The Gladiator – the kindest of the nicknames used when referring to Browning – is best remembered for being the first player to receive his custom-made Louisville Slugger. The legend goes that Browning, who played for the American Association’s Louisville Colonels, broke his favorite bat during a game and afterwards met with Bud Hillerich, a woodworker, who told Pete that he could make him another bat. Thus, the Louisville Slugger was born.
But Browning is more than just an interesting footnote in baseball history: he was one of the game’s finest hitters. He remains the fourth greatest hitter for average in Baseball history. The fact that he spent the majority of his career in the long defunct American Association has certainly played a part in his lost stardom.
The Gladiator made his debut in 1882 for Louisville and promptly led the circuit with a .378 batting average and .510 slugging mark. Originally an infielder, Browning’s poor showing with the leather got him cast to the outer garden where he split his career patrolling left and center field. After two years of hitting above .330, but with no batting title to show for it, Pete won his second batting title in four years when he hit .362 in 1885 while pacing the league with 174 hits.
His .402 batting average in 1887 was good for second place while his 103 stolen bases were good for fourth place. When the American Association dissolved, Browning’s decadent lifestyle (another of his nicknames was Red Light District Pete) seemed to have caught up with him. But he rebounded when he caught on with the upstart Player’s League, winning the batting title with a .373 mark. Pete also topped the freshman circuit with 40 doubles, but the Player’s League lasted just one season and Browning had to seek employ in his third major league: the National League.
In his four years in the National League, Pete played for five different teams, but his bat rarely faltered. He hit .343 in 50+ games for the Reds in 1891. In 1892, Pete split the season between Cincinnati and Louisville and hit .355 in his last full season in the majors – 1893.
So, Pete Browning was one of baseball’s finest all-time hitters but the Hall of Fame has neglected many fine players from the 1800s while ushering in far inferior players from the 1900s. Of Pete’s Hall of Fame peers, The Gladiator was a better hitter than them all. The following bracket compares Browning with his peers from the 1800s.
Hits per game: Browning (1.410), Tommy McCarthy (1.181), Jesse Burkett (1.392), Hugh Duffy (1.335) and Orator O’Rourke (1.305).
Slugging percentage: Browning (.474), McCarthy (.380), Burkett (.451), Duffy (.453) and O’Rourke (.423).
Batting average: Browning (.347), McCarthy (.294), Burkett (.342), Duffy (.329) and O’Rourke (.312).