No name is more synonymous with the global sports legacy cultivated by Louisville athletes than that of Louis Rogers “Pete” Browning, a man often called the original Louisville slugger, Browning’s global impact on the game of baseball was far reaching in the infancy of the modern era of professional American sport, a legacy typified by what his peers called him, The Gladiator. And, he was just that, an iron-man that predated Cal Ripken by nearly a century and a man that remained firmly planted in the bluegrass soil that he called home.
Before all of the slugging and fielding though Browning’s unlikely tale begins with a young man who was nearly deaf, in addition due to the pain his auditory condition caused he dropped out of school at a young age, a decision that resulted in the young athlete being nearly illiterate. Still, Browning proved himself an exceptional athlete from a young age; and realizing that this could be his meal ticket so to speak, his focus turned to baseball.
At the tender age of sixteen Browning took the baseball field in his first semi-pro game in 1877 with his hometown team, the Louisville Eclipse, it wasn’t until 1882 though that Browning began receiving national exposure when the Eclipse joined the American Association, a professional league and first rival to the already established National League.
During his first few years as a professional Browning led the Eclipse and the league in batting, as well as remained in the top players for home runs, hits, and total bases, as a side note the Eclipse several years into their existence changed their name to the Colonels.
Now an established star on the Louisville Colonels Browning was well on his way to becoming baseball royalty, however another dynasty was building in the River City at that time, and again it was by a young man, Bud Hillerich, who was employed at his father’s woodworking shop at the time.
After Hillerich, a great admirer of Browning saw the slugger break a bat during a game he came to the star offering to make him a new bat that would be of the quality that Browning would need, after accepting; Hillerich did just that, leading to three hits from Browning during his next game; or so the story goes.
The truth is that the details about just what occurred between Bud and Pete are murky at best but what is clear is that Browning’s first Louisville Slugger bat started a legacy, a legacy which continues to this day. Plain and simple with no Pete Browning there may very well have been no Louisville Slugger.
It was after Browning was an established hometown hero that he decided to leave the American Association going to the newly formed Player’s league, where he wore the jersey of a Cleveland Infant, where he again was an offensive powerhouse.
Due to political and financial issues the Player’s League disbanded after only one year, so Browning was left to only the National League, a league which generally had a condescending view towards the star, a connection due to their broader view of the American Association. Still the Pittsburg Pirates couldn’t ignore his raw talent so they quickly drafted the now free agent, not long after Browning headed to the Queen City to play with the Reds.
It wasn’t until an American Association/National League merger though that Browning would make his triumphant hometown return donning a Louisville jersey again, where his dynasty carried him through while he contemplated retirement.
Prior to that Browning went back to the National League playing for both the St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Grooms during the 1893 season. Three years later Browning officially retired with the Western League’s Columbus Buckeyes, never ceasing to prove his star status despite mounting problems related to his auditory illness. And, with credentials like that it’s pretty easy to see why Pete Browning is a sports legend of the ‘Ville.
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