Willard Brown: A Late-in-the-Day Buff!

Willard BrownWillard Brown was one of those older, out-of-the-shadows players who glanced his way through organized baseball during the early days of its desegregation. He got there in time to leave one very indelible mark, but not early enough to use all of his abilities in their prime form, and not late enough to find any real place for himself in the major leagues among a more receptive crowd of accepting white teammates. No indeed. An older Willard Brown got there playing for a team that still overflowed in 1947 with some old school white racists.

Born on June 26, 1915 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Willard Brown grew up playing and loving baseball. He even got to spend some time as a kid serving as bat boy for the Kansas City Monarchs while they went through spring training in Shreveport. By 1934, the 19 year old hustling, power-slugging outfielder signed to play for the Negro Minor League Monroe (LA) Monarchs His progress quickly pulled him up the ladder. By 1936, he signed to play for the Negro Major League legends, the Kansas City Monarchs. Brown played continuously for the KC Monarchs from 1936 to 1943, establishing himself as the most prolific home run hitter in Negro League history, exceeding even the feats of the better known slugger, Josh Gibson. Gibson, in fact, was so enamored by Brown’s power, that he gave him the nickname of “Home Run” as the word-tarp on his baseball identity. Brown also hit for a high average during this early period, posting marks in the mid .340-.350 range.

Brown returned to the Monarchs in 1946, picking up where he left off. Early in the ’47 season, however, Brown received an offer from organized (previously all white) baseball to become one of the first two black players to join the roster of the old St. Louis Browns of the American League. (For those who don’t know, the Browns moved to Maryland in 1954 where they continue to play baseball by their rechristened name, the Baltimore Orioles.) In July 1947, Willard Brown joined fellow Negro Leaguer Hank Thompson as the first two blacks to play for the St. Louis Browns. Sadly, the two black pioneers were not exactly welcomed with open arms by some of the white Brownie players. When Willard Brown borrowed a teammate’s bat and then quickly belted out an inside the park gapper for the first home run of any kind in the American League by a black player, the white player who owned the bat was supposedly so enraged that he destroyed the bat to keep Brown from using  it again. I can neither recall nor easily find the name of the offended white player who allegedly acted out this stupid play of self destruction, but, if you know for certain who it was, please add that information below as a comment on this article.

As for the act itself, stupid is as stupid does, I guess. In my book, there’s nothing dumber than the behavior that follows from the minds of those who act impulsivlely upon the feelings spawned by raw, ignorant racism.

Almost needless to add, Willard Brown was a most unhappy camper in the company of a team that wallowed in losing and racial contempt. After U841883ACME hitting .179 in 21 games with the Browns, Willard Brown left the big leagues and returned to the familiar confines of his more comfortable life among the Monarchs in Kansas City. That winter of 47-48, Brown went to Puerto Rico and batted .432 with 27 homers and 86 RBI in only 60 games, earning for himself yet another nickname as Ese Hombre or – “That Man”.

Brown won the Puerto Rican Winter League Triple Crown during the 1949-50 season. He also produced his only “hit for the cycle” game of his career somewhere around this period. Brown also hit .374 for the ’48 Monarchs, producing one of his best-ever seasons, even at this late date in his career.

By 1950, the 35-year old Brown was ready to play out the rest of his days again in organized ball, and this time, most of his tenure would be invested in the Texas League. After hitting .352 for Ottawa of the Class C  Border League in 1950, Willard sort of quasi-retired, hitting a short-time .167 for Jalisco-Nuevo Laredo of the indepemdemt Mexican League in 1951.

After staying away in 1952, Brown joined Dallas of the AA Texas League in 1953 and promptly hit .310 with 23 HR and 108 RBI over the whole year. In 1954, Brown started for Dallas, but was then dealt to the Houston Buffs during the summer, batting .314 with 35 homers and 120 RBI for both clubs over the season. Playing right fielld and slugging like the big stick he always was, Brown joined forces with Ken Boyer and Bob Boyd to lead the Buffs to the 1954 Texas League championship.

Brown returned for another year as  a Buff in 1955, hitting .301 with 19 HR and 104 RBI. He followed that season by hitting .299 with 14 HR and 73 RBI at Austin, San Antonio, and Tulsa of the Texas League. Brown dipped down to Class A Topeka for one final year, batting .294 with 3 homers and 14 RBI in 1956. Over the course of his five minor league seasons (1950, 1953-56), Willard Brown did better than OK for a man playing it out from age 35 to age 41. He batted .309 with 95 HR and 437 RBI during that late-in-his-baseball-life era, and that’s some pretty fair country hitting for anyone playing pro ball at any age.

Aftter baseball, Willard Brown retired from baseball to his adopted home in Houston where he worked as a steeler until his retirement from all work. He had an apparently happy life in retirement, staying in touch too with several of the guys he called teammates, foes, and friends from his Texas League days.  Sadly, he slipped into Alzheimers Disease in 1989.

Willard Brown passed away in Houston on August 4, 1996. He was 81.

On July 30, 2006, Willard Brown was one of twelve former Negro Leaguers who were posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

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3 Responses to “Willard Brown: A Late-in-the-Day Buff!”

  1. Wayne Williams Says:

    Bill: Good article about Brown and the Browns. Too bad he and Hank Thompson did not do well with the Browns. He was successful with the New York Giants. Brown is one of the few Browns autographs I do not have.

  2. diamond Says:

    this man here that died in 1996 was my great-grandfather.. I never had seen himm before because I didn’t exsit..

  3. Jim Schisler Says:

    In 1953 I was a 6 year old living in Oak Cliff with my family which was originally from Ohio where we moved back to in 1956. I remember our visits to Burnett Field, and especially Willie Brown, who was the best player. Once the Eagles played the Cleveland Indians in a exhibition game, and Burnett Field was packed.

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