By Ted Lewis
La. Sports Writers Association
Willard Brown was born too late -- and died too early.
The Negro Leagues' baseball's premier slugging outfielder of the 1940s, Brown was 36 when he was signed by the St. Louis Browns in July of 1947, becoming only the fourth African-American in the Major Leagues.
But although the Shreveport-born Brown did become the first black American Leaguer to homer, he was unceremoniously released after hitting .179 in 21 games, never to get another shot in the majors, although he kept playing until the mid-1950s.
And he died in 1996 from complications due to Alzheimer's, a decade before his election to Baseball's Hall of Fame, one of 17 Negro League players and contributors to be inducted en masse last year at Cooperstown.
"I don't think he would have been surprised by being elected," said Mary Brown, who represented her late father-in-law in Cooperstown last summer. "People were always saying he should have been in it a long time ago."
Newt Allen, a teammate of Brown's with the Kansas City Monarchs, said that Brown was a better player than Jackie Robinson, another ex-Monarch who became the first African-American in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"Willard could hit and run and throw," Allen told author John Holway. "But Jackie had 1/3 ability and 2/3 brains, and that's what the Dodgers were looking for."
That was the knock on Brown. He had the misfortune to be tagged -- wrongfully so in the opinion of his Monarchs manager -- as a player with outstanding abilities, but who used them only when the mood struck him.
"Willard had so much ability, he made it look easy" said Buck O'Neil, the one-time Monarchs manager who championed Brown's Hall of Fame cause for years and spoke for all of the Negro spoke for all of the Negro League inductees last year shortly before his death. "People might think he was loafing, but he was a great natural athlete who never looked like he was in a hurry unless he had to be."
Brown led the Negro American League in home runs seven times. Only Hall of Famer Josh Gibson has more titles with nine, and Brown was rated a better all-around player who won three batting titles.
"He hit just about every pitcher like he owned him," said Wilmer Fields of the rival Homestead Grays. "He had short arms, but was strong as a bull."
Brown's credentials made his election to Cooperstown an easy one according to Dick Clark, Negro Leagues chairman for the Society for American Baseball Research, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee.
"Willard Brown was the preeminent right-handed slugger for the Negro American League throughout the 40s," Clark said.
Brown, who began his playing career in 1932 with the Monroe Monarchs, lived in Kansas City thereafter until the early 1990s when he entered a Veterans Administration hospital in Houston because of his Alzheimer's.
"Willard didn't talk much about his playing days," said Mary Brown, whose husband, Willard Brown Jr., died two years before his father. "But people in Kansas City loved him.
"They knew how good he was."