The Strangest Numbers in Oscar Brown's Career

By Dr. Daniel Durbin | 9/16/13 |


Jerry Koosman was on.  One of the New York Mets’ top pitchers during their “Amazin’” run in 1969, Koosman could be inconsistent.  But, one cool May night in 1973, he was brilliant.

Koosman was facing the Atlanta Braves, a team loaded with power.  Led by Hank Aaron, the Braves had as powerful a lineup as any in baseball.  Dusty Baker, Darren Evans, Davey Johnson, Dick Dietz, all batted behind Aaron.  And, Koosman had their number.

Koosman was cruising through the sixth inning with a no-hitter, making it all look too easy, when Oscar Brown, the Braves lead-off hitter, stepped to the plate.

Oscar had none of the power of Aaron or Baker or even Evans.  But, he did have a bead on Koosman's fastball.  With a stroke to right field, Brown broke up the no-hitter.  Oscar Brown would end up with two hits that night, as if to confirm the death of Koosman’s momentary dream.

It was an exciting game, but, it was not the strangest or most unique moment in Oscar Brown’s career.

Brown was first called up to the Major Leagues late in the 1969 season, when the Atlanta Braves were fighting their way to the first National League West Divisional Championship.  Before 1969, the Major Leagues had two leagues, the American League and the National League.  The winner of each would go directly to the World Series.

With expansion franchises added to each league before the 1969 season, Major League Baseball also added divisions.  The Atlanta Braves, for reasons that would confound baseball fans for decades to come, ended up in the Western Division of the National League.  Oscar Brown was called up to add some needed speed to the Braves lineup in the waning days of the season.

Brown would remain in the Major Leagues through some tumultuous times.  He would have a locker next to Hank Aaron during Aaron’s historic chase of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, witnessing not only the journalistic stampede that chased Aaron through his run, but the other more serious threats from cowardly and anonymous letter writers and phone callers that would follow Aaron through the year.

But, none of these were the strangest or most unique aspects of Oscar Brown’s career.

The strangest thing about Oscar Brown’s career is the number three.  What’s so strange is that is the number of Major League teams that drafted Brown and offered him a contract before he finally agreed to sign.

In 1965, the Cincinnati Reds drafted Brown.  But, he refused to sign.  At the start of 1967, the California Angels drafted Brown.  Only, he refused to sign.

Finally, in June of 1967, the Atlanta Braves drafted Brown.  He signed.

Brown discussed this peculiar resistance to playing in the Major Leagues and the other aspects of his career for the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society’s oral histories project.  You can find information about the African-American Experience of Major League Baseball project on the following link. AISMS African-American Experience in Major League Baseball Research Project

When I asked Oscar why he didn’t sign for the Reds or the Angels, he said, in each case, the money simply wasn’t right.  After being drafted by the Reds, Oscar attended the University of Southern California to see if there was another career he might want to pursue.  I asked if it hadn’t struck him that he might not be offered another contract.  He said that hadn’t really concerned him.

In a country that mythologizes sports and praises athletes as the privileged few, fans and would-be athletes alike would find it strange that anyone would turn down a contract to play in the Major Leagues . . . much less, two contracts.

A generation later, John Elway would be excoriated for even threatening to do the same with an NFL contract.

But, this is not the first time I’ve heard a member of the Brown family act against expectations.  And, I think I have found a trend that says much about the Browns.

In the mid-1940s, Mr. and Mrs. Brown moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Long Beach, California with two sons in tow, Willie and Ollie.  Like all good parents, the Browns wanted to open better opportunities to their sons.  Once they arrived in Long Beach, the Browns had a third son, Oscar.

Each of their sons would go on to play professional sports.  But, each would do something confounding to our popular understanding of professional sports and athletes.  Willie Brown would walk away from a career in the NFL for a more stable job as a college coach because he had a family he wanted to protect. 

As discussed in a previous blog on this site, Ollie Brown would threaten to leave the Giants baseball organization because the club accepted unacceptable behavior towards black players.  When Major League Baseball was at the height of its “golden age,” Oscar Brown would turn down two contracts because they did not meet his personal goals.

The Browns break expectations.  Strangely (very strangely for professional athletes) they each seem to think of life as more than sports.  For the Browns, sports were an avenue, not a terminal goal.  Sports had a place in the lives of the Brown brothers.  But, sports weren’t the lives of the Brown brothers.  In the world I work in, that’s a uniquely mature point of view.

I would like to have met Mr. and Mrs. Brown of Long Beach, California.  The Browns raised three sons, each of whom would one day play professional sports.  But, the Brown’s didn’t raise athletes.  They raised men.