Most 16-year-old boys like to think about cars, cool clothes, hanging out in malls, talking on cell phones and of course—girls!
But when Brentwood, Tenn. resident Tommy Brown was 16 years old, he was at Ebbets Field the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brown was facing major league pitchers and his only thoughts were— fastball or curveball.
In 1944, Brown became the youngest position player to play major league baseball at 16 years, seven months. Joe Nuxhall also broke into major league baseball earlier in 1944 as a pitcher for Cincinnati. Nuxhall has the distinction of being the youngest player at 15 years, 10 months.
"I quit school at 12-years-old to work with my uncle on the New York docks unloading barges and everything," Brown said recently. "I only played baseball with the local neighborhood teams. We didn’t have a field. We usually played on pavement or cobblestones. Sometimes we found a schoolyard to play.
"It’s a funny thing. One day while I was sitting outside on the steps, my first baseman from the local team told me to go with him to a Dodgers tryout. We lined up on the field and they placed a number on my back. I didn’t have a glove, spikes or anything. They had about 3,000 kids there to workout. At the end of three days, I was told to go to Ebbets Field. I was 15 years old and in the last group. They told us all they’d let us know."
Brown, 81, was born in Brooklyn never knowing his father and raised primarily by his aunt and uncle. Later that year (1943) a Dodger scout appeared at Brown’s home with a contract. Brown signed and was sent to Bear Mountain, NY. Later, Brown was in the Class B Piedmont League in Newport News, Va.
During this 1944 season, the right-hander was batting .297 and leading the league with 20 triples in late July. This was during World War II and major league rosters had been depleted giving talented youngsters a chance at professional baseball. One day Brown’s manager, Jake Pitler at Newport News approached him after a game.
"Jake Pitler called me in and told me to pack my things that [Manager Leo] Durocher wanted me to play shortstop for his Dodgers," said Brown. "I said, 'No, I don't want to go.' I told him to let me finish out the year. I was hitting well and learning a great deal. But he said, 'no, you've got to leave right now.'"
"I rode that train all night and I walked into the clubhouse and told them I just got off the train. Durocher said he didn't care, that we were playing a doubleheader and I was playing."
Brown's long first day in a major league uniform was at familiar Ebbets Field. The date was August 3, 1944 and the Chicago Cubs were in town. Brown, only 16, said he grounded out in his first plate appearance, but later lined a double off Cubs pitcher Bob Chipman. He also got a single in the second game off pitcher Claude Passeau.
"I remember the first ground ball ever hit to me at shortstop," said Brown. "We had a first baseman, Howard Schultz. He was 6-foot-7 and I threw the ball over his head and almost into the upper deck. I was never nervous about hitting, but I was nervous in the field when I was first called up.
"Durocher was great to me. When I got off the ferry and reported at Bear Mountain, he bought me my first pair of spikes. He's the one that gave me my name "Buckshot." Buckshot will get out there and spray everywhere; that’s how my arm was. The ball was likely to go here, go there. When I threw the ball, I never knew where it was going. I did have a strong arm though."
Brown concluded his rookie season appearing in 46 games, batting .164 (24-for-126) with no home runs, four doubles and eight runs batted in. In 1945, Brown appeared in 57 games for a .245 average with 196 plate appearances. On August 20, 1945, Brown became the youngest player to hit a major league home run. The historic blast came off Pittsburgh Pirates' pitcher Preacher Roe at Ebbets Field. Brown was in the service in all of 1946.
The year 1947 proved to be historic for major league baseball. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager, gave Jackie Robinson the opportunity to become the first black major league player. Brown was in the Dodgers training camp and on the opening day roster when Robinson made his debut.
"There was a little dissention when Jackie came into camp," Brown said. "I don't want to mention any names, but they got a petition against playing with Jackie. They came to me and said to sign it, but I never signed it. I don’t know how many signed, but several did. Jackie was a great ball player. Of course, he was a little shy and timid in the beginning.
"When Jackie was in the shower, a lot of them wouldn't go in there until he was out. In Pittsburgh they put black cats on the field. He didn't let it bother him. Jackie would just laugh it off. The Brooklyn fans were pretty good about him being on the team, but I'd say they were mixed. Soon, as they found out what a good ballplayer he was, they were all rooting for him."
The Dodgers faced the New York Yankees in the 1949 World Series. Brown appeared in two games as a pinch hitter. In the first game, he popped out against Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds. In the fourth game, Brown grounded out against pitcher Ed Lopat. The Yankees won the series, 4-1.
During that World Series, Brown had the chance to meet his idol—Joe DiMaggio. Brown said that he always wore number "5" in his career due to his respect and admiration of the "Yankee Clipper."
On September 18, 1950 at Ebbets Field, Brown had what he says is his most memorable game. While batting leadoff in the first, he singled off Cubs pitcher Paul Minner. In the third, Brown launched a home run again off Minner. With reliever Monk Dubiel on the mound, Brown blasted a second home run in the fifth inning. An eighth inning pitch from Dubiel was also clouted over the fence for a 3-homer day for Brown.
Brown would finish his major league career primarily as a utility infielder with the Philadelphia A's and Cubs. In nine big league seasons, Brown batted .241 (309-for-1,280), 31 home runs with 159 runs batted in. He played in the minors with Los Angeles, Nashville, Chattanooga and New Orleans. While playing for the Nashville Vols, Brown once again made history.
"We were in New Orleans for a three-game series," Brown reminisced. "I went 4-for-4, 3-for-3, 3-for-3 and in between, I had six walks. That's 16 straight times to reach base. Then we came to Nashville and they walked me the first four times. That made it 20 in a row and a Southern Association record. A groundout ended the on-base streak. I was hitting fourth in the batting order and they wouldn’t give me anything good to hit. Fred Russell [Nashville Banner sports writer] gave me a big ole plaque commemorating the record."
Brown remained in Nashville after retiring from baseball in 1958. He married a Nashville woman and worked at the Ford Glass Plant for 35 years before retiring in 1993. Brown is active traveling the country appearing at baseball card shows and Brooklyn Dodgers reunions.
The man who was a teammate to Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Eddie Stanky, and Richie Ashburn has only one regret.
"That's the only thing that has bothered me," said Brown. "I didn't have a childhood. The kids would go to Coney Island, swimming and everything, but I couldn't. Being 12 years old, working on the docks and playing street ball, I didn't have much time. That's the only thing I missed was being a kid."