Gates Brown. The name brings up images of a long, hot, tense summer in Detroit’s past. Gates Brown was a fan favorite. He was one of the best, if not THE best pinch hitter of all-time. His story is a true inspiration. It proves that second chances are both possible and a worthwhile investment. Gates Brown sadly passed away on September 27th from a heart attack. He spent his last days at a nursing home, after his health failed him for the last few years.
Gates Brown was born William James Brown in Crestline, Ohio on May 2, 1939. Growing up, Brown was somewhat of a juvenile delinquent. When asked once by a person unaware of his background what he took in high school,
“I took a little English, a little mathematics, some science, some hubcaps, some wheel covers.”
Before he was out of his teens, Brown was convicted to serve a three-year sentence at the Ohio State Reformatory for burglary in 1958. It was there, after being encouraged by a prison guard, that he joined the prison baseball team. The same guard, who also coached the team, contacted several major-league clubs to come check out Brown. These teams included the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers. The Tigers sent scouts Frank Skaff and Pat Mullin to look him over, though one could imagine it was initially just to get the guard to stop contacting them about an inmate. Brown smashed a long home run in front of Mullin, however, and that attitude changed. After discussing the situation with the club and arranging an early parole, Mullin signed Brown to a $7,000 deal upon release. It would not be the last time the Tigers recruited from a prison…
Going to the Show
The Tigers started him off in Duluth-Superior in 1960, a C-Level club. He quickly advanced in 1961 through B-Class Durham and A-Class Knoxville. In 1962, Brown went to Triple-A Denver. He finally capped his minor league career in 1963 at Triple-A Syracuse, before the Tigers called him up to Detroit. In his first at-bat for the Tigers, on June 19, 1963, he launched a moonshot for a home run, becoming the 11th American League player to do so in his first at-bat. Fittingly, it seems, it was a pinch-hit home run.
His fielding skills were average, and in 1964, he played left field in 106 games. But, everyday playing was not in his future. At the time, the Tigers had a surplus of excellent outfielders. Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, and Mickey Stanley all wanted playing time. The Tigers couldn’t lose his bat though, so he became a backup player. Gates Brown was used primarily for pinch hitting for the remainder of his 13 year career.
In 1968, the “Year of the Tiger”, it was a whole different ballgame. It was a pitcher’s game; the overall batting average in the big leagues was .230. But, Brown did not disappoint. He batted .370 with a .442 on-base percentage and a .685 slugging percentage in 104 plate appearances. He came through in the clutch all season. He belted a walk-off home run to kickstart the season to win the April 11th contest against the defending AL Champion Red Sox. His magic came through to end a 14 inning marathon, exactly four months later, against the same Red Sox.
The Hot Dog Incident?
1968 was also the year of Brown’s infamous “Hot Dog Incident”. Accounts vary on the exact date and who was involved, though it is agreed that the opponent was Cleveland. So, the date was most likely June 9th. Manager Mayo Smith did not allow the players to eat during games, but Gates was not a starter that day. So, late in the game, he ordered two hot dogs, topping heavy. As soon as he got them, however, Smith called on him to hit! In order to not get caught, Gates hid them inside his shirt.
“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate. But this was one time I didn’t want to get a hit. I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second—head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me. The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.”
Smith fined Brown $100, then asked him “What the hell were you doing eating on the bench in the first place”? To which, Brown replied
“I was hungry. Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house?”
Team Contributions in the 1970’s
Move forward to 1971. Gates had a great season with limited playing time, batting .338/.408/.549 in 82 games. The result of this was increased playing time in 1972, as Tigers manager Billy Martin played outfield roulette while leading the Bengals to the AL East crown. For the first time since 1965, Brown topped the 200 at-bat mark. However, in the postseason, he only gathered 3 plate appearances against the eventual World Series Champions Oakland Athletics. He drew one walk and scored a run.
In 1973, Gates Brown became the first DH for the Tigers, hitting .236 with 12 homers in 377 at-bats. He also played his last game in left field that year. By his final season in 1975, he was back in the exclusive pinch-hitter role. During his final seasons, the Tigers were pleased with his rehabilitative success and took another chance on a different inmate: Ron LeFlore.
LeFlore was serving a 5 to 15 year sentence for armed robbery at Jackson State Prison when Billy Martin, Ernie Harwell, and several Tigers visited the inmates. Originally, Gates Brown was to go with them. But, a few days prior, he injured his leg and for security purposes could not attend. After a little Q&A session with the prisoners, they toured the prison. In the hospital, they met Ron LeFlore. According to Ernie Harwell, he asked for a chance to tryout with the Tigers. Martin said sure, and the Tigers arranged for a tryout. It turns out that several prisoners had mentioned him during the tour. They had been writing letters to Jimmy Busticaris at the Lindell AC bar on Cass about his talent. The Tigers liked what they saw, and signed him to a deal July 2, 1973. By late 1974, he was in Detroit. Gates Brown acted as a mentor to him. He became an all-star in 1976 and in 1978. When Brown returned as batting coach, LeFlore led the league in stolen bases and runs scored.
Gates Brown: Always A Tiger
Gates stayed on as hitting coach through the 1984 championship season, gaining his second championship ring as the batting coach. After leaving the coaching staff, he maintained a public life associated with the team that changed his life. In 1989, he was named manager of the Orlando Juice in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, a league made up of retired pro ballplayers. He also coached at Tiger Fantasy Camp in Lakeland and was treated as Tiger royalty. He made regular appearances at team events at Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park.
Gates Brown last appeared this past May at CoPa as the Tigers honored the 45th anniversary of the 1968 team. He was alongside Al Kaline, Denny McLain, John Hiller, and several other members of that roster.
Amongst Tigers fans, the one they called “The Gator” will be greatly missed.