Obituary: Joe L. Brown / Pirates GM in team's glory days
Joe L. Brown was the architect of two World Series championships and helped lay the groundwork for a third title, but his legacy will always be linked to 1960 because it was the Pirates' first championship in 35 years.
"Look at who we beat. The National League was very tough. And we beat a pretty good Yankee team with [Mickey] Mantle, [Roger] Maris, [Whitey] Ford, [Yogi] Berra," Mr. Brown said earlier this year.
"The Pirates had not won in so long that nobody remembered what it was like. It was a long dry spell. Pittsburgh is a football town. But we showed it's also a baseball town."
Mr. Brown died Sunday in an assisted living facility in Albuquerque, N.M. He had moved there from his home in Newport Beach, Calif., within the past 10 days to be near his daughter, Cynthia.
Born in New York City, the son of actor/comedian Joe E. Brown, he would have been 92 on Sept. 1.
Mr. Brown, who was in a wheelchair when he visited PNC Park in June for a reunion of the team that beat the Yankees, was present at some of the most pivotal moments in franchise history.
As general manager, he molded the 1960 and the 1971 World Series champion teams, and he had an indirect hand in the 1979 title. He had hired Harding "Pete" Peterson to run the Pirates farm system in 1967, and when Mr. Brown stepped down in 1976, Mr. Peterson succeeded him and was the general manager of the 1979 team.
"He was one of the best baseball men of his time," said former pitcher Bob Friend, a member of the 1960 team. "Joe Brown was a winner. It was a shock to hear the news. His mind was so sharp when he was back with us in June. I think the ovation he received from the fans was tremendous. I think he was overwhelmed by it."
After Branch Rickey stepped down as general manager, Mr. Brown took control of club operations on Nov. 1, 1955. His first act was to hire Bobby Bragan as manager to replace Fred Haney, but midway through the 1957 season, Danny Murtaugh was brought in as manager.
The Brown/Murtaugh team ended what was then the worst stretch of baseball in franchise history at nine straight losing seasons and turned the Pirates into winners.
Steve Blass, the winning pitcher of Game 7 in the 1971 Series, noted that his former general manager was a keen judge of talent.
"Yes, he built championship teams and made superb trades. But he also built a pipeline to supply that team. People don't understand how good that farm system was. He had a stockpile. You had to wait your turn to get to the big leagues," said Mr. Blass, now a color analyst for Pirates broadcasts. "He was the consummate GM.
"He was a baseball father to me. I just thought the world of him. He was living proof that not every champion wears a uniform."
His relationships with his crew did get complicated, and more than one would like to have been treated better even while acknowledging he was one of the best executives in the business.
Bill Virdon was acquired from the Cardinals in the new GM's first impact trade, and Mr. Brown's building of a champion had begun. Mr. Virdon also had the distinction of being fired and replaced by Danny Murtaugh -- during a pennant race in 1973 after he had won a division title the year before.
"I told him I didn't agree with him not giving me a chance to finish the job, but if I was in his shoes and had Murtaugh waiting in the wings, I'd have done the same thing," said Mr. Virdon, who still wears the Pirates uniform as a special instructor in spring training.
With more than 50 years in the game, Mr, Virdon, a bespectacled man who once managed in Yankee pinstripes for George Steinbrenner, can spot a good baseball man when he encounters one.
"He was sharp as a tack. He really knew his business," Mr. Virdon said. "One of the best in the business. No doubt."
Those of a certain age will recall the Joe L. Brown Show on radio broadcasts when Tom Bender would ask him for a name to remember, and the audience would hear about farmhands such as Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Bob Robertson or Richie Zisk.
His players say he had a deft approach off the field as well. When Mr. Blass developed control problems that eventually ended his pitching career, Mr. Brown and the Pirates gave him every chance to regain his form.
"He told me to keep trying as long as I wanted, that I would tell them when I had enough. In the end, I just wasn't able to help the club, but I'll never forget what he did for me and that he gave an 18-year-old kid a chance to live my dream," Mr. Blass said. "He had a relationship with people that just doesn't happen anymore."
Nellie King, the former pitcher and announcer who died last week, was quoted in the 1972 Pirates Yearbook about Mr. Brown being a people person. "Joe L. Brown is people oriented, not thing oriented. I've known Joe Brown since 1954 when he was GM of the New Orleans club, and I have always found him to have a deep, sincere feeling for the people who work for him."
Those feelings transcended the sports arena. Former Pittsburgh police detective Francis Butler said that upon the 1979 death of his mother, Kay, who was a hot dog vendor at a Forbes Field concession stand, Mr. Brown came to the funeral home to pay his respects.
"She worked out in the stands, but who shows up to shake hands with everyone in the family? Joe L. Brown. What a great man he was," Mr. Butler said.
Mr. Brown made a number of shrewd trades. He acquired Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Smoky Burgess for the 1959 season, and he swung the deal that brought Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell to the starting rotation during the 1960 season.
But not every trade was a winner. In 1964, Dick Groat was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the World Series with him at shortstop.
With scout Howie Haak, the Pirates found talent throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. And in their 1971 championship season, they made major league history by fielding the first all-minority lineup.
"Danny Murtaugh put out the best nine players," Mr. Brown said later.
In 1985, when the Pirates were spattered with the sludge of 104 losses and the cocaine trials that included testimony by Dave Parker and Dale Berra, Mr. Brown was brought back on an interim basis to restore some franchise luster. He hired Syd Thrift, who ushered in the Jim Leyland era and three National League Eastern Division titles from 1990 to 1992.
Team president Frank Coonelly issued the following statement yesterday:
"The news of Joe's passing at the age of 91 was met with great sadness by everyone within the Pirates organization. As the architect behind the 1960 and 1971 World Series teams, we were honored that Joe was able to return to Pittsburgh in June to help us celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1960 team.
"The ovation he received from the crowd prior to the game was a special moment for Joe and his family, as was his company the entire weekend with us. ... He will be missed by everyone within the Pirates family."
Sally O'Leary, longtime central clearinghouse for matters related to the Pirates of the past, said she had been in touch with the family, which is requesting privacy now and will provide more details in the future. She said Mr. Brown had really looked forward to spending time with the 1960 team and Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow.
"I'm sure glad Joe was able to be here for the 1960 reunion. It was so good to be with him for that little while," said Ms. O'Leary. "He was so sharp and alert. Had a marvelous time, as did all of us who were with him."
First Published August 17, 2010 12:00 am