She knew the kids in the neighborhood, but she also could go to the tryout and pick the good ones out.

“I remember the year after we won city for the first time, that meant you drafted last. There was also an expansion team which got the first six picks. So we were drafting at number 12. Monica had the whole draft ranked. It came to number 12 and she picked and it was her top rated player. He turned out to be the best player in the league.

“What you would have to say is that she had great knowledge of the game. She had an intellectual knowledge of the game, and then she was such a good educator. It was like she took the classroom to the field.”

Said Woodruff: “She was doing things as far as the situational learning in a classroom-type setting that I later used exactly the same way when I was coaching the high school team. She had those boys prepared for every situation.”

The three boys — Mike, Rob and Jamie — all played for Monica. It started because of a bad experience as far as coaching in T-ball.

“We were getting thumped, and mom had seen enough of that,” Mike said. “I was 9 and coming up. The coach for the Royals had moved up, and no one had asked to coach. She said to see if the older boys had a problem playing for a lady. They all loved it.”

That became a rallying cry among the boys.

“We heard stuff from the boys from the other teams,” Mike said. “They said they weren’t going to lose to a team coached by a woman. We did everything we could to make her proud of us.”

It started badly.

“We got run-ruled in the first two games,” Stocker said. “Then we won 15 of the next 16. I think the streak got to 30 wins out of 34 games at one point.”

Mike Bray said, “It got to be a monster. Tom just kept it rolling, too. You’d go back years later to watch the Royals and I was in awe.”

Woodruff is still in awe of what his younger sister started.

“Here she was a single parent with four, and she did that,” Woodruff said. “She is my hero.”

Stocker said, “There were some accomplished coaches with baseball backgrounds who went through their whole time in the league and never beat Monica. I’m sure that got them pretty good. But I never heard anyone disrespect her.”

Rob Bray, now offensive line coach at Rogers, recalls the long hours at the ball field.

“You’ve got a single mom and I think she did it for her sanity and our sanity,” Rob said. “It was very innovative what we did as a family and a team. We loved it.

“But there was good and bad. We won so much the expectations grew. It became long hours of practice to meet those expectations. She did have big expectations and so did Tom.

“You had a unique situation in that Tom was the bad cop and she was the good cop. Mom understood positive reinforcement.

“It all came from a not-too-good T-ball experience. She just said, ‘I’m going to change that.’ It eventually got to where the Royals were first and everyone else was playing for second and here were all of these coaches who couldn’t beat a single mom.”

Monica recalls some definite high points in what was a memorable coaching career.

“It was fun, like teaching, in that you get a new group every year,” she said. “Definitely, one of the highlights was beating the Red Sox and Duke Snyder. His teams were always number one and we’d come in second. To finally get them, that was great.

“They had already beaten us and they hit all of our pitchers. So I thought, maybe I could pitch Mike and they would have trouble with a left-hander. We beat ‘em.

“Then to win the district in Bentonville, coming back through the loser’s bracket with no rest, that was the highlight of my career. Then, there was the time all of the teachers at Westside gave me a signed baseball that said, ‘Best Lady Coach.’ I cherish that baseball.”

The first trip to the state tournament came with much fanfare. It was clear state officials recognized it was history.

“We played well,” Stocker said. “We lost 6-2, but we stranded 17 runners in a six-inning game.”

Mike said her mom’s strategy generally worked.

“We learned small ball,” he said. “We learned to bunt real quick. We learned to hit the cutoff and how to use double cutoffs. We learned how to pitch. The parents were cautious about what was going on at the start of the first season, but they were all hugging mom by the end. And, she was good about hugging us, too.

“Mom had three rules: The pitchers hit their spots, we made routine plays and we put the ball in play at the plate. We put pressure on the other team. We were taught baseball.”

Austin said simply, “We were really good. She just had a way of finding it inside you that maybe a man couldn’t. If you want to describe her, it would be epitome of leadership.”

Sometimes that’s as simple as stopping the pitcher from crying.

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