Utility Infielder Ike Brown, “The Designated Sitter” Was a Popular Tiger

He called himself “The Designated Sitter” and during his years as a utility player and pinch hitter for the Tigers from 1969 to 1974, Ike Brown endeared himself to his teammates and Tiger fans.

Considered to be the last player from the Negro Leagues to make it to the majors, Brown was purchased by the Tigers in 1961 from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues toiling nearly eight years in Detroit’s minor league system before finally promoted to the Tigers on June 16, 1969.

One can’t help wonder if Brown, a black man from Memphis, Tennessee might have been called up earlier but for what seemed like a quota system for minority players, particularly in the American League.

From the time Larry Doby, became the first African American to play for the Tigers, (just 18 games in 1959), only four black Tiger players, Billy Bruton, Jake Wood, Gates Brown, and Willie Horton played over 200 games over the next 10 years when Ike Brown was promoted to Detroit.

In his 1970 bestselling book, Ball Bour, Jim Bouton wrote:

(Ike Brown) was the International League All-Star third baseman for a couple of years. He drove in a lot of runs, too, but was never even invited to spring training by the Tigers. Mike (Marshall) says that the fact that he was black must have had a lot do with it.

Marshall had been a minor league teammate with Brown.

In May of 1969 Willie Horton made headlines when he walked out on the team for several days because he was reportedly upset with the booing he received while mired in a batting slump.

However, the real reason had more to do with something that had been nagging Horton for some time. For an article I wrote for the Detroit Free Press several years ago he told me:

“I was very upset because I wanted to see more blacks on the Tigers so I met with Mr. Fetzer (Tiger owner) and Jim Campbell to discuss the issue,” said Horton who was the only non-pitching African-American regular from 1965 to 1974. “It paid off because we started to get more black players. I got it off my chest, and carried the torch as well as I could.”

A month after Horton’s walk out, Ike Brown’s play forced the Tigers hand to finally add another black player.

While leading the International League with a .368 average while playing for Toledo, on June 13, 1969 the Mudhens beat the Tigers 5-4 in an exhibition game as Brown homered, slapped two singles, and drove in three runs.

Three days later Brown, who had been impressive in spring training as a non-roster invitee was finally promoted to the Tigers as a 27-year-old rookie.

His first major league appearance occurred on June 17th at Yankee Stadium in a doubleheader where he played two innings at second base in the first game without batting.

 However, in the second game manager Mayo Smith started Brown at third base and batting seventh. In his first MLB at bat in the 2nd inning he was safe at first on an error and in his second opportunity in the 4th inning he belted an opposite field two run homer off Mike Kekich. Brown added a single in the 7th and finished the game going 2 for 4.  

After the game, Brown told reporters:

“I figured that if they didn’t bring me up this year, they never would. After eight years in the minor leagues, you would be surprised too, if they would ring you. Now that I’m here, I just want to stay.”

As a Tiger fan, frankly it was nice to see another black player on the team.

Brown was very strong and husky, and wore large glasses. When he came to the plate he was fidgety. After scuffing the dirt with his spikes and pounding the front of the plate with his bat, he would swing the lumber three times and waggled it behind his head waiting for the pitch.

As a valuable and versatile utility player, Brown didn’t get into a ton of games but he did play over his Tiger career, third, second, first, the outfield and would pinch hit.

 It’s always challenging not being a regular in the lineup when you’re used to playing every day in the minors.  Utility players can’t really get into a hitting rhythm.

During his MLB career, all with Detroit, he batted .256, hit 20 homers, with 65 RBIs in 536 plate appearances and had a .969 fielding percentage.

Nicknamed “Showboat” for his flamboyant style, Brown was also was known for breaking bats belonging two opponents who them at Tiger pitchers.

When Bert Campaneris threw his bat at Tiger pitcher Lerrin LaGrow in the ’72 playoffs, Ike recovered Campy’s bat and with one swing to the ground broke it. One year later after Lou Pinella of the Royals threw his bat at Tiger pitcher Jim Perry, Brown recovered that bat too and broke it with two strikes to the ground.

Afterwards Brown said, “I don’t think a guy should get away with throwing his bat at a pitcher. If you have got any guts, go on out there to the mound and get the man but don’t throw the bat.”

Brown’s last full season with the Tigers was in 1973 for the following year he became a player/coach for Double AA Evansville. He was called up briefly in 1974 but only appeared in two games and had two at bats, both without hits.

After Brown left the game as a player, he became an umpire with the goal of making it back to the majors.

But it wasn’t to be.

On May 17, 2001 Ike Brown lost his battle with cancer and died at age 59 in Memphis.

Upon his passing, he was fondly remembered by former teammates including Tiger announcer Jim Price. “Ike was very popular player with his teammates and was a great role player and a great fighter,” said Price. “He roomed with Gates Brown, who said Ike would wake up every morning saying, ‘It’s a beautiful day’ whether it was or not. You have to love a person with that kind of outlook.”

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