‘Brownie’ Lives On In Hearts Of Baseball Buffs: Memorial Fund Honors Negro League Pitcher, Hall of Fame Inductee

By Tom Archdeacon
Updated: August 7, 2006

Ray Brown (photo courtesy of NLBPA)

Ray Brown (photo courtesy of NLBPA)

DAYTON, Oh. — He remembers the first black man — the only black man — he met while growing up in his all-white Miamisburg surroundings in the 1950s and early ’60s.

“His name was Brownie. He and my grandfather were friends and they’d come to my great aunt and uncle’s farm in Jefferson Township,” said Farmersville realtor and auctioneer Doug Sorrell. “My grandfather ran the carton division at Sunshine Biscuits and Brownie worked there.

“As I think back to those times and what a unique friendship that was, I believe part of their bond was built on baseball.”

Doug said his grandfather — Art Sorrell — had been a catcher with the Dayton Ducks, and his dad, Billy, was drafted by the New York Giants before World War II and Philadelphia after it.

Following spring training with the Phillies, Billy was offered a minor league contract by the club and a big ultimatum by his girlfriend, Dorla Yoder.

“Mom told him it was either baseball or her,” Doug laughed. “They were married 56 years when he died a couple years ago. He used to always tease, ‘If I’d stuck (with baseball), I might be managing the Reds today.”

It was against that baseball background that Doug met Brownie, and the two often played pitch at the farm.

“He was a pleasant man, but I never knew his full name or anything about his past,” Doug said. “Then I read the story last week about Ray Brown, the Negro League pitcher going into the Hall of Fame and being buried in that unmarked grave (at Green Castle Cemetery) here in Dayton.

“When I saw he worked at Sunshine Biscuits, a light went on. Brownie? Ray Brown? It had to be the same guy. Right then I knew I had to do something so he wouldn’t be forgotten.”

Many people — people who care about their fellow man, people who love baseball, people who have had good things happen to them — feel the same way, so Fifth Third Bank has agreed to help. Starting Wednesday, each of the bank’s 62 branches will begin accepting donations to the Ray Brown Memorial Fund.

Back in May, before the groundswell began, Nita Jennings read another column on Brown and sent money directly to the cemetery where it’s being held.

“I’m just an old lady — I’m almost 80 — but I wanted to do something because I fell in love with the game when I was a little girl.

“My daddy took me to everything. We were very poor, we didn’t have a car, but we rode the street car to Ducks Park and other places in town. I remember seeing Satchel Paige, Johnny Vander Meer, Frank McCormick, a lot of ballplayers here.

“When I was 11, I won a radio contest (Dayton Daily News sports editor) Si Burick had. It was done like a spelling bee. They’d ask things like what’s so-and-so’s batting average and I had a lot of facts and figures in my head. For winning I got two ($1.75) tickets to the All-Star game in Cincinnati and $5. We took the Greyhound there, bought a program for 25 cents, ate hot dogs and came home with change.”

She studied her young-girl penmanship from her line-up card that day and read off the names of some of the greats she saw: Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Leo Durocher, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, Hack Wilson, Mel Ott, Ernie Lombardi…

“You always remember the great ball players,” she said. “Ray Brown should be remembered, too.”

As for Dayton attorney Steve Dankof, his interest in the Negro Leagues was spurred by his son, Steve Jr., who played on the Oakwood High School team that won state in 1997.

“His baseball got him to Yale and that got him to law school at Ohio State,” said Dankof, whose son just passed the bar and will begin work with top Dayton attorney Dave Greer.

“A lot of people took an interest in my son along the way, so you do the same,” Dankof said. “And for his senior thesis, Steve wrote about the Negro Leagues. He educated me on the guys left on the fringes, guys like Ray Brown.”

Born in the small Hardin County town of Alger, Brown attended Wilberforce University and played his entire Negro League career with the Pittsburgh-based Homestead Grays.

A right-hander with a vicious curve, he threw a perfect game against the Chicago American Giants, one-hit Birmingham in the Negro League World Series and no-hit the New York Yankees in Puerto Rico.

He led the Grays to eight pennants in nine years, ended up second in the Negro Leagues’ lifetime winning percentage, fifth in victories and was just as big a star in Cuba and is in its Hall of Fame.

On July 4, 1935, he married Ethel Posey — daughter of Grays’ owner Cum Posey — in a ceremony at home plate. Although that union would eventually end in divorce — Brown would go on to Canada and eventually settle in Dayton from the mid-1950s until his death in 1965 — it did produce one child, Truman Posey Brown, who is now 64, mentally handicapped and lives near Pittsburgh. Ethel died several years ago.

At last Sunday’s Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, where Cum Posey also was enshrined, Truman was escorted onto the stage by cousin Michael Flagg and accepted his dad’s award.

Another cousin in attendance, Nancy Boxill, a Fulton County (Ga.) commissioner, said she’d heard family stories of Ray Brown, but had never known him and had no idea he was buried in Dayton in an unmarked grave. Once she heard how the community is responding, she said she hopes the family can join the effort:

“It sounds like people there really want to do something special.”

She’s right and Dankof, like many of us, thinks this effort could be something people in the community could be proud of.

From the people who already have asked to take part — those making financial pledges to a guy who’d like to help the cash-strapped cemetery keep the grass mowed around Brown’s grave — I’ve heard plenty of stories of neighborly embrace and love of baseball.

And that reminded me of something Nita Jennings said as she gleefully recounted that contest she won so many years ago,

“Just a little girl beating all those folks,” she laughed, “I was quite the talk of the town back then…. That’s probably my best baseball moment.”

Until now.