RIP to Oscar Brown, who played for five seasons in the majors as an outfielder. He died on June 3 at the age of 74 of complications from old age, reported the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Brown played for the Atlanta Braves from 1969-73. He was the youngest brother in a very athletic family, as Ollie Brown played for 13 years in the major leagues, and Willie Brown was a college football star at USC and spent three seasons in the National Football League.
Oscar Brown was born in Long Beach, Calif., on February 8, 1946. His brothers were born in Alabama, but the family had moved out of the South and its Jim Crow laws before he was born. By the time Brown was old enough to gain notice playing ball in high school and college, his brothers had already left their marks on Long Beach athletics. But he made his own reputation. In 1963, he hit .389 for Polytechnic High School in Long Beach and helped lead the team to the school’s league championship. After graduating from Polytechnic, he attended Compton Community College for a semester before enrolling at the University of Southern California.
According to the USC Trojans, Brown’s lone season on the baseball team was a stellar one. He led the Trojans with a .340 batting average, stole a team-high 12 bases, and posted 9 homers and 36 RBIs. He was named to the All-Conference first team and All-America second team. The Trojans went 42-9 that year and lost to Ohio in the semifinals of the College World Series.
All the while, major-league teams were after him. Brown was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 17th Round of the 1965 Amateur Draft, and then the California Angels chose him in the 5th Round of the 1966 Secondary Phase draft (for players who previously had been drafted and declined to sign). Finally, the Atlanta Braves picked him in the 1st Round of the 1966 Secondary Phase draft as the seventh overall pick. He signed for a $60,000 bonus and was assigned to Yakima of the Class-A Northwest League.
Brown became a Northwest League All-Star in his first professional season, as he hit a league-leading .346 in 73 games. He hit 12 doubles and 4 home runs and also stole 11 bases. He was also awarded the Helms-Win Clark Memorial Trophy, awarded by the Southern California Baseball Writers Association for the best first-year California ballplayer.
Brown fell out of rhythm in 1967 after a six-month stint in the Air Force National Guard, and he struggled to return to form once he resumed playing baseball. He spent all of 1967 and ’68 at various Class-A teams in the Braves system. He got a brief taste of AAA ball in 1969, failing to break .200 while playing in 11 games at Richmond. However, Brown hit .343 in 50 games at AA Shreveport, in spite of missing time with a broken wrist. That success was enough to get a September call-up to the major leagues.
Brown appeared in 7 games with the 1969 Braves: 2 as a center fielder, 1 as a right fielder, 1 as a pinch-hitter and 3 as a pinch-runner. He had 4 total at-bats and picked up his first MLB hit on October 2, 1969. It was the last game of the season, and Braves manager Lum Harris pulled almost all his regulars after an at-bat so they could rest up for their upcoming playoff series against the New York Mets. Brown was one of the backups who was brought into the game against the Reds, going 1-for-3 with a single off reliever George Culver.
Brown had a hard time sticking with the Braves due to the team’s make-up. The speedy Brown was an admitted singles hitter, and the Braves featured sluggers Rico Carty, Hank Aaron and Tony Gonzalez in the outfield. Even the AAA teams where Brown played were filled with the likes of Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr, so it was hard to get playing time in the outfield anywhere he went.
“It makes it hard on the young players,” Brown said of Atlanta’s outfield logjam. “Cincinnati is going real well, they bring up young players every year… Atlanta sticks with these old guys, and it makes it hard on a young guy. Especially when he thinks he’s ready.
“I just can’t understand some of the things as far as the organization goes,” he added. “I think I can play up there but you’ve got to get that one good opportunity, the one chance. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I should get it here.”
Brown got his first big chance with the Braves when Carty chipped a bone in the ring finger of his right hand. Brown was called up to replace him on August 2, 1970. In 28 games, he had 18 hits in 47 at-bats for a .383/.464/.532 slash line. His first major-league home run was a 2-run shot off the Padres’ Dave Roberts on September 10. He played all three outfield positions but saw the most time in center field. It’s an admittedly small sample size, but Brown kept flirting with the .400 mark, and occasionally the .500 mark, for a good portion of the season.
The Braves’ outfield opened up in 1971, as Aaron moved to first base, Carty was injured all season long and Gonzalez was acquired by the Angels. It didn’t help Brown, though, as other young players took those roles, and he started the season in AAA. Brown returned to the Braves in June and helped the Braves knock off the Astros in one of his first games, with a 2-run single. He hit a pair of doubles against the Giants on July 29 to get his batting average as high as .250, but a lack of playing time and limited success dropped his average to .209 by the end of the year.
The Braves kept Brown around for most of 1972 as a backup outfielder, with just a short demotion to AAA Richmond in June. Though he was on the big-league roster, it didn’t guarantee him any playing time, and he didn’t get to start a game until April 22. He bopped a 3-run home run against the Reds in that game, one of five the team hit to snap a 6-game losing streak. Brown said after the game that he wanted to see if he could play in the major leagues, “and you sure as heck can’t find out sitting on the bench. I want to play.”
Brown played in 76 games that season, easily a career high and accounts for almost half of his career totals. He slashed .226/.244/.323 and hit 3 of his 4 career home runs that season. He also drove in 16 runs and scored 19 times. He saw most of his playing time as a right fielder, and it was a challenge for him. He had 6 assists in 29 games there, which is great, but he also had 6 errors for an .897 fielding percentage. He led all NL right fielders in that dubious category. That was an aberration in his career fielding record, as he was typically closer to a league average fielder.
Brown suffered a knee injury in late July 1973 that would eventually end his career. At the time, he was hitting .211 for the Braves in 22 games. He was activated from the disabled list at the end of August, but he only had one more major-league at-bat in his career. He spent all of 1974 with the Richmond Braves, batting .252, before retiring at the age of 28.
In five seasons, Brown played in 160 games and had a slash line of .244/.284/.339. He had 77 hits, including 14 doubles, 2 triples and 4 home runs. He also had 28 RBIs and scored 34 runs. As noted, leave aside that rather disastrous season as a right fielder in 1972, and Brown was a pretty decent outfielder at all three positions.
After baseball, Brown moved to Cerritos, Calif., and he worked as a lab technician at the Texaco refinery in Wilmington until his retirement in 2007. He remained a devoted fan of the Braves and the USC Trojans.
Long Beach District 6 Councilmember Dee Andrews grew up in the same neighborhood as the Brown family. He called them Long Beach icons who were great human beings as well as great athletes. Oscar Brown, he added, was the quietest of the three.
“But when he spoke, you listened,” Andrews told the Press-Telegram. “He spoke with honesty and love. He was the glue that held those three brothers together.”