Remembering Detroit Tigers Legend Gates Brown

Prior to the ballgame on Sunday during the Negro League weekend, the Tigers recognized ’68 World Champion Gates Brown who this spring had a ball diamond named after him in his hometown of Crestline, Ohio.

His story is remarkable.

While serving a felony prison term for armed robbery in Ohio, Brown was “discovered” by Tiger scout Frank Skaff who convinced the ballclub to sign him to a professional contract in 1959.

Gates Brown“The primary reasons I signed with Detroit is because they didn’t have any black players and eventually I figured they would, plus, I had been told about the short right porch at Tiger Stadium,” Brown told me last year in a Detroit Free Press article I wrote on the 50th Anniversary of Ozzie Virgil breaking the color barrier in Detroit — the second to last team to do so.

When Brown headed to Florida for his first training camp in 1960, he quickly discovered the Jim Crow south in full blossom.

“I wasn’t in Tampa ten minutes when I got my feelings hurt,” said Brown. “A taxi driver called me the N word when I tried to get in his cab. I didn’t know there were black taxis.”

Although Gates Brown says he didn’t have problems with ballplayers, it was a different story with some coaches.

“Most of the instructors were from the south and still fighting the Civil War. Some used the N word, told black jokes and seemed to spend more time with the white players”, he said. “In the south, some of the white fans would stick their heads in the dugouts calling me the N word or coon. As one of the few blacks, I always felt under the microscope. I knew a lot of good black players who couldn’t stand all those other pressures on them.”

By 1963, Brown finally made it to the big leagues, playing for the Tigers until 1975.

On June 19, 1963 he became the American League’s 11th player to hit a home run in his very first at bat.

In the 1960’s, the Tigers were already loaded with one of the best outfields in the game with Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley so Brown made his name as one of the game’s greatest pinch hitters of all time.

In 1968, Brown had an astounding pinch hitting record for a team that became known for winning so many come from behind games. He batted .450 going 18 for 39 including an unbelievable performance when he won both games of a double header in the bottom of the ninth.

Brown told me that people just didn’t realize how difficult it was to come off the bench to pinch hit when everyone expected him to come through. For years he said that he had stomach problems from the stress.

One of baseball’s funniest moments occurred when in a game in ’68, manager Mayo Smith called him to pinch hit. Sitting at the far end of the bench, when Brown got the call, he was just getting reading to munch on two hot dogs that a clubhouse kid had provided. Here is how Brown explained it to writer Dave Kindred:

“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate. But this was one time I didn’t want to get a hit. I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second—head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stoop up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me.

“The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.” After fining Brown $100, Smith said, “What the hell were you doing eating on the bench in the first place?” Brown: “I decided to tell him the truth. I said, ‘I was hungry. Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house.”

In 1978 Brown became the Tiger’s hitting coach, a position he held through the 1984 season. Many of the ’84 World Champion Tigers credit their hitting success to the tutoring they received from Gates Brown. Lou Whitaker once told me that it was Brown who was responsible for giving him his power swing.

When the Tigers refused to give Brown a proper raise following the ’84 championship season, he walked away from the game.

Now retired and living in Detroit, Brown often appears at Comerica Park where he signs autographs and greets fans at the request of the Tigers.

Always a fan favorite as a player, “the Gator” is a real treat, and if you ever get the chance, you should meet him and talk baseball. You will never forget it.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.