Brown's power remembered even now
Legendary Josh Gibson nicknamed slugger "Home Run"
Willard Brown made such an impression in the Negro Leagues that a nickname was bestowed upon him by the legendary Josh Gibson.
"Home run". That's what Gibson graciously called Brown when the latter outslugged Gibson in several head-to-head meetings. And Brown didn't stop hitting homers when Gibson wasn't around.
"Willard was extremely talented," said Negro Leagues historian James Riley. "He was a five-tool player, but his attitude was a concern."
Brown became a star with the Kansas City Monarchs after being discovered by Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. According to BaseballLibrary.com, Wilkinson offered Brown a $250 bonus, a $125-a-month salary and $1 a day as meal money. That package was easily enough to convince Brown to give up the $10-a-week stipend he had been receiving from the Monroe Monarchs.
The investment paid huge dividends for Kansas City. With Brown playing mainly at shortstop and hitting cleanup, the Monarchs played in the 1942 and 1946 Negro World Series.
Brown was leading the NNL with a .372 average in the fall of 1947 when -- at age 34 -- he signed with the St. Louis Browns.
"He went up right after Larry Doby, but it didn't go well," Riley said.
The highlight for Brown came early, as he became the first black player to hit a home run in the American League. But Brown struggled with a .179 average in only 21 games before quitting the Browns and rejoining the Monarchs.
According to BaseballLibrary.com, Brown was quoted as saying the St. Louis club wasn't as talented as the Monarchs.
"The Browns couldn't beat the Monarchs no kind of way, only if we was all asleep," Brown reportedly said. "That's the truth. They didn't have nothing. I said, 'Major League team? They got to be kidding.'"
Riley once discussed with Brown his brief tenure in St. Louis and got a sense of the frustration that Brown had felt.
"One time he told me he got the manager's sign to bunt," Riley said. "Willard ignored it and hit a home run. But he got chewed out for it. Major League managers wouldn't say, 'Well, he hit a home run, so it's OK.' Willard was a guy who did his own thing."
During Brown's Negro Leagues stint, Riley noted that Brown sometimes didn't even come in to the dugout when his team batted. If Brown wasn't due up quickly, he preferred to take a seat against the center-field wall.
"The outfielders would tell him to get out of the way," Riley said. "Willard would say he'd get out of the way if the ball was hit in that direction."
Brown became a hero in Puerto Rico when he won three home run titles and three batting titles. It was in Puerto Rico that Brown earned another nickname.
They called him "El Hombre" -- The Man.
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.