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.