Detroit — Tommy Davis of Detroit used to strike up conversations with Tigers hitting coach Gates Brown when he was a young vendor at Tiger Stadium during the championship 1984 season.
Brown, 74, was a hero to the entire Davis family when he was a local hero and pinch-hitting legend with the Tigers. Brown loved talking to Davis and one day invited him to visit the clubhouse.
Davis, 20 at the time, waved Brown off. He didn’t think it was his place to go behind closed doors of his favorite team and was a little nervous about going inside. The problem was when Brown said you were going to do something then there wasn’t really a choice.
Brown showed Davis the entire clubhouse. He saw Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Dave Rozema prepare for that night’s games. But that is not why Davis showed up at Swanson Funeral home Thursday afternoon to pay homage to the former Tigers pinch-hit king. He came because his father and uncle admired Brown when he played for the Tigers from 1963 to 1975 where he retired as baseball’s all-time leader in pinch hits (107) and home runs (16).
“Gates is a good guy,” Davis said. “My uncles and dad really loved him when I was a kid. There were not that many black players on the Tigers at the time and everybody in our neighborhood really looked up to him. I just wanted to come and pay my respects to him.”
Fans, former teammates and family members gathered all afternoon to honor the people’s Tiger, who died Sept. 27. They came to mourn. They came to share stories and they came to praise a man who always put fans first whether he was in a Tigers uniform or in a wheelchair where he greeted fans at Comerica Park.
Fans can pay last respects at 11 a.m. Saturday during a memorial service at Crestline High School in Crestline, Ohio.
What they did not honor was one of college football’s greatest halfbacks. Brown never played college football, but childhood friend Joe Gottfried said a stint in a boys home prevented him from becoming that.
After Brown’s junior season at Crestline High School Brown was recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue to play football.
“He was strong and quick and reminded me of Jim Brown,” said Gottfried, who was the athletic director at South Alabama for 28 years. “He could have been one of those elite football players. He was strong and big and had great hands.”
Brown might have become another Jim Brown, but Crestline refused to reinstate him for his senior season. Gates Brown did not get to play football his senior season and he ended up in prison on a robbery charge. But Brown held no grudges. As his career blossomed, Brown agreed to speak to student-athletes at the school.
Gottfried said a key moment in Brown’s life came when Gottfried’s dad died. He treated Brown like a son.
Mentor to Gates
“My dad died two months before Gates got in trouble,” Gottfried said. “If my dad had lived, Gates never would have got to jail. I know it and Gates knew it. My dad would have prevented him from going to jail. We had a bond and we were together all the time.”
He was a favorite of Detroit fans even though he last played five decades ago. He drew long lines for autograph sessions and Comerica Park. He frequently spoke at schools in Michigan and his native Ohio. Even when it wasn’t about baseball Brown drew a crowd. Last season, Gottfried invited Brown to attend the North Carolina State-Michigan game because his son Mark Gottfried is the head coach.
Joe Gottfried and Brown got to the game early. An usher was assigned to wheel Brown into the arena. His eyes grew wide.
“Hey you are Gates Brown,” he said in excitement.
For the next 20 minutes Brown held court with about 20 ushers who recognized him and peppered him with questions about the good old days with the 1968 World Championship Tigers.
“He made people feel like he has known them forever each and every time he saw them,” his wife Norma Brown said. “He was not a person who was stuck up. He loved talking to people and he loved seeing them.”
Brown often said it was the people that got him going during tough times. Brown lived the final years of his life with diabetes as well as heart and kidney disease. He lived in constant pain and often spoke in anguish. But the frown turned into a smile when he met with fans. You never knew he was in constant pain.
“It took his mind off what he was going through,” Norma Brown said. “They gave him so much love and kindness. He needed that.”
The family is asking for help with funeral costs. Donations are being accepted to the William Gates Brown Memorial Fund, 17206 Santa Barbara, Detroit, MI 48221.
There will also be a Texas Hold ‘em tournament Saturday at Shenanigan’s in Crestline and a Gates Brown golf tournament Sunday at Valley View Golf Club in Crestline. Call Jim Glauer at 419-543-1740 or 419-683-3394.