After my favorite baseball team had a heartbreaking loss, I picked up my copy of Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America (2007) for some comfort. While reading it I came across a story from Buck O’Neil about his days in the Negro League that put into perspective my puny broken baseball dreams.
Willard “Sonny” Brown
In the book, Posnanski relates O’Neil’s story about Willard “Sonny” Brown, who O’Neil had managed on the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson made it to the Major Leagues, the St. Louis Browns signed Brown and his Monarchs teammate, Hank Thompson.
The Dodgers had worked to try to prepare Robinson for the pressure of the Majors with a stint in the Minor Leagues. By contrast, the Browns immediately sent Brown and Thompson to the Majors. There, the two men became the first black teammates on a Major League team.
By the end of the 1947 season, though, the Browns sent both men back to the Negro League’s Monarchs. Thompson would eventually return to the Major Leagues and have a successful career (although a troubled life), but it was Brown’s only time in the league.
The First African-American to Hit an American League Home Run
Late in Brown’s one season in the Majors, on August 13, the team had already given up on the player. But on that Sunday, Brown came in as a pinch hitter in the second game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers.
Brown was surprised about being called into the game. And he did not even have a bat. So, he picked up a damaged bat of the team’s best hitter, Canadian-born Jeff Heath.
At the plate, Sonny Brown connected with a pitch, driving it so it smashed off the center field fence that was 428 feet away. Brown ran around the bases at full speed, turning the hit into an inside-the-park home run. It was the first home run by a black man in the American League.
But there were no congratulations in the dugout for the historic hit. None of Brown’s teammates even looked at him. The only acknowledgement Sonny Brown saw was that the notoriously short-tempered Jeff Heath took his bat that Brown had used and looked at it. Then, in disgust, he smashed the bat against the wall.
“It Wasn’t Easy”
Buck O’Neil used to ask the school children what lesson they learned from the fact that the player had broken Willard Brown’s bat after he hit a home run. He would tell them, “The lesson, children, is that it wasn’t easy.”
In Patty Griffin’s song, “Don’t Come Easy” from Impossible Dream (2004) she sings:
I don’t know nothing except change will come;
Year after year what we do is undone;
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run;
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home.
Sonny Brown did find a home. The World War II veteran continued to have a successful career in the Negro Leagues. He ended his career there a few years later with a .355 lifetime batting average, a lot of home runs, and six All Star appearances.
Brown then continued playing baseball in Texas and in Puerto Rico until he retired from the sport with his nickname “Ese Hombre” (The Man) in 1957.
Brown — who was born on June 26, 1911 in Shreveport, Louisiana — died in Houston, Texas in 1996. Ten years after his death in 2006, Major League Baseball gave him the recognition he deserved. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
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