Mike Brown is a longtime umpire in Ohio. He’s also a basketball referee, and an author, writing The Umpire’s Bunkhouse, chronicling what life is like umpiring Cooperstown baseball tournaments and the care and professionalism of those umpires.
Brown was a sportswriter in Cooperstown, NY for a number of years back when the Hall of Fame induction ceremony was in the middle of town. He knows how to tell a story. At Baseball or Bust we are always up for a good story and this one is a dandy.
NFL legend John Madden passed away Tuesday at the age of 85 and all kinds of tributes flowed across social media. Well, here’s a story about the iconic Madden Cruiser you’ve never heard before. Boom!
The original 1987 cruiser Madden donated in 2018 to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but like his call of a game, there were different variations of the Madden Cruiser. The miles would pile up and a new cruiser would be born.
“We all love John Madden and people across the country are sad that he is gone,’’ Brown told Baseball or Bust. “In 1999 and 2000, Ohio was lagging behind, we were 17 percent with a four-year college education. We had steel mills, coal mines and places that you didn’t need college, a lot of them closed up. I was the director of marketing and public relations for the Ohio Board of Regents. One member of the board of regents just before I was there was a guy named Steinbrenner.’’
Yes, the one and only Yankees Boss, George Steinbrenner.
Brown had worked in public relations at colleges for 14 years and eventually retired as director of communications for the Ohio Board of Regents that leads all higher education. He came from a long line of teachers and his mother, Judy Marshall Brown, was a teacher in his hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont for 35 years. His sister also taught.
“The Board of Regents were really active and we devised a statewide marketing campaign and the star of the show was the bus that we got from John Madden. It was a luxury coach, it was beautiful, it was what he took from city to city, he was deathly afraid of flying. So we had the bus we went to every school in every little town in Ohio with that bus. It was a great endeavor. It worked too. We raised up the educational level to about 30 percent. We made good progress’’
Imagine that. John Madden’s bus became an educational tool for the students of Ohio. John Madden the coach would be proud of that.
The $500,000 campaign was dubbed the “Ohio Success Express.’’ The message was that higher learning leads to higher earning and was targeted at high school sophomores and juniors. And it was all done with the help of the Madden Cruiser, a conference room on wheels. The vehicle was leased for $80,000 and was refitted with six laptop computers and two workstations.
Everybody knew of John Madden.
Yes, Madden hated to fly because he was claustrophobic and he first tried to take trains to NFL games to broadcast for a number of years, but after using Dolly Parton’s tour bus for a week, a new world was opened up to him.
Why not see the country through the big windows of a luxury bus?
He had two drivers, he could stop where he wanted to stop and he could see the country, a flame that was ignited when he read the book Travels With Charley, a book his wife was reading for a college course she was taking.
Madden never lost his love for traveling the highways and back roads of America. In the early days before the bus was loaded up with the latest technological advances, Madden would have his driver pull into towns like Laramie, Wyoming to use a pay phone to do his call-in spot for a radio show. The bus might stop at a favorite local eatery. In the delightful 1990 Sports Illustrated piece on Travels With Madden, called Busman’s Holiday, Peter King, a writer I knew well when we both covered the New York Giants, wrote that Madden once just watched a man rake leaves in Green Bay. Growing up in California, Madden never raked leaves and was fascinated by the task. He would make small talk as well.
In the piece, Madden said of America: “If anything will impress you as you go across the country, it’s how much space there is. This country, you’d think it was crowded, but you cross it, go for hours and not see anything. You realize the only places that are truly congested are the big cities.’’
King also wrote about Madden’s love for baseball and how on one trip Madden had the bus stop for a minor league baseball game in Omaha, Nebraska. The highlight of the game was a fan winning a raffle for a case of pork and beans.
Maybe it was that same bus that Ohio had outfitted for educational purposes.
How was the bus acquired?
“We have Custom Coach, which is a business right here in Columbus,’’ Brown told me. “They made them for people all over the country. They also had a bus we looked at that was owned by Bob Dylan. That was a little too much money, so we passed on that.’’
Kirwan Elmers was the creative genius who got Custom Coach into the celebrity market with custom motorhomes made for musicians Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. On the film side, Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman drove in custom style. Elmers died in 2020 at the age of 91.
Elmers once told the Chicago Tribune that it was a tough road at first, noting, “Getting financing was really hard. Bankers laughed at the ideal of financing a bus. And insurance companies didn’t know how to classify the thing. It wasn’t a car, but with a bed and couch it didn’t appear to be a bus to them, either.’’
The company created a number of firsts, including automatic transmission in an intercity bus in 1956, and you know that rear view backing system you love so much in your vehicle? That was created by them way back in 1965.
Dylan’s bus, of course, rolled along Like a Rolling Stone.
Madden’s bus became a New Morning for educational purposes.
“We got the John Madden bus for a song, it was the best move we ever made,’’ said Brown, who was featured in an earlier column by me at BallNine for his book The Umpire’s Bunkhouse.
“I was a big fan of John Madden,’’ Brown said. “We had the whole bus shrink-wrapped, this was a new process some 20 years ago. When we pulled into town, they knew we were coming. We had big letters on it called: The Education Express. Inside we had all kinds of brochures and literature and we let the school kids come on the bus – they thought it was cool – that was a big thing, we told them it was John Madden’s bus and they knew who John Madden was so it was good.’’
After his career as a Super Bowl winning coach with the Raiders, Madden began broadcasting with CBS in 1979, a career that lasted until 2008. Then, of course, there is the long-running Madden NFL series video game.
Everybody knew of John Madden.
Coach Madden. (Photo via The Ringer)
“The bus campaign lasted for two years,’’ Brown said. “Beyond that we also had John Glenn in a video I wrote.’’
Brown pointed out that Hall of Famer Ted Williams was once the future astronaut’s wingman in Korea and the two became good friends. Williams flew 39 combat missions in Korea.
Brown grew up in Vermont. “Ted Williams owned a home in Westminster, Vermont, right where I lived in Bellows Falls and that’s where I got his autograph. And then when I went to Cooperstown and he was there, I took a picture of him and he signed it again. He had fond memories of Vermont.
“It’s funny how baseball ties us all together,’’ Brown said. “Baseball is a big family.’’
Brown is a graduate of the esteemed journalism program at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont and played baseball there. Brown also covered the 1980 Olympics and the Miracle on Ice.
Mike’s brother Terry was a firefighter in Bellows Falls and on December 29, 1981 he and another firefighter Dana Fuller tragically lost their lives fighting a fire at the Star Hotel.
“Today is the 40th anniversary of my brother dying in the fire,’’ Brown told me Wednesday.
In October, Mike Brown went back to Bellows Falls for a dedication of a new park to the fallen firefighters known as The Brown Fuller Memorial Park.
“They dedicated a new park, they had some beautiful trees, memorial stones and grass, they did a really nice job,’’ Brown said.
While working for the Board of Regents, Brown emphasized the community college movement in Ohio, especially with the closing of the General Motors plant in 2000. “You had thousands of people from all over rural Ohio who had nothing to do so we convinced people by the thousands to use the community colleges as a ramp to change their lives. I was a sports guy; I was a team builder so that is what I was all about so I applied a lot of that to the Board of Regents work.’’
John Madden would appreciate that approach.
Mike Brown never drove the Madden bus.
“I always wanted to drive it,’’ he said with a laugh, “but they had a private driver. There was a big recliner where John Madden sat. It was a big bus about 55-feet long. It was very nice.’’
Brown, 66, lives in the small town of Lithopolis, Ohio, outside Columbus. He remains busy umpiring and refereeing basketball games.
“I did a tournament game last night, you really run and get the exercise you need,’’ Brown said. “I go early and I meet people and talk to people. It’s a great experience. Most of the other refs are 40 and 50 years old and I’m 66 but I still think I’m young. It’s kind of neat to be able to run real fast with those guys.’’
Brown is an advocate for higher pay for officials in high school sports in Ohio. He points out that umpires for a varsity game receive only $55, $42 for JV games and $37 for freshman game and junior high.
Anyone who has ever watched a freshman game over the last 10 years knows how long those games can run.
“Once the game starts, I don’t think about the pay,’’ he said. “Florida right now is $103 (for a varsity game), New York is over $100, Maryland is $99. Everybody is $85 and up. Vermont – little, tiny Vermont – and New Hampshire, they pay $85.’’
Umpires are dedicated workers and deserve a raise.
“The umpires I meet, at every single level, they felt like there is always something they could learn,’’ Brown said, “something they could do better. And think about that. There aren’t many jobs that are like that. There was college umpire from Utah named Kelly Allred at Cooperstown who taught me a lot. I don’t yell back. I was taught to maybe raise an eyebrow, sort of like my family’s teaching heritage, try to be humorous sometimes. I will go over to the coach who is arguing balls and strikes, which they cannot do, it’s against the rules, I go over and say, ‘I’m deaf in my right ear. I didn’t hear you.’ I say that with a straight face and they kind of laugh and that really works.’’
Something tells me if John Madden’s bus had ever stopped in little Lithopolis, Ohio at a high school baseball game Mike Brown was umpiring, the two men would have a fun conversation.