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the ballad of willard brown

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ongoings around the league:

in the "avoiding the inevitable" department, brian giles and nomar garciaparra both retired from baseball. beyond the boxscore has some excellent tributes to the careers of both, focusing on their brief peaks. carlos delgado sits by his phone, and an ongoing media stakeout awaiting the falling of a second shoe at mark mulder's house enters its third year.

next-door to the "has-beens" department is the "never-really-weres." this department is not so grounded in reality. kris benson just threw for arizona. the world goes round, several boob jokes will occur in the comments, and kris benson will not be a major league pitcher this year either . technically, he threw 22 innings for the rangers last year with an era of over 8 - i will leave you to decide if that qualifies. 

in the "old but not ridiculous" group, russ springer still wants a job and thinks the cardinals are nice still even though they let him and his disabled son go to oakland last year. his FIP projections are better than two of blake hawksworth's three projections (marcel is the outlier) and all three of ryan franklin's. john smoltz remains unemployed as well, though does not figure to accept a minor league contract

i have really enjoyed telling a few stories from the negro leagues over the last month or so. i had thought to be mostly done with my series - which is not to say i won't throw in a story or so in the future. but there's one story that keeps gnawing at me that I have to tell.

it's the story of willard brown, and it's not, strictly speaking, about the negro leagues. willard brown was an outfielder for the kansas city monarchs from 1936 to 1947, except for a couple seasons in which brown was serving in the military during world war ii.

brown was not a fan favorite. today, al hrabosky would gain no end of pleasure in berating him from the booth. brown was a stellar slugger, among the best in the negro leagues. but he grew tired of the barnstorming routine. i think he thought it insulting to have to play whatever semi-pro or amateur team happened to hold court in any given small town of middle america.

so brown grew famous for taking a paperback into the field with him and reading as the game went on. he caught (or didn't catch) any balls in play in a haphazard way.  in doing so, he violated several of baseball's major commandments, including number one, which is "hustle!"

as such, he was an odd choice to put in the first wave of players to integrate the game. after jackie robinson broke a 50+ year color barrier, tentative reinforcements joined major league teams, including brown and henry thompson, who became st. louis browns.

brown joined the team for only one month late in the 1947 season. for whatever reaon, brown really struggled at the plate during that time. whether bad luck or a symptom of the distraction of racist taunts or of a team that largely rejected him is unknown.

in one game shortly before his release, brown was riding the bench when his manager called him up as a pinch-hitter. not prepared for the at-bat, he borrowed a bat from one of the white players on the team.

brown strode to the plate and hit a home run, the first ever hit by an african-american in the american league. returning to the dugout, he faced a silence from his teammates that has faced many rookies after their first home runs. but there was no light-heartedness behind the silence from his teammates; nobody suddenly broke into laughter to let him know it was all a joke. 

the silence continued to hang as brown returned the bat to its owner. the player took the bat from brown, looked at the bat for a moment, then raised it, and smashed it to pieces on the dugout steps.

brown would never play in the majors again. he went to play ball in puerto rico for the rest of 1947, then returned to the monarchs. he finished his negro league career in 1950 with a lifetime average of .355 (and a major league average of .179). he is a member of the baseball hall of fame.