Brown, Willard 1911(?)–1996
Willard Brown 1911(?)–1996
Willard “Home Run” Brown was the slugger who rounded out the remarkable Kansas City Monarchs baseball team, the dominant outfit in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s. In the twilight of his career he joined the St. Louis Browns of the American League, becoming one of the first African-American players to play in the major leagues and the first black American leaguer to hit a home run. Brown’s experiences in the majors showed that the integration of professional baseball did not proceed in a smooth arc after the groundbreaking signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947; like all other facets of the civil rights struggle, baseball’s integration was marked by hostility and by setbacks. Despite his difficulties in the majors, however, Brown was a star player by any standard and by the century’s end was often suggested as a candidate for the baseball Hall of Fame.
Willard Brown was born around 1911 in Shreveport, Louisiana; many sources give 1913 as his birthdate, but Brown was widely reported to have been 36 years old when he joined the Browns in 1947. Little is known of his early life, but his baseball career began with the Monroe, Louisiana Monarchs of the Negro Southern League. Pitching and playing shortstop for the Monroe squad in 1934 (he soon switched to the outfield), he earned $10 a week. He was discovered by Kansas City Monarchs owner J. L. Wilkinson and offered a contract that more than tripled his salary, to $125 per month, plus a $250 signing bonus and a $1-a-day meal allowance. Needless to say, he accepted the deal.
Wilkinson’s investment was a wise one, for Brown made the Negro American League (NAL) All-Star team in his second season in 1936. By the following year Brown was leading the Negro American League (NAL) in both batting average (with a torrid .371) and home runs. That year was the first of seven times Brown won the NAL home run crown, second only to Josh Gibson in the history of the black leagues. It was Gibson, impressed by the number of occasions on which the two sluggers found themselves in head-to-head home run derbies, who gave him the nickname “Home Run” Brown.
A short, powerful man, Brown swung for the fences. He was known to swing at (and hit a home run off of)
At a Glance…
Career: Played for Monroe, LA, Monarchs of Negro Southern League, 1934; signed to Kansas City Monarchs, 1935; led Negro American league in home runs seven times, 1937-48; led league in batting average three times, 1937-41; signed to St. Louis Browns, 1947; played 21 games; hit first home run recorded by an African-American player in American League; returned to Kansas City Monarchs, retiring in 1949; played winter baseball in Puerto Rico, 1946-54, 1956-57; played in Texas League, 1950s.
a ball that had bounced off the ground on its way to the plate. Nevertheless, Brown consistently batted well above .300 in the years leading up to World War II, and he won three NAL batting titles. “He hit just about every pitcher like he owned him,” Negro Leagues player Wilmer Fields told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “He had short arms, but he was strong as a bull. A fastball pitcher really had to work to get him out.” As the Monarchs dynasty took shape in the early 1940s, Brown was just approaching the prime of his career and seemed on track toward legendary status. In 1942 his batting average at the All-Star game break was an incredible .429, and it was no fluke—playing off-season baseball for the first time in Puerto Rico the previous winter he had hit .410.
The entry of the United States into World War II drained the Major Leagues of players who were drafted into or enlisted in the Armed Forces. There was talk of augmenting baseball rosters with black players, and Brown’s name was mentioned prominently in this connection. But the draft called a temporary halt to Brown’s career as well; joining the Army in 1943, he was sent to the European theater. He participated in the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 as a member of the Quartermaster Corps, transporting ammunition to the front. Brown kept a hand in baseball as a member of a servicemen’s league, playing a key role in his team’s victory in the G.I. World Series.
Back in Kansas City after the war’s end, Brown resumed his winning ways with a .348 batting average and a league-leading 13 home runs. Brown was batting at an even better pace in 1947 when he, along with infielder Henry Thompson, was signed to the St. Louis Browns of the American League in July of 1947 in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s joining the Brooklyn Dodgers squad. Brown, who joined St. Louis on July 17th, was the second African American to play in the American League, after Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians. On August 13th, Brown hit an inside-the-park home run—the first hit by a black player in the American League.
What happened in the wake of that home run, however, provides a partial explanation for the brevity of Brown’s major-league career and illustrates the problems African-American players faced in the early years of baseball’s integration. Brown, who used a large 40-ounce bat rather than the smaller 33-ounce bat favored in the majors, had retrieved a bat discarded by white teammate Jeff Heath after the knob on its handle end had chipped off. Nevertheless, Brown recalled in an interview with writer Jack Etkin quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “After I come in, Heath was going to see that I didn’t use it no more … He took the bat and hit it on the dugout. Tore it all to pieces in splinters in the dugout. Now, that’s something.… I wasn’t used to that kind of baseball.”
Dismayed by such treatment, Brown played poorly. His frustration showed in his attitude. Former player Quincy Trouppe complained in an interview quoted on the CBS Sportsline website that Brown “was so doggone triflin’! He would walk to the outfield… sometimes causing the pitcher to wait to throw the first pitch.” Brown batted only .179 over 21 games with the Browns and, along with Thompson, was released on August 23rd. Brown returned to Kansas City and enjoyed several more strong years before retiring from the Negro Leagues in 1949 with a career batting average of .355.
Brown continued to play winter baseball in Puerto Rico, taking the field for a team in Santurce every year from 1946 to 1954 and again in the 1956-57 season. Among the many highlights of his Puerto Rican career were a record 27 home runs in 60 games in the 1947-1948 season, a mark that still stands. He won the Triple Crown that year, topping the league in home runs, batting average, and runs batted in. Brown’s exploits on the field in Puerto Rico inspired a second nickname, “Ese Hombre” (“That Man”), and future Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who was one of Brown’s teammates in Puerto Rico, was quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune as saying that Brown was “one of the greatest hitters I ever saw.”
As his career wound down, Brown played minor-league baseball in Ottawa, Canada, and for Dallas and Houston teams in the Texas League. His four-year Texas League batting average was .306 (with an average of 23 home runs a year), even though he was in his 40s, and he was affectionately regarded by Texas fans. After finally retiring for good from baseball in 1957, however, Brown slipped into poverty. He developed Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1980s and was cared for in a Veterans Administration hospital in Houston. He died there on August 8, 1996.
Holway, John B., Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues from the Men Who Lived It, Meckler, 1989.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), August 4, 1997, p. D1.
Sports Illustrated, June 27, 1983, p. 40. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 18, 1997, p. B6. Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), July 5, 1994.
—James M. Manheim
"Brown, Willard 1911(?)–1996." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-willard-1911-1996
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