Gates Brown, who made the unlikely journey out of prison to become the best pinch-hitter in American League history, died last Friday. He was 74.
The cause was a heart attack, but Brown suffered from diabetes and heart trouble for several years.
“It’s tough being the Gator,” Brown told Terry Forster of The Detroit News, using his preferred sobriquet prior to his death. “I am just in so much pain, man. So much pain. I can’t take it sometimes.”
Be he still loved coming to the ballpark. “I love being around the fans. They are what keep me going,” Brown told Forster.
Detroit fans won’t ever forget Brown. He played vital roles in the Tigers last two world championships. In 1984, he was the hitting coach. In 1968, he had the best season a pinch-hitter has ever had.
“He’ll be missed,” Tigers radio analyst Jim Price, a teammate from ’67 to ’71, told George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press. “He was an icon, you know? He was a big part of the Tigers organization, Tigers legacy, really.”
Added Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski: “He’s Tiger baseball. That’s what he was. He’s Tiger baseball for so many years. And he brought a smile to your face because of some of the stories you used to hear about him.”
Brown’s stories usually began around high school. Many were recalled at his memorial service in his native Crestline, Ohio, and reported by the Free Press.
“As kids, we played at Kelly Park, which had a creek down the left side,” recalled Jim Mahek. “He could hit foul balls into that creek at will. It would make coach so mad he wanted to kill him.”
Jack Harbaugh, father of the two recent Super Bowl coaches, recalled being the quarterback and having Brown as his all-purpose running back. He told a story of a 16-play drive which featured Brown running and catching passes on every play of the drive. After Brown got the ball down to the one-yard line, Harbaugh said, “Gator, I think you’re tired. I can take it from here.
“He was such a kind, loving guy, he could laugh about it.”
Brown also found time for some mischief. As he once told the Baseball Almanac, “In high school, I took a little English, a little math, some science, a few hubcaps, and some wheel covers.”
Convicted of robbery at age 18, Brown served 22 months at the Mansfield State Reformatory. He so impressed one of the guards, who also coached the prison baseball team, that the guard contacted several local major league scouts.
Brown wound up signing with the Tigers for a $7,000 bonus, and they would be his only team. He would play for 13 seasons, from ‘63 through ‘75, and served for seven more, ’78 through ’84, as the hitting coach.
Brown made quite an auspicious major league debut on June 19, 1963. Called upon to pinch-hit, he promptly homered. He’s one of only 17 players to begin their major league career with a pinch-hit home run.
That was an indication of Brown’s unique talent. In only two years, ’64 and ’73, did he amass more than 283 at bats, and ’73 was the first year of the designated hitter. He made the most of the at bats he got, setting American League records that still stand today with 107 career pinch hits and 414 career pinch-hit at bats.
When asked about those records in 2009, Brown told the Mansfield News Journal of Ohio, “Well, one thing, I didn’t do a lot of playing or I wouldn’t have been pinch-hitting!”
Why? Centerfielder Mickey Stanley told Foster how Brown used to stand in left field and holler ‘You got it, Mickey!’
“A lot of people still think, to this day, Gates Brown is the best pinch-hitter of all-time,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland told Sipple. “Certainly no pinch-hitter ever had a season like Brown had in 1968, the famous Year of the Pitcher. “
Brown put up marks that remain unsurpassed and unapproachable in 1968. In 52 pinch-hit appearances, Brown hit .455 (20 for 44) with an on-base percentage of .538 and a slugging percentage of .818. His on-base plus slugging? An amazing 1.357. For the season, in 92 at bats, Brown hit .370.
That’s right. He was better as a pinch-hitter that when he was in the regular lineup.
“He was by far the best pinch-hitter I have ever seen,” Jon Warden, a ’68 teammate, told Sipple. “He was a miracle worker. Every time he came up to bat, the game was on the line, and he came through.”
One night Brown won both ends of a doubleheader with pinch-hits. He won the opener with a home run in the 14th inning, and won the nightcap with a single in the ninth.
“I liked those situations,” Brown told Foster. “Sometimes you only get one chance, and you have to take advantage of it.”
Sometimes Brown got his chance a little early. He always enjoyed a mid-game ritual of eating a couple of hot dogs. He would send the clubhouse boy to the concession stands — the Tigers were a bit parsimonious in those days — to bring back two dogs, heavy on the mustard and ketchup.
One day, manager Mayo Smith called on Brown to pinch-hit early, in the fifth inning. Not wanting to waste his dogs, Brown stuffed them inside his jersey.
“Wouldn’t you know, Gator hits a double, and slides headfirst into second,” Warden told the News Journal. “Boom! Mustard and ketchup all over him. The umpire said, ‘Stay there, Gator. You’re bleeding.’”