Gates Brown will always be a Tiger

In 1968, Gates Brown hit .450 with three home runs in 48 pinch-hit appearances for the Detroit Tigers.

In 1968, Gates Brown hit .450 with three home runs in 48 pinch-hit appearances for the Detroit Tigers.

Sadly, they’re starting to leave us, one by one – the members of the ’68 Detroit Tigers – perhaps the most beloved team the city has ever seen. It can become cliche to call a team “special,” but that club deserves the label as much as any in the history of Motown.

On Friday, Gates Brown, the pinch-hitting star of the ’68 World Champions, passed away at the age of 74. More than just a ballplayer, “Gator” was a popular figure with Tiger fans, a colorful character who never tired of donning the Old English D. He was a favorite of his teammates too, spending all of his 13 seasons as a member of the Tigers.

How did his former teammates feel about Gator? In one of his final public appearances, at a fundraiser in Grosse Pointe in May that attracted members of the ’68 and ’84 teams, Brown was helped on stage by Al Kaline and Mickey Lolich. During the event, in which Brown delighted those in attendance with tales of some of his key hits in the magical Summer of ’68, Kaline sat nearby, rubbing Gator’s back. Theirs was a 50-year friendship.

Brown was one of the very few men to earn a ring with both the ’68 and ’84 clubs (he served as hitting coach under Sparky Anderson on the latter team). Brown was proud to wear both rings. But though he may have helped Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell learn how to handle pressure situations at the plate as a coach, it was Browns’ amazing performance as a pinch-hitter in ’68 that cemented his place in Detroit lore. If Mayo Smith needed a big hit in 1968, Gator seemed to always be there to supply it.

Gator loved to tell (and everyone loved to hear) his “Hot Dog Story,” a classic baseball incident that occurred at Tiger Stadium some time in the late 1960s. While sitting on the bench during a game, Brown snuck into the clubhouse and grabbed a pair of hot dogs and brought them back to the dugout, a violation of team rules. A few moments later, Smith summoned Brown to grab a bat and go to the plate.

“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate,” Gator said, “but this was one time I didn’t want to get a hit. I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second — head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me. The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.”

Stories like that endeared Brown to Tiger fans, and it was his unlikely climb to the big leagues that also made Gates special. He was signed out of prison in 1960 when his playing ability caught the attention of a coach. The Tigers shrugged off his burglary conviction and worked to get Brown paroled a tear early. Less than three years later, Gator was in Detroit. On June 19, 1963, Brown entered the game as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Don Mossi at Fenway Park in Boston. A strong left-handed batter built like a tree stump, Brown hit a Bob Heffner fastball into the right field stands for a home run, becoming one of a handful of players to homer in their first at-bat.

From that first homer to his final official game in uniform in the ’84 World Series as a coach, Gates Brown had as much fun and earned as much respect as any Tiger of his era. For the next 30 years, Brown was an annual participant in Tigers’ Fantasy Camps, where he happily told the same stories and signed autographs over and over. He never tired of being a Tiger, and he’ll always be one.

17 replies on “Gates Brown will always be a Tiger

  • Marvin Sonne

    Not only do I recall the Gator’s special moments of 1968 I had the pleasure of being on a fantasy team with my son in 2004 with Gates as our coach. The stories he told were insightful and humorous but more importantly the humanity displayed by Gates Brown demonstrated his unique status as one of overall best Tigers ever!!! Gates was special. He appreciated the second chance in life that the Tigers organization gave him and for that he was grateful…..and so were all of us Tigers fans. RIP Mr Brown.

    Reply
  • janice rakoczy

    I met the Gator at an opening at Meijer. He was so sweet and there was a pitching game there where he cheered me on. Great memories of a great guy!

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  • Neil Garroad

    That 68 team is one of my first memories as a ten year old Tiger fan and I have heard many times about Mr. Brown and the hot dogs R.I.P Gator

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  • Joe Ward

    Yes, I had Gator as my coach on a 2006 Fantasy Team at Comerica. I loved the guy. He told the hot dog story with a couple of expletives and we cried with laughter. Also, my wife couldn’t make it down so “Coach Gates” made me call her and he got on the phone. “Nancy, why aren’t you down here with yo’ man? He’s playing really, really good-you gotta’ come down and see him.” That was a highlight for me and I’ll always love the Gator! Great guy. Rest in peace good man.

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  • Faygo

    Thanks. Great memories; I remember exactly where I was (working at 16) and listening to both ends of the doubleheader he won against Boston. Earlier, I had a pic from his rookie year (1963) in the Tigers scrapbook I kept. RIP, Gator.

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    • Al

      Yes that double header was one of my all time Tiger memories. My father along with my best friend and his father was there. The stadium was really rocking when he came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth in the nightcap!

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  • J. B,. Braga

    I’ll never forget the many “clutch” hits the Gator provided in the 1968 season…wow!

    “I took (in High School) a little English, a little math, some science, a few hubcaps, and some wheel covers.” – Gates Brown

    Rest in peace Gator…

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  • Cliff Parker

    Rest in peace Gator. Thank you very much for the great memories you left for all of us to remember and enjoy. You will be missed by all the loyal Detroit Tigers fans. Thanks again Dan for another great article; number 26 was one of the key pieces to the 1968 and 1984 World Series Championships.

    Reply
  • Glenn Prezocki

    Worked as a stand-boy down in the left field corner In 1964- remember watching Gates and Jake Wood during early batting and fielding practice hanging out behind the flagpole having a quick smoke. Gate’s hotdog story is one of the best! RIP Gator a good man who helped out during the riots also!

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  • Rick

    Hey Dan, what a great person to write about! I too remember the double header in 68 when Gates got both game winning hits. A true gentleman of the game. Dan, not sure if you have ever been to the baseball hof but I had the privelege of visiting there just today. One word INCREDIBLE! It gave me the chills in some spots. If you haven’t been there you have to try to get there. If you go make a day of it there is no way you see it all in even a few hours. To all of you out there if you have the chance you would never regret it. To see all of the Tiger plaques, Cobb, Greenberg, Heilmann, Kaline the displays of Tiger artifacts and to hear Ernie again was awesome!

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  • J.D.

    Gator was a throwback and one of the reasons why the “68” team will “ALWAYS BE MY TIGERS” Met him at Comerica Park All-Star Fantasy Camp in 2005. Although his vocabulary was liberally infused with the “most famous” expletive, it somehow was part of what made Gates so enduring. A GREAT Tiger and man. R.I.P.

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  • Russ Tillman

    When I was 14 and living in Detroit, Gates and his family moved into a house on Santa Barbara and Six Mile. Wow, to have a Tiger in living in your neighborhood! A bunch of kids showed up while they were moving him into his house so he put them to work un-loading the truck! Rest in Peace Gates. You are not forgotten!

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  • John Abel

    Baseball no longer has characters like the 68 team. As I look at my “Tiger Room” I see a 8×10 picture: “John, the very best” Gates Brown. I’ve heard Al Kaline say that if “Gator” could have placed every day, he would have been the best hitter on the team! I also loved Gator’s line that he took spelling math & hubcaps while in school. Rest in peace, true Tiger fans will always remember you.

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  • Larry

    I met Gates at Spring training. He had long retired bit was a fan favorite .A slew of fans had gathered around him. A young fan pleaded with Gates to tell the hot dog story again. I knew right then there was no better place on earth to be than Lakeland

    Reply

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