Leon Brown’s older brother Curtis was a one-game major-leaguer, appearing with the Montreal Expos in May 1973. Leon, who was also an outfielder, didn’t have a whole lot more time at the top level. He got into 64 games for the New York Mets in 1976. Yet both of the Brown brothers pursued their dream in the pros for several years more, and both remained dedicated to baseball. Their genial, easygoing natures made them well suited to working with youngsters.
Leon Brown (no middle name, like his brother Curtis) was born in Sacramento, California, on November 16, 1948. Although baseball references have shown 1949 as his year of birth, Brown has stated that this is an error that crept in somewhere along the way, and the California birth index confirms it. His father, also named Curtis, was a construction contractor. “He built shopping centers and schools,” Leon recalled. Mrs. Ruby Brown (née Banks) had four children, of whom Leon was the youngest. The two eldest Brown siblings were brother Willie and sister Nancy. Of interest too are family ties to other major-leaguers. “One of my uncles is also Mo Vaughn’s uncle,” Brown said, “and he’s Greg Vaughn’s grandfather. James Mouton is also my cousin.”
From the time he was a small boy, Leon Brown enjoyed baseball. “When I gained a love for it, my brother Curtis was playing Little League. He is three years older, so I was watching. At nine years old, I met Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and wanted to be like them. At Career Day in school, I was always hearing it from my teachers because I said I wanted to be a baseball player.”
There was a lot of talent locally, much of it African-American. “I grew up playing with Leron Lee all through school. We weren’t allowed to be on the same Little League team together, we were too good! Leron’s brother Leon, who’s Derrek Lee’s father – he was there.” Leon Lee played from 1971 through 1977 in the minors and then enjoyed ten successful years in Japan. “Bob Oliver and another of my cousins, Daniel Irving [who played in the minors in 1965] – these were all kids in the neighborhood.” Yet another of those neighborhood kids was Dusty Baker, who went to Del Campo High School in nearby Fair Oaks. Dusty and the Browns remained good friends nearly half a century later.
Brown attended Grant Union High School in Sacramento, as his brother had before him. When he was 17 years old, in June 1966, the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the amateur draft. This too supports a 1948 birth date; it would have been odd for a 16-year-old to be graduating high school in May or June, and thus to be eligible for the draft.i Ken Wollenberg, a leading baseball figure in Sacramento, brought Brown to the attention of big-league scouts, as he had done with brother Curtis the previous year (Curtis had attended junior college). Charlie Wallgren, a veteran scout based in San Francisco, then recommended the choice to Baltimore.
Brown first stepped on a professional diamond in 1967. He played 33 games for Bluefield, Baltimore’s rookie-ball team in the Appalachian League, and seven for Stockton in the California League (Class A). He then split 1968 between Aberdeen in the Northern League (low Class A) and Stockton, followed by two more full years with Stockton. He did not attract any national attention; The Sporting News mentioned him only in passing a few times during those first four pro seasons.
The Orioles had an amazingly deep farm system in those days – it was one of the key elements of their success from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Some of Brown’s notable fellow outfielders included Don Baylor (aged 19 at Stockton in 1968); Rich Coggins (just 17 at Aberdeen, also in 1968); and Al Bumbry (Stockton, 1969). Brown commented on this depth. “I signed as a shortstop with the Orioles. So did Bobby Grich, Junior Kennedy, and Doug DeCinces. None of those guys got to play shortstop in Baltimore. They had a guy there for about 20 years named Mark Belanger.
“One of the hard things I learned – I thought you played one position, but you played wherever you could to get in the lineup. I moved to center field, but when he was younger, Don Baylor played there too. Then along came Alonza Bumbry. And who was in front of them in Baltimore winning all those Gold Gloves? Paul Blair.”
Another teammate in the O’s chain from 1967 to 1969 was future screenwriter and director Ron Shelton. “Ron Shelton, yes sir!” Brown affirmed when asked if he remembered the man behind Bull Durham. Yet Orioles manager Earl Weaver left an even stronger imprint on Brown’s mind. Though “The Oriole Way” of sound fundamental baseball had started years before, Weaver “brought the philosophy back to the forefront.”ii In Brown’s view, “It was Weaver’s organization – you played Weaver ball.”
In the low minors, Brown hit for moderate average without much extra-base pop – but he did show a progression, and he also stole 51 bases for the Ports in 1970. Following that season, the Orioles sent him to Ciudad Obregón of the Mexican Pacific League for development. Dusty Baker was in the same outfield; other Americans on the club included John Lowenstein and Hal Breeden. Mexican pitcher Vicente Romo threw a perfect game for the Yaquis that winter, and Brown caught the final out in left field.iii
“I had a good time, played well, and got to play with good guys,” said Brown of Mexican winter ball. In four regular seasons there, he played in 173 games, hitting .293 with 5 homers and 54 RBIs. He added 39 stolen bases, including a league-leading 29 in 1970-71. He also made it to the playoffs in 1970-71, going 13 for 50 (.260) with 3 homers – an unusual burst of power for him – and 9 RBIs in 12 games. However, the Hermosillo Naranjeros won the championship round.
Brown stepped up to Double A for 1971. He was a regular in the outfield for Dallas-Fort Worth, along with Mike Reinbach, who made it to the majors with the Orioles for 12 games in 1974. Leon’s fellow Texas League players voted him to the All-Star team that August.iv They faced the San Diego Padres in Albuquerque on August 9; Brown, the leadoff man, opened the bottom of the first with a single and scored the game’s first run. The All-Stars eventually lost, 4-3.v
On November 29, 1971, while he was playing again for Ciudad Obregón, the San Francisco Giants selected Leon in the minor league draft. When asked how he felt at that time, Brown replied, “Not very good! They still had Willie Mays. They had Barry Bonds’ father, Bobby. They had Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox. We all competed together. It was a great learning curve, but those guys had to play.” Brown spent 1972 with San Francisco’s Double-A club, Amarillo. He had a nice year there (.298 average, 8 homers, 58 RBIs, and 18 steals) and again was named a Texas League All-Star. This time the TL squad faced the Texas Rangers at Alexandria, Louisiana on August 9.vi
That winter Brown returned to Mexico once more, though he had a new club, the Guaymas Ostioneros. The game of November 10, at Los Mochis, featured a near-riot in the stands that was broadcast across the nation. Brown fell over the fence after catching a long drive, and the umpire called the batter out. An irate spectator threw a bottle, striking the ump in the knee and prompting him to jest, “It wasn’t a rule call. It was a hospital call.”vii
Brown advanced to Triple A ball, playing three-plus seasons at that level. Most of that time came with the top Giants affiliate, Phoenix, though he spent much of 1974 on loan to Iowa, a Chicago White Sox farm club. From 1973 through 1975, he posted a batting average of .303, with 8 homers and 129 RBIs. His slugging percentage was .411, and he showed some ability to work out walks, with an on-base percentage of .360. “I didn’t hit a lot of homers,” Brown said of his game. “But I was your leadoff man. I could get on base and I could score runs.”
Brown also found the climate and lifestyle in Phoenix very attractive. “I made the mistake of staying there one winter,” he said, tongue clearly in cheek – a smile or a joke is never far from his lips. “You’ve got sun 24/7. I could play baseball, golf, and tennis and stay in shape.”
Brown also got married during this time. His wedding to Deana Beckom took place on January 6, 1973. On that special day, the couple had help from old friend Dusty Baker, who was a groomsman and more. As Baker recalled in 2008, “I was the photographer with a video camera at his wedding. No kidding, I was. Never done it before. But he couldn’t afford a real photographer, so I did it. You should see all the shots of the floors and ceilings I got for him.”viii
During spring training 1976, on March 16, the Giants traded Brown to the Mets in exchange for Bob Gallagher, a veteran outfielder who had played sparingly for New York in 1975. The deal did not attract any press coverage – that year’s spring training lockout was still on – but Brown welcomed it. “By all means!” he said.
Brown opened the 1976 season with the Mets’ top farm club, Tidewater. He had batted .321 in the first 21 games, with a homer and 13 RBIs, when his call to the majors came at last, at age 27 (the Associated Press reported his age correctly). As New York sportswriter Jack Lang put it, “The Mets were bringing up help for Del Unser, their weary center fielder. Playing every day because the Mets had no one to platoon with him in center, Unser recently endured a slump that reached 0-for-29 proportions. So on May 18, Leon Brown was called up. Brown, who had been kicking around in the minors for several years, is a righthanded batter. That’s the main reason he got the call. The Mets were desperate for any outfielder, particularly a center fielder, who could hit from the right side.”ix
Mets general manager Joe McDonald confirmed the need for righty-hitting support for Unser. He added, “We’ve had encouraging reports on Brown.” The same UPI story observed that another righty-swinging outfielder, Mike Vail, had been X-rayed in New York.x Vail had shown much promise with a 23-game hitting streak in 1975, but then he dislocated his foot playing basketball in the offseason. Vail was a corner outfielder, though. So was Benny Ayala, another man then with the Mets who later turned out to be a good platoon hitter against lefties for the Orioles.
“I never gave up on myself,” said Leon upon being called up, “although I think some people gave up on me.”xi Looking back, he said, “It was great. That was the childhood dream. The guys from the West Coast liked the Dodgers or Giants, but the Yankees and Mets were OK too!” He added, “I was rated as an offensive player with the Giants, but as a defensive player with the Mets.”
Brown made his big-league debut at Shea Stadium on the night of May 19. The Mets were trailing the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth. Manager Joe Frazier sent the rookie up to pinch-hit for the club’s top reliever, Skip Lockwood. On the mound was Gene Garber, the deceptive righty reliever with the herky-jerky, hesitating delivery modeled after Luis Tiant’s.xii On the very first pitch Brown faced in the majors, he looped a double down the right-field line.xiii Del Unser then sacrificed Brown over to third, but Garber then struck out Félix Millán (who choked way up on the bat and whiffed very seldom). Tom Underwood then came on to get John Milner for the last out.
Overall, Brown batted .214 with no homers and 2 RBIs in 74 plate appearances. He started 14 times in center field, spelling Unser (until he was traded in July), Pepe Mangual (who came from Montreal with Jim Dwyer in the deal that sent away Unser and Wayne Garrett), and Bruce Boisclair. The Mets promoted Lee Mazzilli in September, and Brown started no more.
“It wasn’t till I started sitting that I lost the edge,” Brown said. He pinch-ran many times and filled in as a corner outfielder. One of those outings, on May 30 at Shea, proved memorable for the wrong reason. Brown had replaced John Milner in left field in the eighth inning of a game against St. Louis. The Mets took a 5-2 lead into the ninth, but the great Tom Seaver could not nail it down and neither could Skip Lockwood. The tying run scored when Brown couldn’t come up with a tough diving catch of Don Kessinger’s liner. Then in the 11th inning, with Willie Crawford on third, Kessinger lifted a fly to left field – but even though it was in foul territory and there was just one out, Brown made the catch. Crawford tagged up and scored. Leon had a chance at redemption with two outs and two on in the bottom of the inning, but Al Hrabosky retired him on a groundout to end it.
“Ten thousand people did not let me forget that play!” said Brown.xiv The newspapers termed it a mental error, but in his view, it wasn’t clear-cut. “After they looked at the tapes, they said I couldn’t let it drop. I caught the ball knee-high. I had a good arm and was accurate, but I should’ve caught it higher and made a better throw. The third baseman [Roy Staiger] made an error, he overthrew the catcher.”
“The people that counted knew I did the right thing. The experience is something I use teaching the kids.” Indeed, Brown is very upbeat about his entire time in the majors with the Mets. “I don’t remember any negative memories. It was all positive. Playing in Shea, defensively it was made for me. It had soft grass and a nice infield. I learned a lot from sitting on the bench, especially with Joe Torre. Any time I had a question, he had an answer. It was a great relationship. Tom Seaver was the easiest guy to play behind. He knew what he was doing. When he told me to move, I knew I was going to get the ball.”
In November 1976, the Mets sent Brown outright to Tidewater. They then traded him and Brock Pemberton (who had played 13 games with the Mets during 1974 and ’75) to St. Louis on December 9. In exchange, the Cardinals sent first baseman-outfielder Ed Kurpiel, their top draft pick in 1971.
Brown split the 1977 season between New Orleans (Triple A) and Arkansas (Double A). “When I got to the Cardinals, I was injured,” he said. “I’d torn a hamstring. I still have a knot in my leg. I didn’t know how to rehab. Now they take care of it right away, but I couldn’t wait to get back.” He sat out the 1978 season, in what The Sporting News termed a disagreement with the Cardinals organization, though Brown said, “It was more of a family thing.” He worked first for his father’s construction company in Phoenix, then drove a truck.xv
He then came back in 1979, joining the Miami Amigos of the short-lived Inter-American League. He got off to a hot start but was sidelined indefinitely after suffering a hairline skull fracture from a beaning.xvi He got back in action – “I had to wear a special helmet,” he said – but soon after, the ill-starred IAL folded. “It was too bad,” Brown said. “Some guys were doing well.” Brown was among them, finishing second in the league in batting at .352. “I was also among the top home run hitters. Little things I learned there worked.”
He credited his manager with the Amigos, someone who became a very important figure in Mets history several years later: Davey Johnson. It was the first entry in Johnson’s long record as a manager. “The greatest batting coach I ever had!” Brown exclaimed. “Good batting coaches are hard to find. It was the hardest thing when I was separated from him – he was supposed to take me back to the majors. I was really seeing myself going back.”
After the IAL, Brown went to Mexico, where he played for the Diablos Rojos of Mexico City. In 38 games as a Red Devil, he hit .309 with one homer and 17 RBIs. One of his teammates was Ed Kurpiel; oddly enough, Brock Pemberton had been a teammate of Leon’s with the Amigos.
In 1980, Brown returned to the States with Omaha, the top farm club of the Kansas City Royals. He batted .191-2-19 in 65 games; his season ended when he suffered a broken leg.xvii It looked like he was going to give it another go with Omaha in 1981, but as he put it, “I grew up, and baseball players can’t grow up. I decided to find out if I could make it in the real world. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who’s 36 years old and still trying to hang on. If it was a mistake, I live by it. It was my decision.
“I got home on a Sunday. On Monday, my wife told me, ‘Get a job!’ Federal Express hired me, and I was there 28 years until I retired.” The Browns had two children. Daughter Deonne got her master’s degree and became a counselor at the University of Phoenix. Son Channing played baseball at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona and at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He went on to play in the Arizona Summer and Winter independent instructional leagues. As of 2012, he was with the Montezuma Federals of the Freedom Baseball League, a newly launched indie circuit based in Arizona.
Starting around 1983, Leon Brown became active in the Arizona Major League Alumni organization. His goal: to instruct youngsters in the fundamentals of baseball. Contributors to the Ultimatemets.com website have praised him for his knowledge of the game, energy, passion to teach, good nature, and sense of humor.
“It took a few years after I quit,” said Brown, “but I wanted to get back into the game. It’s become more of a passion working with the kids than it was playing.” He has worked with a good few players who became major-leaguers, Ike Davis and André Ethier being just two. “To try to name ’em all, you’re going to leave out somebody!” he said.
When asked about the diminished presence of African-Americans in baseball today, Brown replied in a mild but matter-of-fact tone, “I think they’re getting the shaft, and it’s brought on from Little League. Unless you’re a superstar, you don’t get to play. A lot of the kids, if they want to play, may have to go somewhere where the one who’s making out the lineup doesn’t know them. If you feel bad about your situation, you go play basketball or football. A lot of them are too short to be Michael Jordan, but they’re not too short for baseball.”
Yet baseball has enabled Leon Brown to make a difference in the lives of children. “I speak to kids when they’re on the borderline,” he said. “The ones you save make it worth it.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Leon Brown for his memories. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from telephone interviews with the author, July 1 and July 17, 2012. Continued thanks also to Alfonso Araujo and Jesús Alberto Rubio (Mexican statistics).
Pedro Treto Cisneros, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano, Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 11th edition, 2011.
i Brown also stated in 2012 that he recalls being drafted in the fourth round, not the ninth as shown in baseball references. This part has not been possible to substantiate, though.
ii Warren Corbett, “The Oriole Way,” Chapter 1 of Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers: The 1970 Baltimore Orioles (Mark Armour and Malcolm Allen, editors), Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 2.
iii Guillermo Urias A., “Vicente Romo, 40 años del Juego Perfecto,” Mural Sonorense (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico), January 10, 2011.
iv “Travelers’ Roque Tops Texas Stars,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1971, 44.
v Carlos Salazar, “Severinsen Is Stopper; Padres Top Texas Stars,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1971, 41.
vi “Alexandria Places 7 on TL All-Star Team,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1972, 40.
vii Tomás Morales, “Rabbit Appears in Peso League,” The Sporting News, November 18, 1972, 54.
viii Hal McCoy, “Oh, those one-run games,” Dayton Daily News, September 14, 2008.
ix Jack Lang, “Surprise! Mets Have New Hot Sacker, Torre,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1976, 15.
x “Mets buy outfielder,” United Press International, May 18, 1976.
xi Frank Brown, “Schmidt Happy With Single,” Associated Press, May 20, 1976.
xii Joe O’Loughlin, “Former reliever Gene Garber recalls 19-year career and his role in baseball history,” Baseball Digest, February 2004.
xiii “Phils Roll On; Beat Mets, 2-1,” Associated Press, May 20, 1976.
xiv The crowd that day was over 50,000, so he may have been referring just to the fans around left field.
xv “Brown’s Sizzling Start,” The Sporting News, May 26, 1979.
xvi “Brown’s Sizzling Start.” See also The Sporting News, July 14, 1979, 39.
xvii Frank Haraway, “Class AAA Previews,” The Sporting News, April 26, 1980, 13.