Gates Brown: When “The Gator” Was A Tiger (Part 1)
From the moment he debuted in the big leagues, Gates Brown was destined to become a pinch-hitting hero for the Detroit Tigers. He later became the Tigers’ first designated hitter. As a player and then as a hitting coach, “The Gator” also contributed to Detroit’s last two World Series winning teams.
Gates Brown was called up to the Tigers in June 1963. At the time, he was regarded as one of “the most crowd-pleasing players ever to play for the Syracuse Chiefs”, the Tigers’ AAA farm club in the International League. Brown was the first place Chiefs’ leading slugger, and the left-handed hitting left fielder had recently thrilled fans with one of the biggest home runs hit at the team’s ballpark, MacArthur Stadium.
The Tigers, mired in ninth place in the ten-team American League, hoped that Brown would add some much needed pop. He hit 13 home runs and drove in 43 runs in Syracuse. On the Tigers team that he was joining, only right fielder Al Kaline (15 HR, 48 RBI) had been more productive. Left fielder Rocky Colavito and center fielder Billy Bruton had combined for nine homers and 45 RBI.
During an off day before a series in Boston, Tigers manager Bob Scheffing said that he was thinking about resting Bruton, moving Kaline to center, and giving the newcomer Brown a shot in right. The skipper didn’t get the chance to do that, however. Before the series at Fenway Park even started, he was fired and replaced by Charlie Dressen.
On June 19, the Tigers trailed the Red Sox 4-1 after four innings. Although Tigers starter Don Mossi had just pitched a 1-2-3 fourth, Dressen had apparently seen enough. Mossi was scheduled to lead off the top of the fifth, but Brown was called on to pinch-hit. The 24-year old Tigers rookie made his major league debut against a pitcher who was also debuting that day, Bob Heffner.
Brown rocketed a pitch high and deep to right to become the third Tiger to homer in his first big league at-bat and the first since George Vico in 1948. It’s only happened four times since. (In 2015, Daniel Norris became the most recent Tiger to do it.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything else for the Tigers to be happy about, as the Red Sox won 9-2. It was the Tigers’ ninth straight loss in a streak of futility that would last ten games.
One of the happiest guys in a Tigers uniform that day might have been first base coach Pat Mullin, who said that Brown’s home run gave him chills. Mullin was the scout that convinced the Tigers that they should sign Brown in the fall of 1959 after he watched Gates hit four home runs in two games. According to Mullin, the Indians and White Sox were also interested in this unusual prospect. What was unusual about him? Brown was playing for a makeshift team at Mansfield State Reformatory in Ohio. He was doing time for breaking and entering and served 22 months before being paroled. It was a risky move on the Tigers’ part, which Mullin acknowledged. He said,
"“We still had a lot of owners on the Tigers in those days, and if things didn’t work out with Gates, you could almost hear one of the owners ask ‘Who was that scout who signed that boy out of prison?'”"
(It should be noted that the problematic usage of the word “boy” to describe a Black man was, unfortunately, not uncommon back then, and so Mullin’s quote, whether he realized its racial undertones or not, has not been edited here.)
Luckily for everyone involved, the Tigers’ signing of Brown did work out. Even before putting on a Detroit uniform, success came easily for Brown early in his professional baseball career. He led the Class C Northern League in triples in 1960, won the Class B Carolina League batting title in 1961, and led the Class AAA American Association in triples in 1962. He was hitting over .300 when the Tigers called him up. Reminiscing over a decade later about what drove him in those formative days, he recalled,
"“I found that a lot of people like to identify with the underdog, but at the beginning, I had to win people over by the way I played. It wasn’t just that way because I had been in jail. It was like that for 99 percent of the Black players at the time.I was on probation for the first year and couldn’t get into any kind of trouble. I couldn’t take a swing at anybody or get in any kind of fight at all. So I decided to concentrate on playing as well as I could.”"
It didn’t take the Tigers long to discover that coming off the bench late in a game to deliver a big hit was something that Brown did well. On June 22, the Tigers and Kansas City A’s were locked in a 2-2 tie. The Tigers’ Bubba Phillips led off the top of the ninth with a single and went to second on a sacrifice bunt from Gus Triandos. With starting pitcher Phil Regan due up, Brown pinch-hit instead. He sent “a rather lazy bouncer past the mound” and into center field. It was enough to drive Phillips in with what turned out to be the game-winning run in a 3-2 triumph.
Brown was a big part of a big rally at home on June 28. In the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Angels, he pinch-hit for starting pitcher Mickey Lolich to lead off the eighth. The Tigers trailed 3-1. Brown drew a walk. After Jake Wood grounded out, Brown trekked around the bases on back-to-back singles by Dick McAuliffe and Al Kaline. Colavito’s three-run homer gave the Tigers a 5-3 lead. Detroit kept the rally going, and Brown found himself at the plate for the second time in the inning. This time, the bases were loaded. “The Gator” cleared them with a double. The three insurance runs capped an 8-3 Tigers win.
On August 18 against the Angels in Dodger Stadium, Dressen put Brown in the starting lineup for just the fourth time. It was a good move, as the young left fielder enjoyed the first four-hit game of his career. He delivered the biggest hit in the third inning. The Tigers had just tied the game 1-1 on Bruton’s RBI double. Brown’s first big league triple, off future Tiger teammate Dean Chance, drove Bruton in. The Tigers went on to win 3-2. (Brown wouldn’t get four hits in a game again until 1971.)
Brown finished his rookie season with five pinch-hits, which tied him with Frank Kostro for second on the team behind Bruton, who notched six. Kostro had been traded to the Angels at the same time that Brown was called up. The home run that Brown hit in his debut was one of only three pinch-hit homers that the Tigers’ bench provided all season. He also walked five times as a pinch-hitter.
“The Gator” didn’t do much pinch-hitting in 1964, his first full season in the majors. The Tigers traded Colavito in November 1963, which opened up left field for promising youngster Willie Horton. However, Horton struggled and was sent to the minors in mid-May. Brown got the bulk of the playing time in left for the remainder of the season. He responded quickly to the new opportunity and contributed 13 hits in his first nine starts.
Hitting second in the Tigers’ lineup, Brown was especially good on May 18 in Washington. His first-inning double scored Bruton, who had walked to lead off the game. By the time the ninth inning rolled around, the Senators were on top, 6-4. The Tigers had a little bit of life left, though. With one out, Don Demeter doubled and Bruton reached safely on an error. Brown ripped a double to center to tie the game. Two batters later, he scored the game-winning run on a Norm Cash double.
Brown hit two homers in a game for the first – and only – time in his career on June 24. His solo shot in the top of the second in Kansas City increased a Tigers lead to 4-0. The A’s, bolstered by a three-run homer from the former Tiger Rocky Colavito, made it a 5-5 game in the fourth. That inning could’ve been worse for Detroit. Brown made “a sensational catch” in foul territory with the bases loaded and two outs. After the Tigers reclaimed the lead, Brown added a two-run homer to pad it. The Tigers won 9-5.
Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press, who was often critical of Colavito when “The Rock” was a Tiger, seemed to relish the moment. He began his game recap by writing,
"“Who needs Rocky Colavito?Gates Brown, the new left fielder of the Tigers, out homered the old left fielder by a 2-1 margin.”"
In 123 games in 1964, including 101 starts, Brown performed well (.272/.326/.458 with a 114 OPS+). He racked up career highs in plate appearances (465), hits (116), runs (65), doubles (22), triples (6), home runs (15), RBI (54), stolen bases (11), total bases (195), and bWAR (3.3). His 31 walks would remain a career-high until 1973. “The Gator” also had two separate eleven-game hitting streaks. Dressen saw him as a middle-of-the-order threat and penciled Brown’s name in the cleanup spot 31 times. He also hit fifth in the Tigers lineup 26 times. Occasionally, he’d hit second (18 games) or third (16 games) and was even the leadoff hitter twice.
As the Tigers began spring training in 1965, Dressen said the left-field job was Brown’s, although Horton was still in the mix. The two outfielders had become close friends, and Brown was aware that his buddy was nipping at his heels. He admitted,
"“I can’t understand some people. They think because I’ve been up two years, I don’t have anything to worry about. They think I’ve got it made. I don’t have anything made. I’m such a terrible hitter in spring training that I’ve got to prove to them that I deserve to play.”"
The tide may have turned when the Tigers began the exhibition season with a game against their Syracuse farm club. Brown had four hits, but a lazy effort in retrieving a ball that had gotten by him for an error and a lackadaisical effort on the base paths later in the game caught Dressen’s attention. The veteran manager let everybody know that he was unhappy about that. He ranted,
"“I’ll put Jim Northrup in left field for a few games, and maybe that’ll make Gates run a little…He didn’t hustle, and I told him so. I’ve been around long enough to know when a guy hustles and when he loafs.”"
Shortly after, Dressen was felled by a heart attack. Interim manager Bob Swift, who saw big-time power potential in Horton’s bat, envisioned Willie as the Tigers’ regular left fielder. Northrup, a rookie, also continued to accumulate playing time there. When the season began, Brown was once again a reserve player. He was asked about his status on the Tigers and answered,
"“Maybe I can help the team this way…by pinch-hitting. I’m on the team, ain’t I? That’s enough of a reason to be happy.”"
There was a lot of happiness to go around on April 24 when the Tigers hosted the Twins. Horton led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run to tie the game at 4-4. Two walks and two outs later, Brown pinch-hit for Don Wert. Falls pointedly set the stage for Free Press readers. He wrote,
"“The guy they call Gates came out of the darkness of the dugout (which is a polite way of saying he’s the guy the Tigers have forgotten) and slammed a three-run homer in the pinch to carry the Tigers to a 7-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins.”"
Brown’s first career walk-off homer ended up in the upper deck in right field. It was a 1-0 pitch from righty Al Worthington, who Brown said he had trouble against in the minors. He had considered taking it for a strike but changed his mind at the last second. It was a fortunate instinct.
Other than a 19-game stretch as a starter in August, in which 23 hits (12 for extra bases) and five walks fueled a .315/.359/.575 line, “The Gator” had taken over as the Tigers’ go-to pinch-hitter in 1965. He led the team with 35 pinch-hit at-bats. He and Jake Wood were each tied for the lead with nine pinch-hits, but Brown led the Tigers with seven pinch-hit RBI.
Frustration over his limited role was starting to take a toll on Brown, however. Like Northrup in 1965, another youngster, Mickey Stanley, moved ahead of Brown in the Tigers crowded outfield rotation in 1966. Stanley was being groomed to take over center field. With another year of riding the bench looming, Brown vented,
"“If only they’d tell me what they really want from me. Every spring it’s the same. They tell me I have a chance to make the ballclub, and I come down here and bust my tail trying. And every single time I end up back on the bench. I’ve shown them I can hit. I know I can run. I’m not going to embarrass anybody in the field…I try not to get discouraged, but I know I can do the job. But it’s hard.”"
George Cantor of the Free Press offered a synopsis of Brown’s skillset. He wrote,
"“Brown is probably the fastest man on the squad, although you’d never guess it to look at his chunky 215-pound frame. Brown’s great speed enables him to make up for the poor jump he gets on a flyball, and he’ll hold on to anything he reaches.A new arm would help. It’s no secret that Gates has the weakest throwing arm of any Tigers outfielder and probably one of the weakest in the league.”"
Brown had a solid season as a pinch-hitter in 1966, batting .325 off the bench (13 for 40) with two homers, six walks, and nine RBI. He was third in the AL in pinch-hits.
One of Brown’s key pinch hits happened in Anaheim on September 26. The Tigers and Angels were tied 1-1 going into the ninth. Stanley led off the inning with a triple. The next batter, Bill Freehan, grounded to third. Starting pitcher Denny McLain was due up, but Tigers manager Frank Skaff called on Brown to hit for him. “The Gator” singled to right, scoring Stanley. Relief ace Larry Sherry set the Angels down in order in the bottom half, and the Tigers savored a 2-1 victory. Brown’s hit had made McLain a 20-game winner for the first time in his career.
By the time 1967 rolled around, Brown was firmly entrenched as the Tigers’ primary pinch-hitter. He still carried with him the optimism that he could be a bigger contributor. During a stop on the team’s winter press tour in January, he mused,
"“I hope to play more. If I can get a hot stick in Lakeland this spring, our new manager (Mayo Smith) may have to alter his plans because you’ll see ‘Old Gator’ out there in the regular outfield.”"
Out of necessity, Smith’s plans did change, and “Old Gator” began the season in the regular outfield. Horton was unable to answer the bell for the season opener due to an injured Achilles tendon, and Brown cracked Opening Day starting lineup for the first time. With the Tigers trailing the Angels 4-0 and down to their last out in the top of ninth, Brown hit a two-run home run. The Tigers’ comeback attempt was halted when Freehan struck out to end the game. Brown addressed the hole in the Tigers’ lineup that he would try to fill during his best friend’s absence. He said,
"“I feel good about getting this chance, but let’s face it – Willie’s knocked in 100 runs for this club the last two years. I never came close to that. Of course, if I played, I might do as well, but the thing is, Willie has played and has helped this team.”"
Brown added another home run the next day as the Tigers beat the Angels 6-3. He got 14 starts in left field before Horton was activated, but hit .214 as a fill-in, with only two more extra-base hits (a double and a triple) after those first couple games. The season went south for Brown on June 30 in Cleveland. He dislocated his left wrist crashing into a wall in pursuit of a fly ball. The Tigers were in second place and trailed the White Sox by 5.5 games.
He was activated on September 1 after missing 73 games. The AL landscape had changed by then. The Tigers were in third place, but the standings were packed much tighter. They trailed the first-place Red Sox by two games and were just a half-game behind the second-place Twins. The White Sox were in fourth, a half-game behind the Tigers.
Although he was back, Brown didn’t get a chance to hit until September 10. He pinch-hit in both ends of a doubleheader that day but went hitless as the White Sox picked up a pair of shutout wins.
From the time he was activated through the end of the season, manager Mayo Smith only called on “The Gator” to pinch-hit six times, which resulted in a mere single. During that span, in the games when Brown stayed on the bench, fellow left-handed hitters Jim Northrup, Eddie Mathews, Norm Cash, Jerry Lumpe, Tom Matchick, and Lenny Green got a total of 12 pinch-hit appearances. Northrup was the most productive of that lefty bunch, notching a pair of two-run singles. The other five combined for only a single and a walk.
Being a non-factor – and seemingly ignored by his manager – in that crucial last month of the 1967 season was a bitter pill for Brown to swallow. Years later, while being interviewed by writer George Cantor for a book, Brown looked back and lamented,
"“I knew that one pinch hit could have made the difference, the way that race went.”"
The Red Sox and Twins began the final day of the regular season, October 1, tied for first, with the Tigers a half-game back. The Red Sox and Twins squared off in Boston, while the Tigers hosted the Angels in a doubleheader. In a best-case scenario, sweeping the Angels would have put the Tigers into a tie with the winner of that afternoon’s Red Sox-Twins game. Instead, the worst-case scenario prevailed as the Tigers were swept.
In the nightcap, Brown got one last opportunity when he was called on to pinch-hit for Dick Tracewski in the seventh after Dick McAuliffe’s two-run single cut an Angels lead to 8-5. There were two outs, and Angels manager Bill Rigney brought in his best reliever, right-hander Minnie Rojas, to face “The Gator”. It was Brown’s first appearance since September 18. A deep fly ball to right ended the inning. That 8-5 score held up as the final.
A tight pennant race ended in disappointment for the Tigers. For Brown, the injury-shortened season had been his worst (.187/.286/.286 overall and .160 as a pinch-hitter with no extra-base hits coming off the bench). All of that was on his mind when the Tigers reconvened for spring training the following February. Brown said that he “was on a mission” in 1968.
(To be continued.)