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LIGUES PROVINCIALE ET LAURENTIENNE (1950-53) | PROVINCIAL AND LAURENTIAN LEAGUES (1950-53)

Ray Brown in Canada: His Forgotten Years

Article by BILL YOUNG (First Published in The National Pastime, August 2007)
When Negro Leagues great Ray Brown was inducted posthumously into baseball’s National Hall of Fame in 2006 as one of 17 individuals chosen for their essential contributions to “the history of blacks in the game,” he also became the first player with links to the Quebec Provincial League ever to receive such an honor.

Thought by many to be the equal of Satchel Paige, Brown was recognized principally for his outstanding achievements with the legendary Homestead Grays of the 1930s and ‘40s, although his Hall of Fame plaque does acknowledge “several standout seasons pitching in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico.” It makes no mention of Quebec.

That is unfortunate, for in the years Brown spent north of the border the burly right-hander lined up with three teams in three different leagues – and helped each to a league championship. Although pretty much forgotten now, his story, and the impact he had on La Belle Province, form an important part of his legacy, and tell us much about baseball in Quebec at that time.

Ray Brown was born in Alger, OH in 1908. By the early 1930s, he had emerged as the ace of the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Gray’s pitching staff, a role he maintained through 1945. The key to his success was always his uncanny ability to keep hitters off balance. “About the best pitcher in baseball at that time,” is how Negro Leagues veteran Charlie Biot once described him. “He had control; he had a number of pitches.”

Although primarily a curve-baller, Brown’s repertoire included a deceptive fastball and both a slider and a sinker. Later in his career he added a knuckleball. He accumulated great pitching statistics in his years with Homestead - his lifetime winning percentage (.704) ranks second all-time – and throughout the Gray’s outstanding streak of eight pennants in nine years, he typically started a third or more of the team’s league games.

Stanley “Doc” Glenn, a catcher with the Quebec Braves in 1952 and 1953, who put in seven seasons with the Philadelphia Stars at the start of his career, remembers Brown well. Although they never faced each other in the Provincial League, Glenn still recalls the years he endured batting against Brown in the Negro National League.

“He was a great pitcher – not a good pitcher – a great pitcher” Said Glenn recently, speaking from home in Pennsylvania. “He had all the tricks. He was number one for the Homestead Grays for a lot of years.” Glenn characterized Brown as “a complete ball player. When he wasn’t pitching he would play the outfield. I never knew him personally, only as a ball player, but he was a fine one.” The former receiver considers Ray Brown’s Hall of Fame selection to be “great news, an honour well deserved.”

Josh Gibson, Jr. played in the Provincial League himself in 1951 and he considers Brown to be one of the best pitchers he ever saw. “Number one is Satchel [Paige],” Gibson, the son of black baseball’s greatest hitter told diarist Brent Kelly, “then Ray Brown. I watched Ray pitch as a kid, but I batted against Satchel. Damn, Ray Brown was good.”

But with time all things do change, and by the late 1940s, as the luster of black baseball had begun to fade, Brown discovered he was running out of places to play, especially with his own abilities now on the wane. He would have to seek out new and greener pastures. And he was all on his own. His extravagant marriage to the daughter of Gray’s owner Cum Posey – it took place at home plate on the Fourth of July, 1935 - had imploded some time before, done in by his hard drinking and the uncertainties that surround a life in baseball.

However, jobs were hard to find – especially for a black man who was pushing forty. Although baseball’s odious racial barrier had been shattered five or so years earlier, there were still many towns where non-white players were not welcome. And so Brown headed for the Mexican League and Tampico, where matters of race had never been a problem. After several good years there, the rambling urge once more kicked in and by 1950 he had packed his suitcase and set out on the road again.

Ray Brown: Heading for Quebec

This time Brown gravitated in the opposite direction, toward Sherbrooke in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where baseball was the summer game and the local entry in the Provincial League was one of the strongest in the circuit. He would have known about the league, la provinciale as it was called in French, from fellow travelers encountered in winter ball and elsewhere; he would have been aware of its readiness to sign players of whatever race or nationality – as long as they could play.

The Provincial League had existed in various forms for much of the century – mostly as an independent, some would say outlaw, organization. It had a long history of finding spots for talented players of color. Indeed, as far back as the late 1800s there were recorded accounts of black players on local teams. In 1929, the peripatetic Chappie Johnson had placed a unit composed solely of black players in a local league. According to Quebec baseball historian Christian Trudeau, black men were a constant presence in Quebec baseball from those days forward. Ted Page, Alphonso Lattimore, Alfred Wilson, Ormond Sampson, are just some of the names which appear regularly in accounts of that time.

When baseball finally blew open the doors of integration in 1946 and six men of colour inked contracts with clubs recognized by Organized Baseball, it was more than just a coincidence that four of the six played for Quebec-based teams in three different leagues, and one of them was Canadian-born.

By 1949, regarded by some as the golden year of Quebec baseball, the Provincial League had become famous, (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) as a refuge for baseball’s dispossessed. Former Negro League players [Terris McDuffie, Quincy Trouppe], young Latinos [Victor Pellot Power, Roberto Vargas], displaced major-leaguers from the war years [Walter Brown. Tex Shirley], local, home grown talent [Roland Gladu, Paul Calvert] – all were welcome.

So too were those major leaguers who had jumped to the Mexican League in 1946, and now suspended, had exhausted all their options. Or almost. They were still welcome in Quebec, and they came: Sal Maglie, Max Lanier, Danny Gardella.  It is generally agreed that during this period la provinciale provided some of the best baseball played anywhere in Canada. It was into this environment that Ray Brown stepped in 1950.

Normand Dussault, who still makes Sherbrooke his home, recalls this time with great affection. A two-sport athlete who spent his winters playing hockey, including several seasons with the fabled Montreal Canadians, was the starting centre-fielder for the Sherbrooke Athletics, and he remembers Ray Brown well. “Sure I knew Ray Brown,” Dussault said recently, “He was my team-mate. He was from the States.”

When told that Brown had been selected for Cooperstown, Dussault chuckled. “Imagine. Ray Brown! In the Hall of Fame! Good for him!” He then added, “Ray was an old fellow by the time he came up here, about 42, I think. He couldn’t run, but he was still very good. We called him Poppa. He stayed around for at least four years, you know. He was a really good pitcher.

In 1950, the Athletics were managed by Roland Gladu, a Quebec-born baseballer whose own story merits special treatment. Many consider that Gladu more than anyone, was the driving force behind the early development of the Quebec game, to the point where it now produces the likes of an Eric Gagné and Russell Martin.

A power-hitting first-baseman Gladu had played everywhere, and for everyone from the Montreal Royals to London England in the 1930s, He played with Quebec City, then for a cup of coffee with the Boston Braves in 1944, back to the Royals, off to the Mexican League and banishment from the game, to stardom in the Provincial League. When he retired Gladu became a highly-regarded scout for the Boston Braves. Some of his early signings included Claude Raymond, Gorges Maranda and Ron Piché.

As the 1950 season was winding down the Sherbrooke club found itself fighting for first place, and looking for players to help make that final push. Since becoming manager of the Sherbrooke club in 1948 he had imported a steady stream of performers from the winter leagues. He had already inked the likes of Claro Duany (the Puerto Rican Babe Ruth) and Silvio Garcia (“One of the best hitters who never played in the major leagues,” or so said Tommy Lasorda.). When Ray Brown appeared on the horizon, Gladu did not hesitate to sign him up.

The announcement in Sherbrooke’s La Tribune held a promise of great things to come. “Brown, a black player who stands more than six feet,” it read, “has been pitching in Mexico and in Venezuela, where he had an excellent record.” However, it took Brown the rest of the regular season to get untracked. He lost his first five decisions and not until the very end of the campaign did he earn his sole victory, a 6-2 triumph over bitter rival St-Jean Braves. It was a “sensational performance,” according to La Tribune.  Brown even led the offence, driving home three of his team’s six runs, and, “for once, his team-mates gave him adequate support, managing 10 hits and committing only one error behind him.”  

His timing was perfect: the playoffs were about to begin. It was here the lantern-jawed hurler truly showed his mettle. With Brown leading the way, the Athletics rolled over Drummondville in the semi-finals and then took their nemesis, St-Jean, to seven games before collapsing in the last match of the championship series, 15-6. Although he was only one of four pitchers to work the game, Ray Brown took the loss, done in by fatigue and a couple of untimely errors behind him.

Nevertheless, the wily veteran with the bag of tricks had been the workhorse of the playoffs He appeared in 9 of the 13 games, recorded three victories against two losses, and at the plate, where he was often asked to pinch hit, batted .353; with six hits in 17 at-bats, including one home run.

For some reason Brown’s pitching record does not show in the 1950 official league statistics, but an unofficial count puts it at one victory and five losses. He also periodically played the outfield and pinch hit, batting .250, with two home runs and seven RBIs

In sum, Ray Brown had shown enough to warrant an invitation to return in 1951, one he happily accepted. He was about to embark on a streak of three championships in three years, all with different teams, all in Quebec.

Ray Brown: A Champion

The banner headline across the top of the sports page read, “Ray Brown reaches terms with Sherbrooke Athletics.”

It was March 20, 1951 and the Sherbrooke Record was confirming that last year’s source of inspiration for the team’s brilliant play-off run was coming back. A season of promise was at hand.

The veteran hurler compiled a solid 11-10 record and ERA of 3.31, while the team nailed down the pennant, though it took them until the final game of the season. They then went on to easily conquer both Drummondville and Quebec in the playoffs to claim the league title. While Brown had always been a career-starting pitcher, he was called upon to fill any number of other roles as well. In fact, manager Gladu used him so much in relief that the Record took to calling him “Fireman” Brown. At other times he played the outfield or third base, and even stepped in for first baseman Gladu when the playing-manager’s bad back kept him out of the line-up.

Brown was also the club’s go-to pinch-hitter. Although his batting average shows as a modest .193, including four homeruns and six doubles, he always seemed to come up with the key hit when it was most needed.

This was never more true than in the last game of the regular season.

With the Athletics down 4-0 to Granby in the sixth inning and needing a win to lock up first place, manager Gladu called on Brown to pinch hit. The veteran did not disappoint, blasting a two-run homerun over the right-field fence and completely shifting the momentum of the game, as the Athletics went on to a 7-4 victory and top spot. The playoffs were almost an anti-climax., and on September 19, playing at home, Sherbrooke was crowned champion with a convincing win over the Braves from Quebec.

But then fortunes changed. Only hours after the team had carted off the league trophy, a fire swept through the old Sherbrooke Stadium leaving the stands in smouldering ruins and the team without a home field. Town authorities first attempted to have a new grandstand ready for the following season, but when this proved impossible the club was forced to release its players and disband. Baseball did return to Sherbrooke in 1953, but never again could it recreate the élan and excitement that had embraced the 1951 season.

In the meantime, Brown was once more left without a game. Faced with a long winter of uncertainty, he elected to stay on in Sherbrooke and work at the huge Ingersoll-Rand plant in that city, trusting that better things would appear in the spring, as they did.  On April 16, La Tribune announced that Roland Gladu had signed to manage the Thetford Mines Miners of the Quebec Senior League. Then, in an aside, it added that Brown, whose “wine-red Buick convertible” had been seen around town all winter, “will follow his old manager, as they have become great friends.” It was a wise decision.

The Quebec Senior League, and its companion Laurentian League, were similar in structure to the independent Provincial League of the 1940s. These secondary loops had grown increasingly popular in Quebec, for, unlike the ‘new’ Provincial League of Organized Baseball where every club was soon to become affiliated with a major league team, they had not lost their local touch: they still had room for both home-grown talent and the displaced.

Composed of teams from 4 towns located south of the St. Lawrence River and east of Sherbrooke, the league was well salted with Provincial League veterans. The Plessisville Braves, now counting Brown’s old pal Norman Dussault in their midst, were considered the class of the circuit and expected to repeat as champions in 1952. But they had not counted on the surprising Miners. With Gladu leading the league in hitting –his average flirted with the .400-mark for most of the season – and Brown chalking up a team-best 16 wins against 5 losses and batting over .300, Thetford walked away with first place.

 

Brown then added four more wins in the play-offs, bringing his total for the season to twenty, as the club went on to take top laurels. “Four victories in as many matches is a feat to be celebrated,” gushed the weekly newspaper, La Canadien, “and here the honours go to our veteran pitcher, Ray Brown, ” as it declared him the club’s MVP, “without a doubt.” So successful was the Thetford Mines baseball adventure that the town immediately sought and obtained a Provincial League franchise for the following year. Once again, Ray Brown was left without a team. But not for long.

 

Early in 1953 the Lachine Indians of the Laurentian League began shopping around for a player-manager and Brown leapt at the opportunity. With the omnipresent Normand Dussault now at his side, the veteran succeeded in leading the Indians to another championship – Brown’s third in three years. The old pitcher opened the campaign with nine straight victories, finishing up at 13-5 and Dussault was dominant both at the plate and in centre field.

 

After the final game of the season, local dignitaries held a celebration to honour the club. According to the Lachine Messenger, “Ray Brown acted as spokesman for the Indians in thanking the directorate [of the club] for the manner in which the players had been treated throughout the season just ended, and he hoped that the same team would next year again represent Lachine.”  Sadly, this was not to be. The club became involved in a dispute with league authorities and elected to withdraw. All of its players were let go.

 

For Ray Brown, one last hurrah still awaited. Following the Lachine success, he was called back to Thetford Mines, where the Miners, now in the Provincial League, were hoping to make the playoffs. As Le Canadien noted, “Even at his age, Ray still possesses the stuff our club needs to create momentum and regain the desired heights.”

 

And it worked. Columnist M.A. Simoneau affirmed that “management could smile for having called on the services of [Brown] who helped to reduce the deficit, especially in the last weekend of the season.” Brown’s contribution enabled the Miners to eke out a fourth place finish, one-half game ahead of Trois-Rivières. But he was not in the line-up for the post-season. Because the team had signed Brown after the deadline by which its play-off roster needed to be deposited with the league, he was declared ineligible. The Miners were knocked out by Granby in the first round.

 

It is here that the trail of Ray Brown’s baseball career in Quebec fades away. He had married a local woman whom Normand Dussault's wife Jeannine recalls was very good looking. “She was a white woman, a French-Canadian, from around Sherbrooke, I think. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you her name.” Mme. Dussault recollects that at Lachine in 1954, “we would often sit together in the stands She was very nice. But I never saw her again after that year.”

 

Brown did eventually return to his native Ohio where he died in 1965. He was 57 years old. While it is true that his years in La Belle Province would have had little influence on his Cooperstown selection, certainly his presence made a difference to the game in Quebec.