By Glen Sparks
Joe E. Brown, famous for his rubber face and ocean-wide smile, starred in a series of mostly successful movie comedies in the 1930s and ’40s. He is probably best known today for his supporting role as a lecherous millionaire in the 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot. Brown delivers the memorable closing line in that film—“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Besides being a movie star, Brown also followed baseball. He made baseball-themed pictures like Elmer the Great and Alibi Ike and even served as president of PONY Baseball and Softball for several years.
Joe’s son inherited dad’s enthusiasm for sports. Joe L. Brown, born Sept. 1, 1918, in New York City, grew up in Hollywood. He graduated from Beverly Hills High School and played football at UCLA. His Bruin career over, young Joe took a job in the front office of the Waco (Texas) Pirates, a farm club in the Class B Big State League. He worked his way up from there, impressing the right people with his baseball and business smarts.
The Pirates hired Brown as the team’s general manager following the 1955 season. He replaced the bushy-browed, cigar-chomping Branch Rickey, who was retiring following a remarkable career.
Now, the Pirates had not won a National League pennant since 1927, during the era of Paul Waner and “Pie” Traynor. They fell on hard times. Then, things got worse. Pittsburgh usually dropped out of the pennant chase by Tax Day. The Bucs finished a combined 145-317 from 1952-54. They improved just a little bit in ’55, going 60-94.
Rickey had put some pieces in place for Brown. Those pieces included Vern Law, Bob Friend, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski and Bob Skinner. Pittsburgh also had a good-looking outfield prospect, Roberto Clemente. He could hit, the reports said, and, man, could he throw.
Then, Brown went to work. Mid-way through the 1957 season, he hired Danny Murtaugh to manage the team. He also engineered the trades to get outfielder Bill Virdon and infielder Dick Schofield.
The club struggled in ’56 (66-88) and ’57 (62-92) but turned the corner in 1958 (84-70). In 1959, the Pirates slid to 78-76. Brown kept working. (He was good at working. He went into the U.S. Army Air Force as a private and mustered out as a captain.)
Brown added catcher “Smoky” Burgess, pitcher Harvey Haddix and third baseman Don Hoak in one deal, outfielder Gino Cimoli and pitcher Tom Cheney in another deal and “Vinegar Bend” Mizell in still another swap. Clemente, meanwhile, had become a defensive star even if he was not yet a hitting star.
On this date, the team clinched its first N.L. pennant in 33 years. Fans celebrated that night with a torchlight victory parade in the city’s Golden Triangle. The Pirates went 95-59 in 1960, finishing seven games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Braves. Dick Stuart led the team with 23 home runs. Clemente enjoyed his first big year on offense, belting 16 homers, driving in a team-high 94 runs and hitting .314. Bob Skinner drove in 86 runs and Hoak brought home 79.
Law led a strong pitching staff (20-9, 3.08 ERA), with help from Friend (18-12, 3.00) and Mizell (13-5, 3.12). Face saved 24 games.
Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1960 against the New York Yankees, as you probably know. Mazeroski cracked that epic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 at Forbes Field. Eleven years later, in 1971, the Pirates celebrated the second title of Joe L. Brown’s tenure.
The team contended throughout much of the ‘70s. Brown developed a strong farm system that produced Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Cash, Richie Hebner, Steve Blass and others.
“Yes, he built championship teams and made superb trades, but he also built a pipeline to supply that team,” said former pitcher and current Pirates broadcaster Blass in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He was a baseball father to me.”
Brown retired as Pirates general manager after the 1976 season and went back home to California. With much of his core still in place, the Pittsburgh “We are Family” squad of 1979 celebrated another title.
Brown returned briefly as GM again in 1985 after a cocaine scandal rocked the team. On June 19, 2010, Pirates fans gave Brown a standing ovation during a ceremony at PNC Park marking the 50th anniversary of the 1960 champions. Joe L. Brown, resident of Newport Beach, Calif., died Aug. 15, 2010, at an assisted-living facility in Albuquerque, N.M., at the age of 91.
Friend said this about his former boss: “He was one of the best baseball men of his time. Joe Brown was a winner.”