Pinch-hitting for the last-place St. Louis Browns on Aug. 13, 1947, Willard Brown blasted a fly ball against the fence in the deepest part of Sportsman’s Park. A power-hitting outfielder with blazing speed, Brown tore around the bases for an inside-the-park home run that tied the game.
But when he returned to the dugout, there was no celebrating. Instead, one of his teammates took the bat that he had used and smashed it to bits against the wall. For Brown, already struggling to overcome the deadening atmosphere and racial animosity of a last-place team in major league baseball’s southernmost city, the moment effectively sealed his brief career in the big leagues.
Of the first black players in the majors, Brown is the one who failed to make the grade. Jackie Robinson, who had integrated baseball just a few months earlier, is still celebrated every year on the anniversary of his first major league game. Other Negro League pioneers in the late 1940s are also highly regarded for their prowess in the big leagues—stars like Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin. Brown, however, was released after several weeks of disappointing play, and he never made it back.
Yet if Brown had been given the opportunity, some experts believe, he had the potential to put up numbers that were as good or better than Robinson or other early Negro League players who were called up. And the smashing of the bat? It’s not entirely clear if that had anything to do with race. One of the most shocking moments of that racially charged season may actually have been motivated by a quirky superstition.
Willard Brown was born in Shreveport, La., on June 26, 1915. It was a time when the Ku Klux Klan was beginning a nationwide resurgence and black people had limited prospects, especially in the segregated South. Little is known about Brown’s childhood, although his father worked as a mill laborer and later had his own cabinetmaking shop.
Drawn to baseball from childhood, Brown got his first taste of the Negro Leagues as a batboy for the storied Kansas City Monarchs when they played spring games in Shreveport. He was still a teenager when he signed with the Monroe Monarchs of the Negro Southern League in 1934. Within a year, he caught the eye of J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, and embarked on one of the most impressive careers in the Negro Leagues.
Brown, a right-handed slugger who primarily played center field, helped lead the Monarchs to six pennants by 1946 as well as a victory in the Colored World Series (as it was called then), often hitting well above .300 while capturing repeated home run titles. Although he was a notorious bad-ball hitter, contemporaries had rarely seen such a combination of speed and power.
“He was the most natural ballplayer I ever saw,” said Buck O’Neil, the legendary player and manager with the Monarchs. “He’d steal second base standing up.”
None other than Josh Gibson, the Negro League star celebrated as one of the great sluggers of all time, nicknamed him “Home Run” Brown.
But Brown also acquired another nickname: “Sunny.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment. He didn’t like playing on gray, overcast days, or in front of straggling, weekday crowds. If he got bored, he’d even pull a Reader’s Digest out of his hip pocket as he stood in the outfield. In time, he became known as a “Sunday player,” saving his best for the festive crowds that gathered after church.
“Willard liked to play on Sundays when we had a full house,” former teammate Sammie Haynes told Negro League historians Larry Lester and Sammy Miller. “If the stands were full you couldn’t get him out. He could play baseball as good as he wanted to.” But, Haynes added, “If the stands were half empty, you might find Brown loafing that day.”
Brown’s desire to play before packed crowds may have been a warning sign of the troubles to come with the St. Louis Browns, a team with notoriously poor attendance. Overall, though, he seemed remarkably adaptable. Taking a year off from the Monarchs in 1940, he made an impression in a newly formed Mexican baseball league, hitting .354 and learning Spanish. While in the Army during World War II (he took part in the D-Day invasion at Normandy), he starred on an integrated team that improbably beat a team with several major leaguers. When the St. Louis Browns announced they had signed him, the Associated Press reported that, of the first black players brought up to the majors (including Jackie Robinson), “Outfielder Brown was considered to be the prize package of the lot, with only his age against him.”
Mired in last place and drawing paltry crowds, the Browns in the summer of 1947 may have felt they had nothing to lose by signing Brown and infielder Hank Thompson for $5,000 apiece from the Monarchs. Manager Muddy Ruel did not pretend to be enthusiastic. In order to improve its record, “the club believes that something had to be done,” he told reporters. “It happens that there is no acceptable player in our farm system at this time.” Brown wasn’t very enthused either. He said later that he agreed to the move because his teammates were saying: “Why don’t you go on, show them what you can do.”
He didn’t bring his bats with him. The Browns, he thought, would provide them. But St. Louis didn’t have the heavy bats that he had used with such impressive results in the Negro Leagues, nor did the team make any effort to acclimate the two black players. (The Brooklyn Dodgers, in contrast, sent Robinson to the minors for a year before calling him up.) Most of the players were openly hostile. “They wouldn’t speak to us and they wouldn’t even warm up with us,” Thompson told the Washington Afro-American in 1950. Thompson made his debut on July 17, and then Brown became the fourth black player in the major leagues two days later. Playing center field and batting fifth in front of just 2,434 fans in Sportsman’s Park, Brown went 0-for-3.
Brown had a few good days in the majors, most notably on July 23 at Yankee Stadium when he went 4-for-5 with three RBIs and a stolen base in front of more than 34,000 fans. Overall, however, he couldn’t find his stride. Maybe it had to do with not getting enough time to adjust. Maybe it had to do with the racist atmosphere, or the team being deep in last place and drawing so few fans. Or maybe it was the bat.
Most of the Browns players wielded bats lighter than the 40-ounce model Brown liked. He wound up finding a heavy bat that had been discarded by the team’s leading slugger, Jeff Heath. The knob had broken off, and umpires wouldn’t let Brown use tape to reattach it. So he used the bat without the knob.
This was the bat that Brown picked up on Aug. 13 when he was sent to pinch-hit in the eighth inning with the Browns trailing 5-3 and a runner on first. Hitting just .177, he was spending more and more time on the bench.
Facing Tigers ace and future Hall-of Famer Hal Newhouser, Brown barreled up and scorched a deep drive off the center field wall more than 420 feet from home plate. Flashing his tremendous speed, Brown circled the bases and safely crossed home plate to record the first home run by an African American in the American League.
What should have been a joyous moment went south in a hurry. The St. Louis players didn’t congratulate him or shake his hand. And then Heath took the bat and smashed it against the dugout wall.
The moment reverberates to this day. The website of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum highlights it: “Brown hit the homer with a bat that belonged to a teammate, and the player broke the bat rather than allow Brown ever to use it again.” O’Neil, who discussed the incident with Brown, brought up the bat decades later in his memoir: “He [Heath] didn’t want it back after a black guy had used it. Those were the kind of guys they had on that team.”
Yet it’s not entirely clear that Heath felt any animosity toward Brown. A product of Seattle with a quirky personality and quick temper, Heath had been through previous bouts with bats. While playing with the Cleveland Indians years earlier, he had struck out and then slammed his bat against the ground so hard that it bounced 10 feet and hit a spectator. But when Thompson and Brown came to St. Louis, he had been one of the few welcoming players on the team, according to a 1965 interview with Thompson.
Heath was a deeply superstitious player, and some have speculated that his superstitions, rather than bigotry, drove Heath to smash the bat. He didn’t like lending out his bats, and he used to say that there were only so many hits in a bat. “He said he would not have minded if Brown got a single, but he had used up one of the bat’s home runs,” said the Browns road secretary, Charlie DeWitt, after the season. It remains unclear how Heath’s superstitions extended to a bat that he had discarded.
Whatever the reason, Brown’s increasingly unhappy experience in St. Louis ended just 10 days later when the team released him. His career stats: 21 games, 67 at-bats, .179 average. And one home run. Of the five black players who were called up to the majors in 1947—Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Brown and Dan Bankhead—Brown was the only one who failed to make it back. (Thompson, 10 years younger than Brown, was also released by St. Louis after a disappointing performance, but he would later enjoy a productive career with the New York Giants.)
Embittered, Brown would look back contemptuously on the team for the rest of his life. “The Browns couldn’t beat the Monarchs no kind of way, only if we was all asleep,” he said almost 40 years later. “They didn’t have nothing. I said, ‘Major league team?’ They got to be kidding.”
Decades later, when O’Neil traveled across the country and spoke to schoolchildren about the integration of the major leagues, he would bring up that moment when Brown watched the bat being smashed. “He hit a home run and the man broke his bat. What is the lesson of Willard Brown?” he would ask. The moral, he would go on to explain, is that integration wasn’t easy.
But Brown wasn’t finished with baseball—far from it. Perhaps feeling he had something to prove, he played months later in the highly regarded Puerto Rican Winter League and absolutely crushed the ball, winning the triple crown with numbers that have rarely, if ever, been equaled. His batting average of .432 is the fourth-highest in the history of the league (far exceeding the league-leading marks of Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda over the following decade), and his 27 home runs in the 60-game season still stands as the all-time record. Two years later, Brown again won the triple crown, this time setting the league’s all-time RBI mark with 97. He became known as “Ese hombre”—that man.
Brown also returned to the Monarchs for several years, as well as playing in Latin America and Canada. Back in the United States, he batted an impressive .314 with 35 homers and 120 RBI in the Double-A Texas League in 1954. He was almost 40 years old.
His lifetime numbers in the Negro Leagues rank him among the top tier of players. He led the league six times in home runs, appeared in eight all-star games, and had a lifetime average of .351. Bill James would later compare him with major league stars Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Andre Dawson and Frank Robinson.
After Brown retired, he lived in Houston. Not much is known about his later life, although he is believed to have worked in the steel industry and, at some point, to have slipped into poverty. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his final years, dying in 1996 at the age of 81.
But his baseball feats were not forgotten. Ten years after his death, a special committee of baseball historians elected 12 Negro League and pre-Negro League players to the Hall of Fame. Among them was Willard Brown.
His plaque in Cooperstown highlights his achievements in the Negro Leagues, his two triple crowns in Puerto Rico, and his historic home run in the American League.
It doesn’t mention the bat.
References & Resources
- Baseball-Reference, “Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League” (formerly Puerto Rican League)
- Retrosheet, “Aug. 13, 1947 STL-DET Box Score”
- Rory Costello, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Bio Project, “Willard Brown”
- Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract, 2001
- David Laurila, Baseball Prospectus, “Prospectus Q&A: Chris Wertz”
- National Baseball Hall of Fame, “Willard Brown”
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “Willard ‘Home Run’ Brown”
- Buck O’Neil, with Steve Wulf and David Conrads, I Was Right on Time: My Journey From the Negro Leagues to the Majors
- Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America
- C. Paul Rogers III, Society for American Baseball Research, SABR Bio Project, “Jeff Heath”
- Doug Wilson, Seamheads, “The Turbulent Life and High Times of Hank Thompson, Major League Baseball’s Third Black Player”