This article was written by Rory Costello
Curtis Brown’s one game in the majors came on May 27, 1973. He played left field for the Montreal Expos at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, going 0-for-4 against Ron Bryant. Less than two weeks later, the 27-year-old was sent back to the minors, never to return. For reasons unknown, he just didn’t have any support from Expos manager Gene Mauch.
Brown originally came up in the New York Mets organization in 1965 (his younger brother Leon played 64 games for the Mets in 1976). He made it to Triple A in 1969, and if he hadn’t been hurt, he might have enjoyed some action with the Amazin’ Mets championship team. After playing in the U.S. minors through 1974, he then spent six summers playing in Mexico, sandwiched around one in the short-lived Inter-American League of 1979. All told, he was a pro for 16 years, including two seasons in Mexican winter ball.i The pleasant, easygoing Brown remained dedicated to baseball after retirement, especially working with youths – something else he shared with his equally jovial brother.
Curtis Brown Jr. (no middle name, like brother Leon) was born on September 14, 1945, in Sacramento, California. His father was a construction contractor who built shopping centers and schools. Curtis Sr. and his wife, Ruby Banks, had four children. Before Curtis (the third) and Leon (the youngest), there was a brother named Willie and a sister named Nancy. Ruby also worked for a beauty supply company and in banks.
From an early age, the Brown brothers were part of a thriving – and talented – baseball community in Sacramento. “We played Little League, Babe Ruth, American Legion – we played it all,” said Curtis Brown. The African-American contingent was really strong. It also included Dusty Baker, Bob Oliver, and the Lee brothers (Leron and Leon). In addition, the Browns have a cousin named Daniel Irving, an infielder who played Class A ball in 1965. “He could pick it,” said Curtis. “But he got a piece of glass in his wrist, and by the time they found it, it was too late.”
Both Curtis and Leon Brown attended Grant Union High School in Sacramento. In 1963, after hitting .363, Curtis was named to the Sacramento All-City high school team. He then attended American River Junior College, also located in Sacramento. In 1965, the Mets signed him as an amateur free agent. “Ken Wollenberg was the local bird dog,” Brown recalled. “Then the Mets’ main scout in San Francisco, Roy Partee, came in.”
During his first year as a pro in 1965, Brown played third base. “I was signed as a second baseman,” he said. “But I had a great arm. I played everywhere professionally except pitcher and catcher. I liked third base the best.” Although he liked the hot corner, his fielding percentage was much better in the outfield. His batting showed more promise, especially five homers and a .304 average in 68 games for Marion in the Appalachian League.
Notable teammates with Marion included Nolan Ryan and Jim Bibby. Brown remembered Ryan well. “He threw hard, of course, and he was tall – and skinny back then. He threw seeds, but he had trouble pitching to lefties. With righties he would aim at their shoulder, but he didn’t know what to aim at with lefties. I told him, ‘Just pretend you’re warming up.’”
Another Marion teammate was Steve Renko – the starting pitcher in Brown’s lone big-league appearance, but still a first baseman in 1965. “Big Steve Renko!” Brown recalled with pleasure. “We still remembered each other. We all did, it was a pretty good group. When I got to Montreal, we had a nice reunion.”
Brown switched to the outfield for 1966. He spent much of the year with Greenville in the Western Carolinas League, hitting .300 with 11 homers, and winning promotion to Double-A Williamsport (Nolan Ryan was also in both places). He also split 1967 between A and AA ball but remained at Double-A for all of 1968. He continued to get some duty at third base, especially in ’68 – even though he was described as a “slick outfielder” while playing in the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 1966.ii
Brown reached the Mets’ top farm club, Tidewater, in 1969. He played a good deal in the outfield, since Amos Otis spent a portion of the year with the big club. Otis also got hurt at one point – “he got hit by a pitch versus Syracuse. He stole second base, and the catcher’s throw hit him in the same shoulder.” However, Brown frequently served as the team’s designated hitter, a new role for him and baseball as a whole. That slot accounted for the majority of his 14 homers that year. He played in just 74 games, though, because a knee injury cut his season short. “In Syracuse, Roy Foster was playing right field and I was in center. There was a fly ball, and I called for it. His knee hit my knee as I planted my foot.” It’s interesting to note that Brown said he came to like right field the best.
Brown acknowledged that it would be just guesswork as to whether the Mets might have called him up at any point during the surge that carried them to victory in the National League and then the World Series. He also recalled that Tidewater won the International League’s regular-season pennant in 1969, but lost in the playoffs for the IL championship, the Governor’s Cup. He offered fond memories of Tides manager Clyde McCullough – “a salty old dog,” he said with a chuckle as he imitated McCullough’s gravelly voice. “He had some choice sayings. One was ‘Above all, you must have pride and determination. Pride in yourself and determination in what you’re doing.’”
The 1970 season was largely a step back for Brown, who played just 12 games at Tidewater and 104 at Double-A Memphis. That winter, he went to the Mexican Pacific League, getting into 86 games with the Navojoa Mayos. He hit .235 with 7 homers and 29 RBIs, competing against his brother Leon and Dusty Baker, who were both outfielders for the Ciudad Obregón Yaquis.
Brown returned to the Tides in 1971 and had a respectable year (.297-11-57), but still heard nothing from New York. “I don’t know, maybe they gave up,” he said. “They moved me around, back then they did what they wanted.” He added, “We [all the young outfielders] got traded, all the spots were taken. They labeled Amos Otis a Triple-A player because he didn’t hit when he only played a little here and there for the Mets.”
In December 1971, the Mets obtained veteran outfielder Jim Gosger – a former teammate of Brown’s at Tidewater in 1969 – from Montreal. In return, they sent four minor-leaguers – none of whom played even a day in the majors except for Brown.
“I kind of got excited,” Brown said when asked about how he viewed the trade. Shortly thereafter, the Expos announced what they had in mind for him. Ahead of minor-league spring training in 1972, they scheduled a “school for thieves,” inviting 16 of their fastest farmhands to attend sessions on base running, base stealing, and bunting. Mel Didier, then director of minor league operations for Montreal, said, “We have speed in our minor league system and we want to utilize this to our best advantage. . .this special three-day camp will be a briefing on how to take the most possible advantage of their speed.”iii The most successful of these invitees was Jerry White, but Bombo Rivera and Pepe Mangual also played several years in the majors. Larry Lintz and Don Hopkins later became “designated runners” for Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s.
Brown did not play in Mexico that winter. He went to spring training with the Expos in 1972 and felt that he did well, but apparently Gene Mauch was not impressed. He spent the whole season with Montreal’s top farm club, Peninsula. He had a good year (.303-7-53) and built on that early in 1973. That May, The Sporting News praised him as a “brilliant outfielder. . .who has been flirting with the .333 mark most of the campaign.”iv
Bob Moskowitz, a columnist for the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia (home of the Peninsula club), was a big proponent of Brown’s. Along with his own unabashed praise, he quoted Whips manager Bill Adair, who said simply, “He [Brown] is better than a lot of guys in the majors today.” As he delved into what he viewed as a clear injustice, Moskowitz also pointed out that Gene Mauch was apparently more impressed with Clyde Mashore.v
On May 22, the Expos purchased Brown’s contract after releasing Coco Laboy, whose major-league career then ended. Brown was in The Show at last. Montreal sportswriter Ian MacDonald called him “a veteran minor-league standout who has never been given a chance in the majors. Brown hits .300 or better all the time and was outstanding defensively with the Peninsula Whips last year where he earned 19 assists.”vi He effectively replaced Jorge Roque, an outfielder who had been demoted, and whose time in the big leagues was also over.
“Billy Adair got the call when I was called up,” Brown remembered. “Gene Mauch asked him how things were going, and he said, ‘Curtis Brown has been my best player.’ Mauch asked him, ‘How’s Pepe Mangual doing?’
“But I was excited. We made the West Coast swing, and when we got to San Francisco, I bought two passes from a lot of guys on the club who didn’t know anybody out there – 24 people from Sacramento were there for the game I played!”
A few days later, Mauch had a backhanded compliment for Brown: “He’s got a little less than major league speed, but he does get a good jump on the ball.”vii However, Brown’s stay with the big club lasted only into early June; Montreal optioned him back to Peninsula upon activating pitcher Pat Jarvis from the disabled list.viii
“Gene Mauch just didn’t like me,” Brown said. “I don’t know why. He was like a dictator. I remember my locker was at the end of the row from where you’d go to the shower. His office was at the other end. One day he came walking down the row, and one of the guys said, ‘Here comes 4-Dog!” The nickname referred to Mauch’s uniform number (it stemmed from the greyhound races the players had attended in Florida). “He looked right at me. I looked away.”
After finishing the ’73 season with .255-14-77 marks for Peninsula, Brown returned to Navojoa for the winter (.226-2-25 in 76 games). He then fell off to .258-5-37 for the Expos’ new top affiliate, Memphis, in 1974. Again he often served as DH, but he still played a good bit of outfield. That prompted Brown’s memories of the team’s catcher, future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, then in his last minor-league season. If there was a play at the plate, “he would block the plate, and I would put it on the money.”
Following the ’74 season, Brown headed south of the border again – but this time for the summer league. “I didn’t get another shot in Montreal, and a few other guys had gone, like Red Canada. Mel Didier said, ‘If you go down and do well, maybe we can get you back.’” He played for Unión Laguna in the summers of 1975 and 1976, then went to Coahuila in 1977 and ’78. “It wasn’t that bad, except for the road trips,” he said. “The atmosphere in the locker room and the guys were great. Playing winter ball, I got my Spanish down pretty good. At first I used a dictionary. I would say things and screw it up. They’d laugh at me and correct it.”
In 1979, Cuban baseball man Bobby Maduro started the Inter-American League. Brown joined the Caracas Metropolitanos, a team that also had local hero César Tovar on its roster. “He was the second baseman,” Brown recalled. “He took me under his wing. But Caracas, Venezuela is the most expensive city I’ve ever been to in my life. When my brother Leon [who was playing for the Miami Amigos] came to town, he and four or five guys were in a big suite with a spiral staircase. I couldn’t afford that!”
Though the IAL was beset by problems, Brown’s memories of it are happy. “We made friends with some of the fans, they invited me to a spaghetti dinner.” He said, “I was the MVP of our team. I didn’t get anything for it, but I’ve still got my locker-room plaque that says C. BROWN.” He added, “What killed our league was when they grounded our planes.” As author John Cronin wrote in his IAL retrospective, “The problem of already prohibitively high air fares was further compounded by the grounding of the DC-10 airplane.”ix
Brown returned to Mexico in 1980, joining Poza Rica, and finished up with the Mexico City Tigres in 1981. In 556 career games in Mexican summer ball, he hit .298 with 29 homers and 229 RBIs.
In spring 1982, aged 36, Curtis Brown retired from pro baseball. “My father got sick,” he said, “and I gave it up. They invited me down, and I said, ‘I’m done, I quit.’ They thought it was about money, they called me again after a while and offered more. I told them the same thing again.
“Two weeks after I decided, Federal Express was hiring. Twenty-two years later, I quit.” It turned out that Leon Brown also went to work for FedEx after he quit baseball the previous year. When asked if that were a coincidence, Curtis pointed out how many players who spent the bulk of their careers in the minors held a variety of jobs to make ends meet. “I had been working for UPS in the winters. I worked for Wonder Bread and PepsiCo. I worked for the Department of Agriculture in Sacramento – for both the city and state. When the federal workers got a holiday, I was on. When the state workers got a holiday, I was on!”
Joining FedEx had another benefit too: Brown met his wife-to-be, Dorinda “Dori” Schultz. “She was the first person I laid eyes on there. We’d have these annual dinners, but she always had a boyfriend and I always had a girlfriend. But we’d be looking at each other! Finally we got together, and we’ve been married around 14 years now.” The Browns did not have any children.
Curtis stayed involved with baseball. “When I first retired, Dusty Baker had his school in Sacramento. He had it up until his father passed away. Bob Oliver helped there, Orlando Cepeda too. I did it for about six years, working there for two or three weeks a year, until I hurt my back and stopped it.” Baker and the Brown brothers have remained close over the years. Baker’s spring-training schedule permitting, they have gone on annual bass fishing trips down near Leon’s home in Arizona, joined by other comrades such as Dan Irving. “Every year I’d win,” Curtis said. “But this year Dusty finally beat me and boy, did he rub it in!”
Even though the back injury kept him off the field, Brown said, “I still talk to kids all the time, including 17-year-old kids in high school. I tell them that saying of Clyde McCullough’s. I still have a passion for baseball.”
This passion is visible in his zeal as a fan. When reached first for this biography, Brown had both the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s on television. “I’m usually here in my man-cave in the garage watching sports,” he said happily. He noted that the A’s and their opponent, the Seattle Mariners, were wearing throwback Pacific Coast League uniforms. “They look good!” he said.
“I go to the Sacramento River Cats games, using my gold card from the Players Association. My older brother lived for 37 years in Oakland, about eight blocks from the Coliseum, and he and I would go see the A’s.”
And even though he was a one-game major-leaguer, plenty of people still remember Curtis Brown. “I get letters requesting autographs even today, they come from Canada and back east mostly, I was always on the East Coast. I’m getting them all the time.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Curtis Brown for his memories. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from telephone interviews with the author, July 8 and July 14, 2012). Special thanks also to Leon Brown for enabling contact with Curtis Brown. Continued thanks to Alfonso Araujo (Mexican Pacific League statistics).
Pedro Treto Cisneros, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 11th edition, 2011)
Courtesy of Curtis Brown collection
i Brown’s 2012 recollection was that he played three Mexican winter seasons, but Mexican Pacific League authority Alfonso Araujo’s research showed only two.
ii Jack Ellison, “Pitchers Brace for Blast When Biff Swings Bat,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1966, 45.
iii Ian MacDonald, “Florida School for Thieves Latest Expo Innovation,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1971.
iv Bob Moskowitz, “Glassco and Forkball Blend with New-Look Peninsula,” The Sporting News, May 26, 1973, 35.
v Bob Moskowitz, “Valhalla Where Are You?” Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), May 1973. Specific date is not available because this is a clipping from Curtis Brown’s scrapbook.
vi Ian MacDonald, “Exposes,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1973, 21.
vii Ted Blackman, “Clown claims Riggs ‘welched’ on bet,” Montreal Gazette, May 30, 1973, 35.
viii Winnipeg Free Press, June 8, 1973
ix John Cronin, “When a Dream Plays Reality in Baseball: Roberto Maduro and the Inter-American League,” Baseball Research Journal, Society for American Baseball Research, Spring 2011. See also The Sporting News, August 4, 1979, 47.