Who was better in Puerto Rico: Bob Thurman or Willard Brown? (Part 1 of 2)

The Santurce Crabbers (Cangrejeros) counted on a dynamic duo in their line-up during a seven-year period from 1947-48 through 1953-54. Willard Brown was the power-hitting center fielder from the right side of the plate, whereas Bob Thurman batted left; played right field; and was a starting pitcher on days/nights when not playing the OF. Brown, a Shreveport, Louisiana native, born in 1915, also played for Santurce in 1946-47 and a brief portion of 1956-57. Thurman was born in Kellyville, Oklahoma in 1917, and raised in Wichita, Kansas. He wore Crabber flannels for 11 winter seasons—1947-48 through 1957-58—before playing for the 1959-60 Ponce Lions.

So who was the better and more valuable player in Puerto Rico of these gentlemen, who both served their country (Army) in World War II—Brown in Europe and Thurman in the Pacific? Brown still holds the highest batting average (.350) in the history of the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. He is the only two-time Puerto Rico Winter League Triple Crown winner: 1947-48 and 1949-50. The extroverted Brown—with single-season league home run and RBI records (27 homers—60-game season, 1947-48; and 97 RBIs in an 80-game season of 1949-50)—was a fan favorite. He won many Player of the Week Awards in Puerto Rico and wore nice outfits; smoked Chesterfield or Camel cigarettes; and drank local beer and fine Puerto Rican rum.  Thurman was a serious student of the game—an introvert—who did not drink or smoke.

Willard Brown

Willard Brown first journeyed to Puerto Rico in 1941-42 to play 2B for the Humacao Oriental Grays, a team which moved to Arecibo toward the end of that season. Brown batted .409 (50-for-122) to finish second to Josh Gibson (.480, 59-for-123). Guayama’s Perucho Cepeda (.377), Ponce’s Pancho Coímbre (.372) and Sammy Céspedes of Caguas (.364) finished 3-4-5 in the league batting race. Brown won his first of three Puerto Rico batting titles in 1946-47 with a .390 mark, ahead of San Juan’s Monte Irvin (.387) and Tetelo Vargas of Caguas, who hit .382.  

Bob Thurman (RF), Luis “Canena” Márquez (CF) and Luke Easter (LF) were a talented OF trio for the 1947 Homestead Grays when Pedrín Zorrilla—owner of the Santurce Crabbers—signed Thurman to play for the 1947-48 Crabbers. Thurman hit .411 for Santurce (102-for-248), with nine HR and 55 RBIs, in a 60-game campaign. Willard Brown’s .432 BA (101-for-234) earned him the league batting title over Thurman and Mayagüez’s Artie Wilson (.405). Brown’s 27 HR tripled Thurman’s nine HR. Thurman’s league-best nine triples showed his speed to Island fans, who gave him the nickname “El Múcaro” (The Owl) for his fine pitching during night games at Sixto Escobar Stadium, the ballpark shared by Santurce and the San Juan Senators.

Per Rory Costello, author of Thurman’s SABR bio, Thurman hit .338 for the 1947 Homestead Grays, with six HR in 157 AB; then, a .345 BA and 6-4 W-L record as a starting pitcher for the 1948 Grays, winners of the Negro National League pennant, and victors over the Birmingham Black Barons—with 17-year old Willie Mays in their line-up—in the 1948 Negro Leagues World Series. Thurman’s versatility as an OF-pitcher became evident in Puerto Rico as he posted a 39-32 regular season W-L record on the mound, from the late 1940s-mid-1950s.

Thurman, according to historian Jorge Colón Delgado, was a six-tool player—as opposed to a five-tool diamond star—who had the “misfortune of playing with the Crabbers at the same time as Willard Brown.” Colón Delgado, in a October 11, 2019 phone interview, noted “Brown was a slightly better hitter with a little more power than Thurman,” affirming Brown was a “one-dimensional player, hitting-wise, with a weak throwing arm.” Bob Thurman, however, per Colón Delgado, was “a better fielder, base runner; had a stronger throwing arm; and could pitch.” Simply put, Thurman hit, hit with power, ran well, and fielded his position (s) well, could throw and PITCH!

Puerto Rico fans compared Brown-Thurman to the legendary Ruth-Gehrig tandem of 1926-1934, after the former duo tied for the league lead with 18 HR apiece in 1948-49. Brown produced a .323/.404/.595 slash line, with 69 RBIs (third in the league), 10 SB and a 40/20 strikeout/walk ratio. Thurman’s slash line was .333/.453/.640. He walked 58 times to 40 strikeouts; stole nine bases and drove in 65 runs, fifth-best in the league. Thurman then stole 26 bases in 1949-50 to set a Santurce single-season franchise SB record, one which has stood for 70 years. Yet Brown stole the headlines in 1949-50 with his .35347, 16 HR, 97 RBIs Triple Crown season, eclipsing Thurman’s .35314, 12 HR, 69 RBIs in the 80-game season. It was Brown who reinforced the Caguas Criollos in the February 1950 Caribbean Series hosted by Panamá, not Bob Thurman. And Brown came through with eight hits in 23 AB (.348 BA), as the host country won the title.

The 1950-51 Crabbers shocked Puerto Rico and the Caribbean by defeating the favored 57-20 Caguas Criollos in a seven-game finals; and winning five of six February 1951 Caribbean Series games in Venezuela, to claim their first league and Caribbean Series titles, respectively. Thurman won six of his 11 regular season decisions, prior to besting Caguas and Mike Clark, one of their aces, 2-1, in game five of their finals. “Bob Thurman was a great hitter and effective on the mound,” recalled Clark, when we spoke by phone in 1992. “If we win that game, we win the series in six games and I do not face Thurman, Brown and Pepe Lucas in the ninth inning [in relief] of game seven [Lucas’s walk-off HR].” Thurman won game five thanks to his pitching and Junior Gilliam’s two-run single. Brown (CF)-Thurman (RF) also started for the Imports versus the Natives in the December 26, 1950 league All-Star Game, a 5-1 win for the Natives.

Thurman had a monster year in 1950-51–.362 BA, 13 HR and 66 RBIs, plus 6-5 with 46 strikeouts as a pitcher for the 48-30 Crabbers, who were a combined 13-5 in the post-season, including the Caribbean Series. But Willard Brown led the loop with 76 RBIs—10 more than Thurman; and, hit 14 HR, one more than Thurman’s 13. (Santurce teammate James “Buster” Clarkson’s 18 HR led the league.) Thurman hit more doubles than Brown (22-to-19) and recorded more hits than his teammate, 112-to-99. Thurman outplayed Brown in the 1951 Caribbean Series with his .364/.481/.773 slash line, plus two HR and seven RBIs, in six games, after going eight for 22. Brown hit a pedestrian .250 with one HR and three RBIs. But CF Luis Rodríguez Olmo–.417 BA, three HR and nine RBIs—earned series MVP laurels. Thurman was selected as the RF on the Series All-Star team.

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