September 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Terry Foster

Tigers mourn pinch-hitting legend Gates Brown

In the fourth inning of most games, baseball’s best pinch hitter began preparing for his big moment with an almost nightly ritual.

Gates Brown summoned the clubhouse boy to his seat, reached into his pocket for a few dollars and ordered two hot dogs with ketchup and mustard. He did not like paying for his hot dogs but the Tigers were cheap under older president Jim Campbell and there were no freebies. Brown not only made clutch hits for the Tigers but Brown was one of the Tigers’ all-time great characters.

He ate during games, talked to teammates about his days in prison and bragged about what a great fielder and athlete he was even though he was not a great fielder or athlete.

He left everybody laughing, whether it was teammates during the Tigers’ 1968 World Series run or fans who came to Comerica Park to talk to the Gator and get his autograph. He loved talking to fans and often greeted people with the same phrase: “Hi, I am the Gator.”

The laughs ended Friday morning when Brown, 74, died of a heart attack in a local nursing home. His death ended years of misery. Brown suffered from diabetes and a bad heart. Part of his foot had been amputated to keep him alive. He was missing some of his teeth.

“Sometimes God knows best,” former teammate Willie Horton said. “I don’t feel like talking about this. I been hit hard by this. That is 54 years of friendship.”

Clutch in a pinch

Horton introduced William James “Gates” Brown to his wife Norma in the summer of 1961 when Brown came up to Detroit to visit. They were like brothers and often hung out together because they were two of the few black players in the clubhouse. Brown served time at Mansfield State Reformatory after being convicted of robbery at age 18. A prison guard encouraged him to play catcher and the Tigers signed him to a $7,000 contract after he turned down offers from the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Brown played for the Tigers from 1963 to 1975 and received a second World Series ring in 1984 as hitting coach.

Brown was moved from catcher to the outfield and the Tigers looked to trade Brown before the 1968 season because of weight issues. He was short and stocky, standing 5-foot-10 and weighing at least 220 pounds. But he was even bigger in 1967 when a wrist injury caused him to gain weight.

No one wanted him and he began the 1968 season as the backup pinch hitter to Eddie Mathews. But Brown began mashing the ball and made a name for himself. He only batted 92 times that season but hit .370 with six home runs and 15 RBIs. He led the league in pinch hits as he did in 1974. His 107 career pinch hits and 16 pinch hit home runs set MLB records.

“What made him great is he had very quick hands and I mean he could adjust them in a nano second,” pitcher Denny McLain said. “He loved hitting situations. He loved to be the guy who could make a difference in a ballgame.”

I was at Tiger Stadium when Brown won both games of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. The stadium shook when he won Game 1 with a pinch-hit home run in the 14th inning. In the second game he knocked in Mickey Stanley with a single in the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers were known as the comeback kids and Brown was often the hammer that brought the house down.

“I liked being in those situations,” Brown said. “Here is the thing that irks me about ballplayers today. When you get a fastball you turn on that sucker and you hit the (bleep) out of it. I see these guys waiting on pitches and I am like, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ Sometimes you only get one chance and you have to take advantage of it.”

Brown was a staple at Comerica Park, greeting fans. This summer he visited with fans who wanted the autographs of some of the old players. Brown did not want to go because he was so sick. He used a wheelchair to get around and an oxygen bag was his constant companion. It was painful even to get out of bed but he went and had the time of his life.

“I love being around the fans,” Brown said. “They are what keep me going.”

If Brown has a vice it was food. He ate what he wanted and when he wanted. Friends encouraged him to change his diet but Brown refused.

“The food thing was quite a big thing for Gates,” Stanley said.

The last time I saw Brown he was in a back room at Comerica Park talking to old teammates Al Kaline and Stanley.

He sat in a wheelchair in great pain talking about the old days with the Tigers.

“It is tough being the Gator,” he said. “I am just in so much pain man. So much pain. I can’t take it sometimes.”

Brown lived for the moment, whether eating hot dogs on the bench or getting a winning hit.

“I regret some of the things I did but what can I do now?” Brown asked.

Doggin' around

Brown contributed one of the Tigers’ great all-time moments in 1968. Usually manager Mayo Smith called on him to pinch hit in the seventh inning or later. But on this occasion Smith needed a pinch hitter in the fifth inning and called upon Brown, who had received his nightly stash of hot dogs from the clubhouse boy. He quickly got up and stuffed the hot dogs in his jersey.

Brown hit a double and after sliding into second base he had hot dog and mustard all over his uniform as teammates howled. Smith fined Brown $100.

“What the hell are you doing eating on the bench?” Smith howled.

“I was hungry,” Brown replied. “Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house?”

Many in Detroit’s black community wanted Brown to play the outfield but he was not the best left fielder around. The speedy Stanley often had to cover for him during difficult fly balls.

“You got it Mickey? You got it Mickey,” Brown often called to him.

“He wasn’t that bad,” Stanley said. “I was the center fielder and I was supposed to take charge. If I could make his life a little easier I would do it.”

Brown said he thought he could be a good outfielder.

“I could run faster than anybody on the team,” Brown said. “Nobody knew that.”

Brown had a ritual. He arrived at the ballpark at the same time, went through the same routine and ordered his hot dogs at the same time.

“He was the most consistent guy I knew,” McLain said.

Brown loved talking baseball and he loved talking about his career and accomplishments. But it became more difficult as his health declined.

“It was not fun seeing him the last few times,” Stanley said. “I heard he was not in the best situation the last few weeks. The last few weeks were not too comfortable.”

Brown once told me: “There is nothing wrong with getting old just as long as you have your health.”

TerryFoster@detnews.com
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John T. Greilick / The Detroit News