By Marty Appel
For baseball fans in the mid-20th century, the name Dan Brouthers was as well known as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle is to today’s fans. The time span is the same, and Brouthers was in the conversation of who was the greatest 19th century player.
Brouthers would eventually become a Hall of Famer in 1945, 13 years after his death, and that class of ’45 is having its long overdue “day” at the 2013 induction ceremony, war travel restrictions having cancelled a ’45 ceremony.
Brouthers came from Sylvan Lake, near Wappingers Falls, New York. So common was knowledge of his name among the game’s greats, that Groucho Marx once used it in correspondence with Jack Warner of Warner Bros films.
In 1946, the Marx Brothers were to release “A Night in Casablanca,” another of their screwball comedies. The instant classic “Casablanca” had been released just four years earlier, and Jack Warner didn’t like the infringement on the name. So Groucho sent him a letter and said,
“You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were…. and even before there had been other brothers—the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; …..”
Groucho used the common mispronunciation of the ballplayer and the wrong spelling, but he knew a good joke when he heard one.
In fact, Brouthers pronounced his name BROO-thers, not bruh-thers, but most fans took to saying Brothers. In any case, Groucho’s letter spoke to the how fixed into the national consciousness Dan had become for baseball fans.
Brouthers first made his reputation with Buffalo before he went to the Detroit Wolverines, the team Groucho cited.
While playing for Buffalo (he had begun with Troy in 1879), he became the first man to win consecutive batting titles (1882-1883). No one was compiling slugging percentages in those days, but modern calculations show him winning six consecutive slugging titles while establishing himself as one of the first great left-handed hitters in the National League.
Modern calculations altered some of his stats, but he was credited then, and is still credited, with three additional titles, making him a five-time batting champ, with a lifetime average of .342. It is a mark equal to Babe Ruth’s career average, and bettered by only eight players (six lefties) in the span of baseball history.
The five batting titles stood as a league record until Honus Wagner won his sixth of eight in 1908. And while his .347 didn’t win in 1894, he was a key member of the champion Baltimore Orioles that season, one of the legendary 19th century teams. His 106 home runs ranked fourth among his contemporaries.
Over a nineteen-year career, Dan played for a record nine National League teams, plus a year with Boston of the Players League (he was one of the founders), where, as the defending N.L. batting champion, he brought a lot of legitimacy to the new circuit. When it folded after one season, he stayed in Boston and won the batting title in the American Association, before returning to the National League, and winning another title while with Brooklyn.
For more than 20 years after his playing career ended, John McGraw employed him as a press box attendant and night watchman at the Polo Grounds. Being a fixture on the New York baseball scene, in the daily company of the influential New York press, helped keep his name and reputation very much alive.