Posts Tagged ‘St.. Louis Browns’

Ed Mickelson: Minor League All Star!

November 19, 2009

Mickelson Got the Last RBI in St. Louis Browns History.

Today at 83, Ed Mickelson is a silver-haired Cary Grant type living out his happy life in St. Louis, Missouri. Yesterday at 27, he collected the last run batted in recorded in St. Louis Browns history. He did it in a 2-1 losing cause against the Chicago White Sox on the last day of the 1953 season at old Sportsman’s Park. I wrote a parody to commemorate the event, once upon a time.  That signature RBI wasn’t the only thing that Ed ever did in baseball, but it is the thing he wants to be remembered for having done as a member of the Browns’ far from legendary last club on earth back in 1953. The next season, the franchise moved to Baltimore and hatched upon the scene as the Orioles.

In 2007, Ed Mickelson personally wrote his own story and published it through McFarland’s.  Still available through Amazon, the Mickelson biography is entitled “Out of the Park: Memoir of a Minor League Baseball All Star.” It’s well written and a good read, detailing Mickelson’s eleven season career (1947-57). He started with Decatur and ended up with Portland, achieving a lifetime minor league batting average of .316 and 108 home runs in 1,089 minor league games played. Ed even went 3 for 9 as a Houston Buff in 1952 before being reassigned by the parent Cardinals club to Rochester.

Mickelson also played 18 games total in the major leagues for the 1950 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1953 St. Louis Browns, and the 1957 Chicago Cubs. That record RBI single that scored Johnny Groth from second base in 1953 also was one of only three RBI that Ed managed in his brief major league career. His MLB average of .089 helps to explain his limited action beyond the minor leagues.

Ed Mickelson is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He’s a bright guy who looks the part of his current role as an aging gracefully first baseman. The BR/TR, 6’3″ and still lanky guy could not better look the part if he tried.

Mickelson compiled a number of honors for his minor league play over the years, but that’s the stuff of Ed’s story in the book. Just one peek here: Ed Mickelson is also notably proud of the fact that he got his first major league hit in the form of a single off the great Warren Spahn back in 1950. I definitely remember Ed’s short 1952 stay with the Buffs too, but the Cardinals didn’t leave him here long enough to do that sad Buff team much good.

In honor of Ed Mickelson’s last RBI in St. Louis Browns history, here’s that parody I wrote years ago in all their honors:

The Lost Hurrah: September 27, 1953
Chicago White Sox 2 – St. Louis Browns 1.

(A respectful parody of “Casey At The Bat” by Ernest L. Thayer in application to the last game ever played by our beloved St. Louis Browns.)

by Bill McCurdy (1997)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Brownie nine that day;
They were moving from St. Louis – to a place quite far away,
And all because Bill Veeck had said, “I can’t afford to stay,”
The team was playing their last game – in that fabled Brownie way.

With hopes of winning buried deep – beneath all known dismay,
The Brownies ate their cellar fate, but still charged out to play.
In aim to halt a last hard loss – in a season dead since May,
They sent Pillette out to the mound – to speak their final say.

The White Sox were that last dance foe – at the former Sportsman’s Park,
And our pitcher pulsed the pallor of those few fans in the dark.
To the dank and empty stands they came, – one final, futile time,
To witness their dear Brownies reach – ignominy sublime.

When Mickelson then knocked in Groth – for the first run of the game,
It was to be the last Browns score, – from here to kingdom came.
And all the hopes that fanned once more, – in that third inning spree,
Were briefly blowing in the wind, – but lost eternally.

For over seven innings then, – Dee bleached the White Sox out,
And the Browns were up by one to oh, – when Rivera launched his clout.
That homer tied the score at one, – and then the game ran on.
Until eleven innings played, – the franchise was not gone.

But Minnie’s double won the game – for the lefty, Billy Pierce,
And Dee picked up the last Browns loss; – one hundred times is fierce!
And when Jim Dyck flew out to end – the Browns’ last time at bat,
The SL Browns were here no more, and that was that, – was that!

Oh, somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

And somewhere men are laughing, – and little children shout,

But there’s no joy in Sislerville, – the Brownies have pulled out.

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

October 20, 2009

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.

Allen Russell: The Believable Barnum and Bailey of Buffs Baseball!

September 12, 2009

Marr WIcker Hawn That’s Houston Buffs President Allen Russell in the business suit and hat at the far left of today’s featured first photo. He’s showing some kind of report in early 1950 to St. Louis Cardinal coaches Runt Marr (next to Russell) and Freddy Hawn (far right). That’s Kemp Wicker, the first of two managers who commanded the Good Ship Buffalo at the start of the ’50 season wearing the “Houston” jersey. Little Benny Borgmann would soon replace Wicker and manage the Buffs for most of their ride into the Texas League cellar that most inglorious year, but that kind of field performance disaster never stopped Allen Russell. It simply provided a different kind of marketing challenge.

Bill Veeck wasn’t the only organized baseball promoter who would try almost anything that worked to draw fans to the ballpark. He was just the most creatively famous owner/president to do it – and he also did it at the major league level. Allen Russell could hold his own with just about anybody in baseball when it came down to bodacious ingenuity – and the 1950 season provided him with one of his brightest and coolest moments of gate-rattling chutzpah – and Allen wasn’t even Jewish!

Late in the 1950 season, when it became apparent that the Buffs had been shortchanged on the minor league talent distribution by the parent Cardinals that year, Russell decided he needed to do something unique in the interest of pumping the gate a little bit on the way to a crippled attendance finish. What he chose to do wasn’t totally unique. The rival Fort  Worth Cats had tried it briefly in 1949, but Russell forged onward, anyway, after talking his club into going along with the gimmick. The Buffs said “OK”, but they gave their consent to the plan with some considerable reservation.

Jerry Witte in ShortsAs modeled in the photo by the Buffs’ sluggung first baseman Jerry Witte, the Buffs agreed to wear shorts, as I also covered in a recent article. The ostensible reason given for this change was that the Buffs wanted to do all they could to make sure their players were made as comfortable as possible in the searing, humid Houston summer heat.

A lot of fans weren’t concerned with the comfort problems of a team that was already well on its comfortable way to a dead last finish, but that was not Russell’s concern. If he couldn’t give them winning baseball without the Cardinal home club’s help, he could at least provide the fans with something with the gawk-value of grown men playing baseball in short pants, that a fan had to buy a ticket to see.

“Players who aren’t comfortable losing should either find a way to win or be given a ticket down to Class A Omaha!” was a fairly typical conservative fan attitude, but that didn’t stop the short pants experiment.

The blousy short pants created a short term curiosity spike in attendance, but that thrill soon wore thin. Fans don’t like watching losers and short pants don’t make it more OK in the long run. Besides, the players hated the extra easy mosquito bites and sliding strawberry wounds they were getting from the goofy looking sawed-off uniform pants. Seeing all these things for himself, Allen Russell soon restored the Buffs to regular long pants before season’s end – and the Buffs marched on to a last place finish like real men.

During his eight seasons as Buffs President (1946-53), Allen Russell was largely responsible for a major growth in attendance at Buff Stadium for Houston Buff Texas Leaue games. Throw in the extra facts that this was arguably the halcyon era of baseball game attendance popularity. From 1946 through about 1953, the year that TV and a diversification of other leisure time interests pretty much changed everything  – baseball held the stage for a bull market run at new attendance records. All a city needed was a promoter like Allen Russell to make it happen – and easy access to the ballpark. Houston built their first freeway right past Buff Stadium in 1948 and the old ballpark was still very accessible to the bus lines and middle class neighborhoods that surrounded the place. Russell took advantage of every break that swung his way – and he also  pretty much declared war on rain-outs and the loss of income they produced. Russell would get out there on the field himself and pour gasoline into all standing waters on the infield and then set it on fire. He would literally burn the water off the field before he ever called a game because of rain. If he could’ve stopped the rain from ever falling on game days with a little voodoo ceremony, he probably woul d have done that too.

Allen Russell & Rain In 1946, the year that Russell took over as Buffs President, the Buffs drew 161,000 fans and the major league St. Louis Browns drew 526,000. The very next year, 1947, the Buffs outdrew the Browns by 326,000 to 282,000. By 1948, the Buffs again won the gate battle, 401,000 to 336,000. The Browns edged a bad Buffs team in 1949 by 271,000 to 254,000, but an 8th places Buffs club in 1950 still edged a 7th place Browns club by 256.000 to 247,000. The Buffs won again in 1951 by 333,000 ro 294,000 By 1952, St. Louis was reaping the benefits of Bill Veeck’s second year at the Browns helm. The Browns outdrew the Buffs by 519,000 to 195,000 in 1952 – and they edged them again in 1953, the last year of the Browns, by a 297,000 to 204,000 count.

In spite of the lapses in his twofinal  Buff seasons, Russell had made his point before leaving Houston to take over running the nearby Beaumont Exporters. The St. Louis Cardinals even considered moving to Houston prior to the 1953 season because of some serious ownership problems, but that possibility was quashed by the purchase of the club by August Busch and the Budweiser Beer Company.

After 1953, it would be the Browns who moved from St. Louis, but that relocation would not be to Houston. It would be to Baltimore. Still, Allen Russell supplied the original rachet for others who would now pursue major league baseball for Houston with great passion and political savvy. They would succeed seven years later when Houston was awarded an expansion club franchise in 1960 to start playing in 1962.

Now we just need to make sure we remember the man who made it all possible. His name was Allen Russell and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s also the real father of major league baseball in Houston.

 

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Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle