MIAMI -- Gates Brown, who was a key member of the Tigers' 1968 World Series championship team and a Major League legend as a pinch-hitter who was a Detroit icon long after his playing days were done, passed away on Friday at age 74.
Brown was one of baseball's unlikely heroes, becoming an example of sports lifting a person out of dire circumstances. He was a teenage prison inmate in Ohio, serving time for armed robbery, when he became a standout player on the prison baseball team. Tigers scouts, among a few other organizations who watched him after being contacted by a coach, convinced Detroit to sign him to a pro contract in 1959. He became one of the first African-Americans to come up through the Tigers' farm system, and signed a year after Ozzie Virgil broke the color barrier with the team and the same year Larry Doby played in Detroit near the end of his career.
After a steady climb up the organization, Brown made his big league debut in 1963, homering in his first at-bat. By the next season, he was a regular in left field, batting .272 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs. With Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley on their way to Detroit, however, Brown's tenure as an everyday player was short-lived.
His skill as a pinch-hitter, however, was untapped. He hit five pinch-hit home runs in a four-year span starting in 1963, and batted .325 (13-for-40) with two homers and nine RBIs pinch-hitting in 1966. It was the role he carved out for a team that became increasingly stocked with young talent.
None of that, though, compared to 1968, when he came through time and again. He batted 18-for-40 (.450) as a pinch-hitter that year with three home runs -- two walk-off blasts -- seven RBIs, eight walks and only one strikeout. Between his usual bench role and the outfield, he homered five times in a six-week span down the stretch, including a go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth inning in Baltimore on Sept. 25.
"I know this: Opposing teams managed [games] to keep Gates Brown on the bench late in the game," former teammate and current Tigers broadcaster Jim Price said, "and that's a great tribute to a great pinch-hitter."
To some, he was an unsung hero on the Tigers' road to a World Series championship. To others, he was one of the best pinch-hitters the game has seen, a craftsman at an underrated task.
"Lenny Harris has the [pinch-hits] record, but a lot of people still think to this day Gates Brown was maybe the best pinch-hitter of all time," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who knew Brown for years in the organization.
Brown was an intimidating presence when he stepped to the plate. Those who knew him, however, got to know the personality of a teddy bear.
"Gates Brown was a big guy, but he was really a piece of cake, the nicest guy in the world," Price said. "You had thought that he would be real mean, but he wasn't. He was a fun-loving guy."
As great as his feats were in 1968, one of the best memories many teammates carried of him that year was a double, not a home run. He slid into second base safely and came up with ketchup and mustard stains from two hot dogs he had stashed in his jersey.
"I was in the locker room with him before Wally Moses or somebody grabbed him to come out of the locker room, and that's when he put the hot dogs in his jersey," Price said. "I went back to the bullpen and I said, 'Boys, watch out.' And of course, the rest is history."
Brown finished his career batting .251 (106-for-422) as a pinch-hitter with 16 home runs, 73 RBIs and a .779 OPS. He earned more starts as an outfielder in the early 1970s before retiring in '75.
Three years later, Brown was wearing the old English D again, this time as a coach. He earned another championship ring that way, serving as the hitting coach for the 1984 team that rolled to the World Series behind Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and other sluggers.
Brown retired after that season, but he stayed in Detroit. He also stayed around the ballpark, showing up to sign autographs or chat with the next generations of players. His health, however, deteriorated in his later years. He took part in the 35th anniversary celebration of the 1968 team, his imposing frame in a wheelchair.
"I talked to him on the phone not long ago, and he was not doing well," Price said. "It's devastating news, it really is. What a great player, great hitter."
Fans, even those who were too young to remember him, never forgot what he meant to Detroit, taking advantage of a second chance to forge a life dedicated to the game.