This article was written by Dave Gagnon
Ask any serious Tigers fan over a certain age and they’ll tell you that the sound of Tiger Stadium was always a little bit louder than normal when Gates Brown was announced as a pinch-hitter. And why not? After 13 seasons in Detroit, not only did the “Gator” retire as the American League’s all-time pinch-hitting king, but so many of his hits were of the clutch variety, either tying the game or putting the team ahead. One would think that in order to have enjoyed that kind of success off the bench, Gates would’ve had to have been ready to hit at all times. You would think he studied pitchers like a hawk for nine innings — trying to gain any advantage he could for when he took the plate. But, surprisingly, that wasn’t always the case for Gates.
Once in 1968, Mayo Smith decided to put in his pinch-hitting specialist far earlier in the game than normal. Gates, who usually didn’t come off the bench until a tight spot near the end of the game, was caught off-guard. “I was sitting at the end of the dugout, eating a couple of hot dogs,” Gates recalled. “It was only the fifth inning (and) I never expected Mayo to call on me to pinch hit that early.” Since he didn’t want Smith — who often harped on Gates to lose a few pounds — to see him eating during the game, Gates quickly shoved the dogs down his shirt before heading to the plate. “That’s the only time I ever wished I’d strike out,” said Gates. But being the clutch hitter he was, Gates didn’t get his wish. Instead, he cracked a double and ended up having to slide head-first into second. While Tigers fans roared and cheered, Gates realized he had made quite a mess of himself. “I had mustard and squashed meat all over me,” Gates laughed, recalling that all his teammates were bent over laughing.
So despite his success as one of the greatest hitters off the bench in major league history, Gates Brown wasn’t a pinch-hitting robot after all. He was simply one of the guys. He played poker with teammates. He snored. He played catch with relievers during games. He was a press-favorite. But most importantly, he always supported his teammates — so much so that his first big league manager, Charlie Dressen, often referred to him as “Governor Brown.” But that was Gates Brown in a nutshell — a team player who always said and did the right things to help his team win.
William James “Gates” Brown was born in Crestline, Ohio, May 2, 1939 (the same day that Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak came to an end). He was nicknamed “Gates” by his mother when he was just a toddler — although, to this day, he has never figured out why his mother chose it. “My mother started calling me Gates when I was small,” Gates said. “I still don’t know where she got it. But the name stuck.”
Crestline, like much of northern Ohio in the 1940s and ’50s, wasn’t the greatest area to grow up in. Poor, flat, and desolate, most kids from the area got in trouble with the law at some point. A sociologist would say it wasn’t their fault the kids turned to a life of crime; but a result of where they grew up.
Brown didn’t make it out Crestline with a clean record. Even though he was a standout football star at Crestline High School, Gates got into more than his fair share of trouble growing up. When he turned 18, he was arrested for breaking and entering and was sent to the Mansfield State Reformatory in nearby Mansfield, Ohio. The same prison used in the film The Shawshank Redemption.
Even though he had played some baseball in high school, it was in the Mansfield prison where Brown’s true talents as a ballplayer were developed. At 5-foot-11 and 200-plus pounds of pure muscle, a prison guard who coached the pen’s baseball team encouraged Brown to try out at catcher. In awe of his raw ability with the bat — and encouraged that baseball might lead Brown out of a life of crime — the coach wrote letters to several major league teams, including the Detroit Tigers.
In fall 1959, Detroit sent scouts to the prison to see Brown. Impressed, one of them called onetime Tiger Pat Mullin, now the team’s top scout. Mullin made the trek from Detroit to see for himself. After Brown belted a daunting home run in Mullin’s presence, the Tigers decided to help him get paroled a year early. Gates was signed to a $7,000 bonus pact almost immediately upon his release.
Brown mentions that other clubs, including the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, were interested in springing him. But he stuck with Detroit because “they didn’t have any Negroes at that time and I figured they’d have to have some soon.” In fact, Ozzie Virgil, a Dominican, had joined the Tigers in 1958 — becoming the Motor City’s first black ballplayer. But Gates was right in that the Tigers obviously lacked the integration of most other big league clubs in the late-1950s.
Prior to his first professional season in 1960, Mullin advised Brown to give up catching and switch to the outfield. The switch was fine with Gates, who was more concerned about staying out of trouble than he was about a position-change.
Brown — on legal probation from Mansfield during his first season — joined the Tigers’ organization in Duluth that year. Gates shone almost immediately — especially for someone only a few months out of prison. In 121 games, Gates hit .293 with 10 homers. He also led the Northern League with 13 triples and was second in both stolen bases (30) and runs scored (104). But his real character test wouldn’t come until later.
The following year he headed south to Durham of the Carolina League. It was here that Brown found out firsthand that being black and an ex-con was fuel for the fire for Southern crowds. “It was tough just being a Negro down there,” Gates said. “They still used the N-word down there, you know?”
Being an ex-con didn’t help as Southern newspapers printed stories about his criminal history, leading to more quips and threats from the crowds. “They called me all the names, ‘Con,’ ‘Jailbird,’ the whole thing. They were pretty vicious,” Brown recalled. But Gates had to learn to ignore the jeers and to use the negativity as motivation to improve. “Some of the guys wanted to go up into the stands after those people, but I told them to just let it lay. It made me do better. It made me try harder. I decided that they could beat me physically, but no way were they going to beat me mentally,” he recalled. “And do you know something, I hit the ball hard that season and led the league in hitting,” topping the circuit in 1961 with a .324 mark. His outstanding play actually began to win over the same Durham fans who had heckled him earlier in the season. “By the end of the year, they were all on my side,” Brown said, laughing.
After showing continued success at the minor league level — including another .300 campaign for Denver in 1962 — it was clear that Brown was on the fast track to join the big club. And with the Tigers’ lack of early-season success in 1963, Brown was called up from Triple-A Syracuse June 17 — one day before Dressen was named the team’s new manager. It would be Dressen who would call on Gates to take his first major league hacks.
Brown officially debuted for the Tigers against the Boston Red Sox on June 19 at Fenway Park. With Boston up 4-1 in the fifth inning, Brown entered the game as — what else — a pinch-hitter for pitcher Don Mossi.
With Dressen getting his first look at the young outfielder, the situation was much like when Pat Mullin came to see Brown play at Mansfield for the first time. Ironically, Mullin was in attendance that day in Fenway — having been hired by Dressen to serve as the first-base coach. Again, as he had during his Mansfield tryout, Gates would not disappoint his onlookers. He hit a booming 400-foot home run well into the Boston sky, becoming only the third Tiger in history to homer in their first at-bat.
Brown remained with the club for the rest of the season, primarily as a pinch-hitter. Detroit rebounded with him on the team and had a winning record for the rest of the year. Overall, Brown hit .268 with two home runs in his rookie season. He stuck on the parent club for 1964. He was used primarily as the starting leftfielder for Dressen. Playing alongside Al Kaline in right field and a troika (Bill Bruton, George Thomas, and Don Demeter) in center, Brown hit .272 with 15 home runs and was second on the team with 11 stolen bases.
Despite his solid 1964 season however, Brown lost his starting job in the outfield in 1965 to a young power hitter named Willie Horton. And even though he was disappointed in returning to his role as a pinch hitter and reserve outfielder, Gates would never let his personal frustration get in the way of the team. He slugged 10 home runs that season in barely half the at-bats he had in 1964. And despite his stocky 225 pound frame, Brown also managed to steal another six bases and was regarded unofficially as the fastest Tiger on the team. He didn’t know it then, but Brown was on his way to becoming the most successful pinch-hitter in American League history.
Despite Brown’s clutch contributions, his reserve status — and a budding mix of young outfielders — made it difficult for him to get raises from his bosses in Detroit. In fact, prior to the 1965 season, Brown had to pass up winter ball for the first time. With a wife and one child —plus a second on the way — Brown took a second job as a furniture salesman in the off-season.
Brown pressed on, however, and returned in 1966 and had similar success in the same role — hitting .325 as a pinch hitter. Overall he hit .266 with seven home runs in only 169 at-bats. Although he remained quietly disappointed with his role, it was clear that Brown was the Tigers’ best offensive option off the bench.
Tragedy befell Brown and the Tigers that season, however. Charlie Dressen, the Tigers skipper whose arrived less that 24 hours after Gates was called up, died August 10. Dressen had been suffering from heart and kidney problems for most of the season.
Brown struggled with injuries in 1967 before finally being shelved with a dislocated wrist. Even when he played, he never could find his swing under new manager Mayo Smith. As a pinch-hitter, he hit only .154 (4 for 26). However, that Tigers team nearly made the World Series before they were beat out by the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox on the final day of the season. Mayo Smith and the rest of the Tigers vowed to return to the 1968 season with a vengeance. But the greatest turn around of all would come from Gates Brown.
Discouraged by his poor season in 1967, Brown came to spring training on a mission in 1968. He was no longer upset about a lack of playing time, he just wanted to contribute. The Tigers, however, weary of Brown’s poor and injury-filled campaign in 1967, decided to bring back Eddie Mathews as the team’s primary left-handed pinch-hitter. General manager Jim Campbell and Smith even said that they thought about trading Brown, but couldn’t come close to pulling a trade because Gates had packed on a few pounds while waiting for his wrist to heal, a turnoff for prospective trading partners.
Brown got his chance to prove them wrong, however, on the second day of the season; when Smith, having already used Mathews earlier in the game, called on Brown to pinch-hit in the ninth inning in a tie game. Brown grabbed a bat and hit a game-winning home run off John Wyatt. It was the how the 1968 Tigers won their first game of the season. “We took off from there,” said Brown.
Brown did everything he could to tarnish the image of what would be known as the Year of the Pitcher. He hammered six hits in his first 10 pinch-hit at-bats on his way to an AL-record 18 pinch hits that season. Tigers fans soon became accustomed to watching the Gator come off the bench and deliver over and over in key situations. But none was more key than during a Sunday doubleheader August 11 against the defending American League champs, the Boston Red Sox.
In the lid-lifter that day, the Tigers were in an extra-inning struggle with the Bosox until Mayo Smith finally found a time for Brown to get in the game in the bottom of the 14th inning. Tiger Stadium erupted when he was announced. But their cheers were nothing compared to when Brown smacked the game-winning home run a minute later.
Then in the second game, Brown strode to the plate in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. With Mickey Stanley creeping off of third, Gates singled to right to drive in the winning run, Giving him an unheard-of two game-ending hits in the same day. Even 16-year vet Kaline admitted he had never heard the Tiger Stadium crowd cheer like they did for Brown that day.
In fact, Brown hit so unbelievably well in 1968 that Smith even started him in 16 games. Not bad for a guy who was trade bait when the season began. In the end, Brown hit an astounding .370 in 1968 — more than over 100 points higher than his career average, 135 better than the team average, and 140 better than the American League’s collective average. He was the only full-season Tiger to hit above.300 that season. He also averaged an extra-base hit every six at-bats — a remarkable stat when you consider that the mighty Alex Rodriguez only averaged one every 7.2 at-bats in his MVP season of 2007.
Brown was not only clutch with the bat in 1968, he was also clutch as a teammate. One night during the season, he interrupted a melee between Denny McLain and Jim Northrup and made them understand the importance of what the team was trying to accomplish as a whole. During a road trip in the middle of the 1968 season, Brown was playing poker with a bunch of other players, including Northrup and McLain. Halfway through a hand, Northrup caught McLain cheating. Enraged, he flew across the bed and grabbed McLain by the throat. John Hiller, who was seated next to Brown, recalls Northrup screaming, “I’m gonna kill you, you bastard! I’m gonna kill you!” Red-faced and exasperated, Northrup continued to wring McLain’s neck in anger. But he was eventually pulled off from behind by Gates. A shocked Hiller remembers Brown looking Northrup dead in the eye and saying, “You’re not gonna touch him until after we win the pennant. Then he’s all yours.”
Brown also remained popular with the Detroit writers that season. When asked about his remarkable success in the clutch, Gates developed a common response to give to reporters: “I’m square as an ice cube, and I’m twice as cool,” he always told them. Detroit media couldn’t get enough of Gates.
Neither could Tigers fans. When the World Series rolled around and the Tigers lost Game 1 to St. Louis’ Bob Gibson — who also struck out 17 — Mayo Smith was bombarded by letters to put Brown into the starting line-up. One Tigers fan even wrote Smith asking him to start Brown at shortstop and bat lead-off during the series. “That guy must be nuts,” reacted Gates when told of the letter.
In fact, Brown only had one appearance during the World Series: a pinch-hit fly out to left off Gibson in Game 1. But for anyone who remembers how untouchable Gibson was that October day, it’s a miracle any man could come off the bench and even touch the ball. But Gates did. In fact, he just missed the sweet spot.
Throughout the rest of his career, Brown enjoyed continued success as a pinch-hitter — including a .346 pinch-hitting campaign in 1971 — but nothing quite like the 1968 season. — although Gates did enjoy more time in the baseball spotlight by becoming Detroit’s first ever designated hitter in 1973, a position tailor-made for the game’s Gates Browns.
Moreover, Brown became so beloved that some sportswriters who were adamantly against the DH when it was first implemented later said it didn’t bother them as much as they thought it would. One of the reasons: it was great for Tigers fans to see Brown at the plate every day.
The whole country got a chance to see Brown a year later when Joe Garagiola, host of NBC’s pregame show, Baseball World of Joe Garagiola, did an unusual two-part story on Gates. Garagiola rarely devoted his weekly show to anyone for two separate shows, but did so for Brown. The shows, which aired July 8 and 15, 1974, featured Brown and Garagiola back in Gates’ old stomping grounds at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. The program consisted of an interview in Brown’s former prison cell; as well as several rap sessions with current inmates.
Brown said he agreed to the interview inside the prison itself in hopes to that it might prevent “even more youngsters” from making the mistake of a lifetime. But he also mentioned that even if you did make the mistake of breaking the law, incarceration didn’t mean the end. “It’s what you do when you get out that counts,” Gates told the inmates. The two-part program received wide acclaim.
After suffering through a 102-loss season in 1975, Brown decided to hang up his cleats at age 36. However, Gates loved the game too much to give it up completely. So he became a scout for the club less than three weeks after the season ended. Almost immediately, Brown went from sitting in a major league dugout to scouting teams in Florida; assisting in the free agent draft; instructing the Tigers’ rookie league team; and visiting various colleges nationwide to find new talent.
Brown continued his work as a scout until 1978, when he returned to the Tigers to become the new hitting coach under manager Ralph Houk. The Tigers’ team batting average rose from eighth in the American League in 1977 to second overall in Gates’ first season. That year the Tigers also enjoyed their first winning season in five years.
When Sparky Anderson arrived in Detroit in 1979, he kept Brown on. Gates helped bring along the hitting talents of Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. Brown remained with the Tigers through their world championship in 1984. Gates wanted to continue coaching the Tigers beyond 1984, but couldn’t agree on a contract extension with he front office. He quit November 14, 1984 — almost 25 years since he signed his first professional contract fresh out of Mansfield.
Things weren’t always rosy for Brown in his years since the 1984 championship. In 1991 he was part of a business group that purchased Ben G Industries, a plastics molding company that was relocated from the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens, Michigan, to Detroit after its purchase. The company was doomed almost from the start. First it was alleged that the previous owners had stolen $458,000 from Ben G before it was sold to Brown’s group. Then the Internal Revenue Service got involved and found that as the company’s president, Brown had failed to oversee the payment of taxes during his first two years of ownership. A civil suit was served to Brown by the IRS seeking more than $61,000. However, Gates never faced criminal charges.
Brown also had to settle another IRS allegation a few months before the trial with Ben G began. This time it was at the personal level. Brown and his wife, Norma, were accused of shorting income on their personal taxes and ordered to pay more than $36,000 in back taxes and penalties dating from 1992 to 1997.
Brown was not forgotten from the baseball world, however. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. Beside Gates during his acceptance speech was his former hitting pupil, Lance Parrish, and former big-league pitcher and Zeeland, Michigan, native, Jim Kaat. Many of the voters admitted that Gates’ amazing story was a huge reason why they chose him.
Brown has always liked to revisit and reflect upon that magical season of ’68. He had reached the pinnacle of his profession. He was a World Series champion. His climb from a prison cell to shaking hands with the likes of Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan is truly a great comeback story. But if you asked Gates, his contribution to the 1968 season was for his parents.
“I can never make up for all the grief I gave them in my life. I can never make up for all the humiliation they suffered, all the torture, when I spent time in (Mansfield),” Brown said. “But I promised them, when I got out of there I would never go back. If I didn’t make it in life, it would not be because I didn’t try. You know, you can do bad things in a big city and nobody ever knows about them. But do something wrong in small town [Crestline’s population was only 6,000] and everybody knows. That’s why I was so happy we won it all. I could finally give them something else to talk about.”
In his 13 years as a player with Detroit, Brown was a part of nine winning ball clubs. He also was a part of seven more as a coach. Most Tigers fans will tell you that, despite his reserve role, Brown was a huge part of the successful era in Motown. His ability to come through in the clutch has not been matched by any in the annals of AL history. His .370 average in ’68 was the eighth-best season ever for a pinch-hitter. He had 107 pinch hits in his career, the most ever in the American League. He also still holds the AL records for pinch-hit at-bats (414) and home runs (16).
But it wasn’t just with his bat, but with his attitude, in which Brown became so successful on the diamond. He was everyone’s favorite teammate. He was a huge crowd favorite. He was Gates Brown, the underdog who went from prisoner to champion.
Gates Brown died at age 74 on September 27, 2013, in Detroit, Michigan.
Brown’s’ quotes about being hounded by Southern fans while in the minors: Joe Falls article, The Sporting News, March 22, 1975, and Rich Koster article, St. Louis Globe Democrat, October19, 1968.
Brown’s troubles with the IRS: David Shepardson article, The Detroit News, date unknown, and Anthony Neely article on the Summa-Harrison scandal, April 1993.
Hot dog story and quotes: Detroit Tigers press release, August 18, 1978.
Joe Garagiola interview info. and quotes: Detroit Tigers press release, July 1, 1974
Poker story with McLain and Northrup and quotes: Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia, p. 99.
Reference to Mayo Smith receiving letters to start Gates at shortstop during the World Series: Rich Koster article, St. Louis Globe Democrat, October, 19, 1968.