Tuesday, May 02, 2006

May 2nd, 1939

Gates Brown Born

I like Gates Brown, and not just because he's one of only a handful of players to get into the Encyclopedia with a name that is made up of two nouns. (The nickname was a childhood one; Brown claimed he never knew its origins but preferred it to "Billy" so it stuck.) Brown was a professional pinch-hitter, a term that gets thrown around a lot. These days it generally means "a professional baseball player who is in the waning stages of his not-so-great career but is an inexplicable manager's favorite and therefore remains on the team to ground-out weakly in crucial situations when called upon as a pinch-hitter." Since that's a bit of a mouthful, most broadcasters simply shorten it to "a professional...pinch-hitter," to explain why Ruben Sierra is grounding out with runners on second and third in the seventh for the fifty-fourth time this season.

Gates Brown however, really was a professional pinch-hitter. Brown stood 5'11", 220 and despite that height is almost invariably described as "squat." Squat or not, Brown wasn't much of a defensive player but he knew how to swing the bat. Appropriately, his first Major League at-bat in 1963 was as a pinch-hitter for Don Mossi and Brown homered, bringing his Tigers within two runs of the Red Sox. Such pinch-hits soon became Brown's forte, he twice led the AL in pinch-hits (1968 and 1974) and hit sixteen pinch-hit homers in his career.

The best year of Brown's career came in 1968. With pitching at its high water mark of the post World War II era, Brown was instrumental in providing the offensively-limited Tigers with enough runs to make it to the World Series. He saw time in the field in just eighteen games but appeared as pinch-hitter in nearly fifty others and hit .370 with six home runs, while posting an astounding 234 OPS+.

That was the high point for Brown; although the introduction of the DH would extent his career, it came too late--Brown was thirty-four in 1973--to really give him the chance to ply his trade. But next time you watch Dave Hansen pop-out, you can think back to Gates Brown and remember when professional pinch-hitters really did exist.

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