Willard Brown: Hall of Fame Career from Santurce Crabbers to Cooperstown (Part I)  

Willard Brown (June 26, 1915 to August 4, 1996) landed in Cooperstown in 2006, a decade after his passing. His Kansas City Monarchs stats are now embedded as Major League ones, thanks to rulings by Commissioner Manfred. His stellar Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) career and Caribbean Series (CS) performances made it possible for his induction into the PR Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 and the first-ever CS Hall of Fame Class of 1996. Part I focused on Cuba, Mexico, PR (1940s), Venezuela, and his 1950 CS. Part II covers 1950-54 and 1956-57 with Santurce, two summers in the Dominican Republic (DR) Summer League (1951 and 1952), his 1951 CS in Caracas, and 1953 CS in Havana. Part III transitions to the Monarchs, a partial (1947) season with the St. Louis Browns, minor-league seasons, plus the 2006 Cooperstown Induction. In the PRWL, Brown was “Ese Hombre” (That Man) for his prodigious homers as a right-handed power hitter. He played at 5-11, 200 pounds.

Disappointment with Marianao

At 22, he had his worst pro season, hitting a paltry .145 in 55 AB with the 1937-38 Marianao Tigers, managed by Martín Dihigo. Cuba’s long-standing Winter League preceded the 1938-39 PRWL (known as a Semi-Pro League its first three seasons); Venezuela’s 1945-46 Winter League; and the Mexican Pacific (winter) League, which also began in 1945-46, shortly after World War II. The best Negro Leaguers were in Cuba, 1937-38, including Bill Perkins, Sam Bankhead, and Raymond Brown with first-place Santa Clara Scorpions (44-18); Leon Day, Frank Duncan, Ray Dandridge, and Willie Wells with Almendares (40-23); Dihigo, Barney Brown, and Hilton Smith with Marianao (35-28); plus Ed Stone and Harry Williams with last-place Havana, who withdrew from the league on January 25, 1938.

Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes

In 1940, Brown had a more “typical” season: .354 BA, eight HR, and 61 RBI for Nuevo Laredo (30-48), who finished sixth in the seven-team Mexican (Independent) League. Dihigo, player-manager for the Veracruz Blues (61-30), led them to the title. The Triple Crown Winner was Torreón’s Cool Papa Bell, originally from Starkville, Mississippi, and a long-time resident of St. Louis. The 37-year-old Bell posted a .437 BA with 12 homers and 79 RBI for fifth-place (45-41) Torreón.

Humacao/Arecibo (1941-42)

An  October 29, 1941 article in El Imparcial (PR newspaper) listed Cum Posey’s top two Black All-Star Teams for 1941. “First Team” members in PR, or en route there, included Santurce’s Joshua Gibson and Ray Dandridge; Ponce’s Howard Easterling; and San Juan’s (SJ) Monte Irvin and Bill Wright. Coincidentally, the PRWL’s first two All-Star Games took place on January 1, 1942, pitting the Northeast Team (Caguas, Humacao, SJ, Santurce) versus the Southeast (Aguadilla, Guayama, Mayagüez, Ponce). That talent included a Northeast Squad with Luis Rafael Cabrera, Vidal López, Dandridge, and Gibson (Santurce); Caguas’s Billy Byrd, Roy Campanella, Sammy Céspedes, Manolo García, and Luis R. Olmo; SJ’s Irvin, Gerardo Rodríguez, Freddie Thon Sr. and Wright; plus Humacao’s Willard Brown, who played second base! The Southeast stars comprised Sam Bankhead, Barney and Raymond Brown, Buster Clarkson, Pancho Coímbre, Leon Day, Easterling, Quincy Trouppe, and Willie Wells, among others. Joshua Gibson’s two homers in Game Two helped the Northeast sweep the twin-bill.

Guigo Otero Suro, an attorney and future Vice-President of Santurce Crabbers Baseball Club, coordinated an early March 1942 exhibition basketball game between some of the PRWL’s top imports (mostly Stateside players) and Arecibo High School. (Guigo, about 6-2, was a talented hoop player from high school and college.) Joshua Gibson captained the Imports. His teammates were: Raymond Brown, Buster Clarkson, Howard Easterling (from Mt. Olive, Mississippi), Dick Seay, Quincy Trouppe, and Harry Williams. Arecibo’s Willard Brown reinforced the high school squad. How did this occur? The Humacao franchise relocated to Arecibo during the second half of the season, so he played in both municipalities. On March 1, 1942, he witnessed the longest HR in PRWL history—some 600 feet- from second base—by Joshua Gibson at Sixto Escobar Stadium, the home field of Santurce and SJ. It eclipsed Frank Howard’s 536-foot blast, hit for Caguas at Escobar, during a 1960-61 Criollos-SJ Senators finals. Brown hit .409 for Humacao/Arecibo. He once nearly ran into a live crab during an Arecibo practice session.

Brown batted .409 (50-for-122) to finish second to Joshua 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.

Santurce Crabbers: Two Triple Crowns (1946-1950)

After serving during World War II (in 1944 and 1945), Brown eventually signed a 1946-47 Crabbers contract under the legal guidance of Guigo Otero Suro, who handled player contracts for Santurce owner Pedrín Zorrilla. Dick Seay’s friendship with Brown was a key reason why “Ese Hombre” signed with Santurce. Seay was now a Santurce coach and eventual full-time resident of Santurce who also worked at Pedrín’s Santurce Shell Gas Station. Don Guindo, a “renaissance man” who served in Panamá during World War II, coined the term “City Championship”—on season-by-season Santurce-SJ contests, with the team with the most head-to-head wins getting a trophy—frequently dined with Seay and Brown at El Picolino Bar & Restaurant, not too far from Escobar Stadium. “Seay could put down that beer,” recalled Don Guindo. “Willard Brown was not too far behind Seay.”

Pedrín had seen Brown play second base in 1941-42 for Humacao Oriental Grays/Arecibo and was impressed by his power with the KC Monarchs. Brown did not disappoint the Crabbers faithful, winning the 1946-47 batting title at .390, ahead of SJ’s Monte Irvin (.387) and Caguas’s Tetelo Vargas (.382). Brown’s 50 RBI tied Aguadilla’s Juan Sánchez for the league lead. Brown’s nine homers fell short of Canena Marquez’s 14 with Aguadilla, Larry Doby’s 13 for SJ, and Irvin’s 12. But 1947-48 was different as Brown clouted 27 round-trippers in a 60-game season for 33-27 Santurce, still a PRWL single-season record. Twenty-seven HR in 234 AB equaled one homer per 8.7 AB, a franchise record, surpassing Juan González’s one HR/9.4 AB in 1992-93 (seven HR/66 AB) and Joshua Gibson’s one HR/9.5 AB in 1941-42 (13 HR/123 AB). Table I shows each of Brown’s 27 HR versus the opposing pitchers. Twenty-two were hit at Sixto Escobar; two at Aguadilla’s Parque Colón; and one apiece at Caguas’s Solá Morales, Ponce’s Charles H. Terry, and Mayagüez’s Liga Paris.

Table I: Willard Brown’s 27 Homers in 1947-48 and Opposing Pitchers/Teams

10/18/47Alonso PerryMAY12/28/47Alonzo PerryMAY
10/28/47Barney BrownPON12/30/47Armando I. TorresMAY
11/9/47Francisco SostreSJ1/3/48Andrés PullizaSJ
11/9/47Wilmer FieldsSJ1/3/48Salvatore FedericoSJ
11/12/47Roberto VargasCAG1/8/48Armando TorresMAY
11/13/47Diómedes OlivoAGU1/10/48Dwaine SloatAGU
11/29/47José L. VelázquezSJ1/10/48Dwaine SloatAGU
11/29/47José L. VelázquezSJ1/15/48Johnny DavisMAY
11/30/47Widberto BrauSJ1/15/48Johnny DavisMAY
12/7/47Alonzo PerryMAY1/25/48Dwaine SloatAGU
12/13/47Luis “Tite” ArroyoPON2/1/48Francisco SostreSJ
12/14/47Tomás QuiñonesPON2/8/48Adolfo “Bin” TorresCAG
12/21/47Milton RalatAGU2/14/48Eugene SmithCAG
12/25/47José G. SantiagoPON   

AGU: Aguadilla. CAG: Caguas. MAY: Mayagüez. PON: Ponce. SJ: San Juan. SAN: Santurce:

Sources: Jorge Colón Delgado and José Crescioni Benítez.

Willard Brown and Bob Thurman—Santurce’s Answer to Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig

Thirty-year-old Bob Thurman hit .411 for Santurce (102-for-248), nine HR, and 55 RBI, in a 60-game campaign, his first of 11 Santurce seasons. Willard Brown’s .432 BA (101-for-234) earned him the batting title over Thurman and Mayagüez’s Artie Wilson (.405). Brown’s 27 HR was 3x of Thurman’s nine HRs but 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. Thurman, per historian Jorge Colón Delgado, was a six-tool player instead of a five-tool diamond star. Colón Delgado, in an October 11, 2019, phone interview, noted, “Brown was a slightly better hitter with more power than Thurman,” affirming Brown was a “one-dimensional player, hitting-wise, with a weak throwing arm.” Bob Thurman, however, was “a better fielder, base runner; had a stronger throwing arm; and could pitch.” Thurman hit, hit with power, ran well, and fielded his position (s) well, could throw and pitch, with a 39-32 PRWL career mound mark.

PRWL 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 RBI (third in the league), 10 SB and a 40/20 strikeouts-to-walks. Thurman’s slash line was .333/.453/.640. He walked 58 times to 40 strikeouts; stole nine and drove in 65, fifth-best in the league. Thurman stole 26 in 1949-50 to set a Santurce single-season franchise record, one which still stands, yet Brown stole the headlines with his .35347 BA, 16 HR, 97 RBI Triple Crown season, eclipsing Thurman’s .35314, 12 HR, 69 RBI in the 80-game season. Brown reinforced the Caguas Criollos in the February 1950 Caribbean Series (CS) hosted by Panamá, not Thurman, and had eight hits in 23 AB (.348 BA) as Panamá’s Carta Vieja Yankees upset Caguas in the tie-breaker. (The author’s Fall 2024 CS history book includes more details on the 1950 CS, held at Sixto Escobar Stadium.)

Brown is the only two-time PRWL Triple Crown winner: 1947-48 and 1949-50. Extroverted Brown—with single-season league home run and RBI records (27 homers in—a 60-game season, 1947-48; and 97 RBI in an 80-game season of 1949-50)—was a fan favorite. He won many Player of the Week Awards in Puerto Rico, wore nice outfits, smoked Chesterfields or Camels; and drank local beer and fine Puerto Rican rum. Thurman was a serious student of the game—an introvert—who didn’t drink or smoke. “Willard and I got along fine,” recalled Thurman. “We were different but respected each other. He was two years older than me.”

Rubén Gomez was a 20-year-old Santurce rookie in 1947-48, who lost his first start, 1-0, in 11 innings, to the Caguas Criollos, managed by catcher Quincy Trouppe. John Ford Smith, Thurman, and Willard Brown welcomed Gómez and served as role models, along with Crabbers skipper Vic Harris. They advised younger PR players such as Gómez and took them under their wing in some cases. Gómez was particularly impressed with Willard Brown. “He still has the record of 27 homers in a season,” said Gómez. “It was our era…we had a great time together…would see each other at nightclubs. Brown, Thurman, and the others, including my catcher Mickey Taborn, were very pleasant.” Satchel Paige also joined Santurce late in the 1947-48 season.

Table II lists all  .400 BA hitters in PRWL history from 1938-39 to the present. Perucho Cepeda and Willard Brown are the only two to accomplish this at different positions: Perucho, SS, 1938-39; 1B, 1940-41, and Brown, 2B, 1941-42; CF, 1947-48.

Table II: PRWL Single-Season Hitters with a .400 plus BA, 1938-39-Present

Perucho Cepeda-G1938-3917079.465Willard Brown-S1947-48232101.432
Tetelo Vargas-G1938-3916468.415Bob Thurman-S1947-48248102.411
Roy Partlow-SJ1940-4112254.443Luke Easter-M1948-49249100.402
Thomas Young-G1940-4114863.426Orlando Cepeda-S1960-6110644.415
Perucho Cepeda-G1940-4117875.421José M. Morales-SJ1968-6911245.402
Clarence Palm-S1940-4115965.409Edgar Martínez-SJ1989-9013256.424
Pancho Coímbre-P1940-4116767.401José Vidro-P1998-9914460.417
Joshua Gibson-S1941-4212359.480Luis D. Figueroa-Crl2003-0412854.422
Willard Brown-H/A1941-4212250.410Motorita Feliciano-Man/S2004-0512249.402
Tetelo Vargas-S1943-4416468.415Luis A. Figueroa-M2005-0616368.417
Pancho Coímbre-P1944-4510645.425Aldemar Burgos-Crl2018#6225.403
Artie Wilson-M1947-48252102.405Blaine Crim-M2021-2210141.406

#18-game season due to Hurricane María. A: Arecibo, Crl: Carolina, G: Guayama, H: Humacao. Man: Manatí, M: Mayagüez, P: Ponce, S: Santurce, SJ: San Juan. Source: https://beisbol101.com/lideres-de-todos-los-tiempos/

Spring 1950—Orange Victoria (OV), Zulia Occidental League

After reinforcing Luis R. Olmo’s Caguas Criollos in the 1950 CS, Brown reinforced Orange Victoria (OV) in their 38-game season. OV (18-20) was in the three-team Occidental League (Western Venezuela), with Gavilanes (23-15) and Pastora (16-22), not Venezuela’s Winter League. A typical OV 1950 line-up comprised:

  • Luis Oliveros (2B)
  • Jesús “Chucho” Ramos (1B)
  • Wilmer Fields (RF)
  • Willard Brown (LF)
  • Howard Easterling (CF)
  • Luis “Camaleón” García (3B)
  • Rafael Olivares (SS)
  • Humberto “Pipita” Leal (C)
  • Pitchers such as Raymond Brown and Julián Ladera.

Terris “The Great” McDuffie (league-leading 52 K’s) and Guayubín Olivo (44 K’s) helped Gavilanes win the pennant. Max Manning (33 K’s) and Cecil Kaiser (32 K’s) were Pastora’s aces. Ladera fanned 32 with OV. Raymond Brown recorded 27 K’s. Brown’s 37 RBI tied Gavilanes’ Guillermo Vento for the Occidental League lead. Table III shows the league’s BA and HR leaders.

Table III: Top 12 Hitters (BA) and Top 10 HR Hitters (1950 Zulia, Venezuela League)

Hector Benítez (P)251073246.430Dalmiro Finol (G)14
Claro Duany (P)19831532.386Johnny Davis (P)10
Howard Easterling (OV)381623262.383Camaleón García (OV)10
Willard Brown (OV)321462754.370Guillermo Vento (G)10
Johnny Davis (P)381462752.356Willard Brown (OV)9
Alejandro Crespo (G)311322346.348Howard Easterling (OV)8
Wilmer Fields (OV)22931622.344Héctor Benítez (P)7
Pedro Pagés (G)381483248.324Héctor Rodríguez (G)6
Lonnie Summers (P)371442644.306Alejandro Crespo (G)5
Guillermo Vento (G)381492245.302Chucho Ramos (OV)5
Dalmiro Finol (G)381433143.301  
“Camaleón” García (OV)381432043.301  

G: Gavilanes. OV: Orange Victoria. P: Pastora. Source: Luis Verde, Historia del Béisbol de Zulia, Tomo 1.

Thanks to Rory Costello—author of Willard Brown and Bob Thurman’s SABR bios, José Crescioni Benítez, Rubén Gómez, Luis Rodríguez from Venezuela, and Bob Thurman. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.

Photo colorization: Juan R. Figueroa/Puerto Rico Professional Baseball Hall of Fame

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