Tom Brown's name is associated with many “firsts” and at least one “only” when it comes to his sports accomplishments.
He’s the first man to play major league baseball and play in a Super Bowl.
He played on the first winning Super Bowl team. As well as the second.
And he’s the only person to play for the Washington Senators and the Washington Redskins.
And he’s probably the only athlete to have his career launched by the combined actions of a dictator and a president.
“I’ve been lucky,” Brown will tell you with a smile.
From his kitchen table at his home in Salisbury, Maryland, with his three NFL championship rings in front of him, Brown looked back on a career that’s right out of a Hollywood movie.
Brown grew up in Silver Spring, where he played baseball, football and basketball at Blair High School. Then it was on to College Park, where he was a .449 hitter for the baseball team while at the University of Maryland where he had a football scholarship.
In 1962 after his junior year at Maryland, Brown was picked by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the NFL draft. At the time the Packers were being coached by Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi, hoping to convince the two-sport star to play in Green Bay, invited Brown to see the Packers play the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in the NFL Championship game. It was probably one of the few times a Lombardi game plan backfired.
“It was a miserable day," Brown recalled. “A cold miserable day, and these guys were much bigger than I had been used to playing with, so I said, 'Hmm, I think I’m going to go play baseball.”
“I did love baseball better,” he added.
Brown came home from the trip to New York and reached out to his friend and mentor, Joe Branzell. Branzell was legendary in the D.C. sports scene working as a scout for the Senators for 30 years while also running the Washington Boys Club. Branzell is famous for his scouting report of pitching ace Nolan Ryan, in which he wrote, “He won’t get past AA.” But Branzell did sign several notable players, including Dick Bosman. It was Branzell who signed Brown to the Senators.
Brown went to the Senators' minor league training camp where he had a few good spring games. Then Brown got some help from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It was just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Senators had traded first baseman Harry Bright for Cuban Rogelio Alvarez. Alvarez was in Cuba and Castro wouldn’t let him or other Cubans return to the States.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, after being invited to throw out the first pitch at the Senators' home opener, President John Kennedy told the Senators' general manager he’d attend the game “if you start that boy from Maryland.”
On April 8, 1963, Tom Brown took the field at D.C. Stadium, later renamed RFK Stadium, fulfilling his dream of being a major league ball player for his hometown team.
He didn’t have a great day. Neither did his team. The Senators lost 3-1 to the Baltimore Orioles. The rest of the season didn’t fare much better for Brown or the Senators.
“I made $6,000 that year,” Brown said.
After that first unimpressive season with the Senators, hitting just one home run, Brown was sent back to the minors. That’s when the phone rang. It was Lombardi. The Hall of Fame coach was giving him a second chance to play in the NFL.
“He called me back and he said, 'Yeah, if you don’t play this year, we’re not gonna be interested in you,'” Brown said.
For the second time, Brown told Lombardi, no.
Brown said he knew his career in baseball wasn’t going anywhere.
“I could have been a fringe player in baseball,” he said.
But Brown needed the money the Senators were offering and he knew if he joined the Packers he wouldn’t get paid until the summer.
“I said, 'Hmm, football doesn’t start ‘til July, baseball starts in April. I could get paid from baseball and then make up my mind July 1 if I want to go play football.'”
After a few weeks playing in Pennsylvania with the York White Rose, Brown knew he was ready to call Lombardi back.
“York didn’t have a really good baseball field," he said. "They turned it from a high school field into a professional field, but it wasn’t very good. Sometimes our pitchers weren’t very good, either, and I got bored and played centerfield and I would count how many lights were out in the ball park. And there were plenty of lights out in the York field."
So in July of 1964, Brown traded in his glove for a helmet and headed to Wisconsin.
“It was really a great decision,” Brown said with a smile.
He doubled his income, earning a whopping $12,000 his first year in Green Bay.
In 1965, Brown’s second year with the Packers, the team won the NFL championship game, beating the Cleveland Browns.
The following year Brown made the game winning interception sending Green bay to Super Bowl I.
Brown said if he hadn’t caught that interception from Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, it would have been the end of his career.
The Packers were leading the Cowboys by 7 with less than 2 minutes to play when Brown was flagged for holding tight end Frank Clarke, giving Dallas first-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
Brown credits his teammate Dave Robinson for pushing Dallas and Meredith back. The game came down to fourth-and-goal. As Brown recalls, Meredith dropped back to pass as Robinson rushed in, forcing Meredith to throw up the ball.
“You could have caught that ball,” Brown said with a big laugh. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Brown and the Packers went on to win Super Bowl I, making Brown the first person to play in a major league baseball game and a Super Bowl.
“I was obviously lucky,” Brown said. “I obviously made the right decision in playing football and learning under Coach Lombardi.”
The following season Brown, Lombardi and the Packers would face the Cowboys again in the NFC Championship game which went down in history as the “Ice Bowl.”
“It was cold,” Brown said. “Windy and cold, and the field was frozen, but you had to play. That was the great thing about Lombardi: He had us ready to play no matter what the climate was, no matter what happens during the game, you play the game and you don’t get upset about it.”
Again, the Packers would beat Dallas and go on to win the Super Bowl, giving Brown his third consecutive NFL Championship ring.
When Lombardi left Green Bay for Washington, Brown followed close behind.
“I went to Coach and I said, 'Coach, I’d really like to play for the Redskins,’" Brown explained. “'I know what you’re gonna do here and I’d like that opportunity because I live here, I’ve lived all my life, my sports life, here in Washington.' Lombardi says, 'OK, I’ll see what I can do.' Two weeks later he calls me back and he says, 'We traded for you and everything’s fine.'”
In 1969, Brown returned home to Washington to once again play for his hometown team, but this time it was football, making Brown the only person to play for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Senators.
“I’m just lucky," Brown said. "I was lucky, you know, right place at the right time.”
Brown would play just one game with the Redskins, dislocating his shoulder in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I dislocated my shoulder and I went in and being a football player, I said, 'Put it back in place and I’ll play,” Brown said. “I wanna play because the secret of playing in the National Football League is don’t get hurt.”
Lombardi told Brown to spend the rest of the season healing his shoulder and getting ready for next season. But the next season never came for either man.
Lombardi passed away and assistant coach Bill Austin took over. One of his first decisions was to cut Brown.
Brown is far from bitter about how his career ended or how short it turned out to be.
“My career was a great career," he said. "I couldn’t ask for anything more. It was a lot of fun, great teammates.”
While that’s where Tom Brown’s professional sports career ended, it’s where what he considers his most important work began.
After leaving the Redskins, Brown took a job as director of Parks and Recreation in Ocean City where he tried to start a youth overnight sports camp.
His first attempt didn’t work out after his main investor backed out, so Brown returned home to Montgomery County, where he started a youth league. In the early 1980s he and his wife relocated to Salisbury, Maryland, to be close to the shore. That’s where the two launched the Tom Brown Rookie League, a nonprofit. For more than 40 years Brown passed on the skills he learned from his mentors like Joe Branzell and Vince Lombardi to boys and girls across the state of Maryland. Last year, Brown stepped down from his coaching duties passing the whistle to his daughter, Jessie.
“I liked working with the kids," he said. "Everybody has a niche, and my niche was being able to communicate with young children about sports,” Brown said. “I did baseball, flag football and basketball all year round.
“I wanted these kids to have fun," he said. "Sometimes the coaches holler at these 8-year-old kids. Sometimes they make fun of them and things like that, so I said, 'We’re just gonna have fun,' and that’s what we did.”
And that’s just what Tom Brown has been doing since he first started playing baseball on the playgrounds of Silver Spring. Having fun playing the games he loves.
You can meet Tom Brown this weekend at the annual D.C. Baseball History Conference.