The legacy of Jumbo Brownby Frank Jackson
February 14, 2013
Whenever a player has a nickname like Jumbo, there are two possibilities: The name is apropos because of excess avoirdupois, or it is ironic because he is small (think of jumbo shrimp). No player of average size will ever be nicknamed Jumbo. Well, maybe if he has elephant ears.
In the case of Walter George Brown, the Jumbo nickname was definitely accurate. The only irony inherent in the nickname is that this 295-pound behemoth hailed from Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state. (Geography fun fact: Little Rhody is comprised of a scant 1,214 square miles. The next smallest state is Delaware, which has slightly more than twice as much real estate.)
Born in Greene, R.I. on April 30, 1907, Brown made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 26, 1925 at the age of 18. He spent 1926 in the minors, then went back and forth from minors to majors with the Indians in 1927 and 1928. From 1929 to 1931 he was strictly a minor leaguer.
In 1932, Brown returned to the majors (he was still only 24 years old at the start of the season) with the Yankees, spending four years with them in two-year increments sandwiched around a minor league season in 1934. A peripatetic season was 1937, when he went back and forth from the minors, pitched a few games for the Reds, and then was sold to the Giants.
During the five seasons he pitched for the Giants (1937-1941), he was strictly a reliever. These were the best years of his career, as he went 13-12 with a 2.93 ERA. For what it’s worth, he led the league in saves his last two seasons, but the totals (seven in 1940 and eight in 1941) wouldn’t get him within shouting distance of the leader board today.
His last appearance was at age 34 on Aug. 27, 1941. He was traded to the Cardinals before the season ended but never played for them. Given the fact that the 1940 and 1941 seasons were among his best, and that older players were lingering longer because the draft was spiriting away younger players, one can only conclude that injuries—related to his excess poundage?—must have prevented him for extending his career.
In old photos, Brown bears a resemblance to actor John Goodman. You might remember Goodman in a Yankees uniform when he played Babe Ruth in a 1992 movie called simply The Babe. Casting Goodman as Ruth was a big improvement over William Bendix, who somehow landed the role in the 1948 biopic, but Goodman as Jumbo Brown would have been spot on. Of course, as long as Brown was on the Yankees, the Babe didn’t have to worry about having the biggest gut on the team.
Like most super-sized people, Brown didn’t start out that way. In fact, at the conclusion of the 1927 season, he was only 197 pounds, a reasonable playing weight for someone who stood 6-foot-4. Imagine the surprise of the Indians in March 1928 when he reported to spring training in New Orleans at 265 pounds! The weight gain continued despite the rigors of spring training, and he eventually peaked at 295 pounds. His total weight gain was just short of 100 pounds.
Now, many overweight people like to blame their obesity on a medical condition. In Brown’s case, there might have been some truth to that claim. His weight gain started as soon as he had his tonsils removed in the offseason. Yeah, I know, a lot of people have their tonsils out and don’t put on 100 pounds. But I remember once hearing a doctor say he had never treated an obese person who didn’t have allergies... and the tonsils appear to play a role in the immune system. So draw your own conclusions.
If Jumbo Brown were around today, he would no doubt be flattered that Sony named a video screen (the Jumbotron) after him. Of course, the country that spawned the Jumbotron also spawned sumo wrestlers and Godzilla. Mere coincidence or not?
As for other wide-body ballplayers, I have no information on the status of their tonsils, but one can’t help but wonder. Consider the case of Juan Uribe. On his 1999 Asheville Tourists baseball card, he is listed at 6 feet and 145 pounds. When he reached the Rockies, he was listed at 5-foot-11 and 173 pounds. So he went from a beanpole to an average build, somehow losing an inch in height. Then things got out of hand.
On his 2006 White Sox card, Uribe is listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds. Finally, on my 2013 Dodgers calendar, Uribe, whose photo graced the month of January, was listed at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds. This is a total weight gain of 85 pounds! Not quite in Jumbo Brown’s league, but allergies or not, such an accumulation is nothing to be sneezed at.
Uribe is not alone among contemporary ballplayers who challenge the scales. Average heights and weights have gone up over the years. Major league baseball has banned human growth hormone, but you’d never know that by looking at contemporary players.
Consider the case of CC Sabathia, who is listed at 290 pounds. Admittedly, he is three inches taller than Jumbo Brown, so he doesn’t appear quite as “fat.” Still, one sluggish offseason could change that.
Jonathan Broxton, now with the Reds, is listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, so he has the edge on Brown. Since he’s only 28 years old, there’s still plenty of time to accumulate more poundage.
Broxton, however, is not the heaviest man to play major league baseball. That honor belongs to Walter Young, a first baseman and DH who made his debut the same year (2005) as Broxton. Tipping the scales at 322 pounds (on a 6-foot-5 frame), Young is the clear winner when it comes to the heavyweight championship of major league baseball.
We have the expanded September roster to thank for Young’s record, as his total major league career (with Baltimore) started on Sept. 6, 2005 and ended less than a month later. The results were not bad, 10 for 33 (.303) with one home run and three RBIs. Since he had amassed a club record 33 homers (and 98 RBIs) with the Double-A Bowie Baysox in 2004, one can see why the Orioles were interested. Perhaps he’d prove to be as good a fence-buster as he was a belt-buster.
Nevertheless, after Young’s cup of coffee in 2005, there were no refills in subsequent seasons. He went back to the minors to stay. After a year in the affiliated minors, he went to the independents (Winnipeg, Sussex, Sioux City, Edmonton) before retiring after the 2009 season.
Young’s poundage may be one of those records that will never be broken. Then again, as with the steroid controversy, such records may be tainted by the ingestion of baleful substances, albeit legal. If you believe everything you read about obesity and high fructose corn syrup in the American diet, it may be that today’s players have an unfair advantage over old-timers when it comes to poundage.
As with other baseball statistics, the stats on size are subject to interpretation. For example, Walter Young may have been the heaviest player in major league history, but he didn’t have the highest body mass index. Prince Fielder (5-foot-11, 275 pounds) has the lead in that department with a BMI of 38.4, over Young’s 38.2. His dad Cecil, by the way was listed at 6-foot-3 and 230. Respectable, to be sure, but no record-setter.
Of course, just how much a player weighs is sometimes a mystery. A good case in point is Eric Gagne, who was listed at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. Well, they might have gotten the height right, but if you ever watched him pitch, you know the weight is a gross underestimate. The same goes for Wilbur Wood, whom Baseball Almanac lists at 6 feet and 180 pounds. Thinking back to when I saw him pitch for the White Sox in the 1970s, I think another 35-40 pounds would be warranted.
Also worthy of note is another pitcher who acquired the nickname Jumbo, namely Jim Nash, who pitched for the A’s, Braves and Phillies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is listed at 6-foot-5 and 230, which wouldn’t turn heads today, but in a Phillies’ double-knit uniform, he appeared to be heavier than that.
Jim Bibby, who debuted in 1972, Nash’s final season, was also 6-foot-5, though he bested Nash by anywhere from five to 20 pounds, depending on your source. Since Bibby was a late bloomer (he didn’t reach the majors 'til age 27) and was pushing 40 when he retired, he certainly could have hit 250 pounds.
Any article about ballplayers and weight gain must include a reference to Terry Forster, who started out with 200 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, but ballooned to 270 during his playing career, which spanned the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. Since Forster made his debut with the White Sox in 1971, when Wilbur Wood was the bellwether of the starting rotation, one wonders if he adopted the eating habits of the master.
Today, if you’re handicapping prospects in the big man sweepstakes, how about Luis Jimenez, a longtime minor leaguer who recently signed up with Toronto? Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 280 pounds, this massive Venezuelan has intrigued a number of organizations: Oakland, Baltimore (twice), Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota, Boston, Washington, and Seattle. His major league experience (18 at-bats) is even less than Young’s, but he hasn’t retired, so there’s still time for some more at-bats (and more weight gain) in the bigs.
Now that Walter Young and Jonathan Broxton have broken the 300-pound barrier, the bar has been reset. Perhaps in the future 300-pounders will be as numerous as .300 hitters. As for 400-pounders? Probably as rare as .400 hitters, but one never knows.
Management remains tolerant of wide-body players so long as they get results on the playing field. But all it takes is one off-year to inspire the refrain, “Ever think about losing some weight?”
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.