Cal Browning

Cal Browning

This article was written by Eric Vickrey

Cal BrowningIn 1958, a 20-year-old left-hander from rural Oklahoma was making a name for himself pitching for the Rochester Red Wings. Cal Browning was dominating the International League for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, using his fastball to lead the league in strikeouts and earn a spot on the league’s All-Star team. He and Bob Gibson were considered among the top pitching prospects in the organization. However, an injury derailed his ascension to the majors. Browning eventually earned a brief call-up to the big leagues, appearing in just a single game. His minor-league career included 54 victories over seven seasons, and he pitched in the last game played by Americans on Cuban soil for decades.

Calvin “Cal” Duane Browning was born on March 16, 1938 in Burns Flat, Oklahoma, a small town between the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma City. Calvin was the second of five children born to John and Flora Belle Browning. His father worked on the railroad, and his mother worked as a waitress. When Calvin was in the eighth grade, the family moved to nearby Clinton, Oklahoma. He played baseball and football at Clinton High School, earning all-state honors as a pitcher and a fullback. However, he didn’t know he’d made the All-State football team in 1955 until later because his mother hid his invitation. She didn’t like him playing the sport.1

Browning, 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, received football scholarship offers from several schools but ultimately accepted a baseball scholarship from Oklahoma State University. “I visited the Oklahoma campus several times, and I was offered football scholarships to Tulsa, Purdue, and Kentucky as well as Oklahoma, but I preferred baseball from the start,” Cal said in 1960.2 At that time, freshmen could not play varsity sports, but Cal would later say he enjoyed pitching against varsity players in practice because they couldn’t hit him. The baseball locker room was in the same facility where the wrestlers worked out. Browning later said that the baseball players always carried baseballs with them after practice to thwart wresters who would otherwise try to tackle them to the mat.3

While in Oklahoma City, Browning pitched for the Gassers, a semipro sandlot team sponsored by the Oklahoma Natural Gas Company. The Gassers were coached by Roy Deal, who earned legendary status in Oklahoma through decades of coaching successful amateur teams and developing several future major leaguers. Roy’s own son, Cot Deal, pitched in the big leagues with Boston and St. Louis and was a player/manager for Rochester in 1957. Browning later expressed how Deal helped him harness his talent and control, saying, “I was wild as a prairie fire when I was 17, twisting myself out of shape trying to throw harder.”4

At Roy Deal’s urging, the Cardinals offered the 19-year-old Browning a contract, and he left Oklahoma State after just one year.5 His signing bonus was $4,000.6 Browning reported to Rochester for a brief time and then was sent to a Cardinals’ Class-C team, the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Goldeneyes. He pitched in 16 games for Winnipeg finishing with an 8-6 record, 2.09 ERA, and an average of almost a strikeout per inning. Following the ’57 season, Browning pitched for Indios in the Colombian Winter League.

In 1958, Browning was assigned to pitch in Rochester as part of the starting rotation for Cot Deal and the Red Wings. Rochester opened the season with a road trip to Miami and Havana. Browning’s first start came on April 20 in Havana, resulting in a seven-inning shutout as the first game of a doubleheader. Both the team and young lefty continued to find success during the next two months. On June 18, Browning struck out 12 batters in a victory over Columbus, the second time in the season he fanned a dozen. At one point in the game, he struck out seven consecutive hitters.7

The Rochester starting rotation of Browning, Dick Ricketts, Gary Blaylock, and Gibson, recently added from Omaha, was drawing praise from the Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine. “Browning could soon fill a Cardinal need for a winning southpaw. But we have no intention of rushing him,” said Devine.8 The Sporting News’ Al Weber said that of this group, “top rated perhaps is Browning, whose poise and control belie his two half-seasons in pro ball.”9

On July 24, 1958, Browning threw a shutout versus Columbus in which he struck out 11. At the All-Star break, he had a record of 13-5 with an ERA of 2.81. In 157 innings pitched, he accumulated a league-leading 144 strikeouts, earning him a spot on the International League All-Star team as Rochester’s lone representative. On July 28, the All-Stars took on the Milwaukee Braves and a lineup that featured future Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Red Schoendienst. Milwaukee edged out the International League stars, 3-2. Browning pitched two scoreless innings, retiring all six batters faced with three strikeouts, including a punchout of Schoendienst.10 Browning was “the most impressive of the eight hurlers in the game,” wrote Cy Kritzer in The Sporting News.11

The second half of the 1958 season was a totally different story for Browning. In five starts following the All-Star game, he allowed 27 runs in 24 innings. After disclosing that he was having back and leg pain, he was sent for a medical evaluation and diagnosed with a possible ruptured disc.12 Clearly, his injury was affecting his performance on the mound. After a brief absence of about 10 days, he returned to action. He fared a little better but lost his last two decisions and finished the season with a record of 13-12 and ERA of 3.54. Despite his late season struggles and injury, he still led the International League with 173 strikeouts.

Browning spent the 1958-59 offseason serving six months in the U.S. Army Reserves, rejoining the Red Wings for spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida.13 The 1959 season was a chance for Browning to re-establish himself as a top pitching prospect. He had some success early in the season and appeared to have regained the promise he showed prior to his injury. Browning credited pitching coach Sal Maglie with helping him to regain his form by correcting a leg motion that was disrupting his rhythm.14 On May 4, Rochester played the major-league club in an exhibition game. Browning pitched three innings and struck out Cardinal legend Stan Musial twice.15

In July 1959, Browning was in Havana for what was arguably one the of the wildest games in professional baseball history. Despite political unrest which had led to the collapse of the Cuban government and rise of Fidel Castro earlier that year, the International League still included the Havana Sugar Kings, who had joined the league in 1954. Rochester was in Havana for a weekend series which included a two-inning exhibition in which Castro took the mound as a pitcher. On Saturday July 25, the game began late and went to extra innings. When the clock struck midnight the calendar turned to July 26, the anniversary of Cuban revolutionary attacks on the country’s army barracks. This was celebrated by fireworks and gunfire both inside and outside the stadium. “Kids who weren’t even old enough to grow beards were carrying live ammunition,” Deal recalled.16 “One soldier sitting in a front row box seat emptied a .45 automatic into the turf near the dugout,” wrote sportswriter George Beahon in recounting the event.17 The game continued once the celebration subsided. In the 11th inning, Deal argued a call on the field and was ejected. This fired up the crowd, and the gunfire again broke out. When the Red Wings came to bat in the 12th inning, Frank Verdi, who had replaced Deal in the third-base coaching box, was struck on the head by a stray bullet. Browning came running into the clubhouse, screaming, “Frank Verdi just got shot in the head!”18 Luckily, Verdi was wearing a plastic insert inside his hat which prevented serious injury and may have saved his life. Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas was also grazed on the shoulder by a bullet. “Bullets were falling out of the sky like hailstones that night,” Verdi later said.19 Right away, umpire Frank Guzzetta called the game, and it ended in a 4-4 tie. The Rochester players swiftly left the field and departed Cuba the next day, refusing to finish the series.

Browning spent the winter pitching in the Dominican and Puerto Rican winter leagues, and then entered his fourth season as a professional baseball player. Several weeks into the 1960 season in Rochester, Browning finally got the call to up St. Louis on May 30. He had to wait nearly two weeks to make his debut. On June 12, versus the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium, the Cards’ starting pitcher, Ron Kline, allowed five of the first six batters to reach base. Browning was summoned from the bullpen, entering the game with two runners on. His first pitch as a big leaguer came to Don Hoak, who hit it over the left-field wall for a three-run home run. After Bill Mazeroski singled, Browning retired the next two batters to end the inning. In the second inning, Browning allowed two hits and a walk to start the inning. Roberto Clemente then came up for the Pirates and singled, scoring the second run of the inning and knocking Browning out of the game. Browning’s final line was not pretty: an ERA of 40.50 in two-thirds of an inning. The Cardinals sent him back to Rochester a few days later. They called him back up in September, but he never got another chance on a big-league mound.

A couple of weeks after his appearance in St. Louis, Browning was back in Havana with his Rochester teammates. On Sunday June 26the two teams met for a double-header. The first game was delayed by 90 minutes after an explosion at a nearby munitions dump caused a power outage at Gran Stadium. In the second game, Browning came in from the bullpen and threw five innings of relief, allowing just one earned run. Tied 3-3 after nine innings, the game was called due to curfew. League officials met the following day and decided to move the Sugar Kings to Jersey City due to the political climate and rising tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. It would be decades before another American played baseball in Cuba.

The 1960-61 offseason was eventful in a couple different ways for Browning. The Cardinals traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, another International League team. Then, on October 9, 1960, he married Susan Dale Bartlett, also of Clinton, Oklahoma. He spent the 1961-63 seasons pitching for Triple-A teams in Toronto, Houston, and Portland (Oregon). He was used as both a starter and reliever at each of these stops and posted an ERA under 4.00 each season. However, he never got the call-back to the majors. His professional baseball career ended after the 1963 season at age 25. “I’m not 100% sure why he retired, but I would say it was due to his back,” said his son George, speaking on his behalf in 2020.20

After his playing career, Browning returned to Clinton and worked for his father-in-law in the lumber business. He and his wife raised four children: Kathy, Julia, James, and George. He coached his sons’ Little League teams and, according to George, stressed that it wasn’t about winning or losing but competing. He enjoys watching baseball on TV and gets aggravated by players missing the cut-off man, wearing excessive protective gear, and showing up pitchers.

Browning eventually became CEO of the lumber company and then passed on the business to his sons when he retired. He spent several years after retirement in Ruidoso, New Mexico enjoying golf and horseracing.

Browning rarely talks about his playing career since retiring from baseball, but when he does it is with pride and funny stories, according to George. “I think he was very proud of his baseball career,” said George. “A guy from small-town western Oklahoma was able to compete against top competition…He struggled with not staying in the big leagues but felt he wasn’t 100%. He always said that back in those times you had to play no matter if you were injured or not”21

While his single major-league outing was a rough one, his story is one of “what ifs.” What if he did not get injured during his amazing 1958 season? What if he had been given a chance to redeem himself with the Cardinals? The answers to these questions will never be known, but this much is true: Cal Browning had a major-league arm and, for one day in 1960, was a major-league player.

Last revised: June 16, 2020

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Joe DeSantis and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Sources

In addition to sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com.

Cal Browning’s son, George, was very helpful in providing information about his childhood, family, and post-baseball life. A phone interview was conducted on April 24, 2020, and additional information was provided in follow-up e-mail correspondence on April 27 and May 28, 2020.

 

Notes

1 George Browning, e-mail correspondence with the author, April 27, 2020.

2 “New Redbird Hurler Passed Up Football Career at Oklahoma,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 1960: 16.

3 George Browning.

4 Lee Slater, “About Calvin Browning…” Clinton Daily News, June 8, 1960: 8.

5 The Sporting News, April 30, 1958: 34.

6 “New Redbird Hurler Passed Up Football Career at Oklahoma.”

7 The Sporting News, July 2, 1958: 32.

8 Al Weber, “Cards’ Big Four of Future Polishing Up at Rochester,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1958: 33.

9 Weber.

10 Slater.

11 Cy Kritzer, “10,506 See Braves Defeat All-Stars,” The Sporting News, August 6, 1958: 33.

12 Brian Bennett, On a Silver Diamond: The Story of Rochester Community Baseball (New York: Triphammer Publishing, 1997), https://www.geneseo.edu/~bennettb/1958.html .

13 The Sporting News, April 8, 1959: 46.

14 The Sporting News, May 6, 1959: 28.

15 “Cards Catch Rochester in 12th, 10 to 4,” The Sporting News, May 13, 1959: 26.

16 Bob Hersom, “Thumb Still Lucky Hand in this Deal,” The Oklahoman, March 22, 1999.

17 George Beahon, “Nightmare in Havana — Wings in Real Danger,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 27, 159: 1.

18 Hersom.

19 Sean Lahman, “Red Wings Were Last U.S. Team in Cuba Before Embargo,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 18, 2004: D1.

20 George Browning, e-mail correspondence with the author, May 28, 2020.

21 George Browning.

Full Name

Calvin Duane Browning

Born

March 16, 1938 at Burns Flat, OK (USA)

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