This is NOT about football, but it IS about sports, a young man and the kind of dreams that can only be satisfied by sitting in the stands of a stadium on a special day … and seeing your favorite team perform miracles through an athletes.
When I read of the passing this past weekend of Detroit Tigers outfielder-pinch-hitter extraordinaire Williams James “Gates” Brown (at the age of 74), I began surfing for photos of him during his Tiger career. Suddenly I spotted the photo you see here and I immediately knew where it came from and what had happened.
You see, I was there! Sunday, August 11, 1968, with his parents, sitting behind the first base (visiting) dugout at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, celebrating my 16th birthday. Of all the possible presents, or methods to celebrate a pretty significant birth date, ALL I wanted was to be there, rooting for my all-time favorite team – for whom I always wanted to play first base as an adult.
My folks wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer or an accountant; I wanted to be the next Stormin’ Norman Cash (the pride of Justiceburg, Texas, as the late Ernie Harwell would introduce him). It would be my personal level of nirvana to have done that.
It was a grand afternoon and making the situation even more delicious, it was a (scheduled) doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox – back in the time when such twinbills were actually part of the MLB scheduling process. Two-for-one tickets – either as twilight doubleheaders or Sunday afternoon fare – were the biggest bargain in all sports; you paid just once, waited 20 minutes between final outs and first pitches, and got settled for another nine innings … or more.
On this afternoon, it was the “or more” that prevailed. The first game headed into the bottom of the 14th inning, even at 4-all, when Manager Mayo Smith sent up his best pinch-hitter, Gates Brown, a left-handed hitter to face Boston relief ace Sparky Lyle (he was a Red Sox before being traded to the Yankees).
A thunderous ovation greeted the man from Crestline, Ohio, who had earned the city’s trust and devotion as part of his eventual redemption that led his to baseball. A three-sport, all-state athlete in high school, he was recruited for football by Notre Dame, Ohio State … and the University of Michigan.
But Brown ran afoul of the law with a burglary conviction in 1958 and was sent to the Ohio State Reformatory for a three-year sentence (he served 22 months for that crime).
It was while in prison, Brown’s talent for mashing the crap out of a baseball was noticed by one of the guards, who began contacting major league teams to judge their interest. The one team stepping forward was Detroit, who eventually signed the man nicknamed “Gates” for his long home runs inside the prison walls.
Brown played only in a Tiger uniform from 1963-75 and was a vital member of that 1968 World Championship Tigers squad – one of the best teams in MLB history and one of its least appreciated. And on no other day than Aug. 11 was Gates Brown MORE vital than in that doubleheader.
A big, burly man, Brown filled up the batter’s box with his wide stance and no-stride approach. As he slowly rocked back-and-forth, he took one of Lyle’s sliders and crushed it on a straight line, no more than 10 feet off the ground, deep to right field. It left his bat like a cannon shot and cleared the fence with a few inches to spare, winning the marathon first game.
The celebration that followed when he crossed home plate, being mobbed by teammates Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich (the winning pitcher in relief during the time he was banished to the bullpen in 1968 – his World Series would come unexpectedly later).
My Dad and I only had a second or two to cheer; we both bolted for the nearest exit and the closest men’s room available. The 14 innings had taken a toll on both our bladders.
True to the word, 20 minutes later, Game Two started, much to the aggravation of my mother. She had made reservations at a top Detroit restaurant (Joe Muer’s) for my birthday dinner and this extra-lengthy afternoon was mucking up her plans.
I had learned the Yogi Berra-ism from my father, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and Game 2 was running into nighttime. Down 7-3 headed to the bottom of the ninth, and ... again Lyle, the league’s best reliever, my mother, staring a hole through her watch, kept insisting we all leave.
However, I objected! A fish dinner was not worth the sight of Tiger Stadium at night and I had faith like Oral Roberts had healings. I wanted to stay and my Dad backed me up on this, “Diane, this IS his day after all.”
A single here, a single there, an error tossed into the mix by normally reliable Bosox shortstop Rico Petrocelli and a seeing-eye dribbler by superstar Al Kaline, miraculously tied the game. And up stepped Gates Brown.
My mother promptly announced, win or lose … or tie, we were departing after that inning, so I wished with all my might for a positive outcome.
With two outs and a 2-2 count on “The Gator,” he topped a fastball hard enough to roll under Lyle’s glove, through the infield, over the second base bag and into centerfield. As the winning run crossed the plate, the crowd (half of the original 46,000 sellout actually remainder) erupted as the Tigers again mobbed Brown, celebrated his heroics and took a stranglehold on the American League race (it was the final year of pennant races without divisional play, mind you).
The Muer’s reservation was out the door so we had a late dinner at some diner, which, with the awesome taste of victory, was a scrumptious meal.
That is how I remember Gates Brown, the highlight of a young boy’s 16th birthday and as a Tiger forever beloved.
Hopefully, beginning this weekend, the 2013 roster will dedicate its World Series chase to the memory of one of their own. Go get ‘em Tigers!