November 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Tom Gage

Tigers lose quite a character in retiring longtime employee Bill Brown

Bill Brown, 70, retired last week after 48 years with the Tigers. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit — “Bill Brown, I’ve heard about you.”

“What have you heard?” the Tigers’ former traveling secretary replied a few years ago in Minnesota, having no idea what the answer was going to be.

“That you’re a great. . .” the office intern began to say.

A great what?

“A great American League character.”

Have to say, she was right.

Anybody who can make a meal out of marinara sauce. Nothing else, just marinara sauce ...

Anyone who prefers dead beer, which is why you always order an empty glass with a full one (to pour it back and forth until the beer goes flat)...

Anyone who wonders aloud how much ballparks weigh. . .

And above all, anyone who answers the phone by saying, “Speak, oh oracle, so that I may quaff from the font of your knowledge ...”

. . .is definitely a character.

But you know what? For the last 48 years, Bill Brown has been an integral and indispensable part of the Tigers’ landscape.

Or, to use the tense that now applies, was an integral part — he retired last week.

The Tigers threw him a party, which many former team employees attended. But there really couldn’t have been a party big enough for all the friends Brownie made in baseball.

We’re talking about generations of friends, a career of friends — nearly 50 years of friends.

And in an age when players rule the roost more than ever, their every whim catered to because they are indeed the stars, Bill Brown did his job so efficiently that he lasted far longer than most of those who were the most demanding.

The fixer

Such as the manager who years ago chronically squawked about the movies on the team plane. . .

And the mutineers in the 80’s who refused to take a team flight because it was on a propeller plane instead of a jet...

And the player who loudly complained about the location of his grandmother’s tickets when the Tigers were the visiting team at a packed Tropicana Field for the inaugural played by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Granny was lucky to have a ticket at all that night, but the explanation didn’t satisfy the player, who lasted only a couple of years with the Tigers.

Brown can be stubborn, but his sense of humor, as well his quirkiness, make him an original. There’s no one quite like him.

One night, after a postgame dinner with friends in San Francisco, the group was headed back to the team hotel when a lady of the night approached.

“Any of you boys have any bread?” she asked.

“Bread? As a matter of fact, yes,” Brown said, taking from his pocket the slices of sourdough he saved from the table.

Uh, she didn’t mean that kind of bread, Brownie.

Underscoring his own dry humor, one of Brown’s favorite stories is about the elderly New Hampshire man who takes the witness stand in court and the first question he’s asked is, “Have you lived all your life in New Hampshire?”

“Not yet,” is his reply.

That’s as succinct as Brown’s own response to the friend who came up to him back in the days of the Tigers’ annual winter party at the Detroit Athletic Club saying, “Bill Brown, I wanted to say hello to you before I have too much to drink.”

“You didn’t,” Brown said, realizing the greeting had been extended a scotch too late.

Just out of Dartmouth College — yes, where new manager Brad Ausmus also went — Brown began his Tigers career with the scouting department in 1965.

Jim Campbell, the team’s president then, interviewed Brown at the team hotel during a trip to Boston. From the vantage point of 48 years later, it must have gone well.

Brown went from the scouting department to serving as the general manager of the Lakeland team, then from Lakeland to the public relations office in Detroit.

He became the team’s traveling secretary in 1979, but in the last few years had transitioned to the role of team travel adviser.

The job of traveling secretary — now called director of travel — can be a thankless job but also one of gratifying thanks.

In 1982, after the Tigers’ opening series at home against Toronto was snowed out, the team packed up and flew to Kansas City.

As the plane came out of the clouds, the players could see it was also snowing there — to which they shouted in unison, “Way to go, Brownie, way to go!”

Twenty-four years later, it was a warmer scene in Kansas City.

The Tigers had just clinched their first postseason berth since 1987, and the celebration in the visitors’ clubhouse was on.

Over in the corner, someone skinny enough for it not to be difficult was being tossed in the air by a group of players, led by the classy Magglio Ordonez.

“M-V-P” they were chanting. “M-V-P!”

The individual they were tossing was Bill Brown, the crowning moment of his career.

Fare thee well

That career is over now, but age hasn’t taken a toll. Hours on the stationary bike and a diet of cauliflower and ketchup — or something weird like that — have seen to that.

Brown, at 70, doesn’t officiate basketball games any more, but he’s fit enough to do so.

And probably the best way to reflect upon his decades with the Tigers is to borrow the players’ words from that flight to wintry Kansas City — but to turn their emphasis from exasperation to appreciation.

“Way to go, Brownie. Way to go.”

Nicely done, character.

Enjoy your retirement.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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