If you’re interested in reading only about well-known players, then stop reading. This article is not for you. Ike Brown, who died 10 years ago, was an obscure player who had a brief and intermittent major league career. He was not a star, not even a regular player. But he was a player who provided an intriguing link between two eras, before bridging a connection to a very different career. Along the way, he made a lot of friends.
Today’s African-American major leaguers never experienced the Negro Leagues. Other than the Hairston brothers, and perhaps a couple of others, none of today’s black players descended directly from a Negro Leagues alumnus. Too much time has passed for that.
In fact, the last three alumni of the Negro Leagues to play in the majors retired by the late 1970s. The last man standing was Hank Aaron, who once played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns and then, after a two-season stop with the Milwaukee Brewers, called it quits in 1976. The second was Willie Mays, the onetime Birmingham Baron who retired after a distressing performance in the 1973 World Series. The third was Ike Brown. This might have been the only context by which Brown was ever mentioned in the same breath as Mays or Aaron.
Brown’s professional career started oddly. He was signed as an amateur free agent by the Cardinals. Though he was given a $500 bonus by the Cards in 1960, he never played a game in the Redbirds’ system; they mysteriously released him before the start of the 1961 season, thereby losing their $500 for nothing in return. Suddenly unemployed, Brown opted to play in the dying remnants of the Negro Leagues. He signed with the Kansas City Monarchs, previously one of the premium franchises in black baseball. Brown endured some difficult road trips with the Monarchs. “Man, we bused everywhere,” Brown once told the Newark Star-Ledger. “Once, we went through the mountains in Colorado in the middle of the summer and almost got snowed in.”
Brown played well enough for the Monarchs to indicate that he could play in Organized Ball. Monarchs owner Ed Raspberry convinced the Detroit Tigers to give him a tryout. Brown put on such an impressive batting practice display that the Tigers paid Raspberry for Brown’s services and offered him a contract.
Reporting to the Tigers’ affiliate at Jamestown in the NY-Penn League, Brown began a long, fractured, eight-year ascent through the Tigers system. In 1965, Brown experienced one of his most tumultuous seasons, as he put in time with three different minor league clubs. A friend of mine, a longtime watcher of minor league baseball, remembers Brown playing in Virginia for the Lynchburg White Sox.
“I was 11 years old during the ‘65 season,“ says Paul DeLaubell, a longtime radio executive who now lives in the Syracuse area. “If I remember correctly, Brown joined the (Lynchburg) team in midseason.” Brown did, in fact, split the Southern League season between Lynchburg and Montgomery. He was property of the Tigers organization, which had its affiliate in Montgomery, but the Tigers loaned him to the White Sox organization, explaining his appearance in Lynchburg.
Brown’s time in Lynchburg was brief, but DeLaubell took notice. “(He) played mostly third base,” Paul recalls. “He had a style, a flair about him. It was fun to watch him gather in a hot smash. It seems he would take the ball out of his glove, look it over for a split second—it looked as if he would have wiped the grass stain off the ball if he had time—and then rifle it to first for the out.”
Brown continued to make an impression on DeLaubell in another way. That’s because later in that 1965 season, Brown played for the Syracuse Chiefs, a team that DeLaubell would eventually root for in person, frequently attending games at old MacArthur Stadium. Brown didn’t put up big numbers in either Syracuse, Lynchburg or Montgomery, but he was the kind of player fans remembered.
Perhaps it was because of those big glasses, which became a trademark of his Topps cards. Or maybe it was his burly build and thick neck, which looked more linebacker than it did infielder. Or maybe it was Brown’s all-world personality, which made him popular wherever he went.
Brown won plenty of friends along the way, but he struggled to impress the Tigers brass. He played wherever they asked him to: third base, second base, first base, left field and right field. But everywhere there were obstacles. The parent Tigers had the underrated Dick McAuliffe at second base, the power-packed Norm Cash at first base, and stars Willie Horton and Al Kaline in the outfield corners.
Perhaps third base would have been the best option, given the presence of the good-fielding but mediocre-hitting veteran, Don Wert. Yet, the Tigers apparently felt more comfortable with the proven commodity in Wert. Brown’s inability to break through had some in the Tigers system wondering if race played a factor in his stagnancy within the farm system. In Jim Bouton’s iconic book, Ball Four, he recalled a conversation with relief pitcher Mike Marshall, his Seattle Pilots teammate who had come up through the Tigers organization in the mid-1960s. As Bouton wrote, the circumstances made one wonder about Brown’s situation, and whether it was motivated by race:
(Ike Brown) was the International League All-Star third baseman for a couple of years. He drove in a lot of runs, too, but was never even invited to spring training by the Tigers. Mike (Marshall) says that the fact that he was black must have had a lot to do with it. “How many Negroes on the Detroit club?’ Mike said. ‘Earl Wilson, Gates Brown and Willie Horton. Two stars (Wilson and Horton) and (Gates) Brown is the best pinch hitter in the business.”
Racism or not, Brown continued to persevere. It took until June of 1969, by which time he was 27, for him to earn a call to the big leagues. Brown finally convinced the Tigers that he was worthy of a promotion by batting .356 for the Toledo Mud Hens over the first half of the ‘69 season. He also belted two home runs in an exhibition game between the Mudhens and the Tigers, helping him catch the eye of the Tiger brass. (This was a time when many major league teams staged in-season exhibitions against their top minor league affiliates.)
In making his long-awaited debut for Detroit, Brown became the last alumnus of the Negro Leagues to make the major leagues. Once on the Tigers roster, Brown made sure that he collected his first major league hit in style: a home run at the old Yankee Stadium.
In spite of the favorable early impression, Brown had to play as a backup in the Motor City, filling in at second and third, with cameos in the outfield and shortstop. Still, it was better than beating the bushes in Toledo, or playing before a sparse crowd with the Monarchs.
Even with the eventual acquisition of Aurelio Rodriguez to replace Wert at third, the Tigers found room for Brown. Eager to please, Brown showed the Tigers that he could play anywhere, hit with occasional power, and steal a base. He emerged as a valuable backup in 1970, when he produced to the tune of an .844 OPS. He did nearly as well in 1971, hitting eight home runs in only 110 at-bats. Combining his performances in 1970 and ’71, Brown batted .320 in a pinch-hitting role, making one of the league‘s best in that specialty.
In 1972, he did a creditable job as a jack-of-all-trades utility man, putting in time at every field position except center field and catcher. He became a favorite of manager Billy Martin. During the early part of games, Brown would spend time in the bullpen, where he would catch the warm-up tosses of Tigers pitchers. Later in the game, especially if the Tigers were behind, Martin would summon Brown. “Get ‘Boat’ back on the bench; he’ll get something started,“ Martin would yell, referencing Brown by his nickname of “Showboat.“ Brown had earned the name for his aggressive approach at the plate and his all-out, hell-bent style. Brown also liked to go into a slow home run trot on the occasions he went deep, further cementing his reputation as Showboat.
Coming off the bench for an appreciative Martin, Brown played a subtle role in the Tigers winning the American League East. In the League Championship Series against the A’s, Brown punched out a two-run single in a pinch-hitting role.
As a member of the Tigers, Brown also became a source of confusion for this writer. I sometimes mixed him up with Ike Blessitt, another infielder-outfielder type who was just coming up through the Tigers’ system. Even more so, I confused Ike Brown with Gates Brown, another valuable Tigers backup who was one of the league’s best pinch-hitters of the late 1960s and early ’70s. At one point, I thought that Gates and Ike were brothers, a belief that could be dissuaded only by browsing The Baseball Encyclopedia. Brown, Blessitt and Brown became a trio of bewilderment for this young fan who had taken a liking to the Tigers of that era.
In an interesting coincidence, the unrelated Browns became roommates and fast friends. Gates took note of Ike’s effervescent optimism. According to Gates, Ike began each day the same way. When Ike woke up in the morning, he unfailingly declared, “It’s a beautiful day.” Ike could have awoken in the midst of an earthquake, but his daily greeting never changed. With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder that Brown became popular with his Tiger teammates, practically a beloved figure in Detroit baseball circles.
Gates Brown and the rest of the Tigers also admired Ike’s sense of style. One of the flashiest dressers in an era known for its gaudiness, Ike had a special affinity for fine haberdashery. Jim Price, the backup catcher to Bill Freehan during his days with the Tigers, recalls Brown’s preference for a particular type of shoe. “I… remember that Ike loved alligator shoes,” Price told The New York Times. “He saved up all his shoe coupons that he’d get for doing postgame interviews, then went over to the store and emptied the shelves of alligator shoes.” Between his alligator shoes and his distinctive oversized glasses, Brown struck a unique pose in the Tigers’ clubhouse.
Brown remained a Tiger through the 1974 season. By then, he was 32 years old, too old to be considered for a fulltime position. Even his role as a backup began to dwindle, and the Tigers sent him back to Triple-A Evansville. With the aging Tigers looking to rebuild, Ike Brown became an expendable asset. After the ‘74 season, the Tigers released him, essentially ending his playing career.
Not satisfied with leaving the game entirely, Brown pursued another career within the sport. He turned to umpiring. He was serious about it, so determined that he set a goal of returning to the major leagues as an umpire. That never happened, but Brown became accomplished enough as an arbiter that he succeeded in carving out a niche on the local level, working high school games in Northern Mississippi.
Brown kept umpiring even after being diagnosed with cancer. He did his best to work as many games as possible, even in the face of his weakened condition. He continued to umpire practically until the day he died, at the age of only 59, on May 17, 2001. It’s hard for me to believe, but the 10th anniversary of his death falls during this month.
Though generally regarded as a good umpire, Brown drew some criticism for his flamboyant style. He made sure that everyone knew he was in charge of the game, that it was his field. He liked to talk while he umpired, especially with the catchers, to whom he offered advice on the fine art of receiving. He didn’t merely talk with players and managers, but with the fans. When fans questioned his calls, he willingly engaged them in debates during the game. Really, it’s understandable that he liked to talk. Considering his adventures in the Negro Leagues, his long minor league road trips throughout the 1960s, his experience in playing almost every position on the diamond, and his collection of alligator shoes, Ike Brown had a lot to say.
References & Resources
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
The Newark Star-Ledger