Brittain, Gus

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Wilmington

First, Middle Names: August Schuster   Nicknames: Shuny

Date of Birth:  Nov. 29, 1909 Date and Place of Death: Feb. 16, 1974
Burial: Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington

High School: New Hanover High School, Wilmington    

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 192
Debut Year: 1937       Final Year: 1937          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Cincinnati Reds, 1937

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
3          6          1          0          0          0          .167     .167     .167     -0.1

Gus Brittain was undeniably one tough SOB. A baseball player who knew him well was once riding on a train that hit a car. This is how he described the awful grinding and crunching of metal: “Sounds like Gus Brittain is under the train.”[I]

Though he spent only two months in the major leagues, Brittain, like so many players of his era, had a long career in the minors as a player, coach or manager. From the Piedmont League to the Sally League, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Trenton, New Jersey, Brittain left a trail of suspensions and fines for feuding with umpires and fighting with players, even those on his own team. His reputation was such that a newspaper in Maryland in 1940 felt it necessary to warn players with “pugilistic tendencies” in the Eastern Shore League when Brittain was hired to manage the team in Salisbury. “Brittain is a swash-buckling, rugged fellow, a great jockey who can give and take and pretty handy man with his dookies,” the newspaper noted.[II]

It’s likely that Gus Brittain is the only player from North Carolina promoted to the majors solely for those fighting skills. He’s certainly the only one who was ever banned from baseball.

Augustus Shuster – his nickname “Shuny” was likely a corruption of his middle name – was born in Wilmington and lived most of his life in the area. The youngest of William and Katherine Brittain’s five children, Gus was a star athlete at New Hanover High School.

His first professional baseball job was as the catcher of his hometown Pirates of the Piedmont League. He soon was fined for fighting. “It just ain’t me to back away,” is how Brittain once explained it.[III]

His home-state Durham Bulls in 1937 wanted to get rid of Brittain because of his pugnacious ways. Charlie Dressen was only too glad to take him. The manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Dressen was a hot-tempered, combative guy himself. He thought his team was being intimidated by National League pitchers who seemed to always throw at his batters. Dressen wanted an enforcer. He signed the 5-10, solidly built Brittain as his third-string catcher. His job, Dressen announced to all, was “to fight.” To sportswriters, Brittain became “the fighting bullpen catcher.” [IV]       

It was a role Brittain knew he was well qualified to fill. “First they tell me I gotta quit fighting to stay in baseball,” he said “and now I go to the big leagues because I get into fights. Boy, oh boy! If it’s fights they want I’ll supply ‘em.”[V]

It didn’t work out exactly as Dressen had planned. Brittain got into three games while with the Reds and one fight.  It just so happened to be with Paul Derringer, the Reds’ star pitcher. [1] The squabble started on the bench, recalled an eyewitness years later. “And Derringer picked up the catcher’s mask and hit Gus right between the eyes,” he remembered. “Gus didn’t even blink. He got Derringer down on the floor of the dugout, under the bench, and it took the whole team to get him off.”[VI]

Dressen soon released his fighting catcher.

Van Lingle Mungo, a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was manger of a minor-league team in Clinton when he ran into Gus Brittain. The encounter sent Mungo to the hospital and led to Brittain being banned from baseball.

Brittain was back in Wilmington in 1946, this time as the Pirates’ player-manager. Though the team wasn’t very good, Brittain was a fan favorite. Those in the right-field bleachers at old Legion Stadium would cheer his every hit and catch.  Brittain responded by bowing and doffing his cap.

The manager did what by then was expected and charged the field to argue a call at second base in a home game against Clinton that August 13. Brittain cursed a little and then went back to the dugout, a rather mild outburst by his standards.

He was crouched behind the plate catching to the start the next inning when Van Mungo, the Clinton player-manager and former Brooklyn Dodger star, stepped up. Words were exchanged. Brittain claimed years later that Mungo struck first. Brittain returned fire, and several hundred people stormed out of the stands.

“Everybody was fighting all over the place,” Brittain recalled.  “Somebody hit the umpire, but I was trying to protect him. It kept up for a pretty good while and when it ended Mungo looked pretty bad.”[VII]

Mungo would later testify that several players and fans threw him to the ground and beat him. He and the second-base umpire ended up in the hospital.

Brittain was fined $100 and suspended indefinitely. He appealed what he thought was an unusually harsh sentence. Under the rules governing such things at the time, a federal judge in Durham heard the appeal. He placed Brittain on baseball’s ineligible list for triggering what he called “one of the worst demonstrations of rowdyism in the minor leagues in the last 20 years.[VIII]  Brittain was banned from baseball.

The ban was lifted two years later, but by then no one in baseball would hire Brittain. That part of his life was over.

Brittain opened Shuny’s Place in Wrightsville Beach, a beer and hot dog joint where beachgoers could also can dance all night and, said its proprietor, “You can’t get a table wearing anything less than a bathing suit.”[IX] His wife, Laura, and their son lived out back.

A bad heart was one foe Brittain couldn’t beat. He died of a heart attack in 1974 and age 64.

Footnote
[1] One of the most-dominant pitchers in the National League in the late 1930s, Paul Derringer was Gus Brittain’s equal as a belligerent man who often used his fists to settle disputes. He once awoke from an operation in a hospital recovery room, swung at a nurse, and knocked her out. Enough said.

References
[I] Richman, Milton, United Press International. “Twins’ Scout Says Watch For Parker.” Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA.), April 6, 1977.

[II] “Information Regarding Shore Ball Managers.” Worcester Democrat and the Ledger-Enteprise (Pocomoke City, MD.), May 3, 1940.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Barber, Red. “Once a Catcher Was Hired to Just Use His Fists.” Tallahassee (FL.) Democrat. March 10, 1974.
[V] “Information Regarding Shore Ball Managers.”
[VI] Richman.
[VII] Quincy, Bob. “Not the Ritz, But Still Formal.” Charlotte (NC) News, July 20, 1951.
[VIII] Associated Press. “Gus Brittain Ordered Placed On Baseball’s Ineligible List.”  The Wilmington (NC) Morning Star, August 31, 1946.
[IX] Quincy.

 

Bowens, Sam

Position: Right field, left field
Birthplace: Wilmington

First, Middle Names: Samuel Edward Jr.

Date of Birth:  March 23, 1938          Date and Place of Death: March 28, 2003, Wilmington
Burial: Greenlawn Memorial Park, Wilmington

High School: Williston High School, Wilmington
College: Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tenn.

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 195
Debut Year: 1963       Final Year: 1969          Years Played: 7
Team(s) and Years: Baltimore Orioles, 1963-67; Washington Senators, 1968-69

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
479   1287   287    141      143      45      .223     .283     .375     0.0

Much was expected of Sam Bowens when he joined the Baltimore Orioles at their spring training camp in Miami, Florida, in 1964. He had been a star athlete in high school and college and had hit .346 in the minors the previous year before pulling a groin muscle in July and struggling through the rest of season. He hit with power and played the outfield with grace. His throwing arm was a weapon that base runners respected. Bowens would team with Boog Powell, another powerful youngster, to give the Orioles a potent, lasting tandem.

“You don’t give up on a guy like that,” manager Hank Bauer said that spring, “not at least until the day after tomorrow.”[I]

Young Sam, it seems, was made for this moment. “He was born like that, I would say,” Sam Sr. once said of his son’s athletic ability. “We would be in the yard, playing catch, and I’d have to tell him to cool down a little. He was throwing too hard.”[II]

He attended Williston High School where he won 12 letters in basketball, baseball and football during his four years , the most anyone at the school had ever won.[1] He pitched and played shortstop on the baseball team, quarterbacked the football team and was the center on the basketball team. He was captain of all three teams his junior and senior years and was all-state in each sport.

At what is now Tennessee State University in Nashville, Bowens started on dynastic basketball teams that won three straight small-college, national championships, starting in 1957. He was also an outfielder on the baseball team. Bowens would be inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 1983.

So, yes, much was expected that spring of 1964. And, by and large, Bowens delivered. He hit 22 home runs and drove in 71 that year as one of the Orioles’ regular outfielders. He got some votes for rookie of the year. That season, as it would turn out, would the highlight of his major-league career.

An injury shelved him for seven weeks the following year. By the time Bowens returned, rookie Curt Belfry had taken his job. Then, it was Paul Blair in 1965. Relegated to pinch hitting and late-inning defensive duties, Bowens’ average plummeted. Though the Orioles made it to the World Series in 1966, Bowens didn’t appear in a game.

He was dealt to the Washington Senators in 1968, where he was a part-time player for a couple of seasons. He was out of baseball by 1970.

Bowens moved to Indianapolis, the hometown of his wife, Pheola, and he was largely forgotten. His name would occasionally come up in discussions of one-season wonders, usually followed by the question: What happened?

Newspaper stories late in Bowens’ life attributed some of his decline to a beaning incident in a game against the Boston Red Sox in September 1965. “It affected my hitting,” Bowens told a reporter in 2002. “I’d pull my head out up there. I wouldn’t stay with the inside pitches. I would bail out and drop my hands.”[III]

The story was repeated in his obituary the following year.

The records, though, indicate that Bowens didn’t play in the three September games against Boston that year. In fact, he wasn’t hit by a pitch the entire season.

High, inside fastballs and alcohol are the more likely answers. Bowens couldn’t hit one and may have hit the other too often. American League pitchers exploited his weakness for high pitches. Alcoholism likely made them harder to hit. He said the drinking started when he reached the major leagues when beer was available in the clubhouse after every game. “I would drink six or seven a day,” he told a reporter. “It was like drinking soda pop.” He tried to do something about it by entering a rehab center in Boston during his career.[IV]

Divorced from Pheola, Bowens returned to Wilmington in the late 1980s. His three surviving children lived in Indianapolis at the time.

Bowens’ health continued to deteriorate, and he was living in a Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, nursing home when he died in 2003. His room was partially paid for by a Major League Baseball program to help destitute and disabled players.

Sam Bowens was inducted into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.

Footnote
[1] Williston High School was an important historic and athletic landmark for African Americans in Wilmington. The school, now a middle school for gifted students, traces its roots to abolitionists who started a school in 1866 for freed slaves. Among its graduates are Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters and Althea Gibson, the first black tennis star.

References
[I] “Sam Bowens: He’s Unnoticed Oriole.”  High Point (NC) Enterprise, April 10, 1964.
[II] Voorheis, Mike. “Former Williston Star, Oriole Sam Bowens, Dies in Wilmington.” Wilmington (NC) Star-News, April 1, 2003.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Carree, Chuck. “Unfulfilled Promise.” Wilmington (NC) Star-News, September 2, 2002.