A dapper Bob Brown surveys his domain from the wooden steps of Athletic Park. The 5′ 9″ Brown was a dandy of sorts, wearing vests until the 1950s, long after they had gone out of style. (David Eskenazi Collection)
Bob Brown figured more money was to be made in baseball as an owner than as a player. After leading the Aberdeen Black Cats to a pennant in 1907, the catcher-manager sought to leave the coastal sawmill town in Washington state by trying to purchase the baseball club in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Canadian city, a terminus for the transcontinental railroad, was booming as a port. Brown figured prospects were bright for success on the field and in the ledger book. When his offer was rejected by the Vancouver owners, he returned to Aberdeen and a year later bought a quarter-interest in the Spokane club for $1 on top of his $2,300 salary as manager.
Sales at the Spokane box office were brisk in 1909, as Brown led the team to 100 wins while a land boom in Idaho and the Alaska-Yukon-Panama Exposition in Seattle lured to the city in Eastern Washington many “excursionists with time on their hands and money in their pockets.”1 The club turned a $10,000 profit, a quarter of those dividends going to Brown. After failing to buy the club, he sold his quarter-share back to majority partner Joseph Cohn for $2,500. Flush with money, he tried again to purchase the struggling Vancouver club.
Brown realized the franchise was in trouble when the league had to pay the cost of the team’s return home from a series in Spokane. Creditors were pressing team owner A.R. Dickson, a grain merchant. Brown set up a secret offseason meeting with two of the club’s directors, renting a lavish suite at the old Hotel Vancouver, which he then had stocked with fine whiskey and a box of first-class cigars. He walked away with an option to buy after handing over a check for just $500. He later returned to the city with the league president in tow to complete the deal, which included 14 players and a three-year lease on Recreation Park.
“This is the first club I ever owned in my life,” Brown told a reporter as he boarded a train back to Seattle after buying the team, “and don’t you make any mistake about it, I am going to get a team that will be strictly in the running for the pennant.”2
The British Columbia port city had a population of 100,000, a fourfold increase over the past decade, and held great promise as a sports mecca. Brown was not the only aspiring sports tycoon with eyes on the city. The Patrick brothers – Lester and Frank – were soon to open a 10,000-seat hockey arena. “I liked this town first time I saw it,” Brown wrote in 1957. “Figured it had a real future, industrially, and in baseball, too.”3
Brown was not yet 34, a wiry, scrapping ballplayer who had spent time as a cowboy. He did not smile for photographs, preferring instead to glower. A Seattle newspaper once wrote in evaluating his baseball skills: “He can’t bat; he can’t field much; he is only an ordinary thrower – but he is a mighty good ballplayer. Bob is always in shape and he is always popping with pepper.”4 Unlike many in the sport, he was college-educated. As a manager, he was known for a hot temper. “Ball players weren’t made to be molly-coddled like prima donnas,” he said.5 He baited umpires. As an owner, he was a tough negotiator, pinching pennies on player salaries. He was also shrewd, as we have seen, parlaying $1 into a franchise ownership in just one year.
Brown kept baseball alive in Vancouver through the Spanish flu pandemic, the Depression, and both world wars, and on into the television era. As early as 1917, The Sporting News was hailing him in large type as “Vancouver’s Connie Mack.”6 As with Mack in Philadelphia, or John McGraw in New York, or Clark Griffith in Washington, DC, the summer game in Vancouver was entirely associated with Brown, who was known as Mr. Baseball. Only in the hockey world did the likes of Conn Smythe in Toronto or the Molson family in Montréal have so strong an association between a city and the owner of a franchise in a major sport.
Brown brought the great Babe Ruth to town, introduced night ball to Canada, and carved a ballpark out of forest with his bare hands (and the occasional stick of dynamite). That same Athletic Park would twice burn to the ground and twice be rebuilt. Brown played host to lacrosse, soccer, and football, though baseball always occupied the most dates. He built an adjacent gymnasium to add indoor sports to his calendar, and he formed the Vancouver Athletic Club to compete in various events. When professional baseball lapsed in the city, he nurtured a competitive semiprofessional city league. His Athletic Park junior clubbers, restricted to 1,200 members, who were known as the baseball kindergarten, were granted free entry to the park, turning children into lifelong patrons.
When the 1910 season opened, Brown was owner, manager, and starting shortstop of the Vancouver Beavers. The club finished second, and the report on the Northwestern League for Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide saw in Brown a budding tycoon. “Vancouver probably cleaned up the biggest roll on the season through the sales of pitcher Harry Gardner to Pittsburgh, third baseman (Dick) Breen to Cincinnati, (Cy) Swain to Washington and the drafting of another outfielder, (Bill) Brinker, by the Chicago White Sox,” Roscoe Fawcett reported. “Vancouver’s profits were close to $3,500, Spokane’s $1,500, Seattle’s $1,000 and Tacoma’s minus several hundred.”7
Despite a successful campaign, Brown suffered a nervous breakdown after the season and a brother escorted him to Long Beach, California, where a doctor helped his recuperation.8 For a tough guy, Brown spent a lot of time in the hospital. In fact, he would meet his second wife, a nurse, while recovering from an ailment.
Robert Paul Brown was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on July 5, 1876, the day after American centennial celebrations in his birthplace included picnics, parades fronted by colorful banners, and religious services held in churches bedecked with floral arrangements. The city was a mining and railroad center that attracted immigrants by the thousands, including his parents, the former Julia Ann Manley and Anthony Brown, who were from County Mayo, Ireland, which suffered dreadfully during the Great Famine. Robert was the ninth of 10 children born to the Roman Catholic family.
His father worked as a laborer in the anthracite coal mines at a time of declining wages and labor unrest. Scranton was roiled by a bloody general strike shortly after the boy’s first birthday, and the Browns relocated nearby to Dunmore before moving to Sherman, Iowa, north of the state capital in Des Moines. Anthony Brown’s occupation in Sherman was written in shorthand by an enumerator in 1880 as “working on RR sect,” or a worker on a section of a railroad, known as a gandy dancer. In time, the family settled for good in Blencoe, on the state’s western border with Nebraska, where Anthony Brown operated the only hotel in the community. On New Year’s Eve in 1890, when Bob Brown was 14, a dance was held in Blencoe. So many people from Monona County attended that the hotel turned away patrons, which proved a blessing, as the barn burned to the ground that night and 17 horses were killed. The cause of the fire was unknown, though arson was suspected. “It seems almost a miracle that the fire was confined to the one building,” the Sioux City Journal reported, “as the wind was blowing briskly toward buildings not over twenty feet distant.”9
In his youth, Brown traveled the dusty summer roads of Iowa, racing horses and playing town ball at dots on the map along the railroads. “I was a bit of a jockey, too, in those days,” Brown told a newspaper in 1930. “Guess I rode 1,000 races in the tank towns for my elder brother, who was the family horse fancier. They were ponies, you know, but they could step, and we used to race down the main street of most of the towns we made. Played baseball, too, from one town to another.”10
At 17, Brown entered St. Joseph’s College (now known as Loras College) at Dubuque. After two years, he continued his education at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, where he wore wing-collar shirts and a serious expression on his face. He also began parting his oiled hair in the middle, a country boy seeking to adopt a sophisticated appearance.
Each summer during his university schooling, Brown returned to Iowa to play summer ball and organize a local football team. On campus, he won letters in both baseball and football. Teammates called him “Red Robert” or “Red” Brown. He earned a reputation as a pugnacious and relentless halfback despite a smallish, 5-foot-9, 150-pound frame. (Military documents gave his height as 5-feet-6.) His playing coach, H.G. Hadden, stood eight inches taller and 90 pounds heavier. Training included boxing, wrestling, and cross-country runs, as well as scrimmages and lectures on tactics. “In those days we had three downs to make 5 yards, and if we’d find ourselves just a couple of feet short, the other backs used to pick me up and toss me right over the line,” Brown reminisced years later.11 He scored a touchdown in a 32-0 whipping of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and scored two majors in an 18-0 defeat of the Chicago Cycling Club.
Fifty players attended the start of baseball training camp on February 1, 1896, trying to win a varsity spot for what would be the team’s third season. By mid-March, half had been cut, but Brown survived to win a spot in right field. In 1898 a bout of dizziness, including fainting spells, led him to seek recovery in the fresh air of Miles City, Montana. A decision to forgo tobacco seemed to repair his health. As a result, he never again smoked or pinched a wad between his cheek and gum.
After recuperating, Brown worked on the range before volunteering to fight in the Spanish-American War on May 13, 1898. The occupation he provided on enlistment papers was “cowboy.” Though he would later recall his eagerness to fight in Cuba, he spent most of the war as a private at a dusty camp in Georgia with Troop I, 3rd US Volunteer Cavalry. The Vancouver Sun’s archives once included a biographical form Brown filled in by hand in the spring of 1955. Under the entry for honors under military service, Brown wrote: “was returned on furlough to enlisted base Miles City Montana account typhoid malaria.”12 He was mustered out in September, returning to Indiana to finish his schooling at Notre Dame.
Football teammate Albert J. “Wild Bill” Galen, who had been born on a Montana ranch and would be a future state attorney general and Montana Supreme Court justice, found Brown a $125-a-month job with baseball’s Helena Senators, whose Montana State League rivals included the Anaconda Serpents, Butte Smoke Eaters, and Great Falls Indians. The Senators had only a dozen players: one for each fielding position and four pitchers. One of his teammates was Joe Tinker, an infielder of great promise. Brown was an outfielder and backup catcher, breaking every finger on both hands in the days when pitchers could legally throw spitballs, mudballs, and shineballs (daubed with polish from baseball shoes). The breaks were set with splints jury-rigged from a cigar box. When asked for distinguishing features on citizenship documents, he offered “crooked little finger on right hand,” bent, undoubtedly, by a baseball.
Baseball offered men an escape from lives of toil down on the farm, or down in the mine, or on the factory floor. These rough-hewn men did not easily give up a day job in the sunshine. “Salaries? Well, I won’t say we just played for the principle of the thing, but none of us fussed much about the money, there not being much to fuss with anyway,” Brown said in 1956. “A couple of hundred dollars per month was a pretty good average in those days, and $1.50 per day looked pretty good for eating money on the road.”13
Nor was the diamond a place for milquetoasts. Fights were not unknown, on or off the field. “I had a pretty reckless mouth,” Brown admitted, “and a hot temper.”14 The Helena club folded with the rest of the league after the season. When ex-league President W.M. Lucas started up a Pacific Northwest League on the coast, Brown and Tinker joined a Portland club known as the Webfooters. “Joe Tinker hit .322 that year, which was real good hitting then,” Brown said. “I managed .245, but I was never a hitter. Couldn’t hit much, but I guess I was never accused of lack of life. Had the reputation of being pretty rough out on the field.”15 Brown’s memory was faulty – Tinker hit .290 and Brown hit .215 – but his scouting report was otherwise accurate.
Brown knew that if he were to stay in baseball, he’d be better off trying to do so as a manager or owner. He lost a competition to become the playing manager at Portland to teammate Sammy Vigneux, so instead Brown helped form a team in Pendleton, Oregon, in an unaffiliated league. (His friend Tinker signed after the 1901 season with the Chicago Cubs before being immortalized by Franklin Pierce Adams in a bit of doggerel about the double-play combination “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”) Brown quit the Class-D Pendleton team at midseason to play for a new club at Helena, but the club would not complete its second full season. It was while he was with Pendleton that he made his first visit to Vancouver in 1902, when the city’s population was barely over 26,000.
In 1903 Brown moved to Aberdeen, where he became a partner in the Brown-Elmore Shoe Company. His name was associated with the store for more than a half-century, long after he sold his interest. In 1904 he played for and managed the Aberdeen Pippins of the Southwest Washington League, piloted the team in 1905, then became manager of the local Grays Harbor Lumbermen in the Northwestern League in 1906.
On October 11, 1905, Brown married Eula Agnes Jameson, who, at 19, was a decade younger than the groom. A well-regarded musician, she performed in amateur theatrics in Aberdeen, Washington. She was the daughter of an accountant who served as mayor of nearby Montesano. She renounced her Protestant faith to marry the baseball man in a Catholic ceremony. Their childless union ended in an uncontested divorce less than four years later on grounds of “incompatibility of temper.”16
As a playing manager, Brown led the Aberdeen Black Cats to a pennant in 1907, a season during which he had his share of playing time. “Manager ‘Red’ Brown, who is something of an all-round ball player, came in from the outfield to cover shortstop and when both his catchers were injured went behind the bat regularly and the team continued to win games,” The Sporting News reported.17 In the fall of 1908, the same newspaper covered Browns negotiations for an interest in the Spokane team. The headline read: “Aspires to be a magnate.”18 He signed a two-year contract to manage the Spokane Indians and bought, for $1, a quarter-interest in the club, which he parlayed just a year later into ownership of the Vancouver franchise.
For 1911, Brown concentrated on the front office, while Kitty Brashear led the club to a 103-win season and the Northwestern League pennant. Brown turned down a $35,000 offer for the club from a San Francisco syndicate. He had greater ambitions.
The Beavers played at Recreation Park, a small stadium at Homer and Smythe Streets on the downtown peninsula owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and leased by city businessmen, to whom he paid rent. When he found out that the park was to be closed for more profitable use as warehousing, Brown bought the bleachers for $500. He covered the cost by forcing the local lacrosse team to share the proceeds of bleacher-ticket sales from their big series against the Eastern champions. Then he began felling trees and blasting stumps in the forest at a 400-by-500-foot site leased from the CPR for 25 years.19
The site on the south shore of False Creek overlooked an escarpment with train tracks below. A wooden grandstand was built around home plate, which was at the corner of West Fifth Avenue and Hemlock Street. Browns Athletic Park, which opened in 1913, was home to rugby, soccer, and lacrosse matches, as well as political and religious rallies. In 1941 it was the site of the first professional football game in British Columbia.
Bob Brown, wearing a Rotary Club insignia around his neck, speaks with Vancouver Mayor L.D. Taylor (right) prior to the Home Opener at Athletic Park in Vancouver on April 20, 1915. The mayor threw out the opening pitch. (British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame)
Most importantly, Athletic Park was the home of Vancouver baseball for 38 years. Several future major leaguers played in the wooden bandbox, among them spitballer Charlie Schmutz (whose name sounded like what he did to the ball) and Dutch Ruether, who later starred for the Cincinnati Reds in the infamous 1919 World Series. Even 47-year-old right-hander “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity took to the mound at the park on his way to closing out a Hall of Fame career.
Athletic Park helped put Vancouver on baseball’s map. Barnstorming teams of major-league all-stars would play games in the city, stopping on their way to exhibition series in Japan. One traveling troupe that played in a downpour in 1934 included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and four other future Hall of Famers. Gehrig played first base in galoshes while holding an umbrella in his throwing hand.
The ballpark lured such itinerant entertainers as the Bloomer Girls, the Chicago American Giants, and the House of David, a team sponsored by a religious sect whose members wore unshorn hair. Players took the field with beards down to their bellies. On July 3, 1931, a game billed as the first to be played at night in Canada and west of the Mississippi was played at the park. The light fixtures cost $8,000.
The local professional minor leagues faltered after the First World War, not to be revived until the late 1930s. Brown launched the semi-pro Senior City League at his park, with teams sponsored by a local clothier, a distiller, and a transport company. Arrows, Home Gas, Arnold & Quigley, and others had their devoted fans, as did the Asahi, a team of Japanese Canadians that won respect for their clever style of baseball.
Norm “Bananas” Trasolini, Billy Adshead, Johnny Nestman, and Coleman “Coley” Hall became Vancouver household names, as did pitcher Ernie Kershaw, a teacher known as “The Professor,” “The Master Mathematician,” and “The Slinging Schoolmaster.” Kershaw later pitched for the Vancouver Capilanos, who made their home at the ballpark, renamed Capilano Stadium, from 1939 until 1951, at which point they moved to a new ballpark of the same name in the lee of Little Mountain.
The old ballpark was knocked down to make way for an on-ramp for the Granville Street Bridge, a rich history literally overshadowed by concrete and blacktop. Brown had to twice rebuild his old wooden stadium, in 1926 and 1945. “His ball parks kept burning down on him,” sportswriter Clancy Loranger said.20 That he kept baseball on the entertainment calendar in a sometimes indifferent city was proof both of his tenacity and his penny-pinching. “He could squeeze a nickel as well as anybody,” recalled sports reporter Jim Kearney, “and he had to.”21
To put it simply, Bob Brown was cheap. He sort of obeyed a league dictate that the umpire be given a dozen balls at the start of each game. Brown’s daily supply included six fresh balls – and six scuffed balls. He encouraged street urchins to retrieve fouls that flew out of the park. The reward for their shagging? Free admission for what remained of the game.
Still, Brown could be a soft touch. In 1928 he bought a train ticket to Eastern Canada for a frail-looking schoolboy who wished to compete at the Olympic trials as a sprinter. It proved money well spent when Percy Williams later returned from Amsterdam with two Olympic Gold medals. Brown was 77 when he became president of the Western International League in 1953. His single year as boss is notable for his hiring of an up-and-coming umpire by the name of Emmett Ashford, who went on to become in 1966 the first African American to officiate in the major leagues.
Brown went into semiretirement at the end of the season, having spent more than a half-century in baseball. He returned to action to lobby for Vancouver as a new home for the Oakland Oaks. A Pacific Coast League franchise had long been his dream. During the Second World War, he had gone to Sacramento with satchels of cash to try to purchase the team. Instead, local interests managed to raise enough money to keep the club in California. Brown subsequently always referred to his failure as the great disappointment of his life.
The Oaks moved to Vancouver and became the Mounties for the 1956 season. Brown was made public-relations director for the inaugural season. He was also put in charge of a youth program. He insisted plenty of youngsters in British Columbia could make careers in professional baseball, even though the province had graduated only a handful of talents in the past. It would take many years before his prediction came true, and homegrown talents like Larry Walker, Jason Bay, and Jeff Francis put the province on baseball’s map.
Brown died on June 21, 1962, of ventricular fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. He was survived by the former Sarah Jean Campion, a nurse whom he had married in 1933. He passed five days short of their 29th wedding anniversary. They had no children. He was buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver.
The Vancouver Sun greeted his death with the headline: “City Loses Mr. Baseball.”22 The Province replied: “Local baseball will not forget Bob Brown.”23 The Mounties folded after the 1962 season, and pro baseball disappeared from Vancouver for two seasons, as though in mourning for the man they called Mr. Baseball.
For so important a sporting figure in Canada’s third-largest city, Brown and his legacy have been little celebrated. He was posthumously named an inaugural inductee into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame (1966), and he was named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ontario, in 1989. Among the few honors he received in his lifetime was being the first named to the Vancouver Baseball Hall of Fame in 1960. The hall consists of a plaque inside Nat Bailey Stadium, as the second Capilano Stadium was renamed in 1978. The Nat, as it is known, is named after the founder of the White Spot restaurant chain who owned the Mounties for several years. Bailey got his start as a restaurateur and baseball entrepreneur in the 1920s by flogging peanuts and hot dogs at Brown’s Athletic Park. He was called Caruso Nat for his singalong vendor’s pitch delivered in a high tenor: “A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat!”24
A street leading to the park is known as Clancy Loranger Way, a worthy tribute to the indefatigable baseball writer who chronicled the sport for decades. Before his death, Loranger promoted the idea of placing a plaque in honor of Brown in center field, like at Yankee Stadium. As of 2022 it remained just an idea. The city in which he spent more than a half-century promoting baseball has no permanent memorial to its greatest baseball citizen.
In 2008 the Vancouver Canadians minor-league team unveiled a new mascot, a 6-foot-8 plush character called Bob Brown Bear, who is popular with children. He is cuddly and huggable, two attributes not usually associated with his real-life namesake.
1 J. Newton Colver, “Took Spokane Money to Make Real Ball Town out of Vancouver,” Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review, July 29, 1912: 30.
2 “Five Spokane Players to Wear Vancouver uniform,” Vancouver Daily Province, January 15, 1910: 10.
3 Bob Brown, “A Little Bit High and Mighty at 25,” BC Magazine, The Province, July 6, 1957: 4.
4 “Personals,” Notre Dame Scholastic, May 21, 1910: 526.
5 Brown, “A Little Bit High and Mighty at 25.”
6 A.P. Garvey, “Not All the Macks Are in the Majors,” The Sporting News, March 8, 1917: 5.
7 Roscoe Fawcett, “Northwestern League,” Spalding’s Official Athletic Library Baseball Guide, March 1911 (New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1911), 317.
8 “Bob Brown Suffers Nervous Breakdown in Vancouver,” Spokane Chronicle, December 31, 1910: 14.
9 “Barn Burned at Blencoe,” Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, January 2, 1891: 1.
10 Andy Lytle, “Baseball Days: Chapter II,” Vancouver Sun, March 6, 1930: 15.
11 John Mackie, “This Day in History: June 21, 1962,” Vancouver Sun, June 21, 2013: 2.
12 Tom Hawthorn, “‘I Was Never Accused of Lack of Life,’” in Mark Armour, ed., Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest (Cleveland: SABR, 2006), 28.
13 Eric Whitehead, “Fanfare” [column], The Province, July 5, 1956:13.
14 Bob Brown, “It’s a Great Old Life, by Jingo!,” BC Magazine, The Province, June 29, 1957: 3.
15 Brown, “It’s a Great Old Life, by Jingo!”
16 “Mrs. Robert Brown Secures Divorce,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 7, 1909: 22.
18 “Aspires to Be a Magnate,” The Sporting News, October 29, 1908: 8.
19 “Brown Gets New Baseball Park,” Spokane Chronicle, June 13, 1912: 9.
22 Dick Beddoes, “City Loses Mr. Baseball,” Vancouver Sun, June 22, 1962: 21.
23 Clancy Loranger, “Local Baseball Will Not Forget Bob Brown,” The Province, June 23, 1962: 17.
24 “Bleacher Briefs,” Daily Province, June 13, 1925: 23.
Robert Paul Brown
July 5, 1876 at Scranton, PA (US)
June 21, 1962 at Vancouver, BC (CA)
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