In life James Donaldson Brown’s journey took him from humble beginnings in Laurel, Maryland, to a nondescript death in an Oregon logging town. In between his birth and death he completed an odyssey that entailed stops in at least 28 minor-league cities, one foreign country and two major-league cities. He crisscrossed the county playing in ballparks from Hartford, Connecticut, to Bay City, Michigan, to Galveston, Texas, to Wichita, Kansas. More than once he found himself looking for a job in midseason as leagues folded. Outside of baseball he was known to manage a billiard parlor and spent several years in the motion-picture industry.
Brown was the third and youngest child born to James Sylvester and Annie Powers Brown on March 31, 1891, in Laurel, Maryland. Brown’s father was born in Ellicott City, Maryland,1 in October 1850.2 His mother was born in Port Deposit, Maryland,3 on February 14, 1856.4 Census records provide little insight into Brown’s ancestral heritage. Birthplaces for his grandparents alternate between Maryland and Ireland in various census records. A sister, Mary Alice Brown, was born in Maryland in 1884 followed by a brother, Walter Stanislaus Thurman Brown, who was born in Maryland on June 18, 1888.
Nicholas Snowden’s stone flour mill opened in 1811 on the site that would eventually become Laurel Factory, Maryland.5 That grist mill became a cotton mill in 1824 and by the turn of the twentieth century would be Laurel’s largest employer.6 Census records indicate that it was the source of employment for Brown’s father from the 1880s through at least 1910, when James S. Brown was listed as one of the mill’s “boss weavers.”
Mary Alice Brown married a Midwestern businessman, Charles Willard Harris, in November 1905 in Washington, DC.7 Walter Brown graduated from Georgetown University Law School in June 1909 with a bachelor of law degree8 and two years later married Hallie M. Wilson of Baltimore.9
By 1907 newspaper accounts show Don Brown as the captain and pitcher with the Laurel High Baseball Club that went 16-5.10 Brown remained with the team until 1910, when a telegram summoned him to Petersburg, Virginia, in mid-August to play with the Goobers of the Class C Virginia League.11 (Around the turn of the twentieth century, most high-school teams played in the summer, after classes were over.) Preseason reports in 1911 had Brown slated to play with Hampden Athletic Association, a semipro team in Baltimore.12 Later that year Brown surfaced with Portsmouth in the outlaw Tidewater League, and shortly after his arrival it was reported that he had been signed by the New York Highlanders13 by Arthur Irwin.14 When Portsmouth folded in late July of 1911, Brown moved to Danville, Virginia,15 for a short four-game stint with the Red Sox of the Virginia League. Brown moved on to the Winston-Salem Twins of the Carolina Association,16 where he batted.300 in 25 games.
Sporting Life reported in its March 30, 1912, edition that Brown had been released to the Bridgeport Orators of the Connecticut State League. Brown apparently failed to stick in professional baseball for much of 1912. After drawing his release from Bridgeport, he caught on with Columbia of the South Atlantic League, but was dropped again when he was released in mid-May.17 The Washington (D.C.) Herald reported in a 1913 article on Brown that he spent the majority of the season playing semiprofessional baseball in the Baltimore area.18
Nothing appeared to come easy to Brown and this included his first trip to the major leagues, in 1915. After a solid season in 1914 during which he hit .280 in 142 games for the Jackson Chiefs of the Southern Michigan League, Brown was traded to the St. Joseph Drummers for pitcher Lynn McDonald.19 Brown failed to stick with St. Joseph and eventually signed with the Beatrice Milkskimmers of the Nebraska State League in early May of 1915.20
Although Brown played for the Milkskimmers only from May until July 18, 1915, when the Nebraska State League disbanded, he resided in the southeastern Nebraska city until he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1917, and listed Harrisburg as his hometown on his World War I draft registration card.21
Published reports in early July 1915 had Brown headed for Aberdeen, Washington, and the Northwestern League, but there is no evidence that he made it to the West Coast that year. By July 20, 1915, Brown had signed with manager Jimmy Jackson of the Topeka Jayhawks in the Western League. On that day Brown struck out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Denver Bears in his Topeka debut.22 He went on to play 56 games for the Jayhawks that year, hitting .320.23 Topeka’s season ended with a Labor Day doubleheader against Wichita24 after which the Jayhawks embarked on a two-week barnstorming trip.25
Brown was sold in September to the St. Louis Cardinals subject to the upcoming draft. A week after wrapping up his stint with Topeka, he found himself in St. Louis, where the Cardinals were hosting the Brooklyn Robins in the midst of a 25-game homestand. Brown’s major-league debut came on September 13, 1915, when he pinch-hit in the bottom of the third inning for Cardinals pitcher Slim Sallee, who had been touched for five runs in the top of the inning. Brown stayed in the game and acquitted himself well at the plate, going 1-for-2 and drawing two walks. The Cardinals lost, 6-3, as Jack Coombs won his 13th game in his first season with Brooklyn after nine seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics.26
The Topeka Daily Capital reported that Brown returned to Topeka on September 19, 1915, after his one-game stint in St. Louis.27 Despite speculation that he would be drafted by the Chicago White Sox, it was the New York Yankees that selected Brown. Yankees scout Bobby Gilks came to Topeka and signed Brown on September 24.28 By then Brown was reportedly headed for a three-week engagement with a semipro team in Fairview, Oklahoma.29
Brown spent the offseason in Beatrice, working in J.L. Ashenfelter’s billiard parlor and living with his mother.30 On February 20, 1916, he left Beatrice for spring training in Macon, Georgia, with the Yankees.31 A bad back landed Brown in the hospital shortly after he arrived in Macon,32 and on March 26 he was farmed out to Columbus of the International League,33 and eventually transferred to the Troy Trojans of the New York State League.34 The Yankees filed a claim against Brown to recover a $200 advance that had been made to him during spring training. In May the National Commission, baseball’s governing body, upheld the Yankees’ claim and ordered Troy to withhold $25 from each of Brown’s paychecks until the debt had been repaid.35 Brown’s woes continued that same month when Trojans manager and owner Lew Wachter suspended him for “indifferent playing.”36 He was reinstated a week later, but his time in Troy was drawing to a close.
Unlike the previous season, when Brown found himself without a job after the Nebraska State League folded, this time it took the sale of the team to force his relocation. George Cockill of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a former Tri-State League and Pennsylvania State League player, reportedly paid $4,000 for the Troy team.37 Later that summer the Yankees sold Brown’s contract to Harrisburg, paving the way for his second stint in the majors.38
The Harrisburg Patriot reported on August 22 that Connie Mack had reached a deal that would send Brown to the Philadelphia A’s at the close of Harrisburg’s season; however, Mack stepped up that timeline and requested Brown’s presence in Philadelphia on August 28.39 Despite Mack’s summons, Brown didn’t surface in Philadelphia until September 5, when he started in right field in both games of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. Brown explained away his delay in reporting by simply saying that he was not in good shape.40 Cockill, on the other hand, told a far different story:
“Connie Mack sent me (Lee) King for Brown and I never thought there would be the least hitch on Brown’s part. Brown gave me his promise to report to Mack last Monday. He packed his belongings and appeared anxious for the chance. When I reached Syracuse I was surprised to get a telegram from Brown saying that he wouldn’t report unless his alleged claim against the Yankees was adjusted. He had the nerve to try to hold up Mack and compel him to make good the amount he thinks is coming him.”41
Once in Philadelphia, Brown played in 14 games, including six starts in center field and six in right. In his last start, on September 21 in Chicago, he enjoyed his finest day at the plate when he collected three hits and scored twice as the A’s downed the White Sox, 8-0, behind the five-hit pitching of Bullet Joe Bush. Brown logged his final major-league at-bat the next day in an unsuccessful pinch-hitting appearance for pitcher Elmer Myers in a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Browns.
While Brown never returned to the majors, he logged 10 more minor-league seasons before calling it a career in 1926.
The 1917 season was typical of many of Brown’s minor-league years. He started in the spring with the Baltimore Orioles in the International League, but was shipped to the Charlotte Hornets in the North Carolina State League.42 After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, pressure started to mount to end the baseball season and focus on the war effort. In North Carolina, Governor Thomas Walter Bickett called for baseball leagues to disband. “I love a game of baseball, but it seems to me that the summer of 1917 is no time for professional baseball, and I think all professional leagues should be disbanded,” he said in a speech. “The man who is able to play professional baseball ought to be either in a trench or in a furrow.”43
Two weeks after Bickett’s speech, representatives of the North Carolina State League agreed to suspend the league’s operation with no plans to reorganize in 1918.44 Out of work and facing a possible wartime draft, Brown went back to Harrisburg with his Charlotte manager, Earle Mack.45 His final two games with Harrisburg were headliners. In the morning game of a Fourth of July doubleheader, Brown pitched a no-hitter against the Reading Pretzels. That afternoon he was back on the mound, but did the damage with has bat when he knocked in the tying and winning runs as the Islanders scored three times in the ninth to complete the sweep.46 Those two wins accounted for Harrisburg’s longest winning streak and were the last in a season that saw them finish 11-44 before disbanding after the doubleheader.47 Brown, however, was not out of work long; he caught on with Reading the next day and went 2-for-4 as the starting second baseman when the Pretzels defeated Syracuse, 6-3.48 Brown’s tenure with Reading was short-lived as he jumped from the Pretzels to Hartford in the Eastern League.49 Hartford manager Louis Pieper had reportedly signed Brown on July 4, but Brown apparently chose to stay and play with Reading.50
After playing in the East for all of 1917, Brown headed west in 1918 to open the season with the Joplin Miners of the Western League.51 His stop in Joplin was short-lived and in mid-May he turned up in Wichita, another Western League town.52 Less than a month after landing in Wichita, Brown was released and off to Shreveport of the Texas League.53 The Harrisburg Evening News reported that he had been drafted and was slated to report to Camp Lee, Virginia, at the end of June.54 Brown’s name was indeed in a list of 275 draftees who left Harrisburg on June 24 bound for Camp Lee.55 Although Brown’s death certificate said he was a World War I veteran, there is no other evidence that points to his service, and by mid-July he was back playing for Buffalo in the International League.56
For the first time since 1914, Brown spent an entire season with one team in 1919. Playing in the outfield for the Shreveport Gassers of the Texas League, he batted .268 with a career-high 11 home runs. After the season Brown returned to Pennsylvania and married Helen E. Loose of Reading in Philadelphia.57
Brown again played a full season in Shreveport in 1920 before being drafted by Little Rock of the Southern Association in the fall. He considered giving up baseball, but was persuaded to join the Travelers by manager Kid Elberfeld.58 Brown flourished in Little Rock and was one of the league’s leading batters when the announcement of his sale to Memphis of the Southern Association was made public on August 14, 1921.59 In the offseason Brown and his wife are shown on the passenger manifest of the SS Zacapa returning to New Orleans on November 11, 1921, along with Memphis teammates Bob Dowie, Polly McLarry, and Bernie Hungling.60 After returning, Brown spent the winter in New Orleans playing in exhibition games between teams managed by former major leaguers Jake Atz and Larry Gilbert61 and joined the New Orleans Pelicans in April 1922.62 He saw sporadic action for the Pelicans and in early May was sold to Galveston, returning to the Texas League.63
After the 1922 season, Galveston reached a deal to bring in another Don Brown.64 Don Martin Brown was slightly younger than James Donaldson Brown and had spent the 1922 season with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League. The Browns would mix it up and be mixed up for the next couple of seasons as both bounced around leagues throughout the South and Midwest. After they started the 1923 season together in Galveston, Don M. Brown was loaned to Beaumont before being recalled and James Donaldson Brown was sent to Beaumont in his place.65 Before the end of June, James Donaldson Brown was sent to Augusta of the South Atlantic League, where he stayed for four games before finishing the season in Omaha.66
Brown started the 1924 season in Omaha, but by early May he was given his unconditional release.67 Brown never appeared to struggle to find a job and within a week was signed to a contract by Corsicana of the Class D Texas Association, where he finished the season.68
Corsicana released Brown before the 1925 season started.69 He ended up with Bay City in the Michigan-Ontario League, where he had played in 1913.70 By all accounts Brown wrapped up his baseball career in 1926 with stops in Terre Haute and Bloomington in the Three-I League and Dubuque in the Mississippi Valley League, and made his way to Los Angeles.71
Brown was the last of his immediate family to make the westward trek. By 1920 his brother, Walter, and sister, Mary, were both living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Walter in Oakland and Mary in San Leandro.72 Brown was listed in the 1928 Los Angeles City Directory as a ballplayer despite possibly being out of the game since 1926. The next year he was listed as a gripman and living with Helen in Los Angeles. This definitively marks Brown’s shift from baseball to a career in the motion-picture industry. Details from Brown’s life are sketchy, but he can be found in Los Angeles city directories throughout much of the 1930s listed as a gripman, actor, cameraman, or studio worker.
When Brown registered for the World War II draft he was unemployed and living in San Diego, California. According to his draft registration he had been incarcerated in a prison road camp from February 23, 1942, until his release on July 8, 1942.73 His death at the age of 53 remained a mystery until Peter Morris located his death certificate on familysearch.org in 2010.74 Death came on October 22, 1944, in Bradwood, Oregon. Brown’s death certificate showed that he was a carpenter working in the movie industry and that he had been in Oregon for about two months. The Astoria Daily Budget reported on October 23, 1944, that Brown “had complained of his heart recently and that death was caused by a heart attack,” but it provided no insight as to why Brown was in Bradwood. His body was taken to Hughes-Ransom Mortuary in Astoria, Oregon, where an inventory revealed $18.39 in cash and coins and a wallet containing his Social Security card and his Selective Service registration card.75 His funeral service was held on October 28 at Hughes-Ransom and he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Astoria.76
1 Standard certificate of death for James Donaldson Brown, Oregon State Board of Health Division of Vital Statistics, Salem, Oregon.
2 US Census Bureau, 1900 US Census.
3 James Donaldson Brown death certificate.
4 Ancestry.com, California, Death Index, 1940-1997 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2000.
6 “Laurel Cotton Mill and Dam,” historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HMEWA_laurel-cotton-mill-and-dam Laurel-MD.html, accessed January 8, 2015.
8 “Biggest Class Ever,” Washington Evening Star, June 8, 1909.
9 “Marriage Licenses,” Washington Herald, February 8, 1911.
10 “Record of Laurel School,” Baltimore American, October 1907.
11 “Laurel Trims Twining,” Washington Herald, August 14, 1910.
12 “Players at Laurel Reorganize Team,” Washington Times, March 19, 1911.
13 “Bob Thayer’s Sporting Gossip,” Washington Times, June 6, 1911.
14 “Ball and Bat Notes,” Frederick (Maryland) Post,” April 13, 1912.
15 “Virginia League,” Sporting Life, August 5, 1911.
16 “Swindell Had It On Deacon,” Winston-Salem (North Carolina) Journal, August 5, 1911.
17 “Baseball Here and There,” The State (Columbia, South Carolina), May 16, 1912.
18 “Don Brown Starring in Michigan State League,” Washington (D.C.) Herald, June 27, 1913.
19 “Lynn McDonald for Don Brown,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1915.
20 “Line Drives,” Beatrice (Nebraska) Daily Sun, May 5, 1915.
21 Ancestry.com. US World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2005, accessed June 18, 2014.
22 “Savages Divide Two With Bears,” Topeka (Kansas) Daily Capital, July 21, 1915.
23 “1915 Record of Topeka Players,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 15, 1915.
24 Jay E. House, “Topeka Finished in Third Place,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 7, 1915.
25 “Ball Players Scatter to Winter Homes Soon,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 7, 1915.
26 Thomas S. Rice, “Superbas Win but Fail to Gain on the Phils,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 14, 1915.
27 “Tom Brown Drafted by White Sox, Is Report,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 20, 1915.
28 “Brown Sold to Yanks This Time,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 25, 1915.
29 “Jackson Will Play in South,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 24, 1915.
30 “Don Brown Ordered to Report to N.Y. Team,” Beatrice Daily Sun, February 6, 1916.
31 “Personal Mention,” Beatrice Daily Sun, February 20, 1916.
32 “Sport Film Flickers,” Elmira (New York) Star-Gazette, February 28, 1916.
33 “Weeder Cuts Path Thru Yankee Squad,” Colorado Springs Gazette, March 27, 1916.
34 Troy Gets Two Players,” Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1916.
35 “Notes of the Game,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 28, 1916.
36 “Friel to Be In Box in Game With Trojans To-Day,” Syracuse Herald, May 12, 1916.
37 “Troy Club Transferred Here,” Harrisburg Patriot, June 12, 1916.
38 “Harrisburg Club Purchases Brown,” Harrisburg Patriot, July 29, 1916.
39 “ ‘Don’ Brown to Join Athletics Today,” Harrisburg Patriot, August 28, 1916.
40 “Welly’s Corner,” Harrisburg Telegraph, September 6, 1916.
41 “Manager Cockill Is Sore on J. Don Brown,” Harrisburg Telegraph, September 2, 1916.
42 “Hornets Get Don Brown and Bill Morrisette,” Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, March 29, 1917.
43 “Disbanding of Baseball Clubs,” Charlotte Observer, May 14, 1917.
44 “League Is Laid on the Shelf,” Charlotte Observer, June 1, 1917.
45 Cockill Signs 3 New Players,” Harrisburg Evening News, June 1, 1917.
46 “Don Brown Twice Defeats Reading in Holiday Bill,” Reading Times, July 5, 1917.
47 “Islanders End Baseball Race,” Harrisburg Evening News, July 6, 1917.
48 “Locals Play Like Champs and Beat Syracuse Stars,” Reading Times, July 6, 1917.
49 “Locals Patched Up Team Beaten Again by Bings,” Reading Times, July 28, 1917.
50 “Senators Take Two From Murlins,” Hartford Courant, July 29, 1917.
51 “Nebraska Nubbins,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, April 10, 1918.
52 “Diamond Glitter,” Wichita Beacon, May 11, 1918.
53 “Shreveport 11, Waco 4,” Houston Chronicle, May 26, 1918.
54 “71 Selectives for Camp Lee,” Harrisburg Evening News, June 17, 1918.
55 “275 Men Leave This Morning for Camp Lee,” Harrisburg Patriot, June 24, 1918.
56 “Brown Now Hurls on Buffalo Team,” Harrisburg Patriot, July 16, 1918.
57 “Married At Phila.,” Reading Times, November 1, 1919; Ancestry.com. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011, accessed April 2, 2016.
58 “Don Brown Accepts Little Rock Terms,” Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), February 22, 1921.
59 “Memphis Buys Don Brown From Little Rock Club,” Arkansas Gazette, August 14, 1921.
60 Ancestry.com. New Orleans, Passenger Lists, 1813-1963 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2006, access April 3, 2016.
61 “Chick Star to Play On Atz’s Team,” New Orleans Item, January 19, 1922.
62 “Brown Deal Will Complete Pels’ Outfield,” New Orleans Item, April 6, 1922.
63 “Don Brown Back to Texas League,” Arkansas Gazette, May 8, 1922.
64 “Buff Owners Not Telling Who They Got,” Houston Chronicle, December 8, 1922.
65 “W.A. Sidelights,” Springfield (Missouri) Leader, June 17, 1923.
66 “Jinx Sport Hotshots,” Waco News Tribune,” July 21, 1923.
67 “Tulsa Gets Aboard Rod Hurlers’ Offerings and Takes a One-Sided Opener,” Omaha World-Herald, May 3, 1924.
68 “Corsicana Oilers Battled Rangers in First Contest,” Corsicana (Texas) Daily Sun, May 10, 1924.
69 “Corsicana Oilers Sent Contracts for Approaching Season,” Corsicana Daily Sun, January 28, 1925.
70 “Bait for Bugs,” Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, April 28, 1926.
72 US Census Bureau, 1920 US Census.
73 World War II Draft Cards (4th Registration) for the State of California; State Headquarters: California; Microfilm Roll: 603155, accessed April 6, 2016.
74 Peter Morris, “Re: James Donaldson Brown Found?” Email message to Tim Copeland, May 1, 2010.
75 Todd Slack, “Re: Mr. Brown,” email message to Tim Copeland, May 31, 2014.
76 “James D. Brown,” Astoria (Oregon) Daily Budget, October 26, 1944.