Baseball has had its share of unusual characters and Pete Browning was undoubtedly among the most colorful. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he had a troubled childhood. Afflicted with a rare disorder known as mastoiditis, he lost a majority of his hearing and dropped out of school. He remained semi-literate throughout his life. Making his formative years even more difficult, his father was killed in a cyclone, leaving his mother to raise eight children alone.
An excellent athlete, Browning aspired to the major league ranks in 1882 with the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. His medical affliction caused him to suffer from crippling headaches. At some point, he began to self-medicate with alcohol, telling one reporter: “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” Tales of his epic hangovers abound. He once literally fell asleep while leading off of second base. On another occasion, he was in such a daze at first, he allowed opposing pitcher Dave Foutz to wander over and tag him out.
Browning was obsessed with his eyesight. He referred to his eyes as “lamps” or “peepers” and believed that it improved his vision when he stared into the sun for extended lengths of time. On at least one occasion, he held his head outside the window of a moving train to cleanse his eyes and ended up getting cinders in them. He was also known to soak his “peepers” in buttermilk.
He demonstrated a host of other eccentricities as well, fielding fly balls on one leg, refusing to slide into bases and never failing to touch third on his way to his outfield position. He was a monumentally poor fielder, committing 269 errors in 998 outfield assignments—an average of one miscue for every four appearances. Players didn’t use mitts in Browning’s era, but that was no excuse. His lifetime fielding percentage was a dozen points below the league average. One of Browning’s managers allegedly complained that the team would be better off with a wooden cigar store Indian in the field since there was an odd chance that a batted ball would hit the statue and bounce back toward the infield.
Despite his shortcomings, Browning was an outstanding batsman. He hit for the cycle twice during the 1880s and won three batting titles in a ten-year span. He had above average power for the era, gathering more than 400 extra-base hits over portions of thirteen seasons. He kept a running tally of his batting averages on his shirt cuffs and would sometimes declare himself the current batting champion when he stepped to the plate. He retired with a lifetime .341 average.
Browning is best known for putting Hillerich and Bradsby on the map. He was the first to purchase bats from the company, popularizing a product that would later be named the “Louisville Slugger” in his honor. Browning established a personal relationship with each of his bats, talking to them and giving them names—often of biblical figures.
After his retirement as a player, Browning’s physical and mental health deteriorated. In 1905, he was briefly committed to a psychiatric facility. He died in September of that year due to a host of ailments, among them cancer, cirrhosis and alcohol-related brain damage. He received some consideration for the Hall of Fame but ultimately fell short.