In his heyday, Raymond Brown was on top of the Negro League baseball world. He was the Sunday pitcher for the Homestead Grays and played outfield when not on the hill. He was selected to tour with the Negro National League All Stars in 1936, a contingent that included five future Hall of Famers. Articles in the Pittsburgh Courier and The New York Daily News suggested that he was one of a handful of Negro Leaguers who could help major league teams win pennants. Hall of Famer Hilton Smith ranked him with Bob Feller and Satchel Paige as a talent.
Yet over time his memory and acclaim would fade. When Brown finally hung up the glove after the 1953 season in Canada, he melted into obscurity. He wound up in Dayton, Ohio, working for the Standard Biscuit Company in the carton division. Upon his death in February 1965, the Dayton Daily News obituary made no mention of his baseball career. Both The Sporting News weekly paper and The 1966 Sporting News Guide failed to mention his demise. It took more than three decades, but Ray finally got the recognition he deserved. The Cuban Hall of Fame inducted him in 1998 and in 2006 came the call to Cooperstown.
Ray’s father, Edgar Brown, was born and raised in west central Ohio. In 1907, at the age of 26, he married 40 year-old Martha Chaves. Martha was a native of North Carolina who had moved to Ohio. According to the 1910 census she had ten children from a previous marriage, but it is unclear if she was a widow or divorced. The same census lists five of these children (three boys and two girls) as residing with the couple. Edgar and Martha’s first child together was Raymond G., born on February 5, 1908. The family lived in Hardin County, Ohio, in McDonald Township which was just southeast of the town of Alger. A second son, Paul H., was born in 1909. Work was plentiful in the region for a laborer like Edgar because it was “the onion shipping capital of the world.” The 1920 census lists Edgar more specifically as a farm laborer, making a living tilling the rich, black soil. By 1920, the family had moved slightly west into Marion Township, just south of Alger. Raymond and Paul would both attend and graduate from Alger High School. Raymond was part of the 19-student Class of 1926.
Alger high school was a Class B school (the category for schools with the smallest enrollment) when it came to sports. They fielded a baseball team, but game reports in the newspapers are very spotty and lack box scores. One 1926 account mentions that a Brown caught in a 15-5 loss to Mt. Victory. Alger also competed each winter in basketball. Some accounts of Brown’s life suggest that the 6’1”, 195-pounder was an excellent basketball player. This may be the case, but the Alger team was never very good. From 1924 to 1926 the Alger squad was eliminated in the first round of the eight-team County Class B tournament. Scores of those games were 30-8, 21-8 and 16-12.
After high school Ray is reported to have attended Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. A check of the yearbooks and catalogs that remain give no indication that Brown was a student or baseball player at the school. Wilberforce was coached by I.S. Lane, who played in the Negro National League and certainly would have recognized a talent like Brown. Ray appears in the 1930 census working as a foundry laborer in Dayton, Ohio. He resided with his half-sister Mary Bronson and her husband Roy. John Mathews of the Dayton Marcos invited Brown to join his team in 1930. The Marcos were no longer in the Negro Leagues, but barnstormed against both black and white teams in the Midwest. One of the earliest clippings on Ray comes from late June, when he was beaten 5-0 by the Lexington, Kentucky Hustlers. This must have been one of his few defeats, because the Pittsburgh Courier later listed the Marco’s record as 23-4. In early August the Marcos defeated the Dayton Shroyers 10-1 behind Ray’s superb pitching. The Shroyers were the Ohio amateur champions and had beaten the Marcos in an earlier matchup.
Brown moved on to the Indianapolis ABC’s in 1931. The next year he joined the Detroit Wolves, playing the outfield and hurling. He was often the third or cleanup batter in the lineup. Cum Posey, owner of the Grays, took note of Brown and acquired him in late July. Brown possessed fine speed on his fastball, a sinker, a good slider, and a knee-buckling curveball that he had confidence to throw no matter the count on the hitter. Late in his career as his speed began to fade, he even added a knuckleball to his repertoire. Given his strong arm, fine pitch assortment, and pinpoint control, Brown became an integral part of the Grays staff. The 1933 Grays went to Wheeling, West Virginia for training and then toured Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ray got the assignment on April 30 against the Columbus Bluebirds, who were playing their first-ever league game. He lashed three hits, including a triple, and won 5-2.
The season took a sudden turn on July 1 when the Grays left the league. Some accounts claim they were suspended for raiding the Detroit roster. Posey claims that they withdrew from the league before any vote was taken. The Negro Leagues Bookcredits Brown with a 6-1 record. The only blemish was an 8-4 loss to Baltimore on June 17. The Grays had no league affiliation again in 1934. Posey’s squad played all comers. In early June, Ray smashed a home run to defeat the American Giants from Chicago, who were the first half champs of the NNL.
The Grays returned to the NNL in 1935, and Ray turned in a 12-3 record on the mound. He also played in the outfield. In the prime of his career he was occasionally the cleanup hitter, but more frequently batted fifth. Ray saw action with the Grays only in the first half of the 1936 season. At mid-season he joined the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and “Cool Papa” Bell to form the Negro National League All Stars. The Denver Post sponsored a tournament that had been integrated since 1934 and offered a cash prize of $5000 to the winning team. The plan was to enter in Denver, Wichita and wherever else the squad could earn money. The All Stars swept the Denver competition in seven games. Their performance was so overwhelming that they were denied a spot in a similar tournament in Wichita. Instead they went on tour in Puerto Rico.
That winter, Brown journeyed to Cuba and joined the Santa Clara Leopardos team. On November 17, he earned his first victory by tossing a no-hitter against Havana. This instant fame demanded a nickname and soon Ray was christenedJabao (ha-BA-o), which means freckled or lightly colored. A month later (December 16) he faced Havana again and squared off with Luis Tiant Sr. in an 11-inning masterpiece that Havana won 1-0 when a Santa Clara outfielder dropped a flyball. Brown was incensed and demanded to pitch the second game of the doubleheader. He even went so far as to threaten to quit the team if he was not given a chance to start. His manager relented and Ray proceeded to spin a complete game, five-hit shutout. In 20 innings on the mound he had surrendered only eight hits and no earned runs.
When not pitching, Brown, a switch-hitter, played in the field and posted a .311 average. Santa Clara went into the last series of the season with a three game lead over Marianao and their star, Martín Dihigo. The Leopardos needed only one win and it was thought that Brown would not be matched against Dihigo in the first game of the series, but instead used in a later game. For whatever reason, management decided to send Ray against Dihigo in game one and Marianao won. The Leopardos dropped the next two games and found themselves in a tie with Marianao. A three-game playoff was arranged in Havana and once again Brown and Dihigo squared off in Game One. This time Jabao pitched the better game, got a couple of hits, scored a run and won 6-1. Marianao took game two and set up a Game Three rematch of Dihigo and Brown. Dihigo cemented his place as player of the year by winning 7-3.
Back in the States for 1937, Ray went 3-2 in nine games on the hill for the Grays, who went 21-9 and captured the first-half pennant. The popular legend of Ray Brown states that he was married on July 4, 1935, at home plate. The Pittsburgh Courier from June 12, 1937, debunks this myth. Ethel Posey – the owner’s daughter – and Ray were wed the previous Saturday. Brown did postpone the honeymoon long enough to pitch a 12-1 win that afternoon. The couple would have one child, Truman Posey Brown, born in 1942, before the marriage ended in divorce. Ray returned to Cuba and won 12 decisions to lead Santa Clara to the title in 1937-38. Overall, he spent five winters in Cuba and posted a 46-20 record with 57 complete games. He also compiled a .266 average in 353 at bats.
In 1938, Ray had an All-Star season, but turned down the chance to appear in the All-Star game. His 10-2 record led the Grays to the pennant. That winter Brown went to both Puerto Rico and Cuba for winter ball. Success may have gone to his head, because he got into a contract dispute with the Grays over his 1939 pay. Ray headed to Mexico, but he returned late in the season to win four games for the champion Grays. The winter of 1939-40 was spent with San Juan in the Puerto Rican League, where he went undefeated.
Brown was now at the pinnacle of his career. His 1940 season was nothing short of amazing. James Riley’s research lists him at 18-3 with a 2.53 ERA. The SABR Negro Leagues Book has him at 24-4 on the hill and batting .319. He was named to the All-Star team, and unlike 1938, this time he took the mound to finish an 11-0 victory. His magic continued in 1941 as he amassed a 27-game winning streak against all levels of competition. In league competition Brown once again topped 10 wins. He closed out the season by tossing a shutout to beat the New York Cubans in the deciding game of the playoffs. He added an exclamation point to his performance by gathering three hits including a homer. That winter Ray went to Ponce in the Puerto Rican league and won 12 games with a league-leading 1.80 ERA.
Brown and the Grays continued to win pennants through the 1945 season. They lost some of their prominence to Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs who swept them in the 1942 World Series, but bounced back to be champions in 1943 and 1944. Ray was showing signs of wearing down and seldom played the field. There was some grumbling about the favoritism his father-in-law showed to him. Yet he had enough left in the arm to toss a shutout in the 1944 playoffs, beating Birmingham 9-0 on September 21. He allowed only a second inning single to Ted Radcliffe. In 1945 he made his final statement for immortality by tossing a seven-inning perfect game against the Chicago American Giants. Brown’s final appearance with the Grays was on September 20 when he was the losing pitcher in the Game Four playoff finale to the Cleveland Buckeyes.
The following spring Ray joined many American players, both black and white, lured south to the Mexican League by the money being offered. It was still a year before Jackie Robinson crossed the color line, but jumping to Mexico cost the 38-year-old whatever outside chance he may have had of making the major leagues, since the jumpers were ineligible to play in Organized Baseball until Commissioner Happy Chandler rescinded the ban in June 1949. Unfortunately, insight is lacking on what Brown may have said or felt about integration and playing in the majors.
Brown spent three summers with Tampico and then joined Mexico City in 1949. He compiled a 51-36 mark with a 3.31 ERA during those four seasons. In the winter of 1947 he was coaxed to play for Maracaibo in the Venezuelan league by a salary offer of $1,500 a month. The next season he returned to Venezuela and managed Caracas.
Like others from the outlaw Mexican League, and a good many African-American players, Ray moved north in 1950 and played for Sherbrooke in the Canadian Provincial League. He lost his first five decisions, but then came alive in the playoffs. He won three games, but suffered the loss in the finale. At the plate he posted a .353 average. It appears that Brown took a liking to life in Quebec. He married a French-Canadian woman and worked for Ingersoll-Rand in the offseason. In 1951 he signed on with Sherbrooke again. He started 19 games and saw plenty of action in relief. He also pinch-hit and played occasionally in the field. On the mound he was 11-10, at bat he hit .193 over 62 games. Sherbrooke won the pennant that season. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the grandstand shortly after the conclusion of the season, shutting down the franchise.
With no baseball in Sherbrooke in 1952, Ray joined his manager and some teammates in the Quebec Senior League/Laurentian League, which was not part of Organized Baseball. Ray played for the Thetford Miners and spun a 16-5 record. The owners were so overjoyed with the team’s performance that they joined the Provincial League for 1953, but did not offer Ray a contract. Instead Brown found employment as the player/manager of the Lachine Indians in the Laurentian League. He guided the team to a pennant and posted a 13-5 won-loss record. At the end of the season he joined the Thetford Miners who hoped he could help them make the playoffs. Brown won his only decision in two outings and the team made the playoffs in fourth place. Ray had been signed too late to make the playoff roster, so those two games marked the end of his career.
Brown’s second marriage also ended in divorce and he returned to Dayton in 1958. He worked for Standard Biscuit until his death on February 8, 1965. Daytonians who knew Brown said he was a pleasant, quiet man. He never spoke of his baseball career, in sharp contrast to some of his contemporaries, although he died before Negro Leagues researchers began actively seeking out interviews. After Brown’s selection to Cooperstown, Tom Archdeacon of the Dayton Daily News ran a series of articles about the Hall of Famer buried in Dayton’s Greencastle Cemetery. Private citizens banded together and placed a fitting tombstone on Brown’s grave in July 2008. Another posthumous honor came in May 2011, when the City of Pittsburgh placed signs along the Homestead Grays Bridge honoring the greats like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Ray Brown.