Former Tiger Gates Brown dies at 74
DETROIT -- On a joyous sports night in the late summer of 1968, when a mix of passion, hope and pent-up emotions flowed like a champagne fountain at a giant celebration, Gates Brown heard boos from the fans at old Tiger Stadium.
For a beloved character on the city’s most cherished team of the last half-century -- and perhaps ever -- the boos were a tribute to what Brown meant to the Tigers, how his fans were hoping to see him do something magical again with his bat, as he had so many times in his career, especially that season.
Brown, who died Friday at the age of 74, will be remembered as a role player on a team of stars who performed his job as a pinch-hitter at such a high level that he earned a special place in the Tigers’ pantheons of heroes.
The boos he heard on Sept. 17, 1968, with the Tigers one swing of the bat away from clinching the American League pennant and going to the World Series for the first time since 1945, were a testament to his stature on that championship team.
I was a young sportswriter at The Detroit News that night and had gone to the game with some co-workers. On that night, we were pure fans, devoid of even a whiff of professional detachment.
With the Tigers and Yankees tied, 1-1, and two out in the bottom of the ninth, manager Mayo Smith sent Brown up to pinch hit. Brown had delivered big hits in similar situations all season, and Tiger Stadium rocked with the expectation that he would come through again.
Al Kaline was on third base and Bill Freehan on first as Brown stepped into the batter’s box. One swing from Gates and the Tigers were in the World Series.
He never got a chance to swing.
The Yankees walked him, loading the bases. As ball two became ball three and then ball four, the crowd of 46,512 booed louder with every pitch out of the strike zone.
Of course, the fans got what they ultimately had come to see that night and what meant most. Don Wert, the next hitter, lined a single to right to score Kaline with the winning run.
That touched off one of the wildest and most warmhearted celebrations the city has ever seen. It was topped only by the celebration a month later when the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series.
No sports team ever meant as much to Detroit as the 1968 Tigers. They were the touchstone for those seeking to heal from the riots of 1967, and the Tigers’ near-miss on going to the World Series as they lost out on the final day of the season.
The 1968 Tigers had a roster of stars and super-sized personalities. Kaline was finishing the last few seasons of a Hall of Fame career. Denny McLain was a 31-game winner that season, and Mickey Lolich would become the World Series MVP. Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Earl Wilson and Dick McAuliffe had All-Star Games on their resumes.
Willie Horton, also an All Star and with an eminently deserved statue standing among the franchise’s all-time greats at Comerica Park, had hometown roots from Detroit’s Northwestern High School.
Detroit’s sports fans embrace role players on its championship teams. The Red Wings’ Grind Line and Vinnie Johnson of the Pistons are examples of that.
And the 1968 Tigers had Gates Brown.
He overcame true adversity to carve his niche in baseball.
He served a short sentence in the Ohio State Reformatory for burglary in the late 1950s.
When he signed with the Tigers, he said one of the reasons was that the team did not have any black players. Another reason was the inviting right-field porch at Tiger Stadium, with an overhang above the 325-foot mark on the lower deck.
Brown’s first major-league appearance was as a pinch-hitter -- fittingly -- on June 19, 1963. He hit a home run, becoming the 11th player at the time to homer in his first at-bat in the majors.
There were more hits and homers to come. He had 107 pinch hits, with 16 of them clearing the fences.
In the 1968 season, he was credited with a .450 batting average as a pinch-hitter. For the full season, he played in 67 games and hit .370 with six homers and 15 RBIs in only 92 at-bats.
Brown played 13 major-league seasons, all with the Tigers. He retired after the 1975 season with a career batting average of .252, 84 home runs and 322 RBIs. He had 107 pinch hits and 16 pinch-hit homers.
He came back to the Tigers in 1978 as a hitting coach and left the team after the 1984 season, when the Tigers won the World Series.
The story at the time was that Brown wanted a bigger raise than the Tigers were offering.
The Tigers of Brown’s era were a close-knit, colorful group, and Brown fit in.
He added to their legacy with an incident in August 1968. He didn’t start the game and, at one point, went to the clubhouse to get two hot dogs. Before he could chow down, the manager sent him up to pinch hit.
Brown stuffed the dogs inside his uniform jersey, then ripped a drive into the gap in right field. He slid in at second, safe with a double. When he stood up, the front of his uniform was stained with mustard, ketchup and the smashed hot dogs and buns.
Mayo Smith got on him for eating during the game and fined Brown $100 for the incident.
“I decided to tell him the truth,” Brown has been quoted as saying. “I said, ‘I was hungry. Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house?’”