Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Downtown Ollie Brownby Bruce Markusen
April 27, 2012
I’ve always been fascinated by Ollie Brown’s 1972 “In Action” card. The lighting is especially intriguing, as if the cameraman somehow pointed a spotlight onto the left side of Brown’s body and the catcher’s back, creating a contrast with the shadows toward the right of the photo. The effect is surreal, as if Brown and the catcher are somehow on stage in the midst of a sun-drenched ballpark.
The camera angle also creates an interesting juxtaposition between Brown and the catcher. The two appear so close together that if Brown were to swing at the next pitch, he would likely smack the catcher in the left shoulder. Of course, that almost never happens—that would be catcher’s interference—but the image unintentionally creates the illusion of potential contact between batter and catcher.
Second, Brown had one of the great nicknames of all time, “Downtown” Ollie Brown. It was a moniker that sounded so smooth and lyrical that it had to be used at least once per game by radio and TV announcers.
And then there was Brown’s throwing arm, a combination of rifle and cannon that left observers awestruck. In a 1978 interview, Reds superscout Ray Shore was asked to rate the finest throwing arm he had ever seen in an outfielder. “The best I’ve ever seen is Ollie Brown,” Shore told the Associated Press. “There’s one throw he made that I never could believe. Tie game, 0-0, the Cubs and San Diego. There’s a fly ball to right-center and Brown goes over. He waves off the center fielder, makes the catch going toward center, turns, and throws the ball to the plate.
“Belly button high on a fly it goes. Right there to the catcher. Greatest throw I’ve ever seen.” Shore likened it to the play in the 1974 World Series, when Joe Ferguson crossed in front of an ailing Jimmy Wynn to make a catch and then gunned down Oakland’s Sal Bando at the plate.
Other scouts rated Brown’s arm on a par with Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente, generally referred to by fans and writers as the game’s greatest thrower among outfielders. On a more conservative scale, Brown likely possessed one of the five to 10 greatest outfield throwing arms in major league history.
Before games, Brown liked to show off the strength of that arm to fans in the stands. As he stood in the deep right field corner, Brown would throw the ball to third base—on a fly. He did it time after time.
It’s too bad that Topps didn’t show Brown in the midst of making one of his awe-inspiring throws, but the batting shot from a 1971 game suffices nicely. While Brown is pictured at bat with the Padres, his professional baseball journey actually began in the Giants organization. They signed him as an amateur pitcher in 1962, but he was so wild (walking about a batter per inning) that the Giants soon moved him to the outfield. That way, his strong arm could remain an asset while his offensive potential would also be tapped.
Brown proceeded to put up frightening offensive numbers in the minor leagues. Playing for Fresno in 1964, Brown batted .329, blasted 40 home runs, and slugged an ungodly .671. Several of those home runs were hit to dead center field in Fresno, the direction of the city's downtown. In calling one of those home runs, Fresno’s radio announcer described the ball as heading “downtown.” Hence, the nickname, Downtown Ollie Brown, was born.
Brown’s performance in Fresno catapulted him to Triple-A the following spring. Playing for Tacoma, Brown hit 27 home runs in the rarefied air of the Pacific Coast League, earning a late-season promotion to San Francisco. Some within the Giants organization began to consider Brown the heir apparent to Willie Mays.
Brown spent much of the 1966 and ’67 seasons in the Bay Area, but the crowded Giants outfield squeezed him out by 1968. After all, the Giants had the legendary Mays, a young veteran in Jesus Alou, and two talented all-round prodigies in Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson. Brown didn’t help matters with the team when he refused to report immediately to Triple-A upon his demotion.
The Giants left Brown unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft and watched the Padres take him with the first pick of the draft, not surprising but no less disappointing to a Giants brass that had once considered Brown, now just 24, a legitimate power-hitting prospect.
As their first pick in the expansion draft, Brown became the original Padre, the first Padre. With that in mind, the Padres gladly made Brown the lynchpin to their inaugural 1969 lineup. Brown did not meet all of the high expectations, but he hardly flopped. On Opening Day, he provided a thrill with a game-winning double in the sixth inning. For the season, he slugged only .412, but he hit 20 home runs, stole 10 bases, and played a capable right field, throwing out 14 ill-advised baserunners.
With a full season under his belt, Brown then gave the Padres exactly what they had envisioned: In 1970, he slugged .489, batted .292 and put up an OPS of over .800. Those numbers became even more impressive against the backdrop of San Diego Stadium, known for favoring pitchers and not power hitters. Brown was a bit erratic in right field, making 10 errors, but he continued to gun down baserunners, accumulating 12 assists. All in all, the Padres considered him a star in the making. At age 26, Brown seemed on the verge of National League stardom.
As with so many players who mysteriously flounder, Brown did not become a star. Instead, he regressed. His power fell off, from a career-high 23 home runs in 1970 to nine in 1971. In fact, Brown would never again reach double figures in home runs, stunning for a young player with light-tower power.
There were other criticisms, too. Brown had a tendency to pull everything, making him vulnerable to outside pitches. Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t have enough patience at the plate. And there were times when his effort and hustle seemed lacking.
The Padres ran out of patience with Brown in mid-May of 1972, as he endured an horrific start to the new season. The Padres sent him to the A’s, a team that was seemingly making transactions by the day, for a package of backup catcher Curt Blefary, journeyman left-hander Mike Kilkenny, and a player to be named later. A’s general manager and owner Charlie Finley had long coveted Brown, pursuing him in trade talks off and on since 1969. In fact, at one time Finley had offered five players and $200,000 to the Padres for Brown, only to have the deal turned down.
On the surface, the acquisition of Brown was puzzling, since the A’s already had a first-class right fielder in Reggie Jackson. But manager Dick Williams eventually moved Jackson to center, clearing right field for Brown. The A’s now had two of the game’s strongest outfield arms side by side: Jackson in center and Brown in right. But Brown didn’t show much power for Oakland, hitting only one home in 60 plate appearances. So by the end of June, Brown became the latest victim of Oakland’s revolving door. Finley sold him on waivers to Milwaukee, with the Brewers secretly sending the A’s the rights to retired outfielder Billy Conigliaro.
Over the next season and a half, Brown hit a respectable .279 for the Brewers, but without the power he had owned back in 1969 and 1970. Convinced that his power had become a lost cause, the Brewers included Brown as a throw-in to a nine-player deal that brought center fielder Ken Berry and pitchers Clyde Wright and Steve Barber to Milwaukee.
Brown never did play a regular season game for the Angels. In late March of 1974, as spring training was winding down, the Halos sold him to the power-deprived Astros, where he was reunited with Preston Gomez, his former manager with the Padres. Gomez hoped that Brown could provide some punch as a platoon outfielder, but his long swing was not exactly made for the Astrodome. So after 27 games with the Astros, they sold him on waivers to the Phillies.
Now 30 years of age and long removed from his two prime seasons in San Diego, Brown found himself at a crossroads. Just when it appeared that his career might end in oblivion, Brown found a second career with the Phillies as a bench player. Starting him occasionally against left-handers and using him as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement, the Phillies discovered that Brown could be a productive part-time player.
In 1975, he emerged as one of the game’s best in that role. In 161 sporadic plate appearances, many of which occurred in a platoon with Jay Johnstone in right field, Brown batted .303, hit six home runs, and put up a career-best OPS of .879. With Brown leading the way, the Phillies’ bench brigade, which included productive players like Johnny Oates, Tim McCarver and Tony Taylor, became a force for an improving team in the National League East.
Brown remained an effective bench player through 1976, helping the Phillies win the NL East, before his hitting fell off in 1977. After the season, he became a free agent, but drew little interest at the age of 33. Brown decided to call it a career after 13 big league seasons.
Since retiring, Brown has stayed out of baseball, instead settling into life as a “semi-retired” businessman. The power is gone, just like the arm. But he remains a fan of baseball, watching many games on television. He doesn’t decry the state of the game, but instead admires the way today’s players stay in shape all year round. As much as the game has changed since 1977, Ollie Brown still loves it.
References and Resources
The Sporting News
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.