February 10, 2013

Loran Smith: Brown more than player


FORT WORTH, Texas — Dr. Bobby Brown, the one-time New York Yankees third baseman who roomed with Yogi Berra on road trips, lives on a quiet street in this town, which was established as an Army outpost in 1849. Brown does not live far from the Chisholm Trail, which was used by cowhands to drive cattle herds north to market in bygone days.

Although Brown wasn’t exactly a pioneer like those cowboys of an earlier era, he was novel — a baseball anomaly. He was a man proficient at his craft, playing third base on four World Series championship teams, but could do more than excel at the game he learned to play growing up in California. A degree was as important to him as a timely hit with men on base.

Twice retired — first as a cardiologist and second as president of the American League — Brown, like most men with a bountiful sports career, always has time to talk baseball. His affiliation with the Yankees dynasty of the 1940s and ’50s instills pride within, but he is a man blessed with intellect, modesty, and a pursuit of balance in life.

He studied for a medical degree and interned while playing big-league baseball, retiring at 29 years of age, fully confident that he could have played longer. Brown’s commitment to medicine, however, trumped all emotions with respect to a continuation of baseball competition. You can only compete a limited number of years, and he wanted to get on with his medical career.   

After all, he retired with four championship rings and an association with some of the most accomplished and colorful men to have ever played the game. There was Joe DiMaggio, who was the greatest player he ever saw. And that string of indomitable Yankee pitchers — Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Whitey Ford, and Eddie Lopat. He witnessed the coming of Mickey Mantle, who “might have broken all hitting records if he had not been injured so often.”

As he recalled his years with the Yankees, Brown didn’t refer to his sparking World Series batting average of .439 in 17 games but expressed appreciation that he played through four World Series without making a crucial mistake and becoming a series goat. In fact, he was the hero of Game 7 in 1947, when the Yankees faced the Dodgers.

With the Yankees down 2-1 in the fourth inning, Brown hit a double with runners on first and second. He came around to score later in the inning and the Yankees won 5-2 to take the series. It’s the kind of story to warm a man’s heart in his sundown years.

A couple of stories — one peculiar to those who remember the old Hanna Bat Company in Athens, Ga., and one apocryphal — were worthy of a sentimental review in a relaxed conversation in his home on Clarke Avenue.

Seems that across the street from the team hotel in Detroit, there was an expansive sporting goods store that carried about everything there was for the outdoors, including equipment for team sports. Teammate Gene Woodling, the outfielder, was rummaging around an old barrel of bats. One was a Hanna Bat-Rite model, made in Athens.

Woodling liked the feel of the bat, paid $5 for it and used it in batting practice that afternoon. After hitting four or five homers in the upper deck, his teammates began asking to try the bat. Each player seemed to get unusual power from the Hanna bat.

“The next day our (traveling) secretary was ordering a batch of bats from the Hanna Bat-Rite company in Athens,” Brown remembered.

The apocryphal yarn involves Yogi Berra. The story goes that on a road trip, Yogi was reading Superman comics while Brown was studying a pathology book. Yogi finished and cast a look in Brown’s direction and said, “How did yours turn out?”

Brown grinned as he delivered the punchline.

“Everything Yogi did seemed to get attention,” he said. “Sometimes the stories were embellished, but what Yogi said always made sense, and he was one fine ballplayer. The thing that made him special is that he could run — he often played left field, which was unusual for a catcher.

“The slowest man on the team usually played behind the plate, which meant that in late innings if he got on base, you had to send in a pinch runner. That was not the case with Yogi.”

Brown had the best of both worlds — World Series rings and a fine reputation as a cardiologist.

President of the American League for 10 years, where his versatility as an administrator gave him a third career, he can reminisce about our national pastime with a different perspective.

His appreciation for things intellectual didn’t keep him from turning the double-play ball or hitting in the clutch with men on base.



Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.