LOUISIANA'S 4 HALL OF FAMERS
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It took a half-century for this talented Negro League slugger to be recognized by the Hall of Fame – but not because his accomplishments made him a questionable candidate. Brown’s long-ball power was legendary among his colleagues in black baseball, with the legendary Josh Gibson giving Willard his apt nickname – “Home Run” Brown.
But like many of his Negro League counterparts, Brown’s induction into the Hall of Fame was posthumous – it took a special Negro Leagues Committee to finally select him in 2006, a decade after his death at the age of 81.
And like so many of his fellow Negro Leagues legends, Brown spent his latter years balancing bitterness at being excluded for years from the Major Leagues – and the popular recognition that would have come with integration – with pride in what he and his black peers accomplished in the hardball shadows.
“I tell you one thing,” Brown told Shreveport Times reporter Bill McIntyre in 1976. “I was born 20 years too early. I know so. If I could live it all over again, like quite a few of those ball players, I wish I had an opportunity now.”
Brown’s career on the diamond was perhaps marked by three distinctions – his status as the fourth black to cross the Major League color line, his phenomenal performances in Latin American leagues and his (possibly undeserved) reputation for giving 100 percent on the field only when the mood struck him.
After Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, to be shortly followed by Larry Doby for the Cleveland Indians, Brown and Hank Thompson, his teammate on the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, were signed by the eternally hapless St. Louis Browns, who wanted a gate attraction just as much as a boost to their lineup. In July, Thompson and Brown became the third and fourth black Major Leaguers.
Their arrival was trumpeted in the black press. In a July 1947 article in the esteemed Pittsburgh Courier, writer Kermitt K. Wheeler pronounced that Brown and Thompson would certainly boost the struggling Browns, while in accompanying commentary, none other than Jackie Robinson stated that although the newly minted Browns would see some stiff competition in the Majors, he was confident they could succeed. He also praised Brown.
“Willard Brown was one of the best hitters in Negro baseball,” Robinson wrote. “He hits a long ball and is hard to fool. He is a smooth type of player and a real student of the game.”
Unfortunately, perhaps largely due to animosity from his white teammates and his own frustration with what he perceived was a lack of quality on the squad, Brown foundered in his brief tenure in the Majors and was released by the Browns in mid-August. He then returned to the Monarchs the next year.
There could, however, be an alternate explanation for Brown’s lack of success in the Bigs – according to some of his contemporaries, he often let his prodigious talent go to waste during weekday games, dogging it when the crowds in the stands were small. It was only on the weekend, when Negro League games attracted throngs of spectators, that Brown turned it on in full. But other observers believed that Brown was so good that he made the game look easy, thereby giving the impression that he wasn’t going all out.
“Brown’s legacy is reflected in his nickname, ‘Sunny,’” says Negro League historian Larry Lester. “Brown was known to play his best on Sunday, when the biggest crowds were present. His effortless talents in the field and at bat caused many to believe perhaps he could be even better than shown. He was a Hall of Famer with a laid-back attitude.”
The final distinction about Brown’s career was his performance in Latin America, especially in the Puerto Rican Winter League, where he set batting records that still stand to this day, a fact that earned him yet another nickname, this one from the Puerto Rican locals – “Ese Hombre,” or “That Man.”
“The outfielder was one of the most feared hitters in the Negro Leagues,” wrote Society for Baseball Research writer Rory Costello, “but he was an absolute wrecking ball in the Puerto Rican Winter League.”