This article was written by Tom Hawthorn
Bob Brown was a sickly old man by the time he died at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. He had spent 61 of his 85 years in Organized Baseball as a player, manager, owner, scout, and league president. Unhappy in his retirement, he complained that “this loafing is hard work.”
His final public appearance had come a few weeks earlier, when he left a sickbed to catch the Vancouver Mounties play their home opener for the 1962 Pacific Coast League season. He walked slowly, leaning on a cane, and needed an escort to his box seat, No. 42, right behind home plate at Capilano Stadium. He had built the park — his second — only 11 years earlier.
His weakened state offered no hint of the scrappy fireplug he had once been. Brown had a big potato-nose in the middle of a face that seemed untouched by a smile or sense of whimsy. Some called him a sanctimonious old Puritan, for his courteous Old World manners seemed out of place in the rough-and-tumble world of baseball. He wore high-collared shirts, a vest, and a pocket watch with fob. The writers called him Ruby Robert in the early days, and the Old Redhead as time passed. Until he got sick, he seemed as eternal as the game itself.
His harshest oath was said to be a hearty, “By jingo!” Yet, as a player, he eagerly engaged in diamond dust-ups, and as a manager, he was known to drop a bat on an umpire’s toes. As an owner, he was as unyielding a bargainer as the most steadfast umpire.
The Vancouver Sun greeted his death with the headline: “City loses Mr. Baseball.” The Province replied: “Local baseball will not forget Bob Brown.”
As early as 1917, The Sporting News was hailing Brown in a headline as “Vancouver’s Connie Mack.” He kept baseball alive in the city for decades, through the Depression and both world wars. He brought the great Babe Ruth to town, introduced night ball to Canada, carved a ballpark out of forest with his bare hands (and the occasional stick of dynamite), and later helped construct a gem of a diamond in which teenaged professionals still play ball and dream of the major leagues.
But today, he is forgotten, and no street bears his name. His ballpark still stands, but carries the name of a man he hired to sell peanuts. The anniversaries of his death pass without notice. Only die-hard fans have ever even heard of him. “People have forgotten lots of things from that era,” said Clancy Loranger, a Province sportswriter who covered baseball for decades. “They’ve forgotten lots of old boxers and wrestlers and soccer players. They just fade away, I guess.”
Robert Paul Brown was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on July 5, 1876, missing by a day the country’s wild centennial celebrations. It was also the year in which the National League began play. He was the son of Anthony Brown, a foundry worker and coal miner who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. The growing Brown family, which would eventually total four boys and three girls, later settled on farmland near Blencoe, Iowa. At a young age, Robert was in the saddle to tend cattle, but at 17, his father dispatched him to St. Joseph’s College at Dubuque, where he spent two years before entering Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, in 1895. There, he won letters in baseball and football.
Brown earned a reputation as a pugnacious and relentless halfback despite his smallish 150-pound frame. His playing coach, H.G. Hadden, stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 240 pounds. “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 many years later. 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 turned out to attend the start of baseball training camp on February 1, 1896. The varsity team was beginning its 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 Brown to seek recovery in the fresh air of Miles City, Montana. A decision to forego tobacco seemed to repair his health. As a result, he never again smoked or chewed a wad.
After recuperating, Brown volunteered as a cavalryman to fight in the Spanish-American War. Upon enlisting, he gave his occupation as “cowpuncher.” 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. The Vancouver Sun‘s archives include 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.”
He survived malaria, 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 only had 12 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 and mudballs and shineballs (daubed with polish from baseball shoes). The breaks were set with splints jury-rigged from a cigar box.
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.”
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.” 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.”
Brown knew that if he were to stay in baseball, he’d be better off trying to do so as a manager. He lost a competition to become the playing manager at Portland to teammate Sam Vigneaux, 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.) 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.
In 1903, he moved to Aberdeen, Washington, where he became a partner in the Brown-Elmore Shoe Company. His name would be associated with the store for more than a half-century, long after he sold his interest. In 1904, he played 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.
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. In the fall of 1908, the same newspaper covered Brown’s negotiations for an interest in the Spokane team. The headline read: “Aspires to be magnate.” He signed a two-year contract to manage the Indians, and was sold, for one dollar, a quarter interest in the club.
He realized the Vancouver franchise was in trouble when the league had to cover the cost of the club’s return home from a series in Spokane. Brown set up a secret off-season meeting with two of the club’s directors, renting a lavish suite at the old Hotel Vancouver, stocking it 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.
Spokane majority partner Joseph Cohn, who had rebuffed all Brown’s requests for a sale, wound up paying his manager $3,000 for the stock he had acquired for a dollar. Brown had made another $3,000 in salary, as well as a $2,500 dividend.
The British Columbia port city, which had a population of 100,000, a four-fold increase over the past decade, held great promise as a sports Mecca. The Patrick brothers — Lester and Frank — were soon to open a 10,000-seat hockey rink. “I liked this town first time I saw it,” Brown wrote in 1957. “Figured it had a real future, industrially, and in baseball, too.”
When the 1910 season opened, Bob 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 Pittsburg, third baseman (Dick) Breen to Cincinnati, (Charles) 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.”
After winning the league pennant in 1911 with Brown no longer playing, and a season named the Vancouver “Champions,” Brown turned down a $35,000 offer for the club from a San Francisco syndicate. He had greater ambitions.
The Beavers played out of Recreation Park, a small stadium at Homer and Smythe on the downtown peninsula owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and leased by city businessmen to whom he paid rent. When he found out 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 leased site on the south shore of False Creek.
Brown’s Athletic Park, which opened in 1913 at the corner of Fifth and Hemlock, would be the home of Vancouver baseball for the next 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 righthander “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 park lured such itinerant entertainers as the Bloomer Girls, all-black all-stars, 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 Great War, not to be revived until the late 1930s. Brown launched the semipro 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 park, renamed Capilano Stadium, from 1939 until 1951, at which point they moved to a new stadium 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. “His ball parks kept burning down on him,” sportswriter Clancy Loranger said. That he kept baseball alive through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and the Depression and the sacrifices of two wars 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.”
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. 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 the first African American to officiate in the major leagues in 1966.
Brown went into retirement 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 World War II, he had gone to Sacramento with satchels of cash to try and 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 Oakland 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 only ever graduated 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 Rich Harden put the province on baseball’s map.
Brown died on June 21, 1962, once again cared for by his wife, the former Jean Campion, a nurse whom he had met in a hospital. 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 Mounties folded after the 1962 season, and pro baseball disappeared from Vancouver for two years, as though in mourning for the man they called Mr. Baseball. Brown’s was the first name included in a Vancouver Baseball Hall of Fame, which was no more than a plaque inside the stadium. He has also been posthumously inducted in the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ontario.
Nat Bailey Stadium, as the second Capilano Stadium was dubbed in 1977, deservedly carries the name of the man who owned the Mounties for several years. What is often forgotten is that Nat Bailey, who launched the White Spot restaurant chain, got his start as a restaurateur and baseball entrepreneur by flogging peanuts and hot dogs at Bob Brown’s old park. They called him Caruso Nat for his singalong vendor’s sales pitch: “A loaf of bread, a pound of meat, and all the mustard you can eat!”
The street to the park is Clancy Loranger Way, a worthy tribute to the indefatigable baseball writer who chronicled the sport for decades. Loranger thinks a proper tribute to Brown would be a plaque in center field, just like at Yankee Stadium. That’s a swell idea, by jingo.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2006 SABR publication Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, Mark Armour (editor), photos from the David Eskenazi Collection.
The Sporting News
Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, 1911
Vancouver Daily Province
Chicago Daily Tribune
Filichia, Peter. Professional Baseball Franchises: From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993
Robert Paul Brown
July 5, 1876 at Scranton, PA (US)
June 21, 1962 at Vancouver, BC (CA)
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