One of my favorite baseball books is Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. In it, Neyer examines some of baseball’s urban legends, re-telling dozens of the sport’s biggest whoppers and then examining their validity. It’s a bit of a bummer that most of them wind up being false or inaccurate, but the tales are generally amusing, the process is impressively thorough, and it’s an entertaining read throughout. Neyer and Bill James call these types of stories ‘tracers’ and with a nod to the two of them, I thought it might be fun to try my hand at tackling a tracer myself.
Today, we’ll examine a story about Gates Brown. Brown is a notable part of baseball history for three reasons. Infamously, he will be remembered as one of two prominent Tigers who were signed out of prison in the 1960′s and 70′s (Ron LeFlore was the other). On a happier note, Tiger fans remember him fondly for his pinch-hitting exploits as a member of the club, particularly during their run to the World Series in 1968. That season, Brown hit a preposterous .455/.538/.818 with three home runs in fifty-two plate appearances off the bench, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest pinch hitters of all time.
The third reason for Brown’s lasting fame is the Hot Dog Story. According to the legend, Brown found himself, as usual, on the bench for the start of a game on August 7th, 1968. At some point in the contest, Brown got hungry and grabbed a couple of hot dogs. Unfortunately for Brown, manager Mayo Smith summoned him to hit immediately after retrieving his meal, and he stuffed the heavily topped dogs in his shirt to avoid the ire of his skipper. We’ll let Brown tell the rest:
“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate. But this was one time I didn’t want to get a hit. I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second—head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me.
“The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.” After fining Brown $100, Smith said, “What the hell were you doing eating on the bench in the first place?” Brown: “I decided to tell him the truth. I said, ‘I was hungry. Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house!’”
I hadn’t heard this story until just recently, and I have to admit, I got a good chuckle out of it. But the inner history major in me was skeptical about the tale, and I decided to go back and check Brown’s memory.
It turns out that while Detroit did have a game on August 7th, Brown didn’t feature in the contest, a comfortable 6-1 win for the Tigers over Cleveland. He did have a double a day earlier against the Indians, but there are reasons to doubt that this was the game in question as well. Brown received a rare start that night, indicating that his at-bat couldn’t have caught him by surprise while he was on the bench. Moreover, his double occurred when he was leading off the sixth inning, meaning he wouldn’t have had time to wolf down a frank, and he probably wouldn’t have been foolish enough to just grab hot dogs and immediately stuff them down his shirt (or at least I think he wouldn’t have been).
From here, it gets tricky to find out which day Brown supposedly dirtied the inside of his uniform with ketchup and mustard. He hit six other doubles in 1968, one of which can be thrown out because he again started that day. Proquest searches for the other five games reveal that no readily available newspaper account of the incident exists, and I couldn’t find a mention of a specific member of an opposing team laughing hysterically after a double from Brown anywhere either. Add it all up, and it’s pretty much impossible to tell definitively when, or if, this actually happened.
Worse, even some of the mundane features of the story have different details. For example, one version of the story says that Brown got his snack from a clubhouse attendant. In another, center fielder Jim Northrup says he asked a fan to fetch hot dogs for him and Brown, which the youngster supposedly did in exchange for an autograph. In a third iteration, Brown got the food from Northrup, but didn’t smack a double, instead staining his jersey after hitting a single and subsequently diving back to first after a pick off throw. Ultimately, this story has too many moving parts to pin down. Oral history is notoriously unreliable and we shouldn’t be too surprised that we can’t officially confirm the tale.
In the end, I would guess that there’s some truth to the story. It seems likely that Brown did stuff a hot dog or two down his shirt during a ball game at some point, though I’d speculate that it probably wasn’t all that noticeable, and the ‘fielders busting a gut’ was just an embellishment (though Northrup and anyone else in the know would certainly have been howling, even if the condiments didn’t leave a mark). Whether this happened after a single, or a double, or during the 1968 season at all, we can’t know. The only thing we do know is that the references to the great staining happening on August 7th, 1968 are bogus. The rest, as is the case with many of these stories, is open to interpretation.