These Men Changed Baseball: Willard Brown

Though I realize for series continuity I should be writing about Chuck Harmon right now, I want to step back just a little bit.  Willard Brown deserved to be more than a footnote in the posts on Hank Thompson and the role of Canada.  Brown was a future Hall of Famer who bombed in his brief tenure with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, a team he missed integrating by a matter of days.  What is the story of Willard Brown?

Brown was born in Shreveport, LA on June 26, 1915. Some push that birthdate up to 1911. From there, he moved to nearby Monroe to play for the Monroe Monarchs in 1934. In 1935, he moved up to the big club, joining the Kansas City Monarchs. He would play for them off and on through 1948. His statistics are incomplete, as are all Negro League stats, but sources credit him with 7 home run titles in the Negro American League and per 162-game averages of .348 batting average, .565 slugging percentage, 23 home runs, and 16 triples. Brown, nicknamed “Home Run” by Josh Gibson, was a noted combination of power and speed, a point I’ll return to in a minute. Because of these skills, Brown’s contract was purchased from the Monarchs, along with teammate Hank Thompson, by the St. Louis Browns.

Brown debuted on July 19, 1947, playing for the Southern-most team in the major leagues at the time, two days after Thompson. The results were not pretty. Brown played in 21 games, hitting .179 without a walk, posting .269 slugging percentage. In his third to last game, though, Brown pinch hit against future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser, ripping Newhouser for an inside-the-park home run so reminiscent of his Negro League combination of power and speed. This was the first home run hit by an African-American in the American League. For the moment, let’s leave the story there. It is a nice cap to the career of a player who do to racism could debut until he was already 32-years-old, well past his baseball prime. The Browns would cut him in late August, and he would return to the Monarchs for his last hurrah in 1948.

Now we need to flesh out this story. For starters, note the players the Browns used to integrate. Thompson was a hot-head, a trait that would eventually lead to his death. Brown a player that teammates regularly accused of not hustling. If you wanted to pick players to embody negative stereotypes about African-Americans, you could not find a better matched pair. Was this the Browns’ intent? I have no proof, but I do know that these players stick out in a list of early integrators like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Sam Jethroe. At the least, the Browns were poor talent evaluators, a point which dovetails well with their history of lousy teams full of white players. I am inclined to blame incompetence rather than malice, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

Second, the story of Brown’s home run has a little more detail that I have left out. Brown, sitting on the bench as he was, was not prepared to hit that day. He had to borrow a bat from a white player in order to hit, and he proceeded to use this borrowed bat to hit the home run. Hollywood story, right? Well, when he got back to the dugout, the story goes, the white player, the immortal Jeff Heath, an outfielder in direct competition with both Thompson and Brown for playing time, took the bat back and broke it because it had been used by a black man.

In the end, Brown faded away. He died of Alzheimer’s while living in extreme poverty in Houston, TX on August 8, 1996. Heath died at age 60 and was commemorated (scroll down for the obituary) for his early accomplishments and long-time role in baseball in the Seattle area. Fortunately, the story has a posthumous bright spot. A committee led by his former manager Buck O’Neil secured Brown’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. Late though it was, he finally received a modicum of recognition for his accomplishments.

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7 Comments on “These Men Changed Baseball: Willard Brown”

  1. What’s interesting to me is that throughout history, black players who display an “attitude,” whether it’s Willard Brown, Jackie Robinson, Dick Allen, or Barry Bonds, are always portrayed as hot-heads (I’m not saying that this is YOUR portrayal, but it has been the portrayal of whites for many decades now.)
    Yet when white players display the same kinds of character traits, they are simply “fiery” or “hyper-competitive,” at worst.
    Obviously, some black players (along with many whites) have been obnoxious (see: Belle, Albert.)
    But even today, white fans are still by and large comfortable only with black players who don’t rock the boat, or step out of line.
    Unfortunately, I doubt that this will ever change.
    Nevertheless, thanks for shedding some light on the important contributions of Willard Brown.

  2. sportsphd Says:

    I wouldn’t argue with your basic characterization of the racial dynamics historically. I think the players brought up by the Browns, though, don’t quite fit the normal narrative. Hank Thompson really did kill a man, and he had multiple arrests and one conviction for armed robbery. Hothead is about the nicest way to describe the man. Brown, in contrast, was called lazy primarily by his teammates with the Monarchs. None of this excuses their treatment by racist white teammates or the way racist white fans overlooked it.

    I find the difference between characterizations of Ted Williams and Dick Allen more instructive here. Williams spit at Red Sox in 1956, while Allen was booed after a fight in which a white teammate attacked him with a baseball bat. Neither were particularly likeable human beings, but Allen is famous for it, Williams not.

  3. Glad you brought up the Dick Allen / Ted Williams dichotomy. I don’t go back far enough to remember Allen as a player, but he is always characterized very negatively. Even Bill James weighed in on the subject, judging Allen perhaps the worst teammate one could have. I am of the opinion that if the man could hit, and broke no laws, passing harsh judgment based on character issues doesn’t serve much purpose. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Bill

  4. Rory Costello Says:

    When I wrote about Willard Brown for the SABR BioProject, I went back and took another look at the Jeff Heath episode. This is what I wrote:

    This has often been cited as a prime example of the racial animus that Brown (and Thompson) faced in St. Louis. No doubt the perception was awful, but it is notable that in 1965, Hank Thompson mentioned Heath as one of five Browns who “went out of their way to make life easier for me and Brown.” In addition, Heath had given a positive report on Brown’s ability because he had faced him as Bob Feller’s All-Stars faced Satchel Paige’s barnstorming squad in the fall of 1946. There is also an alternate explanation for Heath’s behavior. In his biography of Heath for the SABR BioProject, C. Paul Rogers III noted that Jeff was a quirky, superstitious player who “was very particular about his bats and would not allow teammates to borrow them.” Further support for the absence of a racial motive came from Browns road secretary Charlie DeWitt after that season. DeWitt said, “He said he would not have minded if Brown got a single, but he had used up one of the bat’s home runs.”

  5. Why was there no mention of Brown’s incredible career in Puerto Rico When you played with Junior Gilliam on the Santurce team?. That should have been mentioned in this article – since you’re left with the impression that Brown really did not do that well as a pro baseball p[layer.

    • Rory Costello Says:

      The SABR bio makes sure to give Ese Hombre full credit for his Puerto Rican performance, Rafael…I described him as “an absolute wrecking ball.”

  6. Brule Laker Says:

    You omit that despite Thompson’s personal issues, he went on to have a good career with the Giants, appearing in two World Series and having several notable “firsts” as a black player.

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