Alamedan's Heartbreak: “Injury Ended Brown's Quest to Pitch in Majors” by Mike McGreehan, Staff Writer

 

Former Alameda High School pitching prospect Bob Brown was a newcomer to professional baseball when he appeared in his first game for the Class C Willows Cardinals, a Far West League affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. For better or worse, it was an experience he never forgot.

 

The year was 1949, and Willows opened its season in Santa Rosa. Brown, who had endured arm problems since the start of his senior season at Alameda High the previous year, was made a relief pitcher after having been a starter through high school and summer baseball. For this game, the right-hander received a call to get his team out of the tightest of jams.

 

"My roommate started that game and got into trouble in the first inning when he loaded the bases and was 3-0 on the fourth batter; that's when they sent me in," Brown recalled. "I figured my job now was to get the ball over the plate, not to walk in a run. I got two strikes on (the batter), then threw him a curveball at the knees. He knocked that sucker over the fence. That stuck with me a long time."

 

At 77, Brown remains athletically trim and active. He plays tennis. And golf. And he looks every bit like someone who once excelled in baseball. Hand him a ball, and it wouldn't surprise if he could still deliver a strike over the middle of the plate.

 

But sporting careers are full of potential pratfalls, ending as quickly as they start. Brown knows full well.

 

After graduating from Haight School (then a middle school), Brown arrived at Alameda High as the understudy to Bill MacDonald, who went on to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But after pitching for the Hornets "B" team as a freshman, Brown quickly ascended the ladder.

 

As a junior in 1947, Brown had what many would consider a career year. Overall, the Hornets had an impressive team under coach Chet Millett.

 

"I was all-county, and my catcher, George Lagorio, was all-county, too," Brown said.

 

Given such success as a junior, Brown had even higher hopes as he prepared for his senior season in 1948.

 

A preseason pick-up game provided added confidence.

 

"A bunch of guys wanted to take us on," Brown said. "One of the guys was (Oakland native and two-time National League batting champion)! Ernie Lombardi. But I didn't know who he was — I didn't find out until after the game. I faced Ernie Lombardi. I struck out Ernie Lombardi. But I didn't know who he was at the time."

 

Lombardi would go on to finish his professional career as one of the Oakland Oaks' famous "Nine Old Men" that year. The future Hall of Famer went out in a blaze of glory as the Oaks captured the Pacific Coast League championship, but Brown — the kid who struck out the veteran catcher in a pickup game — would not be as fortunate with the Hornets.

 

"I was horsing around with one of the other pitchers one afternoon, just before the first game, when he popped me in the arm," Brown said. "Actually, he meant to hit me in the meat of the arm, but instead he popped me in the shoulder."

 

Before his injury, Brown said he had a fair fastball, a good curveball, a slider and a really good changeup.

 

Though Brown might not have known it at the time, the pop in the shoulder was the beginning of the end of his baseball career.

 

"When the shoulder injury happened, I kept quiet," Brown said. "The (fellow Hornets pitcher who hit Brown in the shoulder), didn't know (he injured me). He was a nice guy and knowing this would have devastated him. This is the first time I've talked about (this incident)."

 

At the time, there was no magnetic resonance imaging and "sports medicine" was not part of the athletic lexicon. Still, Brown sought help in the form of Oaks trainer Red Adams.

 

"I went over to him a couple of weeks, and I probably got back to about 90 percent," Brown said. "(The injury) kind of did a head job on me. When I was injured, I could go through the pitching motion without the ball just fine. But with the ball in my hand, the shoulder really hurt."

 

Brown got back on the mound in time for the Hornets' final game, which the team won. And despite missing most of the season, Brown still was invited to a high school all-star game sponsored by the Oakland Post-Inquirer that pitted players from the Alameda County Athletic League (like Brown) against those from the Oakland Athletic League and Catholic Athletic League. Brown and Fremont High's Ernie Telles were the starting pitchers for their respective teams.

 

Brown worked five innings in that game, which took place at Oaks Ball Park in Emeryville. He gave up two hits and two runs.

 

The experience was more than Brown could ever have imagined.

 

"Going to the park, I noticed my spikes were loose," said Brown, who stopped at a shoe repair shop to take care of the problem.

 

Unfortunately, the problem only became worse.

 

"When I got to the Oaks Ball Park, I found that the spikes had fallen off," Brown said. "Oaks pitcher Charlie Gassaway (a lefty) let me wear his shoes. The toe plate was on the wrong side and the shoes were two sizes too big, but I remember (Gassaway's kind gesture). The game was a good experience, as several of the Oaks players gave us tips (on how to improve our games)."

 

Brown also recalled playing before large crowds at Washington Park while competing for a team sponsored by the E. Bercovich & Son furniture store of Oakland.

 

"It was pretty good baseball that we played, Brown said. "It's too bad those days are gone."

 

It was while competing in this semipro circuit that the Cardinals took a chance on Brown and signed him.

 

Originally assigned to Fresno, Brown went to 1949 spring training and was optioned to Willows.

 

Though his arm felt better than it had in a long time, Brown's professional career ended some weeks after his debut as Willows released him to make room on the roster for a shortstop who had been sent down from a higher minor league.

 

"When I was let go, I was thinking the injury did a head job on me," Brown said. "It affected my follow-through. After I was let go I was disillusioned. I made one attempt to hook up with another professional team, but they didn't have any room for me. I just felt that was the way it was meant to be. I just flat quit, just didn't pick up a baseball again."

 

In retrospect, Brown wishes that he would have sought advice or have gone back into semipro baseball.

 

As it was, though, he led a productive life, as he got married and raised four daughters. His post-baseball life included a 10-year stint at the Oakland SPCA, including five as the shelter's supervisor, and a long career training hunting dogs in Marysville.

 

Having moved back to Alameda two years ago, Brown has since gotten back to watching baseball again.

 

Better still, he can look back on a most enriching, though relatively short, baseball career.

 

Among his high school teammates were the aforementioned MacDonald and Andy Hexem, who went on to greater fame with the Yankees as Andy Carey. Brown also recalls playing against Billy Martin when the Hornets faced Berkeley High.

 

Add to that, striking out Lombardi, getting to wear Charlie Gassaway's shoes and meeting some of the other Oaks players gives a former player many baseball yarns to spin — even if they include one about giving up a grand slam to the first batter he faced in professional play.

 

(This story originally appeared in the August 31, 2007 issue of the Alameda Journal)