August 13, 1947: Willard Brown hits first American League home run by a Black player
Two weeks after the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby broke the America League’s color barrier on July 5, 1947, Kansas City Monarchs stars Hank Thompson and Willard Brown received a telegram from Bill DeWitt, general manager of the last-place St. Louis Browns. They were told to report to St. Louis for the following night’s game, making them the first Black teammates in White major-league history. “I never dreamed I’d be this lucky,” Brown expressed.1
By St. Louis’ August 13 doubleheader against the 55-49 Detroit Tigers,2 the players’ luck had seemingly run out and the Browns were ready to pull the plug on the experiment. The 21-year-old Thompson had hovered around the .200 mark since joining the team.3 Brown’s average was just .177 and, at age 32,4 he’d failed to display the power that had prompted Josh Gibson to nickname him Home Run Brown.
Even more of a concern for DeWitt and St. Louis owner Richard Muckerman was the paltry 3,002 fans who’d paid to get into the ballpark. The team had counted on Thompson and Brown to generate interest with the city’s sizable Black population and improve ticket sales, but that wasn’t panning out.5 The highest attendance at Sportsman’s Park since they’d joined the team was 7,633 for the first Sunday doubleheader after their signing was announced,6 fewer than the 10,000 who’d turned out two weeks earlier.
Neither Thompson nor Brown was in the starting lineup for Detroit’s 7-1 win in the first game, but Thompson drove in St. Louis’s only run with a ninth-inning pinch-hit single. In the nightcap, Thompson, batting second and playing second base, got the 39-70 Browns out to an early lead, drawing a walk in the first inning, then scoring on a two-out triple by Jeff Heath, who scored one batter later when Vern Stephens singled to center field.
For much of the game, that looked like all St. Louis starter Bob Muncrief would need. The right-hander retired the first 11 batters he faced before Jimmy Outlaw singled in the fourth inning, then set down the next seven in order. He also gave himself an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning, driving home rookie outfielder Ray Coleman from second base on a two-out single for a 3-0 lead.
Another rookie outfielder, Vic Wertz, led off the Detroit seventh by ending the shutout, belting his first major-league home run into the bleachers. Muncrief pulled himself together and, though he walked George Kell, he got out of the inning without giving up another run.
St. Louis loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh but failed to score. Leading off the eighth, Detroit manager Steve O’Neill sent pitcher Fred Hutchinson up to pinch-hit for catcher Bob Swift. Hutchinson was swinging a hot bat. In the first game of the doubleheader, he’d not only thrown a complete-game win, but also went 3-for-4 including a double, scored one run, and drove in another.7
O’Neill’s substitution paid off. The right-handed pitcher who swung from the left side of the plate blasted a Muncrief offering onto the top of the right-field pavilion, narrowing the Browns’ lead to 3-2.
With the pitcher’s spot due up, O’Neill pinch-hit Dick Wakefield, who’d gone 2-for 3 with a triple batting cleanup in the earlier game. He legged out an infield single to third baseman Bob Dillinger, then got to second on a single by Eddie Lake.
With no outs, Eddie Mayo laid down a bunt, but catcher Jake Early pounced on the ball and his throw to Dillinger beat Wakefield for the first out of the inning. Wertz and Outlaw then hit back-to-back doubles, plating three runs.8
After allowing only three baserunners through seven innings, Muncrief left the game down 5-3. Manager Muddy Ruel called in lefty Sam Zoldak, who intentionally walked Kell, then retired the next two batters.
Detroit put Hal White on the mound to start the eighth inning. Early worked the count and drew a walk against the right-hander, prompting Ruel to send the lefty-batting Joe Schultz to hit for Zoldak. Schultz had pinch-hit a homer two days earlier against the Chicago White Sox, which might have concerned O’Neill, who gave White the hook and brought on the Tigers’ southpaw ace, Hal Newhouser.9
In the previous three years, Prince Hal had won consecutive American League MVP Awards and just missed out on a third in 1946, finishing a close second to Ted Williams. He’d won 25 or more games each of those years but was behind the pace to get to 20 again. He’d taken a loss in four of his last five appearances, including an eight-inning complete game in Cleveland the previous day that made him 11-12.
As dominant as Newhouser had been against the rest of the AL, he seemed to turn it up a notch for St. Louis. The pitcher had won 15 straight decisions against the Browns, not having lost to them since Opening Day of 1945.
Not wanting a lefty-on-lefty matchup, Ruel called Schultz back to the dugout, looked down his bench, and told Brown to grab a bat.
One factor in Brown’s struggles at the plate had been that he didn’t have a suitable bat. When he left the Monarchs, he didn’t take bats or gloves with him because he’d been told the Browns would provide equipment. But all St. Louis had for Brown, who was accustomed to swinging a heavy 40-ounce bat, was lighter bats.10
Jeff Heath swung the heaviest bats on the team, and when Brown found a bat Heath had discarded because the knob had broken off, he did his best to reassemble it, hold it together, and create a makeshift knob with athletic tape. When Ruel called his name, this was the bat he took to the plate.
Umpire Eddie Rommel stopped Brown and told him rule prohibited using a bat with tape over the knob, so the frustrated slugger undid it and got into the batter’s box with a knobless 40-ounce cudgel.
Newhouser wound up and delivered, and Brown crushed the first pitch he saw. “It was a fastball about shoulder high and when I swung, I knew I hit the ball hard,” Brown recounted.11
The ball rocketed toward the flagpole in the deepest part of center field, falling just shy of clearing the fence and banging off the 426 sign on the wall. “I just ducked my head and started running,” he continued, “and when I came around second and Coach [Earle] Combs waved me to keep on going past third, my legs seemed to sprout wings.”12
Pinch-runner Rusty Peters crossed the plate with Brown hot on his heels. By the time the outfielders tracked down the ball and hurled it back to the infield, Brown had stepped on home plate and tied the game at 5-5. It was the first time a Black ballplayer had hit a home run in the American League.13
When he returned to the dugout, Heath snatched his bat and smashed it to pieces in what Brown later described to Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil as “pure hatred crashing against a dugout wall.”14
The question this raises is whether Heath’s anger was racially motivated. It seems more likely that he was just an abrasive and difficult teammate with violent mood swings and “no valves on his temper,”15 especially when it came to his bats.
After the season, Browns road secretary Charlie DeWitt recalled talking to Heath about the incident. “He said he would not have minded if Brown had got a single, but he had used up one of the bat’s home runs.”16
“He hated to lend his bats to anyone,” former Browns manager Zack Taylor recalled, “because he had a theory that there were just so many base hits in a bat and if somebody else got them out, they wouldn’t be there for him.”17 A 1949 incident with Boston Braves teammate Eddie Stanky also lends credence to this more innocent reading of Heath’s actions.18
Brown and Heath also had a prior, seemingly amicable relationship as offseason barnstorming opponents.19 Black newspapers even recognized Heath for welcoming Thompson and Brown in the Browns clubhouse,20 and after retiring, Thompson wrote how Heath “went out of [his] way to make life easier” for the pair when they’d joined the team.21
Back on the field, Thompson walked, stole second sliding under the glove of second baseman Skeeter Webb, advanced to third on a groundout by Paul Lehner, and scored the eventual winning run when a Newhouser curveball got past backup catcher Hal Wagner and rolled to the backstop. Three outs later, the Browns had secured a 6-5 victory and a doubleheader split.
Brown and Thompson had spurred the St. Louis comeback but weren’t with the team much longer. Both were released on August 23 and returned to the Monarchs.22
Thank you to Rory Costello, Rick Swain, and C. Paul Rogers III for their SABR BioProject biographies of Brown, Thompson, and Heath, respectively. This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Baseball-Reference.com, Stathead.com, and Retrosheet.org, as well as the following:
Gay, Timothy M. Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 211.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2001), 683.
Klima, John. Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), 149.
McSkimming, Dent. “There’s Still Fight in the Browns; They Split with Tigers Hard Way,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 14, 1947: 48.
Wallar, Glen L. “Browns Lose to Tigers, 7-1, Then Win, 6-5,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 14, 1947: 3C.
1 Kermitt K. Wheeler, “Browns Sign Up Negro Stars,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 26, 1947: 15.
2 The Tigers were 56-49 after winning the first game of the doubleheader.
3 By the start of this game, he had raised his average to .232, aided by a 3-for-3 performance against the Cleveland Indians on August 9 and a pinch hit in the first game of the doubleheader.
4 The Browns listed Brown as being 26 years old when they announced his signing.
5 During a 14-game road trip, “the Browns played to around a quarter of a million fans … and there is no doubt [Thompson and Brown] boosted the crowds in New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. Yet, at home … their drawing power has been almost nil.” Frederick G. Lieb, “Browns’ Negro Players Bat Only .194 and .178,” The Sporting News, August 13, 1947: 9.
6 That doubleheader was also against the defending AL champs, the Boston Red Sox, which may have driven ticket sales. However, the combined attendance for the four-game series was 16,112. By comparison, a Red Sox doubleheader on May 4 attracted 25,735 on its own.
7 Going hitless in his first two at-bats dropped his season average to .243, down from .304 on July 13. During that same monthlong span, Hutchinson was batting .433 and slugging .767 with five doubles, a triple, and a homer.
8 Lake on Wertz’s double and pinch-runner Ed Mierkowicz and Wertz on Outlaw’s.
9 O’Neill had little reason for concern that Schultz would leave the yard. The pinch-hit home run on August 11, 1947, was the only homer he hit in 368 plate appearances during a nine-year major-league career.
10 It’s unclear if the team had only lighter bats because the majority of players preferred them or if the team didn’t provide Brown and Thompson with bats and the only spares they could find were lightweight pitchers’ bats.
11 Ray Nelson, “Willard Brown 1st Negro to Hit Homer in A.L.,” St. Louis Star and Times, August 14, 1947: 26.
12 Nelson, “Willard Brown.”
13 It was also the only one that happened all year. Thompson and Doby both went homerless in 1947. Doby hit his first home run on April 23, 1948.
14 Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 113.
15 Franklin Lewis, The Cleveland Indians (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006), 217.
16 Gordon Cobbledick, “Premature Shower in Final Game of ’47 Proved Washout for Heath as Brownie,” The Sporting News, December 17, 1947: 7.
17 Cobbledick, “Premature Shower.”
18 Stanky teased Heath for refusing to share a bat he’d used to clobber a homer because “there might be another” in it. Radio broadcasters reported dissension when they witnessed the players wrestling on the ramp to the clubhouse. The two later insisted they were just roughhousing. Teammates later broke Heath’s special bat when he wasn’t looking. Roger Birtwell, “Heath, Stanky ‘Battle’ over Bat,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1949: 4.
19 The two were members of the Satchel Paige All-Stars and Bob Feller All-Stars. Feller insisted that he weeded out players who expressed racist opinions or insulted Black players. “I wouldn’t have them on my team!” he told an interviewer from Ebony in 1949. John Sickels, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation (Washington: Brassey’s Inc., 2004), 161. Sickels makes a point of noting that Feller is not an unbiased opinion on this matter, that what constituted racism in the 1940s is vastly different from today’s standards, and that during the same tour, Feller told an interviewer that he hadn’t seen any Black players “who combine the qualities of a big league ballplayer. … Not even Jackie Robinson.” Steve George, “250,000 See Feller-Paige Teams Play,” The Sporting News, October 30, 1946: 9.
20 Wheeler, “Browns Sign Up.”
21 Hank Thompson with Arnold Hano, “How I Wrecked My Life—How I Hope to Save It,” Sport, December 1965.
22 Frederick G. Lieb, “Release of Colored Pair of Browns Viewed as Halt for Negro Experiments in St. Louis,” The Sporting News, September 3, 1947: 13. Brown’s major-league career lasted four more plate appearances, in which he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.
St. Louis Browns 6
Detroit Tigers 5
Game 2, DH
St. Louis, MO
Box Score + PBP:
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