This article was written by Rob Edelman
The children of the elite often will have difficulty establishing their own identities and achieving success, particularly if their interests parallel those of a parent. Such was not the case with Joe L. Brown, whose father was Joe E. Brown, the popular comic actor, film star, and baseball aficionado who (unlike practically all celebrated sports fans) also was a skilled ballplayer. While Joe L. had no inclination to appear before the cameras, he nonetheless carved out for himself an estimable career in major-league baseball.
For two decades beginning in 1955, Brown was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was an astute baseball man with a sharp eye for talent and he transformed the Bucs from perennial cellar-dwellers to world champions in 1960, with a second title following in 1971; additionally, he helped lay the foundation for a third championship in 1979. As Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Bob Cohn observed on Brown’s passing, “His father was a famous entertainer, and he succeeded a baseball legend (Branch Rickey). But Joe L. Brown ended up making his own name, putting his stamp on three Pittsburgh Pirates world championship teams during a span of 20 years.”
Joe Leroy Brown was born on September 1, 1918, in New York City. His parents were the aforementioned Joe E. Brown and the former Kathryn Frances McGraw, and he had three siblings: Don, an older brother, and Kathryn Frances and Mary Elizabeth, two adopted sisters. At Joe L.’s birth, his father was performing in vaudeville. Joe E. spent the 1920s headlining on Broadway before moving himself and his family to Hollywood and the movies at decade’s end. But in baseball circles, Joe E. primarily was recognized for his athleticism and love of the sport. In his youth, he played semipro ball — in 1911, at age 19, he even was offered a Boston Red Sox contract– and his fame allowed him to befriend big league luminaries, work out with major-league teams, and organize Hollywood studio ball clubs. Three of his Warner Bros. features — Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935) — were baseball-oriented, and he was responsible for getting his baseball buddies roles in movies. Between 1932 and 1935, he was part-owner of the American Association Kansas City Blues, and he delighted in his ever-expanding baseball memorabilia collection.
It was in this baseball-rich atmosphere that Joe L. came of age. Given his father’s contacts, the youngster was privy to the company of baseball’s top brass. And so, in 1935, at age 16, he met the man who significantly impacted his career: Branch Rickey. The two became pals, with the legendary Mahatma serving as his mentor. The youngster also befriended ballplayers and their families, and Honus Wagner invited him to work out at the Pittsburgh Pirates training camp. Joe L.’s first priority was a career as a big-league ballplayer. But unfortunately, while trying to impress Wagner with a strong throw from the infield, he broke all the bones in his right elbow– thus ending his dream of a pro playing career. Still, according to his father, the boy’s love of the sport “developed into something near an obsession. No one ever had to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up. It was pretty obvious that he wanted to make baseball a career.”
The younger Brown graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1935 and enrolled at UCLA, where he played varsity football. He entered pro baseball four years later, when he became assistant business manager of the Lubbock Hubbers of the Class D West Texas-New Mexico League. Then he was named president of the Waterloo, Iowa club in the Class B Three I League. Meanwhile, the “Milestones” section in the October 7, 1940 issue of Time announced the marriage of “pretty, blonde Virginia Lee Newport, 19, of Beverly Hills, Calif.; and Joe Leroy Brown, 21, handsome son of gulf-mouthed cineclown Joe E. Brown.” The Browns eventually had two children: a daughter, Cynthia, and a son, Don.
Just over a year later, at the advent of World War II, Brown enlisted in the United States Army Air Force; he entered as a private and was mustered out a captain. After the war, he continued his baseball education working in the front offices of the Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars and the Cleveland Indians’ Zanesville, Ohio, farm team. His Hollywood connection allowed him to secure a gig spinning publicity for The Babe Ruth Story (1948), the notoriously awful biopic.
Brown first worked in the Pittsburgh organization in 1950, when he became business manager of the Waco Pirates in the Class B Big State League, and he eventually became president of the New Orleans Pelicans in the Class AA Southern Association. He made it to the big club’s front office in 1955 and, at season’s end, signed a one-year contract as the Bucs’ general manager. The date was November 1; he replaced 73-year-old Rickey, who became the team’s board chairman.
At the time, the Bucs were a strictly second-division ball club. During the previous six seasons, they were entrenched in last place with won-lost marks of 57-96 (in 1950); 42-112 (1952); 50-104 (1953); 53-101 (1954); and 60-94 (1955). In 1951, their 64-90 mark was good for seventh place, two games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. (It was for good reason that, in On the Waterfront, the 1954 Best Picture Academy Award winner, a dockworker quips that his beat-up windbreaker is “more full of holes than the Pittsburgh infield.”) Team president John Galbreath announced that Brown “will have complete charge of the club” and, upon being hired, he pledged to get the Bucs “back in the race and into the World Series.” Brown added, “The job, of course, is a great challenge to me, but I think it is a challenge that can be met.” At 37, he was one of the youngest big league general managers.
Brown’s first priority was to hire a skipper to replace Fred Haney, who had been let go after the team’s eighth-place finish. His choice was Bobby Bragan, who led the team to an equally dismal seventh place mark in 1956; however, their 66-88 record was an improvement over their finish during recent campaigns. On November 21, Brown’s rehiring for the 1957 campaign was announced. At the time, Galbreath prophetically noted, “I hope Joe will be associated with the Pirates for many years to come.”
Midway through the following season, with the Bucs again mired in seventh place with a 36-67 record, Brown replaced Bragan with 39-year-old Danny Murtaugh, an ex-big league infielder and current Pirates third-base coach who also had managed the New Orleans Pelicans when Brown was affiliated with that team. Brown initially offered the post to Clyde Sukeforth, another Bucs coach, but was turned down. Murtaugh, meanwhile, was hired on an interim basis. The general manager told the press that Bragan had been replaced “for the good of the team, now, and in the future.”
The 1957 campaign was beyond salvaging, with the Pirates ending up in seventh place at 62-92. But Brown was pleased with Murtaugh’s managerial instincts. He rehired the skipper for 1958 and the team broke through into the first division with an 84-70 record, good enough for second place behind the 92-62 Milwaukee Braves — and a Sporting News Major League Executive of the Year prize for Brown. After backsliding to 78-76 and fourth place in 1959, the Bucs were the 1960 NL pennant winners with a 95-59 record, finishing seven games ahead of the Braves. Their seven-game triumph over the favored New York Yankees — the team’s first world championship since 1925 — was as much a victory for Brown as for Murtaugh, World Series hero Bill Mazeroski, or any other Pirate. (Murtaugh was Brown’s favored skipper. On several occasions, he temporarily left his post because of a heart ailment, but still managed the Bucs from 1957-64 and in 1967, 1970-71, and 1973-76; when not helming the team, Murtaugh toiled for Brown as an advisor-troubleshooter-super scout. In 1974, sportswriter Red Smith even quipped that Brown “suffers from the curious delusion that nobody except Danny Murtaugh can manage a team…”)
Upon Brown’s arrival in Pittsburgh, some of the pieces that shaped the 1960 champs already were in place. Pitchers Vern Law, Bob Friend, and Elroy Face joined the club in 1950, 1951, and 1953. Shortstop Dick Groat had been with the team since 1952. Outfielder Bob Skinner arrived in 1954. Second sacker Bill Mazeroski, who signed with the Pirates in 1954, debuted in 1956. Most notably, on November 22, 1954, Rickey drafted a 20-year-old flychaser named Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers. But Brown worked out the trades that brought the team outfielder Bill Virdon (acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals on May 17, 1956); infielder Dick Schofield (St. Louis, June 15, 1958); third-baseman Don Hoak, catcher Smokey Burgess, and pitcher Harvey Haddix (Cincinnati Reds, January 31, 1959); catcher Hal Smith (Kansas City Athletics, December 9, 1959); outfielder Gino Cimoli and pitcher Tom Cheney (St. Louis, December 21, 1959); and pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell (St. Louis, May 27, 1960).
Meanwhile, first basemen Dick Stuart, signed by the Bucs in 1951, joined the team in 1958. Fellow first sacker Rocky Nelson, an up-and-down big leaguer since 1949, was a December 1, 1958 Rule 5 draftee from the International League Toronto Maple Leafs. Brown was chided by his colleagues for his decision to draft the veteran. San Francisco Giants general manager Chub Feeney joked that Brown surely meant to draft Ricky Nelson, of Ozzie and Harriet fame. But Rocky Nelson was a valuable addition to the Bucs, hitting .300 in 200 at-bats for the 1960 club.
Not all of Brown’s deals were steals. In order to obtain Mizell, along with utility infielder-outfielder Dick Gray, he gave up a pitcher to be named later and his AAA Columbus second baseman: Julian Javier, aptly described by the general manager as “one of the most brilliant prospects in the minor leagues.” Javier later starred with the Cards. But Brown was more concerned with the present, with 1960. “I’m shooting everything for this year,” he told the press.
In mid-September, as the Pirates inched toward the NL pennant, New York Times columnist John Drebinger wryly observed, “When Brown was tapped by Galbreath to direct the Bucs, most folks outside of baseball knew him chiefly as the son of the comedian, Joe E. Brown. Since Bing Crosby, the crooner, already was a stockholder, it was generally thought young Joe was added to produce more laughs.” But then he admitted that Brown was a hardworking baseball professional, adding, “Before every game you could see him sitting behind the batting cage watching every pitch and swing.” Later on, right after the World Series clincher, Brown was interviewed in the Pirates’ jubilant clubhouse by broadcaster Bob Prince. “I think (the series) was just sheer guts against power,” he declared, “and the guts came through.”
During the rest of the decade, the Pirates fielded teams that finished as high as third place (in 1965, 1966 and, in the NL East, in 1969). One of his more controversial moves came in November, 1962, when he traded Dick Groat, the 1960 NL batting champion and Most Valuable Player as well as a Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania native, to St. Louis. Groat, destined to be the Cards’ starting shortstop on its 1964 World Series winner, was crushed– and remained angry at Brown for decades. (Actually, in December 1959, Brown considered trading Groat to the Kansas City Athletics for Roger Maris: a deal that would have drastically altered baseball history. “As soon as Danny [Murtaugh] and I closed the door [of their Miami Beach, Florida, hotel room],” the general manager admitted the following November, “we looked at each other and frowned– right away we knew we didn’t like it.” And so the trade was nixed.)
Under Brown, the Bucs’ fortunes improved during the 1970s. They consistently remained in the thick of pennant races and were first-place finishers in the NL East in 1970-72, 1974-75, and 1979; they came in second place in 1976-78; and their worst campaign was a third-place finish in 1973. Most significantly, they were world champs again in 1971. Clemente and Mazeroski remained from the 1960 team; key additions made by Brown included Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Bob Robertson, Steve Blass, Nelson Briles, Dock Ellis, Dave Giusti, Bruce Kison, and, most prominently, Willie Stargell.
The Pirates’ core players mostly were products of its farm system; Brown, like Rickey, believed that major league success was a direct result of employing a top-flight scouting staff and solid player-development program. Those in the know fully credited him for his team’s accomplishments. Prior to the 1971 World Series, in which the Bucs beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games, New York Times columnist Leonard Koppett described Brown as “extremely self-effacing (and) low-key” in a profession that otherwise “attracts and rewards flamboyance.” Koppett added that Brown was a model of “the ‘new-wave’ career executives that flourished in baseball only after World War II.” He observed, “Among baseball people, the Pirate organization is considered among the best for producing outstanding young players year after year,” and he concluded, “The Pittsburgh Pirates are the creation of Joe L. Brown …”
Brown, to his credit, had a progressive view regarding minorities in baseball. He acknowledged that the Caribbean and Latin America were fertile sources of talent, and occasionally accompanied scout Howie Haak on his south-of-the-border excursions. In a September 1, 1971 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, his Pirates made history by fielding the first all-black starting nine. Brown downplayed the milestone by declaring, “Danny Murtaugh put out the best nine players.” A decade earlier, in 1961, Brown hired 36-year-old African-American infielder Gene Baker, whom he has just unconditionally released, to manage the team’s Class D Batavia, New York ball club. To Brown, this was no important thing. “(Baker) was most valuable to the Pirates organization in the past as a player, instructor and scout,” he remarked. “He is a fine gentleman with outstanding baseball knowledge and experience. We’re confident he’ll do a fine job in the managerial field.” Baker later was a player-coach on the Pirates’ AAA Columbus Jets farm club and in 1963 followed Buck O’Neil as the second African-American to coach at the major league level.
Brown also was a beloved figure among his employees. When Kay Butler, a longtime Forbes Field hotdog vendor, died in 1979, he came to the funeral home to offer his condolences. By then, Brown had been retired from the Pirates for three years; he left the team after the 1976 season and was replaced by Harding Peterson, whom he had hired to operate the Bucs’ farm system in 1967. But it was under Brown’s stewardship that several key contributors to the 1979 championship came to Pittsburgh. Stargell and Sanguillen remained from 1971; others included Dave Parker (who arrived in 1973), Jim Rooker (1973), Kent Tekulve (1974), Bill Robinson (1975), Omar Moreno (1975), and John Candelaria (1975).
Brown settled in Newport Beach, California, but maintained his Pittsburgh ties by scouting for the ball club. He remained a valued member of baseball’s inner circle. For example, in 1978, he helped devise a plan to realign the two major leagues by dividing each into three divisions. For years, he was an influential member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. But his days in the Pirates front office had not ended. In May 1985, the team was mired in a headline-making drug scandal. Its on-field play was uninspired, attendance was declining, and the Galbreath family was rumored to be shopping the franchise. Old reliable Brown was called in to add some past-season glitter by becoming the team’s acting general manager. He finished out the season, was replaced by Syd Thrift, and returned to California.
A wheelchair-bound Brown made his final public appearance on June 19, 2010 at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pirates’ 1960 championship. At the time, the Bucs — who had compiled losing records for the past 17 seasons — were more like the team he inherited in 1955. But it was a day for celebration, with Brown earning a standing ovation from the crowd. “We beat a pretty good Yankee team with (Mickey) Mantle, (Roger) Maris, (Whitey) Ford, (Yogi) Berra (in 1960),” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The Pirates had not won in so long that nobody remembered what it was like. Pittsburgh is a football town. But we showed it was also a baseball town.”
On this occasion, Brown was sought out by Dick Groat, who still resented being traded almost a half-century earlier. “We buried the hatchet,” Groat reported. “We had a great conversation at the reunion. I said to myself, ‘He’s 91, and I’m 79. No use carrying this grudge till one of us dies’.”
Brown indeed did pass away less than two months later, on August 15, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was suffering from an unnamed illness and recently had moved to an assisted living facility in Albuquerque near the home of daughter Cynthia. Information regarding Brown’s funeral and burial were kept private by his family.
Upon his death, Bucs players added “JLB” patches to their uniform sleeves. Brown, in addition, was tributed in the Pittsburgh media. In his Post-Gazette blog, Bob Smizek dubbed him “one of the most important sports figures in Pittsburgh history.” Steve Blass, the ex-Pirates hurler and current broadcaster, told the paper, “Yes, he built championship teams and made superb trades, but he also built a pipeline to supply that team. People don’t understand how good that farm system was.” Blass labeled Brown “the consummate GM” and added, “He was a baseball father to me…. He is living proof that not every champion wears a uniform.”
Bob Friend, a starter on the 1960 world champs, noted, “He was one of the best baseball men of his time. Joe Brown was a winner…. His mind was so sharp when he was back with us in June. I think the ovation he received from the fans was tremendous. I think he was overwhelmed by it.” Bill Virdon, another 1960 Bucs veteran, added that Brown was “sharp as a tack. He really knew his business. One of the best in the business. No doubt.”
This biography is included in the book “Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates” (SABR, 2013), edited by Clifton Blue Parker and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.
For information regarding the passing of Joe L. Brown, I would like to acknowledge the following: Clifton Parker, Bill Lee, Rod Nelson, Fred Worth, and especially Tim Wiles of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum.
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Joe LeRoy Brown
September 1, 1918 at New York, NY (US)
August 15, 2010 at Albuquerque, NM (US)
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