Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Joe L. Brown, RIP

Joe L. Brown died Sunday in an assisted living facility in Albuquerque, N.M., where he had moved from his Newport Beach home to be near his daughter, Cynthia, in his final days.

Brown will always be remembered in Pittsburgh as the GM for two World Series championship teams and for leaving behind an organization strong enough to win a third shortly after he left.

He was born in New York City, the son of comedian Joe E. Brown, on September 1st, 1918. Brown got his jones for the game honestly; his dad was a huge baseball fan.

Brown first met Branch Rickey, his predecessor in Pittsburgh, in 1935 when he was 16 years old. After graduating from UCLA in 1939, he signed on as a front-office exec with the Lubbock Hubbers of the Class D West Texas-New Mexico League.

He served in the United States Army Air Corp during World War II, and came home to work with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in 1946.

Brown joined the Pittsburgh organization in 1950 as business manager of the Waco Pirates farm team in the Class B Big State League, then moved on to the New Orleans Pelicans club in the Class AA Southern Association back in the golden era of minor-league ball.

He finally made the bigs as a part of the Pittsburgh front office in 1955, reuniting with Branch Rickey, who was in his final season as GM of the so-called "Rickey-Dinks," baseball's whipping boys, in very similar circumstances to today's franchise.

Rickey, 73, retired to become the club's board chairman at the close of the '55 campaign, and Brown was the unanimous choice of the board (which also included part-owner Bing Crosby) to succeed him. He would hold the GM title until the end of the 1976 season.

Brown's first order of business was to find a successor to fired skipper Fred Haney, and he came up with Bobby Bragan, who knew baseball in and out but wasn't exactly Mr. Personality in the clubhouse. Midway through the 1957 season, Danny Murtaugh replaced him, and it was a match made in heaven.

The combo ended what was the worst stretch of baseball in franchise history until recent times with nine straight losing seasons (hey, every record is meant to be broken, right?) and quickly turned the Pirates into winners.

Brown had the advantage of a strong farm/scouting system set up by Rickey, which fed him guys like Billy Maz, Roberto Clemente, Bob Friend, Vernon Law and Dick Groat. He dealt for others, like Billy Virdon, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Smoky Burgess.

The moves culminated in 1960 with the Pirates' first championship in 35 years.

The GM wasn't just crafty making deals; he built, as one would expect from a Branch Rickey adherent, a strong MLB pipeline from the minors. And in Howie Haak, he had a scout that could lure the best Latino players to Pittsburgh. Brown was one of the first to realize the importance of Latin America. In fact, he would frequently accompany Haak on his scouting trips.

Beside the 1960 guys, Brown's farm produced Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and other players like Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Steve Blass, Bob Robertson, Dave Cash, Richie Zisk, Dock Ellis, Donn Clendenon, Bob Moose, Richie Hebner, Rennie Stennett and Manny Sanguillen. He had a good eye for the pick-up, too, adding players like Dick Stuart, Dave Guisti, Kenny Brett, Jim Bibby, John Milner and Bill Robinson.

So Brown could put together a team both ways, picking up pieces to fill the holes, as he did in 1960, or building from within, as he did with the 1971 champs. Under his helm, the Bucs had two world championship and made five NLCS appearances in the seventies before he retired.

There were some memorable moments under his watch. In 1970, they were the first team to wear double knit uniforms, and they closed Forbes Field and opened Three Rivers Stadium. The next year, Danny Murtaugh started the first all-black lineup in MLB history.

But for all that, he wasn't universally sainted. One trade he had that didn't work was when he dealt Dick Groat to the Cards. Brown was supposed to have had some disparaging words about Groat starting to lose his stuff as he left, laying the first brick for a fifty year wall of silence. (Groat, btw, hit .292, made the All-Star team, and helped lead the Cards to the World Series title.)

Most of the player resentment toward the GM, though, was caused by Brown's tightness with a penny. In those days, there were no agents, and a player didn't have much in the way of leverage in dealing with the suits. Brown knew that well, and he threw around Pirate nickles like they were manhole covers.

But Brown hung in until 1976, when his protege Harding "Pete" Peterson, who he hired back in 1967, succeeded him and GM'ed the 1979 team, with much of the talent rising from Brown's minor league system. He did come back to take one final bow.

Amid the "Coke Trails" and a 104-loss season that led to the John Galbreath family's to sell the team to a local consortium in 1985, Brown came out of semi-retirement to pilot the Bucco corsair through some truly turbulent waters. He hired Syd Thrift to take his place after the sale went down, and he put in place the Jimmy Leyland teams.

After retiring, Brown served as the longtime chairman of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee.

Joe Brown made one last visit to PNC, when he came, in a wheelchair, for the June celebration of the 1960 World Champs. Not only did he revel in the applause and attention - after all, he and Barney Dreyfuss are the short list of best Pirate execs ever - but he and Groat knocked that five-decade wall down.

So rest in peace, Joe. Your work proves that the Pirate ship can be righted, and shows how to do it. What better legacy could he leave behind?

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