“A Man Can’t Play Ball When He ain’t Getting no Money for it”

29 May

In January of 1890 Louis Rogers Browning, Pete, “the Gladiator,” the biggest star, even if no longer the best player, of the 27-111 Louisville Colonels of the American Association, jumped to the Cleveland Infants in the Players League.

Browning, illiterate, alcoholic, superstitious, and nearly deaf as a result of an untreatable ear condition, had quickly become popular among his hometown fans—despite being called out for on-field drunkenness as early as 1882 by The Louisville Courier-Journal.

Browning had won two American Association batting titles (1882, 1885), but had slipped to .313 in 1888 and .256 in 1889 playing in 99 and 83 games.

The New York Sun said the signing caused a “sensation” in Louisville despite that:

“(I)t has been said for two years that he had lost his usefulness by reason of his  defective eyesight and intemperate habits.”

Browning’s “defective eyesight” was said to be the result of his belief that stating into the sun would improve his “lamps.”

Pete Browning

Pete Browning

The Sun said Browning provided a “funny explanation” (all grammar errors are from the original text) for leaving his hometown to sign with Cleveland:

“I have been waiting for this chance for four years.  They ain’t treated me right here since 1886.  I used to play great ball for ‘em till they put the screws on me so hard, then I just quit.  I don’t mean that I didn’t play honest ball, but I just got discouraged and couldn’t do it.  A man can’t play ball when he ain’t getting no money for it.  I tell yer they have been socking it to me ever since 1886.  I’ve been fined so heavy that my salary ain’t ever been over $1,000, when I could have been making $2,000 and $3,000 from other clubs.  Newspapers have done me up so that people in the East have thought I was no more good.”

Browning said that after financially troubled owner Mordecai Davidson turned the Louisville franchise over to the American Association in July of 1889, and the league secured new, local ownership, he thought his situation would improve.

“They said my peeps was out of condition and I couldn’t hit a balloon.  Well, you ought to a ‘seed me line ‘em out.  They couldn’t put the ball nowhere I couldn’t get ‘em.  I played the game of my life.  I knocked the cover off the ball right along.  When I come home (from a road trip in August) I thought they would meet with a brass band.  Well I got a letter from (the Colonels new management) sayin’ I was laid off.  The papers said I had been drinkin’ when I hadn’t touched a drop for months.  They wouldn’t give old Pete a chance.”

In the fall of 1889 Browning played for a team in Knoxville, Tennessee, The Sporting Life’s “Louisville correspondent” said he had stayed out of trouble:

 “I understand that Pete’s conduct while recently with the Knoxville Club was quite exemplary, and tat be drank nothing but water.  Since his return to Louisville he has behaved himself in the same manner. Pete, however, always had a strange way of keeping sober during the winter and getting drunk in the spring when it was time to play ball.”

Browning told The Sun that his performance in Knoxville had earned him several offers from other teams, that he was in great shape, and that Louisville management was to blame for a lot of his problems:

“I give you my word of honor I haven’t touched a drop of anything for seven months.  I know that I have gone wrong sometimes, but if they had come to me an’ talked to me like gentlemen, I’d a done anything for ‘em: but they don’t do it, an’ they run off to the papers with another story of old Pete bein’s on a tear.  That just made me worse.  Do you think I’ve got no feelin’s left?

“Well I’m goin’ away, an’ you just watch me.  Talk about my peeps, there was never nothin’ the matter ‘em.  It was my nerve that was weak…Pete knows his biz, and he’ll get a chance someday.  An’ he has.  Keep an eye on me this season.”

Presumably Browning’s “peeps” were not completely ruined yet by his staring into the sun; he hit .373 and won the Players League’s only batting championship.

He would play through the 1894 season, compiling a lifetime .341 average.  The sad story of Browning’s post-baseball life and his death in Louisville in 1905 are well documented elsewhere.

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