Slow Tragedy: The Saga of Pete Browning

This article was written by Clyde F. Crews

This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles

This article was originally published in “A Celebration of Louisville Baseball,” the 1997 SABR convention journal.


A native Louisvillian, Louis “Pete” Browning was born June 17, 1861, in the first summer of America’s Civil War. One of eight children (four sons and four daughters) born to Samuel and Mary Jane Sheppard Browning, Pete grew up in the city’s near West End. The family was geographically well-rooted, for when Pete died, a bachelor, in the late summer of 1905, it was at the old family homestead at 1427 West Jefferson, where he had made his residence at the end with his old mother and two sisters.

The tragic aspects of the Browning story begin early in “The Gladiator’s” life and course through his days like dark threads in a once bright tapestry. As a boy and a young man who loved not only baseball but skating, marbles, and fishing, Pete was afflicted with ear and hearing maladies that made learning difficult. (In those youthful years, he did not learn to read or write.) The diagnosis was mastoiditis, and in the still primitive days of surgery, Browning had two operations for his condition, neither of lasting help.

He was to spend 13 seasons in major league baseball (1882- 1894), with an average above .300 for seven consecutive years. He topped out in 1887 at .402. Two years later, he spent two months on suspension for the alcohol problem that plagued him throughout his adult years.

Browning first achieved notice as a pitcher, but spent his time in the majors as a fielder, staying permanently in the outfield after 1885. As a fielder, writes Philip Von Borries, Browning was “atrocious” and “wielded hands of stone.” His elegant hours, of course, were to be spent at the plate, armed with one of his formidable bats. There, in the glory days with Louisville, he regularly electrified his fans. An editorialist for the Louisville Herald wrote:

“. . . when “Old Pete” Browning walked with easy grace to the plate with his bat under his arm, and rubbed his hands with dirt, all of us youngsters in the bleachers raised our voices in wild acclaim . . . . With breathless interest we watched him as he took his position, crouching panther-like over the plate, his keen eye watching for the pitcher . . . . And when “Pete” found one to his liking and let go at it for a fair hit, how we rose with the other exultant fans and shouted for the pure joy of shouting.”

“Old Pete” stayed with the Louisville team through their disastrous 1889 season (27-111) and switched to the Players League and Cleveland in 1890, batting .373 that year. Before his career ended in 1894, he had done stints with Pittsburgh and four other National League clubs.

Browning maintained that he reformed and stopped drinking when he left Louisville. The New York Herald noted in 1891 that some reports had made a dupe of the real Browning, providing a “spin” that the Gladiator was ignorant and simple. “On the contrary,” the Herald reported, “he appeared to be decidedly sensible and well-read.” The columnist continued:

“Pete is one of the characters in professional baseball. He has figured in more scrapes and skirmishes with managers than practically any other ballplayer in the country. Two years ago he was a confirmed drunkard; now he is a reformer, sober, hard-working and respected.”

The transformed Mr. Browning visited Louisville during the “World Series” of 1890 between his native city and Brooklyn. He spoke of himself to the press inthe third person: “When Pete was here he wasn’t nobody. Now Pete comes back to town and everybody calls him Mr. Browning.. When he got with good people, he became good people himself.” Asked about the chances for a Louisville victory, the feisty old Gladiator replied: “All the Brooklyns might be killed in a wreck and then the Louisvilles would have to win.”

It was during the 1884 season playing with “the Louisvilles” that Browning cracked his bat, an event destined to become the Crack Heard ‘Round the World. For Pete turned to John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich, son of the owner of the J. F. Hillerich Co., purveyor of bed posts and butter churns, to create a round, barrel-shaped bat especially for him, and the Louisville Slugger tradition was born.

Browning was a man who was shot through with eccentricities—always stepping on third base with his left foot when he came off the field; pampering his “lamps” (eyes) and bushy eyebrows. But, foremost among his quirks was what might be called a “bat mysticism.” He named all his bats, often turning to the Bible as a source. He believed that each of his wood sluggers had just so many hits within them. When they were exhausted, they were given a respectful retirement in the basement of Pete’s mother’s home. Reportedly, over 200 ended up there in repose.

After his diamond career was completed, Browning returned to Louisville, where he kept a saloon (not the best of occupations for a man with his personal history) at the corner of 13th and Market streets. He also tried cigar sales for a time. But his health—both mental and physical—began to deteriorate significantly.

In the summer of 1905, he was committed by order of a local circuit court to the Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum (Lakeland). After barely two weeks of residence there, he was removed by his sister. Within a month he was taken to City Hospital in Louisville and underwent surgeries on the ear and chest. He died at his mother’s home on September 10, 1905.

The Louisville papers next day could not resist puns in their obituary headlines: “Called Out For All Time On Life’s Field” read the morning Courier-Journal; and “Pete Browning ‘Out’ of Life’s Game” came from the evening Times. Old teammates—including John Reccius and Charles Pfeiffer—were among the pallbearers who brought “Old Pete” to his final resting place, Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

Pete Browning’s life, to all outward appearances, was a story of slow tragedy. His saga is one of great ability and performance that played itself out and finally wound down against a backdrop of ongoing incapacity, isolation, and misunderstanding.

Even in death, the tragedy has continued, for, despite outstanding achievement, Browning has never been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his insightful study of Browning in Legends of Louisville, Philip Von Borries makes a studied and impassioned appeal that such an omission be remedied in the future. He writes of the failure of the Gladiator’s contemporaries and some later historians to recognize “the ravaging mastoidal condition that lay at the root of all his lifelong personal and professional problems.” Von Borries concludes:

“Today, nearly a century after he last played major league baseball, Browning is imprisoned by both that media-created legend and historical prejudice against American Association luminaries. When those shackles are finally broken, the way will be clear for Browning to enter Cooperstown.”