Tuesday, May 11, 2010

28. Willard Brown

Back in 1947 as Jackie Robinson was breaking the color line in the National League, Willard Brown and Hank Thompson, two heavy weight negro league sluggers joined the American Leagues' St. Louis Browns. While Robinson was given a year of minor league seasoning to get acclimated to white organized ball, Brown and Thompson were sent directly to the big club. This move by the Browns ultimately hurt both the players and the team as they were not able to adapt to the huge cultural difference and senseless racism they encountered. They were unable to sleep in the same hotel as their teammates who were pretty much indifferent to their presence on the club. On August 13, 1947 Brown belted a Hal Newhouser pitch into the far reaches of Sportsmans Park and quickly rounded the bases for an inside the park home run, the first by a black player in the American League. Instead of celebrating the feat, teammate Jeff Heath, whose bat Brown used, broke it in half rather than have him use it again. After 21 games and a low batting average both Brown and Thompson were released. Thompson had a second chance with the Giants a few years later and made good but Willard Brown never made it back to the majors, spending the next 10 years in the negro and minor leagues where he continued his legendary status as one of the games best sluggers.

As the mighty Kansas City Monarchs' batboy, Willard Brown dreamed of playing for the Monarchs. In 1935 he realised that dream when he became the team's starting shortstop. Soon moved to the outfield to take advantage of his speed, Brown became black baseball's most prolific hitter. He hit for a high average and was also one of the fastest ballplayers of the late 1930’s. Brown was sometimes accused of being lazy in the field, saving his strength for larger crowds and more important games but at the same time he was considered to be a superior outfielder and was voted to the All-Star Game 8 times. He hit well above .300 for his whole negro league career and led the league in doubles, triple, home runs and stolen bases many times. The Monarchs of the late '30's and '40's were a powerhouse and Brown was instrumental in their winning the pennant 5 times during his time with the team. During the war Brown played on the champion ballclub that won the European Theater World Series and he hit the winning home run of the deciding game giving Leon Day the victory over Ewell Blackwell and Patton's 4th Army team made up of major league players. He then played ball in the negro and minor leagues until 1957. Popular with players and fans, Brown was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.

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