Requiem for a Gladiator: Pete Browning

This article was written by Philip Von Borries

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

On the southwest side of Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, lies a plain granite marker with a slightly misspelled inscription, the gravesite pathetically guarded by a twisted sweet-bay magnolia tree. Buried there in lot #549 is Louis Rogers “Pete” Browning, whose occupation at the time of his death on September 10, 1905, at age 44, was listed succinctly in the large, lime-green City Mortuary Book as “ball player” – a notation of concise understatement.

During the course of 13 seasons from 1882 to 1894, the bulk of that with the Louisville franchise in the American Association and later the National League, Browning compiled a lifetime .342 batting average, tenth highest in the annals of the sport (even exceeding that of Babe Ruth) and third best among the game’s right-handed batters. A three-time batting champion and one of only three 19th-century players (along with Dan Brouthers and Ross Barnes) ever to garner batting crowns in two separate leagues during the pre-modern era, Browning’s personal best was a .402 mark in 1887. Nicknamed “The Gladiator,” Browning experienced great success as a batter, an achievement which was due in some part to the Louisville Slugger bat, the first of which was custom-built exclusively for him in 1884.

Despite these considerable achievements and statistics, Browning currently remains the only one of baseball’s top ten lifetime hitters not in the Hall of Fame, with the notable exception of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson who was barred from the game two years after his participation in the 1919 `Black Sox’ World Series scandal. Browning’s peculiar exclusion more than ever cries out for an explanation, given his unquestioned historical stature as a genuine pre-modern national star.

Ironically, Browning’s modern-day plight can be traced to his greatest strength, which over the years has become a virtual liability. Strictly a one-dimensional player, Browning endures today in baseball history as a classic stereotype: the big, dumb slugger. Certainly, Browning himself did little to discourage this image during his brief lifetime and mercurial career, looking and acting the part to the hilt. Tall and ungainly in appearance at six-feet and 180 pounds, he was personally and professionally eccentric, notoriously illiterate, chronically drunk, and defensively a buffoon in the field.

Now, more than 75 years after his untimely death, these comedic shortcomings sadly support and perpetuate the Browning legend in convenient and blatant disregard of their true source: a devastating physical disorder that robbed Browning of his hearing, deprived him of an education, eroded his professional skills, turned him into an alcoholic, and saw him mistakenly committed to an insane asylum towards the end of his life. Exposed to the light of truth, Browning emerges not as a clown but as a tragic figure victimized by a startling number of errors that run from the very beginning to the very end of his tortured life.

Contrary to what is listed in the latest edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, published under the aegis of the Baseball Commissioner, Louis Rogers Browning was not born on July 17, 1858. To its credit, however, the sport’s most basic reference book did manage to spell his name correctly, which is more than can be said for the anonymous stonecutter who carved “Lewis” on Browning’s tombstone so many years ago.

Browning was actually born in Louisville almost three years later than noted above, on June 17, 1861. The event took place at 13th and Jefferson streets on the city’s west side. Because the state of Kentucky did not require the official recording of vital statistics until 1911, no formal birth record exists today for Pete Browning. However, numerous sources from his own time verify this date, including federal census records for 1900; legal documents authorizing his commitment to a state insane asylum at nearby Lakeland, Ky., in June of 1905; the official record of his death as filed three months later on page 44 of City Mortuary Book Number 13; obituaries from Louisville’s two leading newspapers of that era, the Courier-Journal and the Times; and Browning’s grave marker itself.

Little is known about his immediate family, and absolutely nothing about his father. Apparently, the family of three sons and two daughters was raised for the most part by Pete’s mother, Mrs. Mary J. Browning, with whom “The Gladiator” lived all his life at her residence at 1427 West Jefferson Street. Occupying that site today is a department store, the result of a 1970s urban renewal program that cleared out huge blocks of what once comprised Louisville’s oldest and most fashionable neighborhood.

As a youth, Browning was a crack athlete and avid sportsman who studiously avoided schoolwork. Frequently, he would hide the schoolbooks his mother had provided him under the doorsteps at the home of John and Phil Reccius, teammates of his on the early Louisville teams (John was later a pallbearer at Browning’s funeral). Rounding up companions, Browning then would spend the rest of the day shooting marbles, spinning tops or playing ball.

Indeed, Browning’s proficiency as a marble shooter mirrored that of a later Louisville product to the major leagues, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, star shortstop for the Dodgers during the 1940s and 1950s. A master of the game in his neighborhood where he regularly won all the marbles of his friends, Browning then began to return the common marbles while keeping only the prized agates for himself, in time accumulating a trunk full of them. Eventually, his reputation became so great that he had to travel to the east end ofLouisville, where he was unknown, in order to get up a game.

Browning was also a superb skater who, according to several newspaper obituaries, “was easily the best in Louisville”, possessing an ability to “cut more funny figures and skate faster than any other boy of his acquaintance.” A lover of the outdoors, Browning enjoyed all athletics except swimming, which he claimed hurt his ears.

He first attracted attention as a baseball player in June of 1878 when he utilized a fine curveball and deceptive change-of-pace to pitch a two-hit shutout against the old Louisville National League club for an amateur squad called the Louisville Eclipse. The 4-0 victory came over the same team which had ignominiously left the National League fold the previous season after evidence was uncovered proving that four of its star players had conspired to throw the 1877 pennant to Boston.

His strikeout victims that day, notably enough, included two participants in the Louisville scandal: ringleader George Hall, a slugging outfielder who had led the National League in home runs during its inaugural 1876 season, and workhorse pitcher Jimmy Devlin, twice a 30-game winner and a solid hitter himself. Along with infielders Al Nichols and Bill Craver, both had been permanently barred from the game six months before at the league’s annual winter meeting, thereby abruptly terminating two highly promising careers.

Shifted to third base in 1880, Browning played on the local team formed by his friend John Reccius through 1881, that year signing his first professional contract for $60 a month. Firmly established as a star, Browning in mid-September of his final semi-pro season also laid the foundation for a career-long feud with the press. Informed of President James A. Garfield’s death, the result of an assassin’s bullet received two and a half months earlier, Browning queried an astonished reporter: “Yeh? What league was he in?”

The remark undoubtedly convinced the press that Browning’s ability to put his foot in his mouth was exceeded only by his ability to tilt a glass in that same direction, a habit they had previously tolerated. Relations between the press and Browning changed permanently for the worse after he turned professional. The press spent more than a decade jousting with him in their sports pages over his chronic drunkenness and frequent “lost weekends,” his inability to read or write, and his difficulty in catching routine fly balls. In time, the celebrated battles and not his prodigious hitting ability, earned him the monicker of “The Gladiator.”

Clearly, alcohol was Browning’s worst handicap. According to a Louisville Times obituary, the drinking problem had begun innocently in Browning’s teen-age years when he substituted in an amateur game where it was decreed that any man reaching third base would receive a free glass of beer. In a masterpiece of “read-between-the-lines” journalism, the obituary then recounted that Browning hit so many triples and homers that day, there was scarcely any brew left for anyone else. Years later, gripped by an uncontrollable passion for hard liquor that was the talk of the league and seemed to govern his every thought, word and deed, it was no laughing matter except to callous scribes on the American Association circuit when the alcoholic Browning tragically proclaimed: “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.”

Those hard times and confrontations were still much a part of the future, however, when a rival major league, the American Association, arose in 1882 to compete with the National League. With a flourish, Browning returned big-league baseball to the “River City” after a hiatus of four years, as the 21-year-old rookie led the neophyte circuit with a .382 batting average and a .521 slugging percentage.

The Louisville club needed every bit of his offense because, in the field, Browning wielded hands of stone. Committing 35 errors in his first pro season, primarily as a second baseman, Browning compiled an .890 fielding average. This was pretty typical for the period, but he went downhill from there, eventually ending his career with a lifetime .874 fielding average. Even a permanent change of scenery to the outfield in 1885 had no bearing because Browning was switched inexplicably to center field, the most difficult outfield position to play.

Given ample opportunity and territory, Browning responded in 1886 with a .791 fielding average, his personal nadir, while leading the league’s gardeners with 44 miscues. In 1887 he encored with a career-high 46 bobbles, a mark that again led all the league’s center fielders. His defensive liabilities were finally minimized in 1889 when Browning was shifted to left field, where he played the majority of his final six professional seasons.

However deficient he was as a fielder, Browning consistently shined at the plate, despite toiling his entire career for a succession of perennial non-contenders that never won a pennant and seldom finished in the first division. Oblivious to the “sophomore jinx,” Browning returned in 1883 to bat .336. The next year, playing on a Louisville squad that finished a strong third with a 68-40 ledger and a .620 win percentage (the best team he ever played for), Browning cranked out a solid .330 average.

Browning’s success that year and every season thereafter pivoted ironically around a bat he broke beyond repair during an early spring game, no small matter in baseball’s pre-modern days when teams rarely carried more than a dozen bats and routinely nailed the flat paddle-shaped sticks together when broken. In the stands that day, however, was John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich, who had sneaked off from his job as an apprentice in his father’s wood-turning shop to watch the game.

Hillerich quickly made Browning an offer he couldn’t refuse and the pair returned to the shop where Hillerich selected a length of sturdy white ash, still today the most prized wood for bat-making because of its resiliency and whipping action. Repeatedly turning it on the lathe until Browning’s exact specifications were met, Hillerich finally produced a suitable replacement that unofficially turned out to be the first Louisville Slugger bat.

The next day, Browning used the custom-made stick to garner three hits in three trips to the plate. His secret of success did not stay a mystery very long as members of the local Eclipse and later players from other American Association teams showed up at the shop looking for similar bats. Initially, the elder J. Frederich Hillerich wanted no part of the “new fad” since his business was booming for wooden butter churns, bedposts and handrails. Only grudgingly did he allow his son to continue the bat-making activity.

The bat-making proved to be Hillerich’s salvation, however, at the turn of the century when progress dried up the market for the wooden butter churn. Instead of going under, the firm smoothly switched to manufacturing bats, all stamped with the trademark that had been registered in 1894, Browning’s last professional season. On September 1, 1905, nine days before Browning died, the firm made modern endorsement-advertising history by signing a contract for its first autographed model with future Hall-of-Famer Honus Wagner, who had played his early major league ball at Louisville. In time, the business changed its name to Hillerich & Bradsby upon the arrival of Frank Bradsby, previously a buyer for Simmons Hardware in St. Louis, the firm’s first national outlet for its bats. Today, Hillerich & Bradsby ranks as the number one batmaker for professional baseball with approximately 90% of the market, a dominance created and sustained nearly a century later courtesy of Pete Browning.

The focal point of the 1884 season, however, was surgery Browning submitted to for the first time for mastoiditis, an inflammation of the mastoid process.

Perhaps just as dangerous as the disorder, which in Browning’s time ranked as a major health threat along with tuberculosis, tetanus, typhoid fever and scarlet fever, was the operation itself. Though absolutely necessary since no infection is more life-imperiling than one located in close proximity to the human brain, the procedure was still performed in an era of crude surgical techniques and without the post-operational benefits of “wonder drugs” like penicillin and sulfa.

On a limited basis, the operation was successful since Browning resumed his baseball career. However, the surgery afforded only temporary relief as the mastoidal problems soon returned, chronically plaguing him the rest of his life. A second operation in 1905, shortly before his death, proved to be a case of “too little, too late” as the infection had apparently spread inward, resulting in either meningitis or a brain abscess. In retrospect and without point of exception, the heretofore-ignored malady places Browning’s badly misunderstood career and life in proper historical context.

First and foremost was his drinking. In a classic example of the cure being as bad as the disease, Browning repeatedly sought bottled oblivion to “relieve” his mastoidal problems, only to be turned into an alcoholic. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. When the crudely-treated mastoidal infection went wild in Browning’s final months, it attacked a brain already heavily damaged by more than two decades of hard drinking, first producing erratic behavior that saw Browning mistakenly committed to an insane asylum and then generating his premature death shortly afterwards.

In similar fashion, the mastoiditis turned him into an illiterate. As a young man, Browning lost his hearing when the mastoidal condition, untreated in its primary stage, then attacked and destroyed the middle ear region. Handicapped by a major learning disability, deafness, and certainly bereft of any special-education classes, an uneducable Browning consequently dropped out of school. The ear condition was so painful that Browning even refused to swim, despite living just a few blocks away from the Ohio River.

Always a defensive liability, Browning’s career-long fielding problems, like his illiteracy, were a direct result of the mastoiditis-induced deafness he suffered as a youth. In 1885, Browning was switched permanently from the infield to the outfield. Precipitating the move was the habit he had acquired of standing on one leg and pointing the other leg at baserunners who came near him, the result of several previous incidents when he had been run over and spiked badly. At the time, the habit struck some scribes as comical; to others, it indicated a lack of courage. In actuality, however, Browning’s actions were neither comical nor cowardly, but rather the pitiful attempts of a deaf man to protect himself from being blind-sided on the basepaths by runners he could not hear.

Shifted to the outfield, the situation barely improved since fellow outfielders must have found it difficult to call for a flyball with a deaf man stationed in their ranks. Worse still, Browning had retained his bizarre one-legged defense and in the only known record of malice on his part, promised that anyone who got near him, would be “put out of business.”

The uncharacteristic threat belied Browning’s basic temperament, that of a “gentle giant” who was far kinder to the world during his brief lifetime than it ever was to him. Despite constant press attacks, Browning never soured on people in general, particularly his fans. During the height of his success, Browning frequently alighted from trains all over the American Association circuit and introduced himself to assembled crowds as that league’s champion batsman. That refusal to be an unapproachable prima donna particularly benefitted him on a historic spring day in 1884 when a young fan and total stranger climbed out of the stands at Louisville after Browning irreparably broke his best bat, and offered to handcraft his idol a far better bat than Browning had ever seen or used.

That gentle nature, undoubtedly shaped by a mother to whom Browning was entirely devoted, displayed itself at an early age in simple neighborhood marble games. Refusing to take advantage of anyone, particularly his friends, Browning generously returned the bulk of the marbles he had won from his less-talented rivals. Late in his career against a more formidable foe like future Hall-of-Famer John McGraw, Browning’s easy-going ways enabled him to defuse a potentially volatile situation without ever striking a blow.

A vile and vicious player before he became the tyrannically successful manager of the New York Giants, McGraw often hooked his hand inside the belts of runners tagging up at third on flyballs the delay frequently causing them to be thrown out at home and sometimes out of the game following a bench-clearing brawl. One step ahead of McGraw that day was Browning, however, who surreptitiously unfastened his belt. When a succeeding batter hit a flyball to the outfield, McGraw found himself holding an empty belt while Browning crossed the plate holding his beltless pants up, much to the amusement of the crowd. It is reported that McGraw never again tried that trick.

But there was another side to Browning. Locked in a world without sound and handicapped by his own illiteracy for the majority of life, Browning naturally developed eccentricities out of self-protection, superstition, and loneliness. Wary of the literate world, of which he was never a part, Browning kept his batting average on his cuffs, refiguring it after every game. In matters of his contract, he would never sign until opening day, and then only after John Dyler (his first manager) okayed it. Though Browning prized his eyes which brought him so much offensive success, he stubbornly refused to cut the shaggy eyebrows that frequently fell into his “lamps,” fervently believing that the Lord had made them that way for a divine reason. His bats, mere inanimate objects to normal people, were perhaps the best friends he ever had because they never attacked or ridiculed him. The collection of bats, which eventually totaled more than 200 in number, were all personally named by Browning who relied heavily on the Bible for monickers after he ran out of common names. Once they produced their “quota” of hits, they were then “retired” to the basement of his mother’s home where they continued to bring him endless pleasure and company. Unquestionably, they also brought him great success.

In 1885, a year after his major surgery for mastoiditis, Browning copped his second American Association batting title with a hefty .362 average that included a league-leading 174 hits. Looking to repeat in 1886, Browning hit a solid .340, only to get nipped by the .342 mark of teammate Guy Hecker. The only pitcher in major league history ever to win a batting crown, Hecker that season further earned his keep with a strong 27-23 mound slate for a Louisville team that finished a dismal sixth.

Circumstances were crueler the next year when Browning batted a career-high .402 in a campaign that saw him record numerous other personal bests including 220 hits in 547 plate appearances, 18 triples, 137 runs scored, 103 stolen bases, and a .556 slugging percentage. But that’s all 1887 was for Browning, a great personal season, as Tip O’Neill led the league in every major offensive category including a .435 batting average, the second-highest mark ever recorded in a single season and well ahead of runnerup Browning.

After a .313 season in 1888, his seventh consecutive campaign at the .300 level or better, Browning tailed off wildly to a horrendous .256 batting average in 1889. But he wasn’t alone. That season, Browning found himself on the second-worst team in baseball history as Louisville established a major league record for consecutive losses (26) enroute to an abysmal 27-ill mark and .190 win percentage.

Individually, the season was even worse for Browning. Hampered by a leg injury, and a participant in a short-lived players’ strike against heavy-handed owner Mordecai Davidson whose illegal fines and salary dockings further increased tension on an already dissension-torn team, Browning the last month of the season was suspended without pay for drinking.

Figuring any place had to be better than Louisville, Browning jumped the next season to Cleveland in the Players’ League, where he took his third and final batting title with a .387 mark that also included a circuit-topping 40 doubles. At the same time, the terrible Louisville team completely transformed itself, ironically benefiting from the defection of numerous American Association stars to the Players’ League which helped to dilute the quality of its own league. By season’s end, its 8 8-44 mark stood the franchise atop the American Association heap, giving Louisville its first, last and only major-league pennant. Though the price was undoubtedly right for Browning in Cleveland, at a lucrative $4,480 annually, he nonetheless missed his only chance to play for a pennant winner.

Browning’s only consolation was ex-teammate William Van Winkle “Chicken” Wolf, who led the American Association with a .363 average and 197 hits, the former a snappy performance that was nearly 75 points over his career average. Teammates for eight years and lifelong friends, Browning had personally “christened” Wolf early in their careers after the latter disobeyed manager John Dyler’s orders and gorged himself on stewed chicken, then proceeded to make several errors in that day’s game. In a bizarre parallel to Browning’s life, Wolf was later committed to Lakeland Insane Asylum, spending the final two years of his life there before his early death at age 41 in 1903. Buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, Wolf’s gravesite today lies just a quarter-mile away from that of Browning’s.

Following the collapse of the Players’ League at the end of 1890 after – a one-year existence, Browning spent the last four years of his career in the National League with five different teams, including a full season and part of another with Louisville. His last baseball came in 1894 when he played with future Hall-of-Famer Mike Kelly’s team, “Kelly’s Killers,” in Allentown, Pa., and later in Richmond.

After his retirement, Browning returned home to Louisville where he later opened a saloon at the corners of 13th and Market, near his mother’s home and across the street from a Catholic church, St. Patrick’s, that still stands today. After a few years, the business proved unprofitable, perhaps for obvious reasons, and Browning then became a cigar salesman. Giving that up, he then turned to caring for his aged mother. In the summertime he would frequently take in a ball game where he was always recognized by the crowd.

But the peaceful retirement was short-lived. On June 7, 1905, according to existing court records stored in Frankfort at the Kentucky State Archives, Browning was produced in the criminal division of Jefferson County Circuit Court where he was declared a lunatic and ordered to the insane asylum at nearby Lakeland. If the documents are sketchy, they still speak volumes about times when such legal proceedings frequently resulted in the commitment of senile persons, epileptics and mentally retarded individuals.

The proceeding was a miscarriage of justice that denied Browning the medical help he really needed and, ironically, produced more evidence of his sanity than his insanity. Facts ascertained during the trial indicated that no attempts at suicide or violence had been made; no restraints were needed for Browning; no “fits” had occurred; and his temperament in general and toward his family was kind. Only Browning’s inability to talk intelligently and his brief periods of lucidity indicated any mental disorder. This was, at best, a questionable conclusion in the face of evidence presented at the trial indicating severe physical problems including ear disease, a tumor of the head and softening of the brain. Such a “shotgun” commitment would be impossible today under current Kentucky statutes. After some improvement, Browning was removed from the Lakeland Asylum by his sister on June 21, 12 days after his commitment. On July 26, he was admitted to old City Hospital (now University Hospital) where he underwent surgery for ear trouble and a tumor of the breast on July 29.

Making a rapid recovery, Browning was then sent home only to return in early August after experiencing more difficulty. Becoming morbid and losing hope, Browning refused to take his medicine or cooperate with doctors. In late August, he slipped away from the hospital and walked to his mother’s house, saying that he didn’t like to hear people groan. That same night, he was taken back to the municipal hospital. A few days later, a growth appeared once again on his neck. Fading quickly, he died there on Sunday afternoon, September 10, 1905, in the presence of his mother; two sisters, Mrs. Florence Ramsey and Fannie Browning; and one brother, Charles. Henry, his other brother, was unable to come to his bedside because he, too, was seriously ill.

News of his death was carried the next day by all four Louisville newspapers, the most colorful obituaries appearing in the town’s two leading publications, the morning Courier-Journal and the evening Times. “Called Out” blared the headline of the former while the latter ran the most extensive story of all under a headline that solemnly proclaimed, “Pete Browning Out Of Life’s Game.”

Funeral services were held the following Tuesday afternoon at the home of Browning’s mother, who at the advanced age of 79 must have found the grief hard to bear. From his mother’s home, Browning was taken to Cave Hill Cemetery and buried. Serving as his pallbearers were John Dyler, Browning’s first manager; former teammates Thomas McLaughlin, Charles Pfeiffer, Timothy Lehan and Issac Van Burkalow; and lifelong friend John Reccius.

And there Browning has lain in historical obscurity for more than 75 years, certainly considered for, but never elected to the Hall of Fame. Maybe this will change because of the new information which has come to light about his tortured life and career, and the substantial damage done to him by the press of his day, which ridiculed him for his alcoholism and deafness while ignoring the mastoidal condition that lay at the root of his life-long personal and professional problems.

Recognition for Browning would also be beneficial to the old American Association, the forgotten major league which produced such other worthy stars as Harry Stovey, Bid McPhee, and Tony Mullane. Enough time has elapsed. Those players were stars 100 years ago, and foremost among them was the Gladiator, the Louisville Slugger, Louis Pete Browning.