Pete Browning was the hitter’s version of Rube Waddell. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest hitters of the 19th century, as well as one of the most colorful and oddest individuals in the history of the game. Like Waddell, he was immensely popular wherever he played, both for his immense talent as well as his eccentric personality.
Browning is best known for ordering the first custom made bat from the Hillerich & Bradsby Company in 1884, known then and now as the famous Louisville Slugger. He apparently single-handedly kept the company in business throughout his career, amassing a collection of something like 700 bats. He spoke words of encouragement to, and was otherwise lovingly attentive to his bats, each one cherished and christened with a Biblical name. Pete later retired them in his home; he believed that each bat contained a certain amount of hits — these were what he deemed his “active” bats — and he examined each Louisville Slugger in order to see whether it was a “magical” stick with hits in it. At one point in his career, while playing for the Cincinnati Reds, he had a teammate named Long John Reilly, who was apparently Browning’s doppelganger. Reilly had a similar obsession with “hit-filled” bats. During one game on a hot summer afternoon in July, Pete was observed “interviewing” his bats in one side of the dugout, while Reilly carried on a dialogue with Pete’s rejects on the opposite side.
The bats themselves were enormous: 37″ long, and 48 ounces in weight. Browning certainly was proficient in wielding this cudgel; “The Gladiator” posted a .341 career BA, the third-highest for a right-handed batter; this included an incredible .457 BA in 1887. He also won three batting titles.
Browning was often as inept a fielder as he was adept as a hitter. Initially, he played the infield, and had the peculiar habit of standing on one leg while playing his position; according to Pete, he did so in order to avoid collisions with other players. Apparently, this fear of contact was extended to his base running and his batting; he completely avoiding sliding, and went almost his entire career without being hit by a pitch. Browning was moved to the outfield due to these peccadilloes; however, his outfield play was, if anything, more heavy-handed. His fielding percentage in 1886 was an unbelievably incompetent .791, the second lowest single season percentage in the history of baseball, at any position. One famous anecdote tells of Browning’s manager claiming that the team would be better off with a wooden statue of an Indian in the outfield, since there was at least a slim chance that a batted ball might strike the statue and rebound back in the direction of the field. However, there were several noted occasions where Browning’s play in the outfield was inexplicably superb. On Friday, June 4, 1890, the Chicago Inter Ocean printed this entertaining account of Pete’s remarkable wizardry with the glove.
“The one act of the afternoon which stands out like a wart on a man’s nose was a catch by Col. Browning in the fifth inning. Mr. (Hugh) Duffy, reached for the first ball which Mr. (Jersey) Bakely was good enough to land over the rubber.
“Browning rattled his lengthy legs towards his heart’s desire as long as possible, and then jumped in a northwesterly direction, turning four times in the air and stretching one arm for the ball in a manner of a boy after his second piece of pie.
“He got it.
“Then applause went up from the grandstand like an insane man experimenting with a French horn. Pete had to doff his cap a dozen times.”
On another occasion, Browning amazingly caught a fly ball with his feet.
Browning displayed other behaviors which could best be described as outlandish. He was known to stare at the sun for long periods of time, believing that by doing so, he would strengthen his “lamps” (eyes). He also believed that his eyes periodically needed to be “cleansed”, which could best be accomplished by sticking his head out the window when traveling on a train, in an effort to catch cinders in them. He was known to loudly proclaim that he was the champion batter of the American Association at every train depot, even if there were no one present at the station. Browning also believed that it was good luck to touch third base when he came in from the outfield. On one occasion, Foghorn Miller literally stole third base off the diamond; Pete, surveying the field with a look of utter bewilderment, finally espied Miller in the opposition dugout, and ran after him. Miller scooted off, Browning chasing him all over the field for several minutes, until the umpire had enough of these antics and ordered Pete back to the dugout. Later that inning, he came up to hit, saw that third base was back in its usual place; he ran to third, touched the bag, raced back to bat, and slashed the ball for a hit.
Browning suffered all his life from mastoiditis, a serious infection of the inner ear usually contracted during childhood. As a result, he lost his hearing at a young age, and was faced with frequent bouts of crippling head pain. The only way he knew to relieve his pain was with alcohol. He often was known to say that “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” In Browning’s case, there may have been some truth in this. Browning took the pledge in 1892; that was the only year he hit under .300. What is amazing is that Browning performed as well as he did, dealing every day with a serious medical condition which not only affected his hearing, but his balance, and likely his comical daftness was at least partially a symptom of mastoiditis.
After Pete retired, his medical issues and chronic alcoholism produced an alarming deterioration in his mental and physical well-being. On June 7, 1905, Louis Rogers “Pete” Browning was produced in the criminal division of Jefferson County Circuit Court where he was declared insane and ordered to the Fourth Kentucky Lunatic Asylum at nearby Lakeland. On September 10, 1905, the Gladiator passed from this mortal plain, alone, forsaken, and apparently forgotten by the thousands of cranks who followed his exploits throughout his career.
Despite his batting prowess, Browning has been denied admission to the Hall of Fame. He is but one of a number of American Association stars who have been inexplicably shunned.