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.