News of Joe Diroff’s passing in 1997 raised more than a few eyebrows around town – not so much in distress, perhaps, as in a reflexive salute to a Detroit original. With his heavily forested forehead, homemade signs, and cornball cheers, “The Brow” had long been a fixture at Tiger Stadium, Joe Louis Arena, and other local sports venues, as recognizable as any of the athletes he supported to the absolute limit of his aerobic capability.
In a world of Type A personalities, the hyperactive Brow was Type AAA. Despite suffering from a bad ticker, every day and night he roamed the stands at will, incessantly imploring the crowd to get behind the home team.
“LET’S GO BANANAS!!” he’d scream, holding up a plastic banana. Another favorite prop was a bicycle pump. “LET’S GET PUMPED UP!!” When the mood struck, he’d break into a wild, rubber-legged jig, acting like someone whose breakfast burritos had kicked in while standing in line to use the Tiger Stadium john.
I first encountered The Brow in the late 1980s. I was enjoying a mellow beer buzz at Tiger Stadium one midsummer night when I was nearly blasted out of my seat by a blind-side salvo:
“STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE!! GOOSEBERRY PIE!! V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!!”
Ears ringing, I looked for the source of the explosion and found it in the odd little fella going ape-shit in the aisle. He looked to be a gnarled version of the Keebler elf, with Andy Rooney’s eyebrows, and for some reason he started waving squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard in the air.
“THEY’LL NEVER CATCH UP!!” he bellowed before aiming his second broadside directly at me. “CUZ THEY CAN’T CUT THE MUSTARD!!”
Before I could come up with an appropriate response—something feeble like “Yeah! Go Tigers!” or something more genuine like “Get the hell out of the aisle so I can watch the game!” – The Brow had moved on to another section, evidently satisfied that he had done all in his power to lift the collective spirit of this particular outpost of fandom.
Although he seemed to have been around forever, the ubiquitous Brow actually was part of the local sporting scene for only a few years. He first started whooping it up in 1982, a couple of years after he retired as a Detroit schoolteacher and was casting about for another way to make himself useful.
He recognized his calling, he explained, after literally being tossed out of Cobo Arena for being a bit too demonstrative at a Pistons playoff game. His knees scraped, his pants torn, his glasses somewhere in the darkness, The Brow decided there and then that God had somehow shown him his true purpose in life. He would be Detroit’s fan for all seasons.
Signs and condiments in hand, The Brow thus became the latest in a succession of storied Detroit superfans, a lineage that includes such characters as Gus the Dancing Vendor, who used to boogaloo down the aisles of Cobo; Patsy (The Human Earache) O’Toole, who shattered eardrums at old Navin Field; the Cusimano brothers, who launched the first octopus at Olympia; and Leon (The Barber) Bradley, who heckled opponents nonstop at the Silverdome.
Unlike his predecessors, The Brow was ecumenical in his support. He showed up at every home game of every professional team in town, plus as many away contests as his pocketbook and old Dodge would permit. He also attended a variety of collegiate contests. At first he had to pay to get in, but teams soon recognized his sincerity and started letting him in for free.
Players and coaches took him to heart. On one occasion, the Red Wings brought him home from Edmonton on their private plane, took up a collection, then joined him in a rousing Strawberry Shortcake cheer. All this after a tough playoff loss.
As part of his mission, The Brow regularly visited the airport, setting up his lawn chair in an empty terminal in the wee hours of a morning to welcome the boys back from a road trip. “Brow,” Kirk Gibson once told him, “you’re a true fan.”
The Brow, who was married for 50 years and raised 10 kids, obviously knew something about commitment. He supported teams through good times and bad. When he sensed that some troubled soul might benefit from a private hurrah or two, he was there, no questions asked.
“I am not a man who makes judgments,” he said after visiting the Red Wings’ convicted druggie, Bob Probert, in jail. “I won’t cast any first stones. Everybody needs someone to care. And cheer.”
In 1995, The Brow became a no-show, the result of a stroke that confined him to a nursing home. When he could, he led fellow patients in cheers – keeping trim, one supposes, for the day when he could return to his regular duties at Tiger Stadium and other venues where his unfettered boosterism was sorely needed. Instead, he had a relapse and suddenly found himself sharing a skybox with Patsy O’Toole and Leon the Barber. The Brow was 74.
Reading his obit, I was reminded of columnist Jim Murray’s comment when Casey Stengel passed through the pearly turnstiles. “Well,” Murray wrote, “God is certainly getting an earful tonight.”
We know the feeling. Bye, Brow. You did Detroit proud – and loud.