Tag Archives: Pete Browning

“Perhaps the most Superstitious Class of People”

31 Jan

In 1886 The San Francisco Chronicle said of contemporary baseball players:

“With all the enlightenment of civilization superstition still holds potent sway.  Perhaps the most superstitious class of people to be met today in the United States, aside from gamblers and actors, are baseball players and worshipers of the game, whose faith in “mascots” and jonahs” as influences for good or bad luck is almost if not fully as strong as their belief in religion itself.”

Jim Hart, in San Francisco with his Louisville Colonels, told the paper about some of the specific superstitions which influenced the 19th Century ballplayer:

“The St. Louis Browns have their club house at home just off from right field, and whenever the bell rings for the practice preceding each game the whole nine form into line in front of their house and then walk abreast to first base, where they disperse and take their positions.  This is invariably done under the belief that it insures good luck.  Bill Gleason too, the famous shortstop, always walks astride of the foul chalk line to third base before going to his place on the diamond.  He has never once failed to do it in the whole five years he has been playing baseball.”

Bill Gleason

Bill Gleason

“Why there’s (Albert “Doc”) Bushong, the catcher of the St. Louis Browns.  He’s got a pair of gloves that are so dilapidated that even the patches are patched.  He wouldn’t part with those gloves, though, for a ten-acre lot.  He thinks as mascots they are infallible.  (Walter Henry) Porter, the pitcher of the Brooklyns , also has a red sleeveless jacket  or shirt which he has worn regularly for more than two years.  It doesn’t match the uniform of the club, but he wears it anyhow, for he sincerely believes that if he laid the shirt aside the game would be lost.

“(Pete) Browning, our center fielder and the crack batter in the league, is the greatest fanatic on mascots, I reckon, of anybody in the business.  He did not come out with us this time.  He got out of whack during the summer and I sent him to the springs to recuperate.  He returned home before we came out here, but I thought it best to leave him behind.  Well, Browning has a practice of always walking over and touching one foot on third bag when going from field to bat, or vice versa.  A stack of twenties as high as that house wouldn’t be inducement enough for Browning to refrain from carrying out this program every time he plays, he’s got so much faith in it, you know.  To show you how earnest he is in this respect, I’ll relate a short anecdote about him which occurred last summer.  It may amuse you.  Browning has a pretty good idea of himself as a ballplayer, and it rather hurt him to be sent off from us, even if it was to the springs” (Browning was in such poor physical condition in July of 1886—The Cincinnati Enquirer said “it is doubtful if he appears on the diamond again.”– that he was sent to the springs in French Lick, Indiana for a month).

Hart said the rest of the Louisville team let Browning know they did just fine without him in the lineup, including their best road trip of the season, when they won 8 of 12 games:

“The rest of the boys naturally joshed him a good deal about it, and gleefully referred to their splendid record while he was away. ’Yes,’ replied Browning, driven to desperation, ‘but I was touching third bag every day, or you couldn’t have done it.’  It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?  It’s true, nevertheless, for I found out afterwards that he had marked out a diamond just back of the hotel at the springs, and on the days that we were booked to play he would go out to his field and soberly go through his regular ceremony of touching third bag.”

Pete Browning

Pete Browning

Hart claimed he was an exception, “I’m not very superstitious,” he said, but he conceded “I hear and see so much of these things that hang me if I don’t almost believe in them myself sometimes.”   As an example, he told the story of arriving at the ballpark during a losing streak:

“I went into the club-room with a new white plug hat on my head.  Everybody jumped up at once and shouted, ‘A mascot! A mascot! Our luck will change now, sure.’ We did meet with rather better success after that, and the hat naturally got the credit for it.  Four or five weeks later I exchanged my white hat for a black mackinaw, and, my Lord! You should have heard those fellows kick.  They said I was a jonah and we’d lose the next game, and by thunder, we did, too.”

Browning and Delahanty

25 Jun

John Anthony “Honest Jack” Boyle played in the American Association, Players League and National League from 1886 to 1898.

Boyle’s career was on the decline by the end of the 1898 season (he had only appeared in six games with the Philadelphia Phillies that year), but was effectively ended in November when he was the victim of a mysterious knife attack in his hometown of Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune said Boyle was “attacked from behind by an unknown man, who, before the player could defend himself, plunged a knife into his shoulder.”

A piece of the knife broke off in Boyle’s shoulder and he didn’t play regularly again until 1905 when he appeared in 101 games for the Toledo Mud Hens in the American Association ; he was a player-manager for the Terre Haute Hottentots in the Central League the following season.

Jack Boyle

Jack Boyle

By 1910 Boyle, who was operating a saloon in Cincinnati, told William A. Phelon of The Chicago Tribune that the two best hitters he ever saw were Pete Browning and Ed Delahanty, and provided a window into the minds of two of the biggest stars of the 19th Century:

“(T)here never were two men more radically different in their ideas of and their opinions of the game than these two great sluggers.  They looked at the game from totally different angles, and they regarded their occupation with widely varying views.

“Pete Browning was an artist.  To him baseball was an art or a profession and batting an absorbing passion.

“Delahanty was a workman.  Baseball to him was labor or a trade, and batting simply part of the daily toil.

“When Browning left the field the game wasn’t over.  He continued to talk batting, theorize on batting, figure out new ideas on batting, and I think, dreamed of batting all night long.

Pete Browning

Pete Browning

“When Delahanty left the ballpark the game was all through for the day, exactly as if he was a laborer going home to supper.  He ceased to think baseball.

Ed Delahanty

Ed Delahanty

“If Browning failed to make a hit at the time of need, he would have tears in his eyes and would bitterly bewail his misfortune.  If Delahanty fell down in the pinch, he shrugged his shoulders, hoofed back to the bench and began to talk racing or the weather.

“When an outfielder galloped to the fence and pulled down one of Browning’s mighty drives, Pete would regard it as a personal insult, and glower at the outfielder like a baffled tiger.  When a fielder robbed Del of a home run, Ed would grunt ‘Good catch, boy, didn’t think you’d get it’ and forget it forever.

“If you had told Pete Browning that the business was losing money, and that you would have to cut his salary next season, he would have accepted the money rather than lose the chance to play the game.  If you handed that talk to Delahanty, he would have sneered scornfully and remarked that you’d have to come up with 500 more beans before he’d even look at a contract.

“Neither Pete nor Del cared much where their teams finished on the season.  Pete thought only of hits and the glory of making them.  Del thought of a comfortable winter life on the money he had made in the summertime.”

Boyle said the only thing the two really had in common was an inability to bunt:

“Del wouldn’t simply try.  Pete, with much groaning and protestation, would be coaxed to make the attempt, but his attempts were fizzles.”

Boyle, or Phelon, omitted the other thing the two had in common: serious drinking problems that hurt them on and off the field and contributed to their early deaths.

Boyle died in Cincinnati in 1913.

“To be Hissed and Hooted at in the East is too much”

20 Jun

In 1886  Thomas Jefferson “Tom” York retired after a fifteen-year career.   As a 20-year-old he joined the Troy Haymakers in the National Association in 1871, he was with the Hartford Dark Blues for the National League’s inaugural season in 1876, and finished with the Baltimore Orioles in the American Association; he also served two brief stints as a player/manager with the Providence Grays.

York, who suffered from rheumatism, had considered retiring before the 1894 season after the Cleveland Blues sold him to the Orioles, but The Baltimore American said he was induced to continue playing with a $5000 salary and “the scorecard and cushion (concession)” at Oriole Park.  After hitting just .233 in 1884, he was only able to play in 22 games the following season before calling it quits.

Tom York, middle row, far right, with the 1876 Hartford Dark Blues

Tom York, middle row, far right, with the 1876 Hartford Dark Blues

Just before the beginning of the 1886 season York was hired as an American Association umpire.  After the May 22 game in Baltimore which the Orioles lost 2-1 to the Louisville Colonels, The Baltimore Sun said:

“(York) received a dispatch yesterday ordering him to Brooklyn.  Instead of going he telegraphed his resignation.  His reason for doing so was the abuse he received from some of the spectators of Saturday’s game.  In fact, he was nearly equal to that of John Kelly, ‘the king of umpires.’  He declared (Pete) Browning’s hit near the foul line a fair hit.  He was in the best position to know, but, as it was made at a critical point, some of the audience objected, and York came in for pretty severe abuse.”

The paper said York also made a “questionable decision,” when he “evidently forgot that it was not necessary to touch a runner in a force,” and incorrectly called a runner safe at second:

“York became discouraged and the Association lost a good umpire.”

Within weeks York became a National League umpire; that didn’t last long either.

On June 30, the Kansas City Cowboys lost at home to the New York Giants 11-5, The Chicago Inter Ocean said York “was escorted from the grounds by the police on account of disapproval manifested over his umpiring.”

Less than a month later, after York was “roundly hissed” at the Polo Grounds after making “some very close decisions against the New Yorks,” in a July 22 game against the Philadelphia Quakers, he sent a telegram to National League President Nicholas Young resigning his position.  York told The New York Times:

“I have been badly treated in the West, but to be hissed and hooted at in the East is too much.  I have often heard that an umpire’s position was a thankless one, but I have never realized it before.  It’s bad enough to be hissed and called a thief, but in the West when the local club loses an umpire in fortunate if he escapes with his life.  Of all the cities in the league Kansas City is the worst.”

York said there was another incident Kansas City the day before he was escorted from the field by police:

“On June 29 when the New York men beat the Cowboys 3 to 2 (William “Mox”) McQuery hit a ball over the fence, but it was foul by 25 feet, and I declared it so.  After the game Vice President (Americus) McKim, of the Kansas City club wanted to know how much money I would get from the New Yorks fir That decision.  I remarked that I received my salary from the league and did not take a penny from the New Yorks or any other none.  Then he grew furious, and said he would end my days.  This in conjunction with other things incidental to the life of an umpire has made me tired of the business, and I intend to make room for some other victim.”

Despite quitting both leagues within two months, The Baltimore American said the American Association sent York a telegram in two months later “asking him if he wanted an appointment as umpire.”  The paper said “York replied no, emphatically, as his past experience was sufficient to justify his remaining at home.”

York remained at home for the rest of the season and the next, but while he never worked as an umpire again he returned to baseball in 1888 as manager of the Albany Governors in the International Association.  Over the next decade he was connected with several East Coast minor leagues, including the Connecticut State League, the New York State League and the Eastern Association, as a manager and executive.

York retired to New York where he became one of the many former players employed at the Polo Grounds at the behest of manager John McGraw.  In 1922 The New York Telegraph described his position:

“York has the pleasant post of trying to keep the actors, tonsorial artists and plumbers out of the press stand.  It is old tom who examines your pink paste board and decides whether you are eligible for a seat in the press cage.”

Tom York, 1922

Tom York, 1922

In February of 1936, as preparations were being made for York, along with James “Deacon” White, George Wright, Tommy Bond,  to be honored that summer at the  All-Star Game  as the last four surviving players from the National League’s first season, the former player, manager, executive and umpire died in New York.

“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.