He’s the most versatile player ever to don a Montreal Expos uniform.
During the 1970 season, Ron Brand, who was primarily a catcher, played every position except for pitcher and first base.
“I believe I’m the only guy who’s ever caught 300 [major league] games and played all of those other positions more than once,” said Brand in a recent phone interview.
But the gritty jack-of-all-trades, who was listed at 5-foot-7, 167 pounds during his playing days, was happy to serve in a utility role, especially for Expos manager Gene Mauch.
“My four years with Gene Mauch [in the Expos organization] was like dying and going to heaven,” said Brand, who now resides in Prosper, Texas. “I learned more about baseball from him in those four years than I learned the rest of my life.”
Selected from the Houston Astros in the expansion draft prior to the Expos’ first season, Brand was a hard worker known for his all-out hustle and that helped endear him to Mauch.
“He [Mauch] gave me more confidence than I ever had,” said Brand. “In the first spring training game, our centre fielder tore a hamstring and he said, ‘Brand, go play centre.’ And I’d never played centre field in the big leagues before, but I went out there and played and he played me there several times during my career with Montreal.”
Manning centre field in the major leagues was a long way from the softball diamonds he honed his skills on as a kid in Los Angeles. It was his mother, Pat, a professional softball player in the late ’40s, who introduced him to the game.
“There was this softball field over near Lockheed Airport in Burbank where they used to practice and play their games,” he recalled. “I went to practice with all her all the time. And one day I was out there chasing balls and throwing balls around and this guy came walking up to me and asked me if I wanted to play Pee Wee League baseball. I was nine at the time and I said, ‘Sure.’”
Brand was primarily a shortstop during his Little League days and he was fortunate to discover that legendary scout George Genovese lived at the end of his block.
“I went down there and knocked on his door and he took me under his wing,” recalled Brand. “He played pepper with me in the backyard and talked to me. We spent a lot of time together just talking baseball . . . Then he recommended me to [then Pittsburgh Pirates general manager] Branch Rickey when I was 14.”
Brand was a standout shortstop at North Hollywood High School when he was signed by Pirates scout Rosey Gilhousen in September 1957. He reported to the Pirates camp the following spring.
“I remember the first day I got to spring training. I had always been the star on my team from the time I was small, and when I got to spring training, I looked around and I saw all the big guys who could run as well as I could and they could do everything,” recalled Brand. “So that was a red letter day for me. I just made up my mind that the one thing they couldn’t do was outwork me. I had a passion and I worked my butt off and that came through to all the powers that be in the Pirates farm system.”
After splitting his rookie campaign between Class C and Class D, Brand enjoyed a breakout campaign with the Class D San Angelo/Roswell Pirates in 1959, batting .317 with 11 home runs and 26 stolen bases.
Brand then made the jump to Class B Burlington in 1960 and 1961, where he was transformed into a catcher when the team’s backstops were out with injuries.
“The only reason they let me become a catcher is because they weren’t worried about me getting hurt,” he said with a chuckle. “Two or three other guys [who were higher ranked prospects] volunteered and they said, ‘No, we don’t want you doing it. You might get hurt.’ And when I volunteered, they said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’”
Brand says he took to catching “like a duck to water” and by 1962, he was a Triple-A all-star at the position. The following May he was called up to the big leagues and he proceeded to hit .288 in 46 games for the Pirates. He would club his first major league home run – a solo shot in the third inning off of Milwaukee Braves left-hander Denny Lemaster – on June 20.
“I hit it in Milwaukee and Joe Torre was the Braves catcher,” recalled Brand. “I hit it over the left field fence. I was shocked at first because I thought it was just a line drive double down the line and I was running like hell and then I saw the umpire making the sign and I remember saying, ‘Well, I’ll be darned. I just hit a home run in the big leagues.’”
Brand returned to Triple-A in 1964 and was selected by Houston in the Rule 5 draft following the season. In the ensuing spring, when the Astros hosted the New York Yankees in the first exhibition game at the Astrodome, Brand recorded the first hit by his team in the new stadium.
“I came up in the third inning and lined a triple between Mantle and Maris,” he recalled. “I probably could’ve scored . . . But that was a thrill to catch that first game ever played indoors.”
Brand was the starting catcher for the Astros that season and led National League receivers with 54 assists. In all, he spent parts of four seasons with the Astros and split time behind the plate with John Bateman for the entire tenure.
Brand played a portion of the 1968 season in Triple-A and he was hoping to be selected by the San Diego Padres or the Expos in the expansion draft on October 14, 1968. He was initially relieved when he heard that Bateman had been selected sixth overall by the Expos.
“When I saw that he got picked in the expansion draft, I thought finally I’m free of him and then the Expos picked me later down the list (58th overall) and the same thing [sharing catching duties] happened in Montreal,” he said.
Brand batted .258 in 103 games for the Expos in their first season and saw the bulk of the action behind the dish for the club. One of the biggest adjustments for him was the weather in Montreal.
“I remember in a game in early April, Bobby Wine was warming his butt against one of those propane gas things they had in the dugout and he burned his pants,” said Brand. “You could see where the wire marks were singed into the butt of his pants.”
After serving primarily as a catcher in 1969, Brand evolved into a super utility player in 1970 and 1971. The versatile veteran enjoyed playing in Jarry Park and fell in love with the city of Montreal. He lived in Pierrefonds in his first season with the Expos and in Pointe-Claire his last two campaigns with the club. In the winter between the 1971 and 1972 seasons, he worked with the Expos in a public relations role.
“I remember we went to Chicoutimi on a winter excursion to push ticket sales and we got off the bus and it was 51 below,” he said. “You couldn’t breathe in.”
But it was Brand’s role as Expos player representative during the labour negotiations with the owners in 1972 that would expedite his departure out of Montreal. For most of his time with the Expos, Brand had a good rapport with GM John McHale, but that relationship disintegrated when the players went on strike for 13 days at the beginning of the 1972 season.
“He was upset and after the strike was over and he buried me,” said Brand. “And they wouldn’t trade me or sell me [to another team].”
The then 32-year-old suited up for 74 games for the Expos’ Triple-A affiliate in Peninsula in 1972 before deciding to retire as a player. Less than two years later, he returned to the minor-pro ranks to manage the Pirates’ New York Penn League squad in Niagara Falls and he followed that up with dugout stints in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds organizations in 1975 and 1976.
“I wanted to be a big league manager,” said Brand. “And I still think I could’ve been one, but I managed for three seasons and then I had gone through a divorce and I had three children and I met my new wife and she had three children and then we had two more, so I had to give it up to raise my kids. And I don’t regret it one bit.”
Brand found employment with a contractor in Citrus Heights, Calif., before operating his own contracting business for 18 years until he was contacted by Gene Michael in February 1994 and offered a scouting position with the New York Yankees.
Over the next two decades, Brand evolved into one of the Yankees’ most trusted scouts. He evaluated potential trade targets, free agents and playoff opponents and earned five World Series rings for his efforts.
“I had a real good run there,” said Brand. “I felt like I was really part of the process.”
His role with the Yankees lasted until 2013 when the club’s scouting department opted to focus more on analytics.
“It turned out to be a blessing that the Yankees didn’t renew my contract. I had open heart surgery two years ago,” said Brand. “I went and had a physical because I was going to lose the insurance [that he had with the Yankees] and I found out I had a big blockage and I probably would’ve keeled over any day.”
Brand, who has been residing in Texas for the past 10 years, feels healthy again and still teaches baseball lessons at a local facility called My Batters Box. He spends much of his time with his wife, Candy, who sings in a popular all-female group called the Four King Cousins. The four cousins are the daughters of the The King Sisters who had a TV show on ABC in the 1960s.
Brand and his wife have a combined eight children, 24 grandchildren and by the end of this year will have six great-grandchildren.
After his playing days were over, Brand returned to Montreal for two old-timers games and he thinks that a big league franchise could thrive in the city again in the future.
“I loved Montreal. It was a beautiful city,” he said. “I think if they had a good facility, the fans and the city would support a new team. I think it could be a great place for a major league team again.”