Willard Jesse Brown
Nicknames: Home Run, Esse Hombre, Willie, Sonny
Positions: cf, lf, ss
Teams: Monroe Monarchs (1934) Kansas City Monarchs (1935-1943, 1946-1951), Mexican League (1940), military service (1944-1945), major leagues (1947), minor leagues (1950, 1953-1956)
Height: 6' 0'' Weight: 195
Born: June 26, 1911, Shreveport, Louisiana
Died: August 4, 1996, Houston, Texas
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (2006)
Black baseball's premier home run hitter of the 1940s was a bundle of unlimited and largely unfulfilled potential. Willard Brown as a slugger who was exceptionally fast in the field, a good base runner, and an excellent gloveman with a great arm. Noted as a big-game player, he was at his best in front of a large crowd.
Nicknamed "Esse Hombre" in Puerto Rico, where he played winter ball, he hit for a lifetime .350 batting average and won three consecutive batting titles (1946-1950), with averages of .390, .432, and .353. During this span he also won three home run titles, establishing the all-time record of 27 in the winter of 1947-1948 and following with totals of 18, 16, and 14. He began his Puerto Rican career in 1941-1942 with Humacao as a second baseman and hit for a .410 average.
After service in World War II, he returned to Puerto Rico as an outfielder with Santurce for the rest of his career. Beginning in 1946 he had consecutive averages of .390, .432, .323, .353, .325, .295, .342, and .265. After a two-year absence, he played a final season with Santurce in 1956-1957 but hit only .261. He also played in Mexico for a season, jumping the Kansas City Monarchs early in the 1940 season to play with Nuevo Laredo, where he hit .351 with eight home runs in 70 games.
A free swinger and notorious bad-ball hitter, the big, strong slugger considered anything that left the pitcher's hand a strike and often swung at bad pitches. He hit with power to all fields, used a 40-ounce bat, and often hit tape-measure shots. On at least one occasion, he hit a home run off a pitch that arrived at home plate on one bounce. Had he been more patiently selective, he may have accumulated even more impressive statistics.
In the United States, "Home Run" Brown played on the great Monarch teams that dominated the Negro American League from 1937 to 1942, winning five pennants in six years, contributing averages of .371, .356, .336, .337, and .365 to the pennant efforts, exclusive of 1940, when he opted to play in Mexico. In 1942, one of his best years, Willard was hitting .429 at the All Star break and batted cleanup for the West squad in the East-West All Star game. After the midseason classic, he continued his slugging as the Monarchs captured another pennant and met the Negro National League champion Homestead Grays in the first World Series between the Negro American League and the Negro National League. With Brown continuing his hot bat, hitting .412 and a home run, the Monarchs swept the Grays four straight.
The next season, Brown hit .345 and made another All Star appearance before entering military service for two years (1944-1945), but the Monarchs had lost too many players to the service to secure another pennant. In the Army, Brown was among those in the five thousand ships that crossed the English Channel during the Normandy invasion. A member of the Quartermaster Corps, he was not in combat but was engaged in hauling ammunition and guarding prisoners. After being transferred to Special Services, he began playing baseball and played in the G.I. World Series, banging two home runs over the centerfield fence off Ewell Blackwell to help Leon Day earn the victory over an Army team of major leaguers.
After his discharge Brown had little difficulty readjusting to baseball, batting .348 and clubbing a league high 13 home runs in 1946 while leading the Monarchs to another pennant. In the ensuing World Series against the Newark Eagles, who had dethroned the Grays, he added two round-trippers in a losing cause as the Monarchs lost in a closely contested seven-game Series.
The following year, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and once the color barrier was lifted, Brown and Hank Thompson were signed by St. Louis Browns' owner Bill Veeck. Batting .353 with eight homers in 46 games at the time, he was labeled a "can't miss" prospect by major league scouts and sent directly to the Browns without an adjustment period in the minor leagues, as Robinson had received for the new "experiment." Both he and Thompson were questionable personality types and needed this interim period much more than Robinson. However, the husky outfielder was not given this opportunity nor adequate time to make the transition at the major league level and, after playing briefly (21 games) and hitting only 79 with one homer, he and Thompson were released unconditionally.
Brown thought that they should have been farmed out after their release, and given another chance after a period of adjustment. Thompson did get a second chance, with the New York Giants, and made good on his second opportunity, but Brown never received a second chance. A footnote to his major league career was that his lone home run was the first ever hit in the American League by a black player. A second footnote deals with a different aspect of the home run. Brown hit the homer with a bat that belonged to a teammate, and the player broke the bat rather than allow Brown ever to use it again.
After his release, he returned to the Monarchs, where he hit .336 for the remainder of he year. In 1948 he resumed his barrage on Negro American League pitching with a .374 average while slugging a league-leading 18 home runs. In 1949 he hit .371 before going into organized ball, ending his career in the Negro Leagues with a .355 lifetime batting average and six All Star appearances.
The next year he played in the Border League with Ottawa, where he hit .352. In the twilight of his career, he moved to the Texas League for four years (1953-1956), where he hit .310, .314, .301, and .299 with 23, 35, 19 and 14 home runs, respectively. In two of his four seasons he led his team to the Texas League pennant, first with Dallas in 1953 and with Houston the following year, and gained a popularity so lasting that he continues to be an area favorite. The latter season he also played for a short time with the Topeka club in the Western League and hit .294 with 3 homers, leaving him with a lifetime .305 average for his combined minor- and major-league career. His final appearance in professional baseball was with Santurce in Puerto Rico during the following winter (1956-1957), but he hit only .261 with 2 home runs in 23 at- bats.
Brown first began playing baseball as a youngster in Shreveport, Louisiana, and in 1934 he signed with the Negro Southern League's Monroe Monarchs for $10 a week as a shortstop and pitcher. After only one year, he was grabbed by Kansas City Monarchs' owner J.L. Wilkinson, who offered Brown a $250 bonus, $125 per month and $1 a day meal money. He made his first All Star appearance as a shortstop in the 1936 East-West game. But after two years as the Monarchs' regular shortstop, slick fielding Byron Johnson was installed at shortstop in 1937, and Brown was moved to the outfield. He was selected to the All Star team that season at his new position.
A natural athlete, Brown was very talented but lacked drive. He loved to play to large crowds but was lazy, stubborn, and very relaxed, "saving his strength" and playing hard only when he thought it necessary. He was also lackadaisical at times, and often would carry a copy of Reader's Digest in his hip pocket to read in centerfield during a game. Off the field, he was congenial, fun loving, and enjoyed a long-lasting popularity from his playing days in the Texas League. After retiring from baseball, he settled in Houston and continued to enjoy life until he was hospitalized in 1989 with Alzheimer's disease. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.
"Home Run" Brown