Baseball’s Original ‘Iron Man’

By Tony McClean
Updated: May 1, 2005

“The best catcher I ever saw was Larry Brown. A little fella, short and weighed 160. He was one of the greatest receivers in the history of black baseball. When a pop fly goes up, he was so good he never took off his mask! He wasn’t much of a hitter but he could catch the cutball, knuckleball, emeryball, anything!

— Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Long before Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken laid claim to the title as baseball’s “Iron Man”, long time Negro League catcher Larry Brown put in the groundwork for such a feat to be mentioned.

The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder from Pratt City, Alabama began his career as a 17-year-old kid in 1919 with the Birmingham Black Barons. He was regarded as one of the top defensive catchers in Negro League history.

In a playing and managing career that spanned over four decades, Brown played on over 10 teams, won three championships, and played in six East-West All-Stars Classics. He won his first title with the Chicago American Giants in 1927.

During the World Series against the Bacharach Giants, he gunned down four of the eight attempted basestealers in the series. It was sweet revenge for Brown, who was victimized for 19 steals in the Series that previous year.

But it was his “Iron Man” reputation that would become his lasting legend a few years later. While playing for the New York Lincoln Giants in 1930, Brown reportedly caught an amazing 234 games in one season.

This was an accumulation of the regular season, post season and barnstorming games as well. According to his peers, Brown was regarded as an excellent handler of pitchers. Calling games is what Brown was most known for.

During his career he caught some of the best pitchers the Negro League had to offer. Among some of his hurling teammates were Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, Willie Foster, and the legendary “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who himself was also one of the Negro League’s best behind the plate.

He described Brown as a “bull of a player. He was strong as an ox and could throw bullets to catch stealing base runners.”

While he played for several teams, Brown is most known for his time with the Memphis Red Sox. He has four stints with the Red Sox including 1923-25, 1927-29, and one season in 1931.

His final stretch in Memphis (1938-1948) was the longest and most productive of his career. That first season, he helped lead the Red Sox to the Negro League American League pennant in the first half.

His friendly, jovial manner made Brown a favorite among his teammates, and his eagerness to help young players resulted in the development of several young pitching stars for the Red Sox, including southpaw ace, Verdell Mathis.

1938 also marked the first in a string of four straight appearances (’38-’41) in the East-West All-Star Classic. While Brown was regarded as a great hitter in his day (a career .259 hitter), he had a career .308 average in the All-Star Classic.

His prowess behind the plate was so well regarded that there were rumors that he was going to be the first player to break the color line back in the 20’s. According one story, Brown was approached by the Detroit Tigers while playing winter ball in Cuba in 1924.

Some of the Detroit brass wanted Brown to stay in Cuba, learn the language, and then try to pass himself off as a Spaniard to be signed by the team. This was a practice that went on numerous times during that period.

However, Brown declined. He was fearful of being exposed by then Tiger manager and well-known racist, Ty Cobb. “I wouldn’t trust his (Cobb’s) reaction and possible explosion if I was found out”, Brown said.

Brown was also allegedly approached by Rogers Hornsby in a similar fashion later in his career, but again he declined. Brown always stated that he wasn’t afraid to play in the majors, but more afraid of the backlash.

In the mid-1940s, Brown continued with the Red Sox as player-manager until his retirement in 1948. He would reside in Memphis for the latter days of his life before he passed away at his home in 1971.

NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues; The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this story.