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Panelists dust off Brown's legacy

Panelists dust off Brown's legacy

Raymond Brown is one of the forgotten men of black baseball.

Maybe not for much longer, though.

Brown, a star pitcher in the first half of the 20th century, has now found himself under the spotlight of immortality. He is one of 39 players and executives from black baseball being considered for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A panel of 12 baseball historians and Negro League experts will decide which of the 39 candidates are inducted.

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The 12 panelists will announce their decision Feb. 27 in Tampa. Of the people on their ballot, Brown might be the most deserving of enshrinement.

"Here's a guy with a great curveball, with great control and a great fastball who was probably the key pitcher for the Homestead Grays, who from, what -- '37 to 1945 or something, won nine Negro League pennants in a row," said Robert Ruck, an authority on the Negro Leagues and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "And he was their ace."

But who today remembers Raymond Brown?

Not many people. Most of them might confuse Raymond Brown with Buster Brown or Bobby Brown or the Brown Derby. Raymond Brown deserves better.

Born in Ashland Grove, Ohio, in 1908, he pitched in the Negro Leagues for 19 seasons. In his career with the Grays, Brown carved out a reputation, to use a contemporary term, as a "gamer." He had all the tools of the trade, and many who played against him ranked Brown as one of the top pitchers they had seen.

"He was somebody you had to take notice of," said the late Wilmur Fields, a Negro League pitcher and a teammate of Brown's. "As far as rating him No. 1, 2, 3 or 4, where you might rate him, I don't know. But he was a great pitcher."

Few who saw Brown pitch would argue to the contrary.

"He was almost unbeatable," Monte Irvin, a Negro League and Major League star whose career took him to the Hall of Fame, once said. "Raymond Brown, not only was he a great pitcher, he could hit. He could run and he'd play the outfield when he wasn't pitching."

How good was Brown?

black history month 2006

In the early '70s, a group of Negro League players and owners got together and picked the players that they thought, hands down, should be inducted into Cooperstown. Their list had 25 names on it, and Brown's name was one of them.

It might have been impossible for any of them to leave Brown's name off such a list. He deserved his place there for talent alone, and his longevity simply strengthened his case for inclusion.

Brown was a year-round performer, barnstorming the country and pitching Winter Ball in Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere.

"He was like a national hero in Puerto Rico," said Todd Bolton, a Negro League historian for the Society for American Baseball Research. "They loved him down there." They had good reasons for that, because they watched a pitcher perform whose career never took a big dip in quality.

Brown, who married Grays owner Cum Posey's daughter, strung together season after season of performances that made him the cornerstone of one of the finest dynasties in the history of sports.

With the Grays, he had winning streaks of 28 and 27 games.

"He was the top pitcher on our roster," said Fields, who roomed with Brown on road trips. "You could find no greater competitor than he was, I'll tell you that. Yeah, he was something else."

Yet his career is lost in the bright glow of more celebrated teammates. As a member of the Grays, Brown played alongside a Who's Who list of Negro League stars, such as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Leroy "Satchel" Paige. Those men are all Hall of Famers. Brown is not, which Fields was quick to call an injustice.

"I think he should be there," Fields said. "But that's the setup that they got at Cooperstown, so you don't know what to expect."

Ruck echoed these sentiments about Brown and his worthiness for induction into Cooperstown.

"Some guys -- Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams -- they had a legend," said Ruck, whose TV documentary "Kings of the Hill: Baseball's Forgotten Men" chronicled the Negro Leagues." "A guy like Raymond Brown just went out and won."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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