I remember Joe Brovia
very well. I don't mean that I remember seeing him play, because I wasn't fortunate enough to see him clout a single one of his monster home runs.
Since I grew up in Flint, Michigan, and graduated from Kearsley High in 1958, I never learned about Brovia's
baseball career until long after he retired.
Instead, I met the Pacific Coast League legend through the mail. Unfortunately, Brovia
is no longer alive to write to the baseball fans that he loved so much. The big slugger passed away on August 15, 1994, after a painful battle with cancer.
In a 1968 article for Joe's
hometown Santa Cruz Sentinel, Paula Cunningham wrote: "Brovia
was a ball player who lived, dreamed, and ate baseball all his life. A scribe once in all seriousness wrote of him, 'Joe, I am convinced, would sell his mother or wife for a base hit. Brovia
was the most single-tracked guy with a bat in his hands that Western baseball has ever seen.'"
has been a cult hero on the West Coast for years," Dave Newhouse of the Oakland Tribune observed in 1994. During Dave's youth, his father often had taken him to Coast League games, where Brovia
became the youngster's favorite player.
Newhouse was hardly alone: Brovia, a hard-swinging left-handed power hitter who could launch baseballs nearly into orbit, was the favorite of thousands of PCL fans.
In later years Joe
received letters daily from older fans, along with requests for autographs from younger people who recently had read about his hitting exploits.
Encouraged by his wife Cathy, after they were married in 1971, Joe
took a renewed interest in his fans. He would carefully answer each letter with a handwritten one of his own. Usually he sent along a signed 4x6 picture of himself (example on right) in the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he played briefly in 1955. In fact, he mailed out about 200 of his photos in 1994 alone.
By then Brovia
had battled health problems and tough luck for years, but his spirits remained strong. The outline of his career reads like a novel of great but not-quite-fulfilled expectations:
Began pro baseball as a pitcher, after signing a contract four
months before graduating from Santa Cruz, California, High
School in 1940
Batted .311 lifetime in 1,805 games in the minor leagues, and
produced 1,846 hits, 214 home runs, and 1,144 RBI
Batted .304 lifetime over his 12 seasons in the Coast League,
blasting 174 homers and batting in 828 runs
Batted .111 for 21 games in 39 days for Cincinnati in 1955,
hitting two singles, walking three times, and driving home 4
runs in 18 plate appearances, all as a pinch-hitter
Selected to the Italian Hall of Fame in 1980, joining PCL and
major league greats such as Joe DiMaggio
Honored with many other PCL players by the San Francisco
Giants in April 1994 at Candlestick Park, where he received
the greatest ovation of all
Dennis Snelling published a fascinating profile of Joe Brovia
in his excellent book, A Glimpse of Fame (1993). I first summarized Brovia's
career in an article for Oldtyme Baseball News in 1994.
Here is the story for Joe's
fans, then and now:
Brovia, whose baseball career spanned from 1940 until he retired after the 1956-57 winter season in Mexico, made his final appearance in 1968. That summer he played in a Seals-Acorns "old-timers" game, along with former PCL greats such as Gene Woodling, best known as a champion Yankee, Dino Restelli
(Pirates), Hugh Luby
(Giants), Mickey Rocco
(Indians), and the DiMaggio brothers, Joe, Dom, and Vince. It would be Joe's last performance.
Many of those former teammates recalled Brovia's
greatest moment in baseball. On April 19, 1947, batting against Seattle pitcher Sig Jakucki, a starter for the St. Louis Browns in 1944 and 1945, Brovia crushed a 560-foot-plus home run over the 40-foot high centerfield fence in Seals Stadium. It is considered one of the longest homers in PCL history.
During the 1970s Brovia
had back surgery and had both hips replaced, which left him bedridden for several years. Thanks to the work and inspiration of Cathy, he finally learned to walk again, at first with crutches.
I first came to know Brovia
by writing to him on December 23, 1993, after reading Snelling's A Glimpse of Fame. On January 2, 1994, in response to my inquiry about his "cup of coffee" with Cincinnati, Brovia
(writing, as usual, in ballpoint pen on a standard writing pad) commented, "You are right, Jim, I did not get a break in the majors. Birdie Tebbetts
and the news media in Cincy did not like me because of my age, 33. I had three strikes on me before I got started."
had mentioned attending an exhibition game that Detroit and Cincinnati played in Flint in August 1955. Was that the only game which Brovia
started, slugging a double and a homer?
"The homer and double I hit against Detroit," Brovia
wrote, "was hit in Cincy. We went on the road after that. Gus Bell
[his roommate] said, 'Joe, Birdie
should play you now.' We had three outfielders who were hurt. I asked Tebbetts
if I could play. We were playing the Giants in the Polo Grounds in New York.
said to me, 'You are a liability in the outfield. We bought you to pinch hit.'
"That took everything out of me," wrote the old slugger.
After telling me about his recently-discovered tumors, Brovia
thanked me for writing and returned the "One Time Winners" Brovia card (example below-left) that I sent, along with his picture, both signed and personalized. "Your baseball friend always," was the way Joe signed off.
wrote back to Brovia
with additional comments about his career, and I sent him SABR's 1992 volume of Minor League Stars, which contained his stats and pictured his longtime friend, Chuck Connors, on the cover.
On January 18 Brovia
thanked me for the book, saying, "You know what makes baseball such a great game? It is people like yourself that really love the game."
About his late friend, better known as TV's "Rifleman," Joe said, "I am also happy to see Chuck Connors
on the front cover. He was one hell of a nice person. I had the pleasure of playing against Chuck
when I was with Portland in the PCL. He was playing for the Los Angeles Angels. That is how he launched his career on television and the movies."
Again I replied, this time with more questions about his PCL career and about Connors.
responded back on February 11, I knew we were baseball friends. After telling me about his health and the nasty winter, he gave me a Chuck Connors
was playing first base for Los Angeles and I was playing for Portland. This was in 1952. A hard-throwing left-hander was pitching. I hit a shot up the middle. It was knocked down by Gene Mauch, who was playing second base. Gene
rolls over and is flat on his back and lobs it over to Chuck, and I beat the play.
looks up at the scoreboard and he says, 'Joe, they gave you an error on the ball.' I said, 'It figures. They figure I can't run.'
"The next time I came up I hit a three-run homer, crossed home plate, grabbed my balls, and yelled at the scorekeeper, 'You can't take that one away from me!'
"Bill Sweeny, our manager, fined me $50, because there were 25,000 fans in the ballpark who saw everything"!
referred me to A Glimpse of Fame for more information about him. Joe indicated he was still receiving letters from fans all over the country who said they had read about him in Snelling's book.
Once more I wrote, this time enclosing copies of a couple of older clippings I had located about Brovia's
career-one of which Dave Newhouse had written in 1977.
On February 27 Brovia
thanked me for the Newhouse articles and told me about Dave, whom he had come to know in the 1970s:
"His Dad used to take him from Menlo Park to Seals Stadium. I guess Dave was about 10 years old, and he used to love to watch me hit.
"I used to really rip that ball in batting practice. When I got into a game, if I got the right pitch, I would really rip that ball apart.
"Dave wrote for the Oakland Tribune, and he always admired my bat because I seldom struck out and I always got good wood on the ball. He also was on K.N.B.R. as a [San Francisco] Giants commentator. He had me on his program, because I hit the first home run ever hit out of Seals Stadium in center field, over the top of the fence in center. One sportswriter estimated the drive to be 560 feet from home plate, and the fence (404 feet from home) was 40 feet high. Willie Mays
later said, 'That's a $10 ride in a cab.'
"I remember it because it was hit against a major league pitcher [Sig Jakucki] coming down to the PCL to try to get his control back in order."
Joe added, "I just got a letter from the Giants. They want me to go up to a game between the Oakland A's and the Giants on April 2. They are going to honor the Pacific Coast League for its 50th
"I told them I sure would like to be there. Hope I have a good day so I can enjoy it." Happy about the invitation, he added, "P.S. Going to get a jersey and a cap."
I did not write again for about a month, because, between teaching and other duties, I was researching Brovia's
career through old newspapers on microfilm, including the Portland Oregonian and the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Replying to my letter on March 21, Brovia
listed a number of former major leaguer pitchers who began, or ended, their careers in the Coast League-all of whom he batted against, including Mel Queen, Max Surkont, Vic Raschi, Tommy Byrne, Rex Barney, and Warren Hacker.
recalled the time he smashed a Bob Feller
fastball back up the middle in an exhibition game played in the Bay Area in the spring of 1948. Feller
fell down on his back to avoid the line drive, and Joe said he was glad his shot didn't hit Cleveland's ace.
How much better was the quality of baseball between the majors and the PCL?
"The difference I saw," Joe observed, referring to 1955, "was you lose one hit a week in the majors, and you pick up one extra hit a week in the PCL. And you see seven good pitchers a week in the majors, and you face six good ones in the PCL."
I had asked about his enormous home run in Seals Stadium in 1947. Brovia described it, and said: "Some say it was hit 560 feet. But it was the first home run ever hit over the center field fence there. When I hit the ball, I could feel the bat give in or kind of bend in my hands.
"I could not buy a beer or pay for my meals. Everything was on the restaurants for about a month. People could just not believe it. Anyway, the ball ended up hitting a drunk on Potrero Avenue, and he gave it away for a gallon of wine!
"The ball club put up a star with my name on it where the ball left the park. The Giants came to town and they played two years at Seals Stadium. That's when Willie Mays
saw the star, and he said that was a $10 cab ride.
"When they tore the fence down, I did not get the star with my name on it, and the fans in San Francisco were pretty mad about it. The next thing I knew they gave me a night and honored me with a star, which was made out of plywood with my name on it.
"It was a very emotional night for me. They had about 400 fans and Joe Orengo as the master of ceremonies. He presented it to me. Sports History had a nice article about me and the homer in 1988. The writer said it was hit 560 feet and compared it to Mickey Mantle's
home run in Griffith Stadium in D.C.
"Jim, you asked why did I not hit more home runs in Seals Stadium? It was a big park, 375 feet to left center, 404 to center, and 365 to right center, and you always had the wind to contend with. The wind always blew in.
"I also played seven years of winter baseball in the Mexican PCL. They carried 9 Americans, 6 major league ball players, and 3 triple-A ball players. The major league players were mostly pitchers. I faced Jim Bunning, Mel Queen, Gene Bearden, Paul Foytack, Al Cicotte, Red Munger, and I could go on and on.
"Remember, in 1957, my last year with Hermosillo in the Mexican League, I led the league with a .355 batting average, and led the league in home runs and runs batted in. I was 37 years old in 1957, and it was my last year in baseball."
also said that he received four tickets for the April 2nd Giants-Oakland game designed to honor the PCL. "I am happy about that, because to me it was a great league. People still talk about the league and also remember the one I hit over the centerfield fence."
That was my last complete letter from Brovia.
Joe's wife Cathy wrote on May 7 and told of her husband's declining health and their search for better doctors, indicating that Joe was facing kidney surgery.
Cathy Brovia also described the April 2 events at Candlestick Park. Several former PCL players were driven onto the field and introduced, with a background of 1950s music. One by one the old-timers' names were flashed up on the big screen scoreboard.
On the afternoon of April 17, Joe and four Coast League greats formed a panel at the new Oakland PCL Museum. The men answered questions for museum officials and for the audience, which grew to over 350 people before the session ended.
"Roger Asenbaugh had the audience in stitches," Cathy wrote, "when he told about the first time he pitched to this stupid-looking Joe Brovia. The guy came to the plate, cap pulled down over his eyes, bat behind him, with only the tip of the bat showing behind his cap. Asenbaugh said, 'I'll get this S.O.B. out quick,' and threw him a fastball, and over the fence it went-a home run! His stories were endless, and the crowd loved it."
Writing at the end of Cathy's letter, Joe thanked me for sending the Sentinel articles.
"Finally went to San Francisco on April 2," Brovia
wrote, "and to the Oakland Museum on April 17, but did not feel very good. They did talk about how nobody could throw the fast ball by me, which made me feel pretty good."
Joe made a few brief comments and then wrote, "Jim, that's all for now, don't feel too well, have to have surgery in the morning.
"Best to you, Jim, its always a pleasure to hear from you.
"Your baseball friend always, [signed] Joe Brovia."
My next Brovia
letter came from Cathy on June 26, and she explained that her husband's problems were multiplying. She also sent two snapshots, one of herself and Joe and another showing the name Joe Brovia
on Candlestick Park's big screen on April 2, 1994.
Dave Newhouse had summarized his longtime favorite's health in a column on August 8, 1993. Brovia had lived through four back surgeries in the 1970s, which left him bedridden for four years. Then he endured two hip implants, which, along with Joe's
rehabilitation program, finally allowed him to walk with a leg brace by 1980. But in June of 1993, doctors discovered a malignant chest tumor, and he received more than 30 radiation treatments.
has a wonderful wife, Cathy, warm memories and a remarkable culthood that continues. He is just facing the toughest curveball of his life.
"'If it happens, it happens,' [Brovia] said nervously. 'I won't be the first, I won't be the last.'
"The Davenport Destroyer deserves a break," Newhouse concluded.
In the end, Joe
didn't get the break for which Newhouse and Brovia's
friends hoped and prayed. His ninth inning ended in mid-August, 1994, as mail from fans, friends, and relatives arrived daily at the Brovia
home on Acadia Avenue in Santa Cruz.
Still, Joltin' Joe
realized that he had gotten a bigger break: he finally won the respect and recognition from historians, sportswriters, and fans that he so long deserved.
World War II, in 1943, and an appendectomy, in 1948, took away Brovia's
two shots at big league fame while he was young enough to make it in the Big Show.
Later, in 1955, he could not live up to Cincinnati's great expectations of him as a pinch-hitter.
But for 12 remarkable seasons during the glory years of the Pacific Coast League, the Davenport Destroyer, the small-town-boy-made-good, often excited thousands of spectators with his legendary hitting, as well as his down-home personality.
As long as organized baseball is played, fans, observers, and writers will love great characters like Joe Brovia, who will be our baseball friend always.