Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#389 - Gates Brown

Here we have Gates Brown channeling John Amos – remember that guy? – from “Good Times” in Detroit. Gates gets a Designated Hitter card since in ’73 he was exactly that, finally getting to experience a position tailor-made for him. That year he would split the DH role with Frank Howard and on average those guys must have been the biggest DH’s in the league. For most of his career, though he was usually designated as outfielder, the more apt position for Gates would have been Pinch Hitter, a role he specialized at quite handily for a bunch of years. This is his second to last card as the new position came along a bit too late for Gates to fully capitalize. But he had a bunch of years left as a Tiger.

Gates Brown had an interesting run of things before his baseball career got rolling. A big football star in high school in Crestline, Ohio, he was on target to be grabbed by a D-1 school in that sport. But shortly after he graduated in ’57 Gates went to a different institution nearby, the Mansfield State Reformatory, after being busted for B&E to top off the list of a bunch of trouble that came his way. More of a prison than a reform school – anyone who has seen “A Shawshank Redemption” has seen the place – it would help turn around Gates’ life through baseball. The place participated in a kind of rec league in that sport and by ’58 the coach had convinced Gates to play. He was initially a catcher and he hit .313 with six or seven homers that first year. The coach there promised Gates he could get some scouts in to see him and the next year did exactly that, which was good because Gates responded by hitting about .500 with eight homers. At the scouts' suggestions he also began playing outfield so they could gauge his speed. By the end of the year the Tigers were able to get him probation and the following winter they signed him. That first season in C ball he hit .293 with ten homers, 68 RBI’s, and 30 stolen bases. In ’61 he went south to Durham – not too fun – but hit .324 with 15 homers and 75 RBI’s to get promoted the last month to A ball where he hit .250 with 19 RBI’s the rest of the way. In ’62 he got promoted to Triple A and hit .300 from high in the order and also moved to left field since Detroit had a guy named Al Kaline who was a fixture in right. The next summer he got moved up top after hitting .258 but with 13 homers and 43 RBI’s in 221 at bats at Triple A Syracuse.

Brown started his Detroit MLB career off the right way – a homer in his first at bat. He spent the rest of the season playing a bit in left field but mostly pinch-hitting. In ’64 he enjoyed a one-year reign as the starting left fielder and put up personal highs in just about every offensive category except average. In ’65 new kid Willie Horton took over left field and though Gates would get some starts there, his time in the field would decline pretty significantly until the early Seventies. But he had a nice little franchise building at the same time with the pinch hitting. He peaked in the Series year of ’68 with that .370 average with a .442 OBA and only four strikeouts. That was the season he also had his famous hot dog incident (that one’s all over the web).  In ’71 and ’72 Horton missed a bunch of games and Gates upped his time in the field a bunch, posting excellent numbers that first year including another .400-plus OBA. After his year splitting DH he backed up Al Kaline in that role in ’74 and then retired after a few at bats in ’75. He finished with a .257 average with 84 homers and 322 RBI’s and went hitless in 3 at bats in the post-season. When he retired he was the AL leader in just about every lifetime pinch-hitting stat.

In ’76 and ’77 Brown did some scouting work for the Tigers. He then became their hitting coach up top from ’78 to ’84, helping to develop Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Kirk Gibson, among others. In ’85 he split to become a salesman for a plastics firm he later purchased as part of a group. The firm was moved to Detroit and sort of fell apart, leading to some trouble with the IRS. Since then Gates has done some community work for the Tigers as well as appearances at a bunch of fantasy camps. He has a SABR bio.

Those homers were both against Boston and the second was a big deal since it won the game in the bottom of the 14th inning. I guess that cartoon is closely linked to what Gates did at least part of the time down the road.

We hook up two guys with long years in the AL:

1. Brown and Jim Perry ’73 Tigers;
2. Perry and Phil Roof ’71 to ’72 Twins.

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