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

Willard Brown (June 26, 1915, to August 4, 1996) landed in Cooperstown, in 2006. His Kansas City Monarchs (KCM) stats are now embedded as Major League ones, thanks to rulings by Commissioner Manfred. Moreover, his stellar Puerto Rico Winter League (PRWL) career and Caribbean Series (CS) performances got him inducted into the initial 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, and Venezuela, and his 1950 CS. Part II covered 1950-54 with Santurce, two seasons in the Dominican Republic (DR) Summer League (1951 and 1952), his MVP 1953 CS in Havana, and the 1956-57 Santurce swan song. Part III transitions to the Monarchs, part of 1947 with the St. Louis Browns—and his overall big-league record. Part IV concludes with his minor-league seasons, composite hitting figures from the majors, minors, and Caribbean, plus 2006 Cooperstown Induction, and various testimonials. Brown, in the PRWL, was “Ese Hombre” (That Man) for his prodigious homers. He played at 5-11, 200 pounds.

Kansas City Monarchs (Independent) and Negro American League (NAL)

Adam Darowski, via a recent article at https://www.baseball-reference.com/about/negro-leagues-data.shtml, noted that the “Kansas City Monarchs do not appear as major between 1931 and 1936 because they were not a part of one of the seven major Negro Leagues. They were still a major league caliber club, boasting many Hall of Famers on their roster.”  Darowski stated:  In June 2024, SABR’s Special Negro Leagues and Teams Committee recommended several of these top independent Black baseball clubs be reclassified as major. We are currently considering expanding our coverage to reflect this.” Exhibition games and barnstorming stats are excluded.

Willard Brown’s 1935 and 1936 seasons with the Monarchs reflected a combined 34-for-94, with six homers, 23 RBIs, a .362 BA, and .638 SLG. What is included pertains to 1937-1944 and 1946-48 Monarchs—in the Negro American League (NAL)—and stats with his 1947 AL season for the St. Louis Browns, a brief one. The Shreveport, Louisiana native debuted with a Monroe, Louisiana semi-pro team in 1934. Table I includes Brown’s single-season and career major-league batting figures.

 Table I: Willard Brown’s Major League Hitting Stats, 1937 to 1944 and 1946-48

SeasonTeamABRH2B3BHRRBISBBAOBPSLGOPS
1937KCM2145181!1110!10!60!10.379.432!.6641.095!
1938KCM1803462!16!47!48!20.344.382.594!.977
1939KCM1743764!15!7!342!8.368.399.586!.985
1940KCM70000000.000.000.000.000
1941KCM14431!49!7!46!32!10!.340.410.569.979
1942KCM1422548!624262.338.373.493,866
1943KCM19733!67!1327!31!4.340.390.533!.923!
1944KCM92300011.333.400.333.733
1946KCM14530!48!11!6!3!27!3.331.362.552!.914
1947SLB6741230162.179.179.269.448
1947KCM199427522!7!664!12.377!.426.648!1.074!
1948KCM1744371!23!27!54!8.408.477.6841.161
Totals(11)1652332580127445439180.351.398.579.977

KCM: Kansas City Monarchs. SLB: St. Louis Browns. !Led league. Source: Baseball-Reference.

Good KCM Start

From 1937-39, Brown pulverized opposing pitchers in the Negro American League, in 147 games, with 122 runs, 207 hits in 568 AB, 42 doubles, 21 triples, 20 homers, and 150 RBIs. He stole 38 bases; and posted a .364 composite BA, and .618 SLG, age 22-24. He was a 1937 League All-Star. He led the league in hits each season (1937-39); hit the most 1938 and 1939 doubles; most triples, 1937 and 1939; most homers, 1937 and 1938; and, most RBIs, 1937-39. His .432 OBP was a 1937 league best. Ditto for .594 and .586 SLG in 1938 and 1939 plus 1.095 OPS in 1939. The Monarchs (52-19-1) bested the Chicago American Giants, five games to one, one tie, in the 1937 NAL Championship Series (NALCS). Brown went 6-for-16, .375 BA, with two RBIs. Andy Cooper managed the KCM to a NAL-best 45-27-1 mark in 1938, 1.5 games ahead of the 39-24-1 Memphis Red Sox. Brown’s hitting and ace Hilton Smith’s pitching (9-2, 1.92 ERA) paved the way. Buck O’Neil played first. The 1939 KCM went 46-25 to win another NAL pennant. Brown (.368, 3, 42) and Turkey Stearns (.330, 7, 39) were the “big guns.” Hilton Smith (6-5, 2.43 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) was the ace. They defeated the SL Stars, four games to one, in the 1939 NALCS. Brown was 3-for-10, with a double, triple, three RBIs, .600 SLG, and .900 OPS. Hilton Smith (2-0, 1.26 ERA) and player-manager Andy Cooper (2-0, 1.20 ERA) got the four KCM wins.

Willard Brown (1936-39) versus Joe DiMaggio (1936-39)

Philip Lee—author of Black Stats Matter and Catan: A Guide to Strategy—in a June 20, 2024 e-mail to the author, after reading Willard Brown (Part II), wrote: “Fantastic stuff, Tom. In terms of lack of popular name recognition, [Willard Brown] is quite probably the most underrated player of all time. If the Majors had believed in him, he’d have been the second coming of Joe DiMaggio.” This inspired Van Hyning to compare Brown’s first four KCM seasons (1936-39), with DiMaggio’s first four NYY seasons. Brown had an edge in BA (.366 to .341) and OBP (.403 to .395). DiMag’s .627 SLG and 1.022 OPS surpassed Brown’s .613 and 1.016. Brown recorded 1.013 RBIs/game versus DiMag’s 1.007 figure. DiMag scored 0.94 runs/game versus Brown’s 0.84 figure. Brown’s 1936 KCM stats were factored in to reflect four seasons.

Table II: Willard Brown (KCM) and Joe DiMaggio (NYY) 1936-39 Hitting Stats

PlayerGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSBBAOBPSLGOPS
Brown1586151332254323211604041.366.403.6131.016
DiMag55423195207911534913755819916.341.395.6271.022

Source: Baseball-Reference.

Continued Success with KCM

After starring in Mexico (1940), he led the NAL in homers and RBIs twice between 1941 and 1943. The 1941 Monarchs (31-16-1) won the West Division, with Hilton Smith (9-0, 1.73 ERA) and Satchel Paige (7-0, 2.06 ERA). Paige starred for the 1939-40 and 1940-41 PRWL Guayama Brujos (Witches), going 19-3 with 208 strikeouts in 1939-40—all-time PRWL single-season wins and strikeouts. Newt Allen managed the 1941 Monarchs. In 1942, Frank Duncan led the Monarchs (27-12) to a Negro World Series title over the loaded Homestead Grays. Bonnie Serrell (.360 BA), Ted Strong (.364 BA), and Willard Brown (.338 BA) furnished regular-season firepower before the Monarchs’ four-game sweep of the fabled Grays, featuring Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Sam Bankhead, Howard Easterling, Jud Wilson, Raymond Brown, Roy Partlow, among others. (Strong was 6-6, seven inches taller than Brown’s 5-11.) Table III has 1942 World Series KCM hitting/pitching stats.

Table III: 1942 KCM Negro World Series Hitting/Pitching Stats versus Homestead Grays

PlayerABRH2B3BHRRBISBBAOBPSLGOPS
Newt Allen141410020.286.333.357.690
Willard Brown157711121.467.579.8671.446
Joe Greene166820161.500.579.8131.391
Buck O’Neil163601021.375.375.500.875
Bonnie Serrell172711050.412.412.5881.000
Willie Simms214501020.238.273.333.606
Ted Strong186610141.333.400.556.956
Bill Williams163820055.500.529.6251.154
Herb Souell51000000.000.000.000.000
Pitchers (3)181200001.111.111.111.222
Totals15634538432810.340.387.500.887
PitcherGGSSVWLIPHERKBBERAWHIP
Satchel Paige4212016.11041842.200.86
Jack Matchett3111014.2124862.451.23
Hilton Smith11010550220.001.40
Totals442403617828122.001.08

Source: Baseball-Reference.

Another NAL pennant followed in 1943, under Duncan. The 44-27-1 Monarchs showcased 17-year-old Hank Thompson in RF, alongside Brown in CF. Thompson’s .315 BA was second-best to Brown’s .340 BA. Brown hit seven of KC’s 11 homers per available Baseball-Reference data. Serrell (.287 BA) and O’Neil (.285) were solid at third and first. Booker McDaniel (8-2) joined the pitching staff featuring Paige (9-8, 3.03 ERA), Matchett, Hilton Smith, and Booker McDaniel. Per Brown’s SABR bio by Rory Costello, historians Larry Lester and Sammy Miller unearthed another Brown nickname. “Brown is what we called a Sunday player,” noted ex-teammate Sammy Haynes. “Willard liked to play Sundays when we had a full house. If the stands were full you couldn’t get him out. If the stands were half empty, you might find Brown loafing that day. He didn’t play on rainy or cloudy days. That’s why we called him Sonny. He loved to play on sunny days and before big crowds.” Catcher Frazier “Slow” Robinson confirmed Brown was “at his best in big games,” and a “cut below Joshua Gibson on consistency and all-around play.” Robinson questioned Brown’s throwing arm, weaker than Bob Thurman’s, his future Santurce Crabbers teammate.

World War II

Brown crossed the English Channel for the Normandy Invasion. His assignments included hauling ammunition and guarding prisoners of war. Per his SABR bio, he and Leon Day were teammates in a 1945 baseball tournament, winning the European military title over a ball club with Harry “The Hat” Blackwell and Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell.

Post-World War II with KCM and St. Louis Browns (SLB)

The 1946 KCM (60-19-2) won the NAL, with Brown, Ted Strong, Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith contributing, as did catcher Mickey Taborn, P-OF John Ford Smith, and lefty Jim “Libertad” LaMarque. (They later joined Brown with Crabbers teams managed by Vic Harris.) The 1946 Newark Eagles bested KCM, four games to three, in the 1946 Negro World Series. KCM skipper Frank Duncan dealt with Satchel Paige’s departure, plus Ted Strong leaving the team, before Games Six and Seven. Monte Irvin’s .462 BA, three homers, and eight RBIs were instrumental for the Eagles. Lenny Pearson (.393 BA, one HR, four RBIs) was a force; Larry Doby and Johnny “El Gaucho” Davis gave Newark more offense. (Doby and Irvin traveled to San Juan after this series to play for the 1946-47 PRWL Senators.) Willard Brown led all 1946 World Series hitters with 10 RBIs and clubbed two homers.

Brown and Thompson were purchased by the SLB for $5,000 apiece in July 1947, during the 1947 KCM season. On July 23, Brown went 4-for-5 at Yankee Stadium, his best AL game. Three weeks later, he was the first Black player to homer during an AL contest, on August 13, an inside-the-park shot off Detroit’s Hal Newhouser. Brown used a 40-ounce bat belonging to teammate Jeff Heath, the same size as Brown (5-11, 200 pounds), and called a “quirky, superstitious player by C. Paul Rogers III (Rogers Hornsby SABR Chapter)—“was very particular about his bats and would not allow teammates to borrow them.” Heath smashed the 40-ounce bat, after the homer, because it had “used up one of the bat’s home runs.” Hank Thompson, in the mid-1960s, affirmed that Heath was one of a few Browns who welcomed him and Brown—he was not a racist. In any case, SLB skipper Muddy Ruel released Brown and Thompson 10 days after Brown’s homer.

Frank Duncan managed 1947 KCM to a 62-36 record. A teenage revelation was infielder Curt Roberts, from Pineland, Texas. The 5-8, 165 pound Roberts slashed .352/.387/.549, with a .936 OPS. He turned 18 on August 16, 1947, around the time Brown and Thompson rejoined the Monarchs. Brown’s .377/.426/.648 slash line and 1.074 OPS were superb. He drove in a league-leading 64 runs in 48 games, 1.33 per contest. His 1948 OPS for player-manager Buck O’Neil was 1.161! Brown’s 1948 slash line was .408/.477/.684 with 54 RBIs in 46 games. Curt Roberts and Gene Baker at second and short, Taborn behind the plate, and Brown in CF gave KCM a solid up-the-middle defense. Hank Thompson was the RF. Nineteen-year-old Elston Howard platooned in LF with Johnie Scott. LaMarque (9-4) and Ford Smith (4-2) were solid starters. Brown, third baseman Herb Souell, and Lamarque played for the West NAL All-Stars at Yankee Stadium, on August 24, 1948, versus the Negro National League All-Stars (East). Brown reinforced the West in multiple All-Star contests, including two in 1948.

            Poster for August 24, 1948, East-West Negro Leagues All-Star Game.

Photo credit (source): Bob Hoffenberg, 1940s Major League Baseball.

Post Script

Brown’s .357 BA (10-for-28), five RBIs, .571 SLG, and .951 OPS in the 1948 NALCS paced the KCM, who fell short, four games to three to the Birmingham Black Barons (BBB), with one tie. Coincidentally, 17-year-old Willie Mays drove in five for the BBB, going 7-for-25, a .280 BA. Bill Greason was 2-1, with a 0.78 ERA and 1.09 WHIP for the BBB. Greason, who became a Baptist minister after baseball, had kind words for Brown, in a conversation with the author. “Willard Brown was the best hitter on that KCM team and an all-time great,” affirmed Greason. “He was my Santurce teammate in 1953-54 and 1956-57—a fine person who deserved more recognition.” A 99-year-old Greason, on Thursday, June 20, 2024, threw the first pitch before a St. Louis Cardinals-San Francisco Giants game at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field, two nights after Mays’s passing at 93.

Thanks to Rory Costello, Adam Darowski, Bill Greason, Philip Lee, Larry Lester, and C. Paul Rogers III. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.

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