Country Brown: It felt like I was in the Major Leagues
Back in the 1940s and 50s, during that fleeting age just after the war and before television took over everyone’s recreation time, the minor leagues experienced their greatest years. During this era, there were about fifty minor leagues operating in all corners of the country, more if you include Canada and Mexico. And, in the decade before the Dodgers and Giants moved west and the Major League added more teams, each corner of the country had their own Paul Bunyan-esque minor league baseball heroes who, to them, were anything but minor. The west coast worshipped Steve Bilko, the southwest boasted of Joe Bauman, the northeast loved Luke Easter and, down south, no one player was cheered more than Country Brown.
Ralph Brown hailed from Walker County, Georgia, one of Tom and Dovie Brown’s ten children. The Browns worked a small farm and were hit especially hard when the Depression came in 1929. Brown and his siblings walked several miles each day to attend the nearest school, which stopped at grade seven. Still, Brown enjoyed school and continued to attend classes even though he aged out. Finally, the Depression made farm life unsustainable for the Browns, and the family moved to Summerville, in Chattooga County, where textile mills were hiring. Here, Brown was able to attend high school. His speed on the playground attracted the attention of Summerville High’s football coach. He was even more impressed with the teen’s speed when he realized that he was running in his older sister’s hand me down shoes! Wearing a new pair of boys cleats courtesy of the coach, Brown became a star running back for Summerville High’s football team.
While still in high school, Brown began dating Curtis Mae, and the pair married. Luckily for the couple, Brown served stateside in the Army Air Force, and Curtis Mae was able to accompany her husband from post to post. It was during his army service that Brown began playing baseball seriously. He had played the game since he was a kid on the farm, but his high school did not field a team, so he had no coaching or team experience. While stationed at Daniel Field outside Augusta, Georgia, Brown played alongside and against many with professional experience, and was surprised to find he more than held his own. Being left-handed and six-feet tall, Brown was made the team’s pitcher and played outfield when not on the mound. Because he had no experience on the mound, Brown over extended himself and suffered an arm injury that limited his throwing ability for the rest of his career.
It was during his army service that he would also be given the name that would forever replace Ralph: “Country.” The story, as Brown later told it in 1994, came about when he was talking to a fellow GI from New York. When he asked Brown where he was from and the response was “Summerville, Georgia,” the New Yorker said “That must be in the country.” Brown said, “You could call it country” to which the Northerner stated, “I think I’ll just call you Country.”
When Brown was discharged, he decided to pursue baseball as his career. The men he played with in the service told him that they’d spread the word of his ability. Sure enough, the Tampa Smokers of the Class D Florida State League signed him up for ’46, and Brown proceeded to set the panhandle on fire. First, he set an organized baseball record of hitting 13 consecutive base hits, a record that still stands. He hit the ball at a .381 clip and stole 32 bases, leading the league in both categories and being named the Florida State League’s MVP.
At this point, the New York Yankees became interested. The Yanks were re-building their early 1940s dynasty and were in the market for a hard-hitting, speedy outfielder to eventually take over from Joe DiMaggio. A check was cut and Country Brown became part of the Yankees organization.
The Yanks sent Brown to Augusta, their farm team in the South Atlantic League. There, Brown basically duplicated his 1946 season, batting .356 and swiping 44 bases for the Tigers. For the second year in a row he was voted his league’s MVP. The future seemed limitless for Country Brown, and the papers opined that it was just a short time before he would be playing center field in Yankee Stadium. The Yank’s front office thought the same and sent Brown to their top farm club, the Newark Bears, just a subway token away from Yankee Stadium.
With Newark, Brown faltered a little, hitting .263 in 12 games. The Yankees scouts also became concerned with Brown’s throwing arm, injured during his army service. The higher-ups surmised that it would be too weak to make the long throws from Yankee Stadium’s outer fields, and the consensus was to convert Brown into a first baseman. While Country might have consented to re-training as a first baseman, he wasn’t having any of the team’s proposal to send him back to single A ball to learn to how to play first base.
By this time, Brown was 27 years old and his window of opportunity was closing fast. Every year, the Yankees signed younger kids who already knew their way around first base, so having to work his way back up the chain of farm teams after learning a new position didn’t sit right with him. Brown refused to report. The Yankees, not used to anyone saying no to them, were indignant at this upstart named Country. Brown didn’t care; he took the train back to Summerville to see what would happen next. He didn’t have long to wait. Within ten days, his contract was purchased by the Atlanta Crackers of the Class AA Southern Association.
The Atlanta Crackers were the classiest ballclub in the south. Their attendance was consistently among the highest in the league and fielded lineups that kept them in the thick of the pennant race each summer. The team’s owner, Earl Mann, was a player’s owner, and he treated his boys like they were kin. Breaking from the norm, Mann guaranteed his players that if he sold their contract to a big league team, they would get a taste of the money, too. No other owner did this on a regular basis. Country Brown’s short but spectacular minor league record and his being a Georgia boy combined to make him an instant fan favorite in Atlanta.
Brown joined the team in June and proceeded to live up to his reputation, batting .338. But besides a great average, Country Brown seemed to be the consummate ballplayer. Sure, he could slug the ball, but he also made highlight reel catches before there were highlight reels. And that weak arm the Yanks were worried about? The Southern Association players heard about it, too, and commenced testing it out. When Country threw out half a dozen runners trying to stretch a single into a double, no one talked about Country’s arm any longer. But the one thing that singled out Country Brown from the rest was his ownership of the old-time drag bunt.
The drag bunt was particularly suited to left handed batters like Brown because in the batter’s box they were already closer to first base. As opposed to the common bunt, where a batter squares before the pitch is thrown, a drag bunt requires the batter to stay in his stance as if to swing, only squaring to bunt after the ball is on the way to the plate. At this point, the batter angles the bat towards third base, directing the ball in that direction and into the dirt. With the left-handed batter already closer to first, a speedy runner could beat out the play time and time again. And that’s just what Country Brown did. It’s a faster, more intimate play than a home run, and the Atlanta fans loved it. More than the excitement Brown’s drag bunting generated, it made him a perennial baserunner where his speed became an additional offensive threat.
Besides his hitting, running and anything else he did on the field, Country Brown’s own nature made him the most popular player not just on the Crackers, but throughout the Southern Association. He didn’t have movie star looks or a classic athlete’s physique. He didn’t come from money or a big city. He’d even given up his place on the greatest baseball team in the world to play back home. He was a country boy from Georgia who looked every inch like the hard scrabble son of the Great Depression south that he was. In short, Country Brown was one of their own.
For four and a half long hot summers, Country Brown played for Atlanta. While other players came for a season, made a name for themselves and moved on, Country remained a fixture in the Cracker’s outfield. It seemed as if everyone had a personal story to tell about Country, how he somehow endeared himself to a young fan.
One story, told by Harold “Bubba” Love in one of those “remember when” articles, tells of the time when as an 11 year-old, his only desire was to get a ball signed by his favorite player, Country Brown. When his parents scored seats behind the dugout, he knew his chance had come. Late in the game, Crackers manager Dixie Walker emerged from the dugout and moved to the railing near where he was sitting. After some prodding, Bubba approached Walker for a signed ball. It wasn’t Country Brown, but he figured this could be an opening to get that prized signature. Walker turned the boy down cold, telling him he couldn’t spare a ball. Young Bubba returned to his seat, defeated. However, somehow, Bubba never knew how, Country Brown learned of the exchange. A few innings later, a voice called out from the field. It was Country Brown, and he was gesturing towards Bubba! He ran down to the railing where he was greeted with a handshake from his hero and presented with a brand new Southern Association ball, complete with Dixie Walker and Country Brown’s names penned on the white leather.
Another great anecdote from his Crackers years is from June of 1949 when he and his wife Curtis Mae had their first and only child. Batting in the first inning that night, Brown took a strike, then stepped out of the box, took a cigar printed with “It’s a Boy” on the label and handed it to the umpire. The crowd went nuts. It’s those kind of gestures, not just cold stats, that made Country Brown a legend.
The 1950 team has gone down in history as the best lineup to ever wear the Atlanta colors. Besides Country Brown, the Crackers featured a teenage phenom named Eddie Mathews, who proceeded to punish Southern Association pitchers to the tune of 32 home runs. The Crackers ran away with the pennant and cemented their reputation as the class of the Southern Association. Yet, while lesser players passed through on their way to The Show, Country remained a Cracker.
In 1951, Country Brown was thirty. There was no way a big league team was going to take a chance on a middle-aged singles hitter with a sore arm label. For his part, Country Brown was content in Atlanta. He was making between $600 and $700 a month, not bad at all for the time. Plus, he was a star down south and close to his family in Summerville. As he told the Atlanta Constitution in 1994, “I felt like when I was playing for the Crackers I was in the major leagues.”
But all good things must come to an end. After that great 1950 season, relations between manager Dixie Walker and his perennial star, Country Brown, soured. The team was underperforming on the field, and Walker was taking most of the flak for it. He, in turn, took it out on Brown. Things got worse in 1952, culminating in Walker suspending Brown for “insubordination.” Country went home to Summerville and stayed put after his suspension ended. When Crackers owner Earl Mann called to see what the problem was, Country told him he couldn’t play for Dixie no longer. While Earl Mann was ahead of his time in player-owner relations, he could not bring himself to fire a manager to placate a player. A few days later, with Country’s okay, Mann sold his veteran star to The Chattanooga Lookouts of the same league.
This surprise move immediately came back to haunt Dixie Walker and the Crackers. Re-invigorated with the Lookouts fan support (Chattanooga was only a few miles from Summerville), Country went on a hitting tear that not only destroyed Atlanta’s pennant hopes, but propelled Chattanooga to the Championship. As in Atlanta, Chattanooga’s attendance soared with the addition of Brown. After two seasons, he was traded to Little Rock, Birmingham and then Nashville, all still Southern Association League teams who benefitted at the box office from Country’s rabid fan support. Finally, at the age of 36, Country was ready to call it quits. However, he delayed his retirement for one more season when the Louisville Colonels offered him $800 in 1957. Louisville was in the American Association, one level below the majors. Even with his eye sight failing, Country managed to hit .245 against future major leaguers almost half his age.
Country took his wife and child back to Summerville, where he remained a local legend. He bumped around trying out different occupations that didn’t require a bat before settling into law enforcement. He rapidly advanced to become a popular judge in his native Chattooga Country. As a final nod to his career as the most beloved ballplayer in Georgia, he was inducted into the state’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. Up until he passed away in 1996, Country Brown still received daily letters from his former fans, now approaching retirement age, asking for the signature of their old hero.
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This week’s story is Number 30 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.