When they make a movie about Earlene Brown, and surely someone must, the opening scene would be in a bowling alley, July 1964. Two immense women, one dark-skinned and the other pale-skinned, stand at the head of a lane, each gesturing at the ball and the pins. Both are laughing helplessly with wide, gap-toothed smiles; neither speaks the other’s language. Another older woman, small but wiry, comes up, speaking rapid Russian to her compatriot. She turns frequently to the other, asking in thick, broken English, “Here? Fingers in here?”
They all hold bowling balls as if they were oranges, tossing them abstractedly from palm to palm, seemingly weightless. The black woman explains and points. “Yeauh, yo thumb and these two heeah…” Her accent is a little Texas, a little southern Californian. She winds back and whizzes the ball down the lane; it slices through the ten pins, sweeping them up like dust off a broom.
The other tall one, Tamara Press of the U.S.S.R., awkwardly holds the twelve-pound ball downward, letting it hang from her fingers. Her wind-up looks the same, but when she lets the ball fly, it spins hard off the lane into the gutter, then into the wall, leaving a dent.
Of course, no record exists of this scene, when Olympic medalist Earlene Brown escorted her Soviet competitors from Tokyo through the Bowlarama in Compton. Yet a quartet of the world’s best shot putters at a bowling alley is fun to visualize, particularly if three are Soviet and the tour guide is African-American and speaks no Russian. Can’t you see the bowling alley owner, a grizzled little fella chomping a cigar, come out to protest the ding in his wall, only to run into the Soviet handlers–*coff KGB*? After all, Wikipedia notes out that Earlene’s tour of her Russian friends was “unsanctioned.”
The Most Unheralded U.S. Athlete of All Time
Biographer Nathan Aaseng, who’s written over 100 books on sports and science, labelled Earlene “the most unheralded U.S. Athlete of all time” in his encyclopedic African-American Athletes. Her bio contains one fascinating detail after another. Let’s start with the honors.
Earlene Dennis Brown was the only American woman to win an Olympic medal in the shot put for seventy years. She finished in the top ten in the shot put and the discus in 1956, setting an American record in both events, despite minimal training, squeezed in between cleaning houses and caring for her toddler, Reggie. At European meets in Moscow and Athens, she shattered American distances in both shot put and discus, at one point throwing the discus past the field and into the stadium. When she climbed up to personally apologize to the startled spectator, he asked for an autograph; he was also rewarded with a big hug.
At the Tokyo Olympics in 1960, Earlene took the bronze medal at last, earning another American record in the shot put and placing sixth in the discus. As part of her 2005 induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, she was lauded as an eight-time national champion in shot and a three-time champion in discus. She was also the first American to break the 50-foot shot put barrier in 1958. During years where the Soviet-style “sport Cold War” offered superior training and facilities to Eastern European athletes, Brown was #1 world ranked.
Brown was 21 before she ever became seriously engaged in sports. Sure, as a kid she had won high school and other local competitions, whether it was throwing the shot put or something called the “basketball throw.” By the time she was recruited for the 1956 Melbourne games, she was married to a brick layer and had given birth to a son. But she enjoyed launching objects, and when she caught the attention of Olympic javelin coaches, they immediately recognized her talent. She couldn’t wait to go, although there were challenges–no money and a stubborn husband.
Hey. I didn’t know you got to travel overseas. I want to see the world! Wait ’till I tell my husband…To start off with, I asked him if I could go. That was a mistake, because I gave him the authority to tell me whether or not I could go. He ordered me not to go.–(Encyclopedia.com)
Fortunately, she didn’t listen to her husband and soon son Reggie was staying with grandma while Earlene trained. Then, the community of Los Angeles, aided with publicity from legendary activist and sports editor Brad Pye, Jr., helped her raise the money to go to Australia. While she barely missed the medal podium, earning fourth place in the discus and sixth in the shot put, it was the best showing by an American woman in the throwing events since Babe Didrickson.
Mother Hen to the Tigerbelles
Brown’s 1960 track teammate is much better known to Olympic enthusiasts. Wilma Rudolph, who overcame a childhood bout with polio, won three gold medals in Rome, heralded as the fastest woman in the world. Rudolph and her sprint partners were part of an outstanding team from Tennessee State University, known as the Tigerbelles, coached by Ed Temple. Yet, according to multiple sources, when Wilma won her first spring gold medal, she ran the length of the stadium to embrace first her close friend, Earlene.
Brown had gained a strong reputation by then as a “mother hen” to many of the younger American women athletes, organizing dances and card games in the Olympic village. For the trip to Rome, Brown had left housecleaning behind and gone to college: Henrietta’s Beauty College. It came in handy. After Wilma won her 100 meter race, Earlene was there with a comb and towel to “pretty her up” before the TV cameras.
Hairdressing paid better then being a domestic but not much, and the long hours inhaling chemicals from the late 1950s left her little time and energy. She would train on her lunch hour. That seems perfect for another movie scene, don’t you think? You can imagine the camera following Earlene in her pink beautician’s coat into the nearby park, a brown bag in one hand and a silver ball in the other. As the locals see her coming, they start moving off the field and waving at kids to get out the way. She puts down the newspaper-wrapped sandwich on a bench, rotates her shoulder a couple times, then launches the shot put. As it sails across the field, a pack of the kids vault off to retrieve it, jostling for the right to run it back to “Miz Earlene” and earn a big hug.
Brown returned to Tokyo in 1964 but with barely two weeks to train in earnest, she finished a lowly 12th place, although she did become the first athlete–not American female, athlete–to make it to the shot put finals in three consecutive Olympics. If you look at the list of shot put winners through the 1950s and 1960s, amid a swath of Russian and German names, her name stands out as the rare American.
Yet by 1965, she was done and returned to doing hair and caring for young Reggie. However, another “sport” was just coming into popularity and provided an opportunity to make a little more money. Earlene Brown joined the roller derby. She began with the Texas Outlaws, then moved to the New York Bombers and became a fan favorite. Over six feet tall with her skates on and weighing over 250 pounds, she must have been a fearsome sight.
The night that I fell in love with a roller derby queen
Around and round, a round and round
The meanest hunk of woman that anybody ever seen
Down in the arena
–Jim Croce, Roller Derby Queen
The newspaper referred to as her “roly poly,” but when you see her move, you’re reminded more of “Refrigerator” Perry, the massive but quick football player from the 1985 Chicago Bears. Earlene’s signature move was called the “bear hug,” but by the time she skated for the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, she had a new nickname. It matched the number she put on her jersey: 747.
What you runnin’ fo’, I ain’t even hit you yet…
–Earlene Brown, KPIX interview
In this vintage interview from 1967, San Francisco news reporter Dave Valentine gets Earlene to show him a few moves. From the start of the piece, where Valentine stands behind her, completely hidden from view, to the end where he *gulp* asks for the demonstration, the exchange is free and hilarious.
Earlene Brown, interviewed by KPIX’s Dave Valentine, 1967
Brown was also retired into the Roller Derby Hall of Fame after ten years of skating. Her biographies says she died at age 47, in 1983. What she died from is not widely publicized, one more piece of her life that suggests a level of struggle and neglect, also part of the story. I came across her name while researching (*warning: shameless plug ahead) the story of Michelle Carter’s gold medal shot put in Rio for my book on the 2016 Olympics (details available on the website). While Carter had her own challenges, at least she grew up the daughter of a medalist and actually graduated from college, rather than simply standing on the grounds as part of someone else’s track team.
When I was young I was ashamed of my size. I never thought something of which I was ashamed—my size and
strength—could make me feel proud. But I feel proud now.–Earlene Brown (Encyclopedia.com)
More stories are suggested between the lines of Earlene’s biography. One Soviet rival, Galina Zybina, who won gold, silver, and bronze across the 1952-1964 Games, nearly starved with her family during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Then, even though Galina was still medaling in the late 1960s, the Soviet team tossed her off because she was considered too old. She remained a coach in Estonia for decades.
Tamara Press, the giant Russian who might have learned a little bowling technique in Compton, also won three golds and a silver in shot put and discus in the early 1960s. Whether due to her size or her less than beautiful features, Tamara was “suspected” to be a man in disguise according to the western press. She and her medalist sister Irina were both labelled “The Press Brothers,” and speculation about her and other athletes was rampant enough to lead to gender testing in 1966. She and her sister refused to be tested and retired, which has left their careers full of asterisks. Still, Tamara went on to write several books and eventually earn a PhD. It’s hard to know whether she was “guilty” of being intersex in 1964, but it couldn’t have been just due to her size or throwing prowess, since her African-American rival was about as big and threw about as far.
For Earlene, her legacy is as “loving and adorable” to roller derby fans, fearsome to her rivals, and “humble and smiling” to those who saw her in the Compton grocery stories. When you gaze at Earlene Brown’s classic Olympic photo, you can see both the sweet and the tough side, a face reflecting a lifetime of hardship crowned with a few moments of glory, where she made the most of the little opportunity she had.
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