Honoring Mace Brown
An alumnus who played ball
Photo courtesy of
Mace Brown poses with his parents, Gary and Justine Brown, before a game in St. Louis on July
9, 1938. Brown, a star pitcher from North English, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn
Dodgers. and Boston Red Sox before retiring in 1946. He played two sports at Iowa before hitting
the big leagues.
One of the most interesting stories and best-kept secrets in the Hawkeye archives involves Mace Brown, who 74 years ago enrolled at Iowa on a track scholarship, only to change sports and become a star baseball player. Then he switched positions in baseball - from catcher to pitcher - and moved on to a 10-year career in the major leagues. Through the 1930s and 1940s he competed with and against some of the greatest players in the history of the game, including Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Enos Slaughter, Mel Ott and Stan Musial. Pitching mostly in relief, Brown played six seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, one for the Brooklyn Dodgers and three for the Boston Red Sox. He pitched for the National League in the 1938 All-Star game, and for the Red Sox in the World Series of 1946, the year he ended his career. The Encyclopedia of Baseball tells us that Mace Brown was a 6-1, 190-pound right-handed workhorse who twice led the National League in saves and twice led his league in pitching appearances. His lifetime statistics include a record of 76-57 (.571) and a 3.46 earned-run-average. In his final season his ERA was 2.05. Those achievements and statistics would command a salary of at least $5 million in today's baseball market, but more about that later.
My interest in Mace Brown goes beyond his baseball stardom with the Hawkeyes and in the major leagues. He happens to be from my hometown of North English. I never saw him play but I heard a lot about him from my father, who was an avid baseball fan. Otto Vogel was the Hawkeye baseball coach for 35 years and had many exceptional players and teams during that time, winning five Big Ten championships. I once asked him if he had one player that stood out above the others. "Mace Brown," said Vogel without hesitation. "He was the best I ever had." With that kind of endorsement and his major league record, Mace Brown should be a familiar name to Hawkeye fans, yet few seem to be aware of his achievements.
Now nearing his 91st birthday (May 21), Brown is living in Greensboro, N.C., after spending most of his life in baseball. When his playing days ended he scouted for the Red Sox until he was 70, then continued part-time for another 10 years. "Then my wife made me give it up," he chuckles. Born on a farm outside of North English, Iowa in 1909, Mace developed an early interest in baseball. "It was always my favorite sport," he recalls. The high school did not have a baseball team, so he participated in track in the spring and played baseball for the town team in the summer. He demonstrated a strong arm as a baseball catcher and a javelin thrower in track, and was good enough in the latter sport to win a scholarship at Iowa.
Baseball was a magnet for him, however, and he kept showing up on the Iowa diamond when he wasn't busy with track. He caught the eye of the coach, and when Mace expressed interest in changing sports, Vogel gave him the green light. "He kept me on scholarship, and I was grateful for that," says Mace. "Otto was a great man. He was a thoughtful and considerate person." As a sophomore in 1928, Brown played catcher. The star pitcher was Forrest "Lefty" Twogood, who gained fame as a basketball coach at Southern California, taking the Trojans to two Final Four appearances. The hard-hitting shortstop was Willis Glassgow, Iowa's best football player of that era.
Brown could always throw a curve ball - "it was just a natural pitch for me," he says - and before the 1929 season began, his breaking pitch caught the coach's eye. "Mace we've been playing you at the wrong position," said Vogel, after watching Mace snap off several pitches. The Hawkeyes went south to open the season, and Brown shut out Rice on two hits, 6-0. The next game he was behind the plate again, "But that's the last game I ever caught," he says. 'He gave up only one run in his next two starts to become a fixture on the mound. With Brown and Twogood as a one-two pitching punch, Iowa was a strong contender for the Big Ten championship. Brown blanked Indiana 5-0 in the final conference game of the season, but Michigan won the title by a half game over the Hawkeyes. Brown had a 9-1 record that season, Winning almost half his team's victories (Iowa was 21-11). He also saved two games and was often used as a pinch hitter. That summer he played for Marshall, Minn., in the Southern Mini League, one of the fastest semipro circuits in the Midwest. When the Big Ten learned he accepted money, he was ruled ineligible and he never played another college game.
Instead of going back to Iowa for his senior year, Brown began a four-year stint in the minor leagues, missing one season because of a sore arm. When he won 19 games with Tulsa in 1934, Pittsburgh signed him to a big league contract. He made his major league debut on his 26th birthday in 1935 and four days later, on May 25, sat in the Pirates' dugout and witnessed one of baseball's most memorable moments. Babe Ruth, then playing for the Boston Braves, hit three home runs. The last one cleared the park, the first time that happened at Forbes Field. After Ruth circled the bases, he trotted over to the tunnel that led to Boston's clubhouse and abruptly sat down on a bench next to Brown. "He said something like, 'I really got hold of that one, kid,'" recalls Brown. "He just sat there next to me for a couple of minutes. What a great thrill that was for a rookie who had heard about Babe Ruth all of his life." That has become a special moment for Brown because it was the last of the 714 home runs Babe Ruth ever hit. Brown's wife, Sue, was in the stands with a movie camera and filmed all of Ruth's homers that day, but the film was shown so many times it became frayed and was discarded. Sue died in January. They would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in June.
Brown never faced Babe Ruth from the mound, but he pitched against the other great hitters of that era. Who was the toughest out for him? Surprisingly, it wasn't DiMaggio, Musial or Gehrig. "Johnny Mize (also in the Hall of Fame) was the toughest hitter for me to get out," Mace says emphatically. "He was a left-handed hitter with a smooth swing and could really smack the ball. He had a great eye. You couldn't fool him." The best hitter Brown ever saw, however, was Ted Williams, his Red Sox teammate. Two other Hall of Famers, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky, were also Mace's teammates at Boston. Williams is the last player to hit .400 in the majors. "Ted had such a great eye he had umpires intimidated," Brown says. "If he didn't swing at a pitch they were afraid to call it a strike. Ted didn't get along with the press and some of the Boston fans, but his teammates really liked him. I considered him a good friend and a real professional. "If Ted's career hadn't been interrupted twice by military duty, his records would be out of sight." World War II also took a bite out of Mace's playing days when he served two years in the U.S. Navy. Brown's best year in the majors was 1938, playing for the Pirates. He posted a 15-9 record and made the National League all-star team, pitching three innings. He worked mostly out of the bullpen after that season, becoming one of the first players to make relief pitching a specialty.
He started 55 of the 387 games he pitched during his career. A durable workhorse, he topped the NL (National League) with 51 appearances in 1938. In 1943 he led the AL (American League) by pitching 49 games. Baseball has changed considerably since Brown played more than 50 years ago. Especially the salaries, which were only a fraction of what players make today. "I never earned more than $500 in the minors or more than $12,000 in the majors," he says. Brown doesn't begrudge today's players the big money they make, but he is fearful that escalating prices are hurting the game. "Major league baseball used to be inexpensive entertainment," he says. "I don't know how a family of four or five affords to go to a game nowadays." Brown watches baseball on television, mostly Atlanta Braves games, and doesn't think the performance on the field is what it was in his day. "How can it be?" he asks. "When I played there were only 16 major league teams and now there are 30. Expansion has gone too far and the game has been hurt." The big leagues were all white when Brown played. Jackie Robinson integrated the majors the year after he retired. As a scout for Boston he negotiated contracts with many black players, however. He says Jim Rice, who starred for the Red Sox, is the best he ever signed.
Travel has also changed dramatically since Brown's playing days. His teams took trains or buses to get from one city to another. "I only flew once," he says, "from Cleveland to St. Louis." Brown was at the end of his career when he played in the 1946 World Series for Boston against St. Louis. Another pitcher on that Red Sox team was Bill Zuber of Amana, giving Boston two players from Iowa County. Baseball trivia buffs believe that is the only time that two players from the same county in the same state pitched in the same game for the same team in a World Series. The Cardinals won that fourth game and went on to take the series in seven games. When it ended, Brown retired as a player. Ground was recently broken to construct a building that will house a Hawkeye Museum and Hall of Fame, and it should be completed within three years. Some of Mace Brown's baseball memorabilia will surely be part of the Museum. It would be appropriate for the Hall of Fame to include a bronze plaque bearing his likeness and listing his baseball accomplishments. No one who played for the Hawkeyes in the first half of the 20th century is more deserving.
|Mace Brown poses with his wife, Sue, at their Greensboro, N.C. home in 1995. Sue died in January. Brown
will turn 91 on May 21, 2000. He grew up in North English where his father, Gary Brown, worked 40 years
as a school janitor.
Photo courtesy of Stanley and Bernadine Warner
Note about the author:
George Wine is a 1949 graduate of North English High School. He spent 25 years as Sports Information
Director for the University of Iowa, retiring in 1996. He is also the author of
A High Porch Picnic, the autobiography of Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry. Wine lives in Solon, Iowa
Note about the author:
George Wine is a 1949 graduate of North English High School. He spent 25 years as Sports Information Director for the University of Iowa, retiring in 1996. He is also the author of A High Porch Picnic, the autobiography of Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry. Wine lives in Solon, Iowa
Mace Brown never pitched for the Chicago Cubs, but he played an integral role in one of the most memorable games. The Cubs and
Pirates, battling for the National League pennant in 1938, were playing at Wrigley Field in late September. The score was tied 5-5 with
two outs in the ninth inning. Darkness was fast descending as Brown stood on the mound peering at Gabby Hartnett through the fading daylight. Many thought the
game should have been called because of darkness. In what is referred to in baseball lore as "The Homer in the Gloamin'," Hartnett connected with one of Brown's pitches and smacked it
into the bleachers. The momentum of that victory vaulted the Cubs to the pennant. "Gabby must have swung at what he heard," laughs Brown, "because it was too dark for him to see the ball."
Mace Brown never pitched for the Chicago Cubs, but he played an integral role in one of the most memorable games. The Cubs and Pirates, battling for the National League pennant in 1938, were playing at Wrigley Field in late September. The score was tied 5-5 with two outs in the ninth inning.
Darkness was fast descending as Brown stood on the mound peering at Gabby Hartnett through the fading daylight. Many thought the game should have been called because of darkness.
In what is referred to in baseball lore as "The Homer in the Gloamin'," Hartnett connected with one of Brown's pitches and smacked it into the bleachers. The momentum of that victory vaulted the Cubs to the pennant.
"Gabby must have swung at what he heard," laughs Brown, "because it was too dark for him to see the ball."