Will to win drove Craig Brown to become one of Minnesota’s all-time great fastpitch pitchers

Written by Bob on July 24th, 2014

1982-Craig Brown.1web Craig Brown, a left-handed pitcher from St. James, Minn. carved out a great pitching career for the James Gang of St. James, and Mankato Happy Chef. Photo BY BOB OTTO / 1982 St. James Dennis Johnson Field

SEMINOLE, FLORIDA – His speed was good, but not great. The movement on his pitches likewise.

But as for his intestinal fortitude, his work ethic, his will to win? Now that was great.

Craig Brown threw a fast-pitched softball in the 75 mph range. That wouldn’t put him in the high velocity class with ISC Hall of Famers Peter Meredith, Darren Zack and Michael White.

Or even with Minnesota Hall of Fame pitchers Leroy Jolstad, Al DeWall or Dale Root. All these aforementioned pitchers threw in the high 70s to 80s mph.

    BIG TIME GAMER

But the left-handed “Brownie” as he was known in his playing days, certainly is in the same class when it comes to the bottom line:

Winning.

He was all about that in his 27-year career. A career that began as a 12 year old in 1960 and ended in 1987 at the still young pitching age of 39.

During that span, he didn’t stray too far from his roots in St. James, Minn., where he grew up pitching at Memorial Park for the Merchants and VFW.

And later at the peak of his career, for the best team ever to come from the small town of 5,000 – the James Gang.

Comprised of mostly locally grown athletes, the James Gang was one of the best “small town” teams ever to play in the ISC and ASA Major divisions.

    TOUGH LEFTY AND RIGHTY COMBO

With lefty Brown and right-handed Charlie Engler toeing the rubber, the James Gang was always a threat to win state and regional tournaments. And they were always a threat in the ISC World Tournament and the ASA Major National Tournament.

No big-budgeted team dared take Engler or Brown lightly or the duo would knock them off their lofty perch.

St. James native Dennis Johnson watched Brown mature as a skinny 12-year-old into one of the state’s all-time great hurlers.

“Craig wasn’t scared of anybody,” said Johnson, who helped direct the state ISC travel league for about 20 years, and is an ISC Hall of Fame member. “And he had that change-up as his big pitch. It gave a lot of teams trouble, especially home-run hitting teams.”

    STANDING AMONGST GIANTS

Johnson has seen many of the great Minnesota pitchers. He rates Al DeWall, Leroy Jolstad, Dale Root, Gary Watland, John Vollmer, and Stu Morrison as his top all-time picks. And he says Brown deserves to be included with them.

“He would be in the top ten for sure,” Johnson said. “And among left-handers, I can’t think of any that would be better.”

Brown spent three years pitching for the James Gang (1981-1983), helping the team win state and regional titles and into post-season national tournaments. He compiled a personal 97-38 record.

    A SPECIAL SEASON

His best year was 1981 in which he was 41-10, had an ERA of 0.649 with 373 strikeouts in 345 1/3 innings.

“That’s the best year I ever had,” said Brown, who is retired and living in Seminole, Florida. “I really had it together that year; everything was working.”

The James Gang finished 78-26. And Engler had a terrific year at 35-13 and 1.38 ERA.

The two pitchers were the perfect compliment, along the lines of Koufax and Drysdale.

“Charlie threw a hard down ball and got a lot of ground balls,” he said. “I had the rise ball and change-up and got a lot of strikeouts and pop ups. We worked good together and won a lot of games.”

    STAR STUDDED BALL CLUB

The James Gang was filled with stars, Brown says. He lauds Don Rotert, Steve Olson, Jay Ness, Darrell Goring, Lee Patten, Trevor Nau, Bob Renne, Mark Samlaska, Gary Theisen, and Leigh Swanson, and many others who made the James Gang a feared opponent.

Brown also spent several years with a regional powerhouse in Mankato called Happy Chef (that had other various sponsors over the years). He was with Mankato from 1974-1980 (except 1976, when he pitched for Clearlake, Iowa Buttertop) before leaving for St. James in 1981.

Then when the James Gang folded after the 1983 season, he returned to Mankato for another four years before retiring in 1987.

    GREAT PITCHING STAFF

With Mankato, he shared the pitching rubber with two of the state’s greatest pitchers of all time, right-handers Dale Root and the late Leroy Jolstad.

“Leroy was so big and threw so hard,” Brown said. “Root was amazing. Dale had such a good change-up and a real hard drop ball, and he was a very strong man.”

But Brownie wasn’t so bad himself. He compiled a (approximate) record of 250-80 with Mankato. One of Mankato’s best seasons was 1977 when the team won 60 consecutive games.

“We won eight out of ten tournaments,” he said. “We had a heck of a year.”

Between the James Gang and Mankato, Brown pitched in big games against big teams on the two biggest stages in men’s fastpitch: the ISC World Tournament and the ASA Major National Championship.

Looking back, two games especially stand out.

    PETERBILT AND THE JETS

It’s 1981 and the James Gang is playing in the ASA national tournament in St. Joseph, Missouri. It’s opening night. The stands are packed with fans eager to watch the defending national champions: Seattle Peterbilt Western.

Lined up to play them was the James Gang with Brown on the rubber. It’s a game that rates second all-time on his “favorites” list.

“Seattle had something like a 110-10 record coming into the tournament,” Brown said. “They were a heck of a team with great players.”

Including a gentleman by the name of Bob Miller, who Brown still remembers.

Brown held Seattle scoreless through six innings. In the seventh, Miller stepped to the plate.

“I remember Jay Ness (third baseman) telling me ‘keep the ball away from Miller,’” Brown said. “I threw him a change-up and he golfed it over the fence. The ball never went over 10-feet off the ground and we lost 1-0.”

But there’s another game as memorable. This one Brown won.

    BROWNIE SHOOTS DOWN JETS

It’s 1978 and Mankato is playing in the ISC World Tournament in Kimberly, Wisc. After a first round win, Mankato is matched-up with the favored team in the tournament: The Lakewood, Calif. Jets.

Again, Brown gets the ball and is asked to stop an offense with the likes of Bob Aguilar and Hice Stiles in the lineup. He does. But with a good dose of luck, he admits.

“We beat Houston first and then played the Jets with Bob Todd pitching,” Brown recalls. “Lakewood loaded the bases in the first three innings. They hit the ball hard but always at someone. In the third, they loaded the bases and I hit a batter and they scored a run. Todd struck out the first 12 or 13 batters and was throwing bullets.”

“But we got two runs in the fifth and won 2-1,” Brown continued. “It was the most emotional and best game I’ve ever played in. That team was good, on the order of a Penn Corp (four-time ISC World Tournament champions). If you ask the Jets, I bet they never forgot that game.”

After knocking off the Jets, Mankato faced Atlee’s Carpets of Oklahoma City, added Brown, saying, “Leroy was throwing bullets, but then it started raining and the game was postponed.”

    INJURIES OUSTS MANKATO

So with a vanload of players, Mankato headed back to their hotel. But on the way, a drunk driver struck the van injuring several of the players. When the game resumed, Oklahoma City seized the momentum and went on to win 3-2, along with winning the championship.

“After we beat Houston and the Jets, we were in the driver’s seat,” Brown said. “But that accident shook us up. We lost to Oklahoma City and then Saginaw (Mich.) and Alan Colglazier (ISC Hall of Fame pitcher, 1994).”

Brown held Saginaw scoreless until the 11th when a routine fly ball was dropped, a run scored, and Mankato and Brown lost 1-0.

    LEGENDARY CLEARWATER BOMBERS

There were other great games and times as well. The trips to Clearwater, Florida and playing the Bombers, and facing legendary pitchers Bob Quinn and Joe Lynch stand out.

“It was 1974 and they were like 92-6,” Brown said. “We beat Joe Lynch 4-3 in the ASA Major National Tournament. Dale Root was pitching for us.Then in 1975 we payed a four-game series (in Clearwater) and they kicked our butt. But in the (1975) ASA nationals in Hayward, we beat Bob Quinn 1-0 (Root getting the win). And in 1976 we split a four-game series with them. That was the last time they invited us down (to Clearwater.) They were great, loaded with good pitchers and players.”

In his years at the top of the sport, Brown beat some other good teams as well: While pitching for Clearlake (Iowa) Buttertop in 1976, he beat Aurora Home Savings & Loan, 1-0.

Brown fondly recalls great games with Modern Piping of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; St. Paul All-American Bar; Mankato Happy Chef (when pitching for the James Gang); Buttertop of Clearlake; Penn Corp of Sioux City, Iowa…

Mankato was capable of beating any team and any pitcher in the world, except for a certain left-hander from Wisconsin.

“We couldn’t beat Bob Moore (Shenanigan’s fame) to save our life,” he says. “We would always lose 2-1 or 1-0.”

    TOUGH HITTERS GET BROWNIE

And there were a few hitters that got the best of him a time or two.

“I couldn’t get Darryl Preston (Fairmont, Minn. Merchants) out and Jeff Nessler (Mankato Happy Chef) could hit any pitcher in the country,” Brown said. “Jeff had a good eye, wasn’t fooled easily, and made good contact.

“And I remember in the Eau Claire (Wisc.) tournament, Randy Henry, of All-American Bar (St. Paul) hitting the big scoreboard in centerfield off me. He hit a change-up and it was going over the light pole when I looked back. I lost 5-2, but then beat them 3-2 to win the tournament.”

Great times, great ball games against the best the sport had to offer. And Brown usually kept his team in the game.

“Craig was always a competitor,” said Jay Ness, who played third base for the James Gang and later Mankato. “He was never afraid of any team or of challenging any player. He always thought he could win, and he had that patented change-up that fooled everyone.”

    OFF-SPEED ARTEST

Brown’s signature pitch. The pitch he relied on to compliment his rise and drop.

Don Hobbs (St. James pitcher) taught me how to throw the change-up when I was learning to pitch,” Brown said. “I practiced and practiced the change-up. It got ingrained in me to use that pitch.”

The change-up, determination, and the will to win took Brown to the top of the sport.

Now 65 and retired, he looks back on those times and wishes for more.

“Wouldn’t it be great to do that all over again?” he says.

Indeed it would Brownie.

5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Ferdi Nelissen says:

    Bob, great article, sometimes as a young player you don’t realize who you have played against. I was very fortunate as a young player to play against the James Gang twice. Both times in Fargo ND at the Holmes Classic which back then had no less than 24 teams with at least a dozen of then capable of winning it. In 1981 we lost to the James Gang and finished I believe 4th. I remember losing to a lefty that year with the Portage Dodgers, which I am now assuming was Craig Brown. As a young 21 year old I remember thinking why can’t we hit this guy. We had big 6’8″ Brian Pallister and it was a pitchers duel we lost 2-1. In 1983 I was playing for the Winnipeg Internationals and I was fortunate enough to play on a team that was capable of finishing top 4 at our Nationals. We had Cliff Bishop and Pallister toeing up and I was playing in the middle of a lineup with great players like Grant Skinner and Ron Gustafson. All 4 are Softball Manitoba Hall of Famers and two Softball Canada. As a young player in the middle of this lineup I remember playing the James Gang again at the Holmes Classic and squeaking out a 3-2 win I believe. This time we came out on top and went on to finish 2nd losing in the final to Penn Corp. Those tournaments made you better. I remember the James Gang having what I thought were great uniforms.Plus a catcher who always sprinted to cover first on every play with no one on base. If the ball went to the outfield they tried to go behind a runner rounding first. They were a fun team to play and watch. They were a team that made you better by playing them. Over the years I played the Mankato Teams much more as we started heading south to Penn Corp tournaments and I eventually played for the Minot A’s and we faced them quite a bit. As you mentioned in your article they also had great teams and pitching. Awesome Memories. I agree with Craig if only we could do it again, I am just glad I was able to do it in the hey day of the sport against players like Graig and teams like the James Gang and Mankato.

  2. Bob says:

    I remember him well, great battles against a great guy, true competitor – From Dennis Delorit, Facebook friend and 2014 ISC Hall of Fame member.

    Comment from Glen Moreland, a Facebook buddy:

    Great article Bob Otto…every young pitcher should read this….it shows the value of having a real good off speed pitch ….also shows how much you have to practisce it to develop a good one and have the confidence to use it….it captures the essence of what a pitcher should be, a competitor who keeps he team in every game and gives them a chance to win…….Nice that Craig could stay local and still develop such a fine reputation in fastball!…would have loved to watch him pitch.

  3. Tim says:

    You don’t see this anymore, man there were a lot of great pitchers and players back then. Now if I go to a tourney and I see one guy throw hard I wonder where he came from.

  4. Bob says:

    Agreed Tim. I’m usually wondering if he’s a Kiwi, Aussie or South American.

  5. Bob says:

    Great memory Ferdi, and yes that would have been Craig the lefty you faced. I always said if I had to pick a pitcher on guts alone to pitch the “big game,” he would be my choice. He was fearless, and if he didn’t get the start in the big game, he was wondering why. He never hid from a battle or was afraid of any team.

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