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I Can't Hit the Ball Until I Hit the Bottle: The Pete Browning Story

Everyone loves a drunk.

Rhombus Leech

One of the greatest sluggers of the 19th Century, Pete Browning played from 1882-1896, spending most of his time playing for the Louisville club in the American Association, otherwise known as the Beer and Whiskey League. Browning put up some extremely gaudy offensive numbers in the dead-ball era: .402/.464/.547 in 1887 playing for the AA Louisville Colonels and .373/.459/.517 with a league leading 40 doubles in 1890 playing for the Cleveland Infants of the short lived Player's League. Browning spent two partial seasons in Cincinnati, where he slashed .319/.396/.409 over 138 games, in his age 30 and 31 seasons. But it isn't just impressive offensive stats and a well coiffed mustache that Browning is remembered for. His presence is still felt in every Major League game to this day.

As the legend goes; Browning, mired in a slump, had broken his bat while playing for his hometown Louisville club. In the early days of baseball, bats were a precious commodity. With a game scheduled the next day, this was a troubling development for Old Pete, as many ballplayers made their own bats to suit their individual specifications. As happenstance would have it, that day a young man by the name of John "Bud" Hillerich had shirked his duties at his father's woodworking shop to take in a ballgame. Upon learning of Browning's broken bat, the young Hillerich invited Browning to come to the family shop and have a new bat made. Browning watched as Bud selected a fine piece of white ash and spun it on the lathe. The next day, the Old Gladiator busted out of his slump going three for three and for all intents and purposes the Louisville Slugger bat and the Hillerich & Bradsby company were born.

Browning was obsessive about his bats, each one was a massive 37 inches long and weighed 48 ounces. In the cellar of his mother's home, which was his permanent residence his entire life, he stored hundreds of bats. He named his bats after Biblical figures, often times spoke to them, and thought that each bat had a specific number of hits in them. When a particular bat had reached its quota it would be retired to the cellar. Accounts of Browning's peculiarities and eccentricities in the newspapers of the day no doubt added to his legend. An unabashed self promoter, he would keep records of his batting statistics on his shirt cuffs, and would often introduce himself to crowds (or to a lone train station attendant in one instance) as the "Batting Champion of the American Association." When asked to explain his hitting prowess, Old Pete would often attribute it to his "lamps." He would stare at the sun for extended periods of time, thinking that it would strengthen his eyes. His methods for "cleansing" his eyes were even stranger, both bathing them in buttermilk and riding with his head out the window of a train hoping to catch burning cinders in them.

Like many ballplayers from his era, Browning was fond of prostitutes and struggled with personal demons. From early on in his childhood Browning dealt with mastoiditis, an infection of the inner ear that left him almost completely deaf and brought on debilitating pain. He was forced to drop out of school at an early age rendering him a functional illiterate. He took to drink as a young man to dull the pain he experienced on a daily basis and was often suspended for on-field drunkenness - to which his patented response was "I can't hit the ball until I hit the bottle." In his obituary, the Louisville Times claimed that baseball was the reason he fell in love with booze:

"’Old Pete’ was never known to take a drink until he played a game in this city with an amateur nine. He was asked to fill in for one of the players. On third base, a keg of beer had been placed, and those who reached the foaming fountain were entitled to a glass of lager. Pete knocked so many three-baggers and home-runs that little beer was left for anyone else."

The whimsical tone in the obituary undermined the seriousness of Browning's problem with alcohol, as it ultimately led to his demise. For Pete, life after baseball was not a peaceful one. He opened a bar near his mother's home, that ultimately failed, for seemingly obvious reasons, and then ran a cigar store. In 1905, he was declared insane by the Jefferson County courts and admitted to the Fourth Kentucky Lunatic Asylum. Later that year after being released from the mental hospital and admitted to a medical hospital due to his deteriorating health, the Louisville Slugger died at the age of 45 of complications from cancer, mastoiditis, syphilitic dementia, and cirrhosis of the liver.

While his ability to rake is unquestioned, other aspects of his game were rather suspect. It is accepted fact that he was a terrible base-runner, due in large part to his refusal to slide. Browning owns the rather ignominious record of being the only base-runner to be the victim of an unassisted pickoff attempt - in a home game in 1886, while he was taking a lead off of first, Pete became distracted and the pitcher ran over and tagged him out. The perception of the Old Gladiator was that he was an "all bat, no glove" guy, however some have refuted this claim. One reason for this assumption was due to his odd fielding stance. Early in his career, Browning was badly spiked by a base-runner (this accounts for his refusal to slide as well). He was terrified of this happening again, so to protect himself, he would stand on one leg with his other knee positioned toward the runner. His reasoning was that the base-runner would be fearful of a head on collision with Pete's knee and would be unlikely to come in with spikes flying

The fact that his primary positions were the three most defensively demanding positions (SS, 2B, CF) would lead one to believe that he was not the liability in the field that was purported. Due to the rudimentary equipment used and poor conditions of the playing field, defense was an adventure for most ballplayers in the 19th century. It should be noted that there are a number of reports in local papers, spanning his entire career, of incredible defensive plays and circus catches. The conclusion has been reached that Browning was an all-or-nothing fielder. When he was on top of his game (read, not feeling the affects of mastoiditis or drunkenness) he was a virtuoso on defense, when he was off, the team may have been better off playing a cigar store Indian at Second base.

While it is this inaccurate assumption that Old Pete was a one-dimensional player that may have kept him out of Cooperstown, it wasn't until recently that his accomplishments were acknowledged by some of baseball's historians. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) named Browning the Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend for 2009 - a yearly award for players not yet inducted to the Hall of Fame - rightfully placing this larger than life figure in the canon of baseball history.