It utterly broke my heart yesterday to hear that William James "Gates" Brown has passed away at the age of 74. While "The Gator" — pictured above taking batting practice at Tiger Stadium in 1975, as Jack Pierce looks on in sideburned reverence — was never a star, per se, he was an unforgettable presence on the Detroit Tigers teams of the mid/late 1960s and early/mid 1970s, and was especially beloved by Tigers fans who came of age in that era.
A legendarily lethal pinch-hitter, Gates hit 16 career homers off the bench, including one in his very first major league plate appearance; of his three pinch-hit blasts during the Tigers' 1968 world championship run, two of them were game-winning walk-offs. (He hit .450 as a pinch-hitter that year, and .370 overall.) He was also the first Designated Hitter in Tigers history, the new DH rule enabling the lumbering Gator to swing the bat more times in 1973 than he had in a single season since 1964.
But what really made Gates so popular in Detroit was how totally down-home he was. An ex-con from Ohio who was discovered by Tiger scout Frank Skaff while doing time for armed robbery (Ron LeFlore would follow a similar career trajectory a decade and a half later, though no one never made a TV movie about Gates), Brown always looked like a guy who should have been wrestling auto bodies at the Ford's River Rouge plant (or maybe playing the blues in some smoky afterhours dive) rather than swinging a bat at "The Corner". Detroit embraced him like a native son, and he heartily returned the hug, regularly handing out Tigers tickets to kids in his neighborhood and making appearances at local school assemblies and charity functions. And then, of course, there was the famous "hot dog incident," in which Gates tried to sneak a snack in the dugout, only to be called up to hit right as he was about to chow down. That story — which contains the beautiful condimental poetry of a manager named Mayo fining a player for being covered in ketchup and mustard —has been re-told countless times, but let's hear it from the man himself. (Starts at the 4:41 mark in the video):
Gates, who retired as a player following the 1975 season, served as the Tigers' hitting coach from 1978 through 1984, and earned his second World Series ring with the '84 squad. He resigned before the 1985 season, understandably miffed that the Tigers wouldn't give him a decent raise, but still jovially maintained his association with the franchise up until his death. Since I didn't really get turned on to baseball until 1976, I never got to see him play — but I'll never forget the one time I got to see him in action.
It was the spring of 1976, when my brand-new obsession with baseball was being stoked by regular visits to Ann Arbor's tiny Fisher Stadium, where the University of Michigan baseball team (pictured above) played their games. It was free to get into the games if you were under 12, and there were always plenty of places to sit, so Fisher Stadium was a good place for my father to drop me and my friends off after school; on the weekends, he and I would usually go to a game together. It was during one of these weekend father-and-son outings that I had the pleasure of meeting Gates Brown for the first and only time.
My father, then as now, has the gift for spying and identifying famous and semi-famous faces in public situations. I mean, I was once pretty sure that I'd spotted Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons on the streets of Manhattan in the early 80s, and felt pretty pleased with myself about it; but I have nothing on my pops, who could (and did) recognize composer Aaron Copland during an afternoon stroll across "The Diag" in Ann Arbor. During my childhood, it was a fairly common occurrence to be somewhere with him and have him go, "Hey, that's [insert notable figure here]!" And on this one afternoon at the old ballpark, he nudged me and said, "Hey, that's Gates Brown!"
Sure enough, there he was, reclining casually yet regally just a few rows back to the right of us. Having become a Tigers fan a year too late to have seen him on the field, I only knew Gates from the pictures on his baseball cards. Like Al Kaline, Norm Cash and Mickey Lolich (the latter of whom had been traded to the Mets for Rusty Staub in the off-season), the name "Gates Brown" seemed to belong to a long-vanished, near-mythical era — both because the Tigers I knew and rooted for were barely a pale shadow of the '68 and '72 Detroit teams, and because, to a ten-year-old in 1976, 1968 seemed about as distant as the American Revolution.
But I was awed not just because there happened to be a real live former major leaguer in our midst; I was awed because he also happened to be the baddest-looking, most intimidating cat I'd ever seen in my life. On a warm spring afternoon, while we were all wearing t-shirts and shorts, Gates was duded up in a long leather overcoat, plaid slacks, some kind of shirt (my mind wants to tell me that it was a funky 70s patterned thing, but it was probably a turtleneck), and an absolutely stunning pair of bone-white loafers. Gates was in town to scout some U of M players for the Tigers — most likely future major leaguers Lary Sorenson or Rick Leach, the latter of whom would eventually sign with Detroit — and this truly superfly ensemble was apparently his scouting outfit. And yet, despite the warmth of the day and the weight of his clothes, not a single bead of sweat was visible on his gigantic head.
After considerable prompting on my dad's part, I shyly approached Gates and extended my Sears Bud Harrelson mitt for him to sign. I was, quite frankly, scared shitless by the very idea of even asking him for an autograph; but since I'd seen some other kids go up to him and return unscathed, I took a deep breath and went for it. I'd like to say that we immediately hit it off and became instant pals, or that he sized me up and predicted great things for me, or maybe even shared some memorable (and preferably off-color) joke, but none of those things happened. As with every other kid who approached him that day, Gates simply nodded, signed my mitt in an effortless swoop, and handed it back to me without a word. But his silence wasn't mean or stony; it was oddly sweet — the vibe was definitely, "Hey little man, I'm here on business, but of course I'll sign for you" — and up close I could see the kindness in his eyes. It was my first major league autograph. When I got home that day, I pulled out my 1971 Topps card of Gates, and spent some time looking back and forth between the signature on my mitt and the one on the card. They matched, of course.
Gates' signature — and that of his longtime teammate Bill Freehan, which I obtained at Fisher Stadium a few weeks later — vanished from my mitt by the end of the summer, worn away by too many Little League grounders. (Somebody told me that I should put clear nail polish over the signatures to preserve them; but what does a ten-year-old boy with a single dad know about clear nail polish?) But my fondness for Gates never dissipated; later on, I would discover that Gates and I shared a birthday (May 2), which made me even happier than the discovery that I also shared a birthday with Link Wray, one of my all-time guitar heroes. I never met him again, though I obtained the following autographed photo from a dealer about 15 years ago, which has hung over or near my desk ever since, as a reminder to keep it real and keep it funky, the way Gates always did. (I mean, what could be realer OR funkier than writing "Gates" on the tongue of your cleats?)
So now another hero from my childhood — another link to those sweet days when I first fell in love with baseball — has passed away; and, as with the premature demise of Mark Fidrych, this goodbye hurts bad. It would have been nice for Gates to live long enough to see the Tigers win another World Series, though they certainly had (and horribly blew) the opportunity to give him one last year. But beyond that, I guess I always felt on some level that, as long as a man of his avuncular humor and Taurean strength were still in the world, there was maybe still a glimmer of hope for the human race, or at least for Detroit. Maybe there still is; Gates is gone, but he lives on in the hearts and memories of so many, in the Motor City and elsewhere. And he lives on in my shoe rack, where I always have at least two pairs of bone-white loafers.
I love you, Gates. Thanks for everything, and most of all for being nice to a shy little kid. May you rest in supremely funky peace.