His American League statistics – 21 games, a .179 batting average – tell the most incomplete story possible of the player who was Willard Brown.
His Hall of Fame plaque, however, speaks volumes about the pioneer who was one of the Negro Leagues’ greatest power hitters.
“He was the most natural ballplayer I ever saw,” said Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil. “He’d steal second base standing up. He was a great talent.”
Born June 26, 1915 in Shreveport, La., “Home Run” Brown – named by future Hall of Famer Josh Gibson – began his big league career with the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro American League in 1937. Brown quickly became one of the league’s most formidable hitters, hitting a league-best 10 home runs in 1937 and leading the league in RBI in each of his first three seasons. He helped lead the Monarchs to five pennants between 1937 and 1942, also playing in the Mexican League in 1940, where he hit .354.
A speedy outfielder who usually played center field, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Brown served in the Army for two years during World War II. He was among those sailing on 5,000 ships that crossed the English Channel during the D-Day Invasion of 1944.
In 1946, Brown returned to baseball and the Monarchs. The next season, Hank Thompson and Brown became the second and third Black players in American League history when they signed with the St. Louis Browns on July 17, 1947. The Browns, however, sent the duo straight to the majors. The adjustment proved difficult as Willard Brown played in just 21 games between July 19 and Aug. 21 before he was released.
During his time in the majors, however, Brown became the first African American to homer in the AL when he connected off of future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser of the Tigers on Aug. 13. After his release, Brown returned to the Monarchs, then played two more years in Kansas City. The winter after he was released by St. Louis, Brown hit an astounding .432 with 27 homers in just 234 at-bats for Santurce of the Puerto Rican Winter League. He won two Triple Crowns in the PRWL.
Brown continued to play organized baseball through the 1958 season, hitting 35 home runs and driving in 120 runs in the Texas League in 1954 at the age of 39. He finished his big league career with a .347 batting average.
Brown passed away on Aug. 4, 1996. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006.