Obituary: Bobby Brown (1924-2021)

RIP to Dr. Bobby Brown, a Yankees infielder on four World Champion teams, then cardiologist, then American League president. He died on March 26 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 96 years old. Brown played for the New York Yankees (1946-52, 1954) and was the American League president from 1984 until 1994.

“Few people who have worn the pinstripes have lived such an accomplished, fulfilled, and wide-ranging life as Dr. Brown, who was beloved by our organization for his warmth, kindness and character,” said Yankees Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner in a statement. “He represented the pinstripes with elegance throughout his playing career and in subsequent decades as a frequent, welcome guest at Old Timers’ Day. We also hold the utmost respect for the myriad of other accomplishments in his life — from service to our country, his stewardship of the American League and his longtime career as a cardiologist. The Yankees extend their deepest condolences to his family, friends and loved ones as we reflect on his incredible life.”

Robert William Brown was born in Seattle on October 25, 1924, but by the time he was high school age, the family had moved to San Francisco. His father, William, was a salesman and a one-time semipro ballplayer himself, and his work took the family all over the country. Brown was an exceptional athlete even at a young age. He drop-kicked 24 straight field goals when he was 10. He won two medals at a swim meet at Seattle’s Washington Athletics Club when he was 11. He tried out with the Newark Bears when he was 13. By the time he was a senior at Galileo High School, he led the Golden Gate Valley League in batting with a .432 average. He was also a talented shortstop as well. The Athletics, Tigers and Dodgers were just a few of the teams that were scouting him, but Brown elected to attend Stanford University instead of going into pro ball.

Source: Daily News, February 17, 1947.

Brown he headed to college with the idea of pursuing chemical engineering as a major. World War II changed his plans, however. Also, “I found out I hated chemistry,” he said years later. “I thought I’d be best in the people business, and pre-med sounded good.”

Brown’s SABR biography states that he joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to a naval unit at the University of California-Los Angeles. While playing on the Bruins baseball team, he also was also working on completing pre-med courses. He also earned the Navy’s Silver Star Life-Saving medal when he rescued Radioman First Class Henry Kind from a plane crash off Gregory Point in California. He was then assigned to San Diego Naval Hospital before being sent to Tulane Medical School in 1944. By the end of 1945, two things became very clear: Bobby Brown had the talent to be a major-league baseball player and the talent to become a successful doctor, and he had the willpower to do both.

A report in December of 1945 stated that the New York Yankees had signed Brown to a contract with a $50,000 bonus. He would finish his medical education before joining the club, and then he would only play during the summer months to complete his education. “One of the most expert fielders ever to play at Stanford and also a heavy hitter, Brown had been sought by major league scouts for several years,” the wire reports said. Yankees President Lee McPhail strongly denied the rumors, but the Yankees had indeed beaten out all the other suitors for Brown’s talents. There was never a doubt where he’d end up, according to Walter Brown. “The kid has had a Yankee uniform since he was 13, and he’ll be a Yankee,” the elder Brown proclaimed.

Source: New York Yankees

Walter Brown also related a story of how his son almost ended up with the New York Giants. Walter and Giants owner Horace Stoneham met in a Chicago hotel room to negotiate a deal. When asked about money, Brown proposed a $60,000 deal, “and [Stoneham] nearly fell off his chair.” Stoneham not only rejected the deal, he called off negotiations entirely until Brown came back with a double-or-nothing counteroffer. If his son never reached the major leagues, Stoneham wouldn’t have to pay him a single penny. But if he did, then Stoneham would have to give him a $120,000 contract. Stoneham immediately took the deal. However, Giants manager Mel Ott, who was also in the room, talked his boss out of it. Ott knew Brown was a major-leaguer and feared Stoneham would find himself stuck with a hefty $120,000 contract.

The thought was that Brown would go to the minors for some seasoning before returning to Tulane after the season ended. He played 148 games for the Newark Bears of the International League in ’46, and that was all the seasoning he would ever need — he never played in the minors again. Considering he slashed .341/.431/439 with Newark, there was no point to keep the 21-year-old there any longer.

Brown made his major-league debut on September 22, 1946, as the starting shortstop against the Philadelphia Athletics. He was one of two Yankee rookies to make his major-league debut in that game — the other being Yogi Berra, Brown’s minor-league roommate. Brown reached on an error in his first at-bat, singled against Jesse Flores, walked and laid down a sacrifice bunt. He also scored a run in the 4-3 win. Brown made 7 starts to finish off the season and had hits in 6 of them, finishing with a .333 average with 4 walks and no strikeouts.

Brown never appeared in as many as 115 games in a season at any point in his 8-year career. It wasn’t for a lack of talent; it was more due to a lack of time. He kept up his medical studies, even though it cut into his spring training activities. One sportswriter snidely referred to him as “a young medical student… using baseball merely as a means to an end.” It seemed like most people were supported the young infielder/aspiring doctor. Certainly the Yankees were glad to have him, as he was about to be a sparkplug in four World Series championships.

Brown spent time at third base and shortstop in 1947 and hit an even .300 in 69 games. His only home run of the season and first of his career came off St. Louis Browns hurler Fred Sanford on September 16. Brown spent the first half of the year as a starter before coming off the bench in the second half as a pinch-hitter, thanks to a broken thumb that limited his play. The Yankees met the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, and Brown had just 4 pinch-hit appearances — but they were all important. He drew a bases-loaded walk in Game One as part of a 5-run rally that gave the Yankees the 5-3 win. He doubled in Game Three and scored to bring the Yankees to within 2 runs in an eventual 9-7 loss. He had an RBI single to tie Game Six at 4 runs each, though the Dodgers came back to win 8-6. He ripped an RBI double in Game Seven to tie the game at 2, and then he scored on a Tommy Henrich single to put the Yankees ahead 3-2. New York never looked back and won 5-2. Brown tied a Series record with 3 pinch-hits and was the first player to get them all consecutively.

Brown in his playing days and as a Texas Rangers executive. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 31, 1974.

Yankees manager Bucky Harris lauded the youngster, particularly for his walk in Game One. “Imagine the spot the kid was in?” he said. “Here was a kid in his first year in the big leagues, being sent up to bat with the bases loaded and 73,000 fans looking on. Why, I could see his face was as white as chalk. His heart must have beat a mile a minute, but his eyes were clear and that base on balls he drew set up the stage for Tommy Henrich’s two-run single which proved eventually to be the winning runs.”

In the offseason, Brown returned to Tulane for his junior year. In one of his classes, a professor stumped Brown with a question. The instructor then asked if Brown was still “baseballing.” He replied yes, when he had the chance. “Good, because you’ll never be a medical man,” the professor responded.

Brown played in 113 games in 1948 but never had a set position. He had 41 games at third base, 26 at shortstop (his preferred position), 17 at second, 3 at left field and 1 at right field. He again hit .300 and was considered the best utility man in the game. He became entrenched at third base in 1949, as 86 of his 104 appearances were at the hot corner. He had a career-high 6 home runs in ’49 to go with his .283 batting average. When the World Series rolled around and the Yankees faced the Dodgers once more, Brown’s bat really caught fire. He played in four of the five games and had 6 hits for a .500 batting average. He had a double and 2 triples while driving in 5 runs and scoring 4 times. He was particularly unstoppable in Games Four and Five. He smashed a bases-loaded triple in Game Four to leave the Dodgers in a 6-0 hole, and he had an RBI single and a 2-run triple in the final game, as the Yankees cruised to a 10-6 win and the Series victory.

By 1950, Brown was back to platooning with Billy Johnson at third base. He had an uncharacteristically slow start and didn’t get his batting average above .250 until the end of July. “The only thing I did right all year was to get my degree,” Brown sighed, as a September hot streak left him with a .267 batting average. His bat came alive in the World Series once more, as he had 4 hits in 12 at-bats to lead the Yankees to another World Series win, this time over the Philadelphia Phillies. But the writing was on the wall, as far as his baseball career goes.

“I start interning at Southern Pacific Hospital in San Francisco after the Series,” Brown said, “but I hope to play at least a couple more years of baseball.

“First, I’d like to prove to myself that I really am a good ballplayer,” he continued. “And I hope to become financially independent enough by playing baseball to be able to afford the specialized training I would like to take later on.”

Yankees manager Casey Stengel was glad to have Brown around in the spring of 1951. He came down with a bad stomach ailment, and Brown unexpectedly flew from California to New York City to visit the team. “You’re just the man I’m looking for — not as a player but as a doctor. My stomach’s giving me hell,” Stengel said when Brown walked into the clubhouse. (It turned out to be a kidney stone.)

Brown returned to the Yankees full-time in May of 1951, and while he didn’t have much of a spring, he played pretty well, hitting 6 home runs and driving in 51 runs. He hit .268 in the regular season and .357 in the World Series, once again providing postseason heroics to lead the Yankees to the World Series win over the New York Giants. It was the last season in which playing baseball would be a significant part of his life.

It was known that Brown would be called away by the Army to serve as a doctor at some point in the future. It finally happened in July of 1952. Brown had said on more than one occasion, “I’ll play until they call me,” and maybe the uncertainty combined with the time spent in the medical field hampered his play. He hit just .247 in 29 games before entering the Army, and he missed all of 1953 as well. Brown was sent to Korea in October of 1952 and served in mobile surgical hospitals for injured Korean War soldiers.. Within a few months, he had become the battalion aid surgeon for the 160th Field Artillery unit of the 45th Division and seriously questioned if his baseball career was over for good.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 13, 1984.

“It’s no secret that I want to be a good doctor, and I want to give my best over here,” he said in February 1953. “But there’s no question about it, I’m going to miss the Yanks and baseball in general.”

Brown returned stateside in April of 1954 and announced that he would join the staff of the San Francisco City and County Hospital on July 1. In the meantime, he hoped for a chance to play a couple of months more with the Yankees, before his residency began. The Yankees brought him back, first as a pinch-hitter and then as a part-time third baseman. However, Brown had been away from the game for two full years, and at the age of 29, he couldn’t shake off the rust as easily as he could previously. He struggled at the plate, going 2-for-4 in his final game to raise his batting average past the .200 mark to .217. That last game came on June 30 in Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. The Boston fans gave Brown a nice ovation, which has to be one of the few times the Red Sox fans ever cheered a Yankee. Right after the game, Brown caught a plane to New York City, en route to San Francisco and his new career.

“It’s tough leaving baseball,” he told reporters. “But I have a long-range decision to make. I have studied medicine as a career, and I have to make my move some time.”

In parts of 8 seasons, Brown had a slash line of .279/.367/.376. He had 452 hits in his career, including 62 doubles, 14 triples and 22 home runs. He drove in 237 runs and scored 233 times, and he also had 214 walks against 88 strikeouts. In the four World Series in which he played, Brown slashed .439/.500/.707, with 5 doubles and 3 triples among his 18 hits. He knocked in 9 runs, too. Brown is the all-time postseason batting average leader, just ahead of Colby Rasmus, who has a .423 batting average. Taking only World Series games into account, Brown’s .439 mark is sixth-best all time, with Phil Garner having a .500 average. Brown is one of 14 players to have hit 3 triples in the World Series, and only three players (Tris Speaker, Tommy Leach and Billy Johnson) have hit 4.

Brown would say later in life that he regretted never having a season where he could focus completely on baseball. He always had classes, or studying or an internship that took away his focus from the game. There haven’t been many people who were part-time ballplayers by choice — Ernie Diehl is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head. But Brown, when he did play, showed plenty of talent, and his postseason performance ranks him among the game’s greats.

Dr. Brown became a cardiologist and had a private practice in Fort Worth starting in 1958. He and his wife, Sara, raised three children, and his athletic interests leaned more toward tennis than baseball. When the Washington Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers, Brown was a small part of the local ownership. He took a leave of absence from his medical practice to serve as team president for a portion of 1974. The Rangers happened to be on a hot streak and moved into first place briefly during his tenure.

“Modesty keeps me from taking the credit,” he said. “Modesty and Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Martin. About all I’ve done for the team so far is watch it play.” He saw his main role as increasing baseball interest in the football-crazy state.

Brown held the position of president until the end of the ’74 season and returned to healthcare, save for his regular appearances at Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ games. In 1984, he decided to leave his practice to accept a position as the American League president, succeeding Lee McPhail. After giving up baseball for medicine some 30 years prior, Brown had come full circle. He and Sara agreed that, at the age of 59, Brown’s work as a cardiologist was starting to become too grueling, mentally and physically. It was time for a change.

“I knew that some time in the next two to three years I was going to make some kind of adjustment, and that’s when all this came about, and it offered an opportunity that I hadn’t even anticipated or thought about,” he said.

Brown returned to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day until 2019. Source: Yogi Berra Museum.

Brown held the position for a decade, and he came into leadership in the game at an interesting time. In 1985, his biggest controversies involved cracking down on bench-clearing brawls. That issue seems quaint compared to labor problems and PED problems that would soon engulf the game. Brown’s primary jobs were to enforce the rules and levy punishments when necessary, such as when Roger Clemens charged umpire Jim Evans and Terry Cooney after he was ejected in a 1990 ALCS game. Brown hit him with a 5-game suspension and $10,000 fine. Brown stepped away from baseball in early 1994, right before his 70th birthday. It was also right before the labor strife between the player’s union and commissioner’s office shortened the ’94 season and canceled the postseason.

“The toughest part was just trying to be fair to everyone, trying to do what’s right,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Making a decision that wouldn’t bite you five years into the future because of the precedent being set. In the last few years, the economic pressures on the game made the decision-making process to difficult.”

Brown maintained his connection with the Yankees as one of the last surviving members of an incredible baseball dynasty. He attended his last Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium in 2019. With his passing, there are no more ballplayers left from the 1947 World Series or any previous Series. All total, there are a dozen players still alive who played baseball in the 1940s.

Brown never seemed to seek attention for himself or his unique place in baseball. However, he was proud of his accomplishments and stood out in a world that places a hard line between sports and academics. “The idea that someone couldn’t be both a student and an athlete is absurd,” he said in 1988. “There’s more to life than being an athlete… if you think otherwise, you miss a lot and spend a lot of your days looking back.

“I never had to do that.”

(Bonus: Read a couple of Brown’s stories about Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel.)

For more information: New York Times

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