Gates Brown went from troublemaker to team leader

In a cage at Tiger Stadium in the 1970s, Gates Brown does what he did best: hit a baseball.

In the past, I’ve written Black History Month stories about Larry Doby and Bubba Morton, two important figures from the Detroit Tigers in their early days of integration. As compelling as those characters might be, it’s time to write about one of my all-time favorites, a player who not only represented an era, but faced his own set of hardships, overcoming them to become another essential character in Tigers lore.

For me, there is no Tiger with a better backstory than Gates Brown. Even the name is great, like something out of a Mark Twain novel, the kind of name that should have had him taking part in adventures with Huckleberry Finn. But Gates Brown was no literary character of fiction; he was as real as they come, a man who could have been dead by his teenage years, but instead became a household name and a legendary figure within the city limits of Detroit.

Growing up in poverty in Crestline, Ohio, Brown became a standout football player in high school, but also gave in to the temptation of troublemaking. At the age of 18, troublemaking turned to crime; Brown became involved himself in an armed robbery, got caught, and faced a trial. Brown was found guilty and ordered to serve time at the Ohio State Reformatory, located in Mansfield. That’s the same prison, now defunct, that would serve as exterior location shots for the film, The Shawshank Redemption.

Noting Brown’s bruising physique, the coach of the prison baseball team encouraged the teenager to play for the team as a catcher. Brown accepted the offer, a wise choice to say the least given his enormous talents, particularly as a hitter. The coach then wrote a series of letters to major league teams, informing them of Brown’s potential. One of those teams was the Tigers, who agreed to send a scout to Mansfield to watch Brown.

Tigers scout Frank Skaff paid a visit to Mansfield, where he watched Brown play. Skaff came away impressed and informed the Tigers top scout, Pat Mullin, about Brown. So Mullin followed up by visiting Mansfield himself. Like Skaff, he emerged as a believer in Brown’s future.

At least two other teams, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, showed interest in signing Brown. But neither were as aggressive as the Tigers. Based upon the recommendations of Mullin and Skaff, the Tigers agreed to sign Brown. They even worked out an arrangement with prison officials, allowing Brown to leave prison one year before his scheduled parole. The Tigers signed Brown to a minor league contract, which included a signing bonus of $7,000.

After signing Brown, the Tigers converted him from a catcher to an outfielder. He began to work his way up the Tigers’ ladder. But his past reputation became difficult to escape. While Brown played in the Carolina League, local newspapers printed stories about his days in prison. Fans began to jeer Brown, particularly on the road, calling him “Jailbird” and “Con,” among the more printable names. On top of that, he faced the racism that was directed toward many African American players of that era. There was the segregation of Jim Crown, along with the usual racial taunts and catcalls.

It wasn’t easy for Brown, who could have caved under the name-calling. Instead, he toughened up, using the catcalls as additional motivation to succeed in the minor leagues. He hit at every level, including Triple-A Denver in 1963. A good start to the Triple-A season convinced the Tigers that he was ready. On June 17, the Tigers brought him up to the major leagues. Two days later, he made his official debut with a pinch-hitting appearance against Boston. He spent the rest of the season in Detroit, doing a decent job as a pinch-hitter and fill-in outfielder.

In 1964, the Tigers made Brown their starting left fielder and watched him respond with a .272 batting average, 15 home runs, and 11 stolen bases. With his combination of power and surprising speed, Brown might have appeared headed toward a long career as the starting left fielder. Unfortunately for him, a young Willie Horton arrived on the scene full-time the following summer, showing himself to be a superior all-round player to Brown.

Brown would remain a bench player for the better part of the next eight seasons, but he was no ordinary backup. In fact, he would become one of the most productive pinch-hitters in American League history. Brown was never better than in 1968, when he led the league with 18 pinch-hits. For the year he batted .370 with six home runs in only 92 at-bats. Simply put, Brown became the best bench player in baseball, an important part of a world championship team.

Off the field, Brown developed a reputation that defied his previous reputation for mischief and trouble. He became a favorite of the Detroit media, which appreciated his outgoing personality, his positive nature, and his ability to turn a phrase. He developed a catch phrase, “I’m square as an ice cube, and I’m twice as cool,” which was a common reply to questions about his appearance and personality.

Brown’s teammates also came to respect him. During a 1968 road trip, several Tigers were playing poker when Jim Northrup became enraged at Denny McLain, charging him with cheating. Northrup jumped up and put a stranglehold on McLain’s neck. Reacting quickly, Brown intervened, peeled Northrup off McLain, and made sure that no one got hurt. It was the kind of strong character that Brown was now showing on a regular basis. No longer the troublemaker, Brown was now a peacemaker who had evolved into a full-fledged leader in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

After two off years in 1969 and ’70, Brown returned to his role as an off-the-bench force over the next three seasons, reaching double figures in home runs each time. In 1973, he emerged as the Tigers’ primary DH against right-handed pitching. The DH rule allowed Brown to play more regularly, but it did lead to a familiar lament: if only the American League had adopted the new rule earlier, Brown might have had an even more substantial career.

As a young fan growing up in downstate New York, I knew little about Brown, at least until 1974. That’s when I happened to catch Joe Garagiola’s pregame show, the Baseball World of Joe Garagiola, prior to the NBC Game of the Week. Garagiola hosted a long two-part feature about Brown and his difficult youth, including his time at the Ohio State Reformatory. As part of the program Brown visited Mansfield to speak with current inmates, offering his insights on his own problems and how he had overcome them. In what must have been an especially difficult decision, Brown also agreed to be interviewed by Garagiola in his old prison cell.

In so doing, Brown brought a human element to the characterization of an inmate. His lesson was basic, but profound: if he could overcome a life of crime and stint in prison and become successful, then the potential existed for anyone to do the same.

After two down years in 1974 and ’75, Brown decided to retire. But the Tigers wanted him to remain part of the organization, first as a scout and then as a coach. He continued to work with the Tigers as their hitting coach through the 1984 season, allowing him to collect his second World Series ring.

In his later years, Brown often attended Tigers fantasy camp, where his easygoing nature and sense of humor easily made him one of the most popular players with campers and fans. Brown’s participation in the camp only reaffirmed his presence as one of the most beloved players in franchise history.

Sadly, Brown battled a number of ailments in his later years. We lost him in September of 2013, as he succumbed to a long stretch of bad health. His death hit Tigers fans hard, as hard as the losses of star players like Norm Cash and Jim Northrup. It’s rare for players who have been career backups to become legendary figures within a team’s history, but somehow Brown had made that happen.

At one point, none of this seemed possible with Gates Brown. He seemed like a kid on a fast track toward oblivion, a young man destined to spend the better part of his life in prison. Instead, he received a second chance from the Tigers, took full advantage of it, and found a life filled with redemption and accomplishment.

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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.