By Glen Sparks
He was, at least by most accounts, the original Louisville Slugger.
Pete Browning led his league in batting three times and hit .341 over a 13-year career. He finished at .378 in his rookie season of 1882, with the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association (then, a major league).
The right-handed hitter, a Louisville native, regularly finished in the top five or six in batting average, slugging percentage, doubles and runs created. Fans dubbed him The Gladiator.
He was born June 17, 1861, about eight weeks after the first shots were fired in the U.S. Civil War. Browning was deaf, illiterate and could smack the stuffing out of a baseball. He hit at least .336 every season through 1887, capped off by a .402 campaign in 1887.
Just three years before posting that high-water mark, Browning walked into a little woodworking shop in downtown Louisville. He needed a new bat.
German immigrant J. Frederick Hillerich founded the shop, set along the Ohio River, in 1855. He made stair railings. Could he make a bat? J. Frederick wasn’t so sure. John “Bud” Hillerich, his son, convinced Dad to give it a try.
Was a stair railing so much different from a bat? Frederick went to work. Soon enough, he presented Browning with a customized piece of lumber.
It felt pretty good. The star hitter went 3-for-3 in his next game. Not surprisingly, he came back to J. Frederich for more bats. So did other players.
Bud took over the business in 1894 and renamed the company baseball bat the “Louisville Slugger,” supposedly in reference to Browning.
(Today, the official name of the company is Hillerich and Bradsby. Louisville Slugger is one of the divisions. H&B turns out about 1.5 million bats every year for players of all levels. That includes 8,000 variations of 300 models. Many big leaguers still use Louisville Slugger bats. Typically, a player orders about 120 bats for one season. The company owns 6,500 acres of timberland in New York and Pennsylvania. Besides wood bats, H&B also makes aluminum models, plus baseball gloves, golf gloves and other equipment.)
Browning’s career fizzled out over his final seasons. Some people blamed the drinking. He went from the Eclipse (a.k.a., the Colonels), to the Cleveland Infants in 1890 and played for five more teams before retiring.
Later, Browning sold cigars and operated a bar in his hometown. The poor guy suffered from mastoiditis, a condition that leads to vertigo, facial palsy and brain damage. That lifelong malady also probably caused his deafness. He died Sept. 10, 1905, just 44 years old.