Monday, September 30, 2013

Gates Brown's Heroics in 1968 Forever Indelible in Tigers History

"Gator Brown," Jim Northrup once told me, "would have been the best DH in the league if he was born five years later than he was."

I could see that.

If ever a rule change seemed to be in the wheelhouse of one man, the American League's switch to the designated hitter in 1973 was Gates Brown's calling. But, as Northrup said, Brown was 34 years old by the time the DH was put in effect.

Brown was, indeed, the Tigers' first-ever DH when the team took on the Indians in Cleveland on April 7, 1973. says that Gates flied out to right field in that first at-bat as a DH. The first-ever hit by a Tigers DH would have to wait until the next day. Yes, Brown delivered it, as he followed his 0-for-4 Opening Day with a 2-for-3 afternoon.

But in 1974, the Tigers made Al Kaline their full-time DH, as No. 6 made his swan song through the AL in his 22nd and final season.

Brown retired after the 1975 season, 36 years old and spent. He had less than 50 at-bats in '75, a season in which the Tigers suffered through a 19-game losing streak and lost 102 games.

Brown was, in fact, tailored for the DH role, if only he'd been a few years younger, as Northrup said.

Gates, who passed away recently at age 74, was never a Gold Glove threat. He was a roly-poly, lumbering man whose skills defensively were average at best. But put a bat in his hands, and Brown struck fear into the opposition.

There was 1968, of course.

It was the year when the Tigers had magic pixie dust sprinkled on them. Time and again the Tigers came from behind to overwhelm the other guys. And on many occasions, it was Gates Brown who delivered the knock out punch, often in the Tigers' last at-bat.

Brown was the hero who came riding in to save the girl tied to the train tracks. The Tigers would be tied, or behind, in the ninth inning or beyond, and manager Mayo Smith would nod to Gates and no. 26 would pick up a bat, emerge from the dugout, and the Tiger Stadium crowd would go mad.

It started early in 1968, Gates' heroics.

In game two, on April 11, Brown pinch hit for pitcher Jon Warden and smacked a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth, snapping a 3-3 tie.

In retrospect, and to hear the old-timers tell it, Brown hit 15 pinch hit home runs in 1968, all to win games.

The truth is that Gates hit six homers in 92 at-bats in 1968, but only three were of the pinch-hit variety. But two of them did win games for Detroit. In an August doubleheader at home versus Boston, Gates won both games with walk-off hits---a pinch-hit home run in game one, and a base hit in the nightcap (he started that game) that capped a four-run ninth inning rally.

But it wasn't just with home runs that Brown rallied the Tigers in 1968. He did it with singles, he did it with doubles. Gates batted .370 in 1968, striking out just four times all year.

The role of the pinch-hitter might be one of the toughest in all of sports, especially if you subscribe to the theory that hitting a baseball is among the most difficult things to do, no matter the sport. Try doing it coming off cold from the bench, never knowing when your name will be called. In the aforementioned twinbill against the Red Sox, Brown wasn't brought into game one until the 14th inning. Yet he torched a home run.

Brown made pinch-hitting his claim to fame, once it was evident that he wouldn't be cracking the starting lineup consistently as a left fielder. There were too many good outfielders in Detroit during Gates' time (1963-75). Willie Horton, Northrup, Mickey Stanley and Al Kaline all log jammed the Tigers outfield in those days.

So the words "pinch-hitter extraordinaire" became Gates' tag. He is easily the most prolific in Tigers franchise history, and among the best in MLB history, when it comes to traipsing in from the bench to get a base hit in the late innings.

It may have awed us, Brown's feats of grandeur, but this is a man who told of playing minor league baseball in the early-1960s in the south and not being able to eat with his teammates, because of the color of his skin. So maybe grabbing a bat in the ninth inning of a tie game wasn't as big of a deal to him, as it was to us.

Gates is gone, and that 1968 Tigers team's roster of those still alive continues to shrink. We lost Northrup himself in 2011. Bill Freehan is in poor health, I'm told. Horton has had health issues in recent years as well.

So did Gates, truth be told. The last several years had not been kind to Brown, physically.

To bastardize a quote, God must have needed a pinch-hitter.

He now has one of the best ever.


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