Most baseball fans know the story about Jackie Robinson and the 1947 season, when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Many fans also know that Larry Doby was the first African American to play in the American League, signed by the Cleveland Indians on July 2nd of the same season. Both players were enshrined in the Hall of Fame after their careers.
What a number of fans don’t know is that the same month of Doby’s signing, another future Hall of Famer was aquired from the Negro Leagues to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately Willard Brown’s MLB career was much too short.
The right-handed hitting Brown started his professional career as a 20-year old infielder for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the premier Negro League franchises, in 1935. He was a five tool player, though a free swinger. He rarely walked, and rarely struck out, but was known for his tape-measure shots with his huge 40 ounce bats. He cracked the Monarchs’ starting lineup as an outfielder in 1937, and led the Negro American League in position player WAR. He selected to his first of eight East-West (Negro League all-star) game appearances.
Brown became a mainstay on five Kansas City Negro American League Championship teams through the 1930s and 1940s, including a win in the 1942 Negro League World Series, in which he batted .467. Per Seamheads.com, he was fourth in Negro League lifetime OPS+ with 177, behind only Hall of Famers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard and outfielder Chino Smith, a player often compared to Shoeless Joe Jackson, who many also consider Hall of Fame material. His career slash line of .351/.392/.574 put him in good company when looking at the all-time greats of the Negro Leagues.
In July of 1947 Brown, along with Hank Thompson, had their contracts purchased by the St. Louis Browns. Unfortunately, Brown’s time in St. Louis was disappointing. Unlike Robinson, Brown went straight to the major league club, having no time in the minor leagues to adjust to the new landscape he would encounter, and a challenging landscape it was. Brown encountered racism throughout the American League, including his own club. Struggling with a .179 batting average with only one home run and a pending payment from St. Louis to the Monarchs should he remain on the roster, Brown (along with Thompson) was released back to Kansas City, where he finished the season. He never got another shot at the majors, while Thompson later came back to play for the New York Giants and contribute to their 1951 and 1954 pennant winning clubs.
After a .397/.455/.645 season and another East-West appearance in 1948, Brown’s career took him throughout North America 1950-1957, with most of his time spent with multiple teams in the AA Texas League from 1953-1956. His best season was in 1954 when at age 39 his 35 home runs and 120 RBI placed him among league leaders. His final stop in organized ball came in 1957, when he batted .307 in the independent Manitoba-Dakota League.
Like a lot of Negro League players, Brown spent many winters playing ball in Caribbean baseball leagues. He dominated the Puerto Rican Winter League, twice winning the circuit’s Triple Crown. He was later voted into the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame.
Brown passed away in 1996, and was posthumously honored with induction to Cooperstown in 2006.