Speedy Bill Bruton covered center field for the Tigers in the early 1960s

Bill Bruton played four seasons with Detroit from 1961-64, providing speed and defense in center field.

Bill Bruton played four seasons with Detroit from 1961-64, providing speed and defense in center field.

I’m not sure how else to put this; I love the Detroit Tigers’ old gray road uniform, which is fully in evidence on Bill Bruton’s 1964 Topps card. No matter what the Tigers have introduced as a road uniform since they began tinkering with the design in the early 1970s, nothing has been able to match the dignified simplicity of the threads that made the Tigers look so good during the 1960s.

There is something about the appearance of the textured gray flannel that makes it superior to the flattened gray polyester we see today. I also prefer the simplicity of the Tigers’ old road uniforms, with no piping or trim colors, nothing but the contrast between the gray outer jersey and the dark undershirt. The uniform also has an intriguing feature; the player’s number is shown clearly on the right sleeve. Not only does the number help us identify players from a side view, but it just looks like it belongs on the sleeve, a perfect placement for a nearly perfect road uniform.

Of course, there is much more to Bill Bruton than his ability to model the Tigers’ uniform in dashing manner against the background of the old Yankee Stadium. Some have called him Bill Bruton, while others have preferred Billy Bruton, but there was little debate as to his value on the field. Bruton was a fine player, if one who has become forgotten by later generations, and a player whose story deserves to be told.

Unlike some African American players who began their professional careers in the early 1950s, Bruton did not play in the Negro Leagues. (His brother, Jack, did play in black baseball but never made the majors.) Under interesting circumstances, Bill signed with the Boston Braves as an amateur free agent in 1950. His career had been delayed a few seasons by his military involvement in World War II. Once his stint in the U.S. Army ended, he told the Braves that he was 20, when in fact he was already 24. Bruton felt that if he had revealed his true age, no one would have been interested in an untested player with no minor league experience.

It took Bruton three years to climb the minor league ranks of the Braves. In 1953, he made the major league roster, just after the franchise had relocated to Milwaukee. Impressing the Braves with his hitting and foot speed, he earned the nickname “Streak” as a testament to his baserunning ability. (Some observers felt he was the game’s fastest runner of the 1950s; he was clocked running from home to first in 3.9 seconds.) In 1953, he made the major league roster, just after the franchise had relocated to Milwaukee. Rail thin at six feet and barely 170 pounds, and featuring a drawn face and pronounced cheekbones, Bruton had the look of a prototypical center fielder and leadoff man. If the Braves had looked closer, they might have spotted a few wrinkles on that face.

When Bruton made his debut with the Braves, it was believed that he was 23, when in fact he was already 27. Whatever his age, the Braves liked him enough to make him one of their three starting outfielders, along with Andy Pafko and Sid Gordon. (Hank Aaron had not yet arrived.) A left-handed hitter with game breaking speed, Bruton played decently as a rookie, though he did struggle with the bat. He hit only .250 and drew a mere 44 walks. On the plus side, he led the National League with 26 stolen bases (an impressive total in an era when few people tried to pilfer bases) and played an excellent center field, helping him to place fourth in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting.

Defensively, Bruton played an extremely shallow center field. He had a personal motto by which he prided himself in center field: “Death to all Texas Leaguers.” As he once told Baseball Digest: “It used to gall me to see those little bloopers fall in there,” said Bruton, who rarely allowed the Texas Leaguers to drop in untouched.

As an offensive player, Bruton truly arrived in 1954, his second season. The talented leadoff man again led the league in stolen bases, this time with 34, but showed more significant improvement with the bat, raising his batting average from .250 to .284. His ability to reach base, coupled with his ample range in center field, made him a valuable member of the Braves.

Off the field, Bruton made just as significant a contribution. The 1954 season saw the arrival of Hank Aaron in Milwaukee. Although generally quiet and soft-spoken, Bruton befriended the younger Aaron, providing guidance and wisdom to a rookie outfielder dealing with the common problem of racism in the early 1950s. To this day, Aaron credits Bruton as the teammate who was most helpful to him. Aaron has stated repeatedly that if not for Bruton’s friendship and guidance, he would not have succeeded with the Braves.

Over each of the next three seasons, Bruton batted in the .270 range, picking up another stolen base crown along the way and also leading the league with 15 triples in 1956. With Aaron in right and veteran Bobby Thomson in left, he helped form one of the league’s better outfields. The only blemish came in 1957, when a knee injury limited him to only 79 games and also prevented him from playing in the World Series, where the Braves defeated the New York Yankees to claim the championship. For a player about to appear in his first postseason, the absence was particularly frustrating for Bruton.

Even after the disappointment of 1957 and the knee injury that robbed him of a good portion of his speed, Bruton broke through as a hitter over the next three seasons. From 1958 to 1960, he reached his peak as a batter, eclipsing the .280 mark each time. The elevation in his hitting coincided with the Braves’ emergence as a championship team. With Bruton anchoring center field, the Braves won their second straight pennant in 1958. He was never better than he performed in the World Series, his first opportunity at postseason play after the missed chance of 1957. Playing in all seven games against the Yankees, Bruton batted .412 to lead all of the Braves, reached base 54 per cent of the time, slammed a home run, and slugged .588. No one could blame Bruton for the Braves failure to beat the vaunted Yanks in the Series.

Two years later, Bruton reached the first peak of his career, doing so at the unusually advanced age of 34 (although everyone thought he was only 30). Showing newfound power, he hit 12 home runs, while stealing 22 bases and accumulating a career-best OPS of .758. He also led the league in runs scored, with 112, and triples, with 13.

As well as Bruton played in the summer of 1960, no one could have predicted that it would be his last season in Milwaukee. That December, the Braves traded Bruton and three lesser players to the Tigers for second baseman Frank Bolling and a player to be named later. The trade infuriated Braves fans, who loved Bruton. The trade would net a positive yield for the Tigers. Bolling would put up two good seasons for the Braves before fading, while Bruton would enjoy three very good seasons in Detroit.

The Tigers felt that Bruton would make an ideal center fielder, flanked by Rocky Colavito in left and Al Kaline. Bruton was the perfect complement; Kaline and “The Rock” provided power, while Bruton would supply the ability to reach base and set the table for a powerful middle of the order. Tigers skipper Bob Scheffing came to rely on Bruton heavily; the veteran played in a career-high 160 games (rather remarkable for a 35-year-old) and took well to Tiger Stadium, hitting a personal best 17 home runs, stealing 22 bases, and drawing 61 walks. The Tigers were thrilled with Bruton, who became an important part of a team that won 101 games in finishing second to the Yankees.

Once again defying age, Bruton played even more productively in 1962, reaching the second peak of his career. He raised his batting average 21 points to .278, nearly matched his previous season’s power output with 16 home runs, and compiled the best OPS of his career at .776. As a team, the Tigers fell to 85 wins, but Bruton and the rest of the outfield could not be blamed. Bruton, Colavito, and Kaline combined to hit 72 home runs.

Given that he was approaching his 37th birthday (even though the Tigers didn‘t know that yet), Bruton in retrospect should not have been expected to match those numbers in 1963 — and he didn’t. His power fell off considerably, as did his batting average and his OPS. The Tigers also dropped off, falling below .500 with a record of 79-83.

Yet, Bruton wasn’t ready to call it quits. Remaining in center field under new manager Chuck Dressen, Bruton bounced back to hit .277 in 1964. He also reached base 34 per cent of the time and chipped in with 14 stolen bases. Unfortunately, Bruton could not stay healthy enough to play a full season. Injuries limited him to 106 games, and thanks to diminishing range in the outfield, the Tigers began to use him at times in left field. These were all clear indications that his days as an everyday player were drawing to an end.

At the very least, Bruton seemed capable of handling a backup job as a utility outfielder in 1965. But the Tigers felt otherwise. With a farm system producing a bevy of young outfielders, including Willie HortonJim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley, the Tigers felt there was no room for Bruton. So shortly after the season, they released the veteran. Rather than try to hook up with another team as a utility outfielder, Bruton opted to step aside.

When Bruton retired, he finally admitted that he had lied about his age. Believed to be 34 years of age at the time of his release by the Tiger, he was actually 38. Yet, even in those later seasons, Bruton played like a man who was much younger, as if he himself believed that his true age was four years less than what it was. Clearly, the normal aging process didn’t apply to Billy Bruton.

With his playing days in his past, Bruton longed for a chance to work on the management side of the equation, but there were few opportunities for African Americans in the 1960s. “The opportunities didn’t exist,” Bruton told Sports Collectors Digest in 1994. “The only thing that was offered black players was scouting. I would have liked to have been part of management.”

Spurned by major league front offices, Bruton turned to a new career almost immediately. One of Detroit’s major businesses, the Chrysler Corporation, announced the hiring of Bruton to its merchandising staff. He would spend the next 23 years working as an executive for the company before finally retiring in 1988. He and his wife then moved to Delaware, where they lived with her father, who happened to be Hall of Fame third baseman Judy Johnson. In his retirement years, Bruton occupied much of his time working with local churches and charitable organizations.

On December 5, 1995, Bruton was driving near his home when he suffered a heart attack, his second. He lost consciousness, the car colliding with a pole. Police found him slumped over the wheel of the car, dead at the age of 70.

During the 1960s, Bruton gained some notoriety as the spokesman for Tareyton cigarettes. When I heard about his involvement with the tobacco company, I wondered whether Bruton’s smoking contributed to his two heart attacks. Then again, most of America knew little about the full effects of smoking cigarettes back in the 1960s. It was not really until the 1970s that advancements in medical science, along with increased publicity in the matter, created greater awareness of the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Bruton has been gone for nearly 20 years now, but he carries a significant legacy. He was an important player for two successful franchises, a great World Series performer, and a respected team leader who cleared a path for the legendary Hank Aaron.

And oh yes, he knew how to wear that classic Tigers’ uniform just right.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.