The Louisville slugger and the Hollywood heavy hitterby Frank Jackson
June 18, 2012
I’ve never taken a survey, but I believe two of the best gigs in the United States are (1) professional baseball player, and (2) movie director. Since the former dates back to the late 19th century and the latter to the early 20th century, those dream jobs have been with us for a long time.
Job openings in these categories are scarce, so rare indeed is the family that could produce an individual who could fit into one or the other. Extremely rare is the family that could produce one of each, yet that is just what the Browning family of Louisville did. And each man was definitely on the “A” list of his profession.
Louis Rogers “Pete” Browning was a renowned 19th-century ballplayer whose exploits have engendered a longstanding debate as to why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame. His nickname, the Louisville Slugger, was adopted by the J.H. Hillerich Company, a woodworking firm in Louisville, when they started mass production of bats.
According to legend, the founder’s son was a baseball fan who happened to be at a game when Pete Browning broke his bat. The next day, Browning was given a new bat from the Hillerich firm and proceeded to get three hits with it. Before long, ordering bats from Louisville-based Hillerich (Bradsby was added as a partner in 1916) was common practice for major league ballplayers.
Pete Browning’s nephew, Charles Albert “Tod” Browning, Jr. was a movie director (and also a writer and actor) encompassing the golden years of the silent era as well as the first decade of the sound era. He is best known for directing a number of Lon Chaney’s best efforts (e.g., The Unholy Three, The Road to Mandalay, West of Zanzibar, London After Midnight), as well as the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, and the landmark Freaks of 1932.
Those are the thumbnail bios of each man. The details, however, deserve analysis, since Tod Browning made movies about “exceptional” people, and his uncle Pete was, by all accounts, an “exceptional” person.
Pete Browning was born in Louisville on June 17, 1861. He was the last-born of four boys and four girls. Playing ball and playing hooky appear to have been his abiding interests. The former served him well in life, the latter rendered him functionally illiterate.
He made his formal debut as a ballplayer at the age of 15 when he appeared for the Louisville Eclipse, a renowned semipro club, in a match against the Louisville Grays, the city’s National League franchise. The Eclipse (later known as the Colonels) moved up to the American Association (the Grays franchise vanished after the “Louisville Four” investigation, baseball’s first gambling scandal, erupted after the 1877 season), and Browning made his big league debut in 1882 at the age of 20.
Meanwhile, nephew Tod was born in Louisville on July 12, 1880 (uncle Pete was 19 at the time). Up to age fourteen, Tod was able to boast of having an uncle who was a gosh-darned major league ballplayer—and most of his career was with the hometown team! Uncle Pete finished his major league career in 1894, the same year Hillerich registered the “Louisville Slugger” trademark.
The documentation may be lacking, but it’s reasonable to assume that Tod maintained some sort of relationship with his Uncle Pete (or maybe he called him Uncle Lou—the derivation of the nickname Pete is never explained). By way of contrast, Tod’s dad (Pete’s brother) was the epitome of middle class rectitude. Admittedly, his grocery business prospered, but when all is said and done, a well-to-do grocer is still a grocer. That wouldn’t gain you too much street cred today and probably not in Louisville of the 1880s and 1890s, either. But an uncle who plays big league ball? That is another story!
“Say, young fellow, you’re not related to Pete Browning who plays for the Colonels, are you?
“Yes, sir, he’s my uncle!”
“Really? Well, you’re certainly a lucky young man!”
Or something to that effect.
In fact, young Tod could boast that his uncle was not just a ballplayer, but one of the best. Pete Browning’s name looms large over the offensive stats of the 1880s. His .341 lifetime average would be a gaudy stat in any league in any era. His eight-year average of .345 spanning his tenure in the American Association was the best of any player in that league’s history. He had three batting championships to his credit (1882 and 1885, American Association, and 1890, Player’s League) and even when he didn’t win, he was close to the top.
In 1883, he was second in the league at .338, and in 1886, he just missed a fourth batting crown with .341, just a base hit or so behind his teammate, Guy Hecker. In 1887, he hit .402 but was a distant second in batting average to the St. Louis Browns’ Tip O’Neill, who finished at .435 on his way to a Triple Crown season that included 14 home runs and 123 RBIs, as well as many other league-leading offensive stats. (Despite a 100-point drop in his batting average the following season, O’Neill managed to win another batting title.)
Browning finished his major league career with 46 home runs, which may not sound impressive today, but considering the spacious fields and sluggish baseballs of his day, it was good enough to christen him the Louisville Slugger. After his major league career ended, he hung on in semi-pro and minor league ball through 1896.
All well and good, but we said that Pete Browning was an “exceptional” person, so let’s go beyond the statistics to explore his personality. Had he played in the 20th century, his reputation would probably be up there with Rube Waddell, Mark Fidrych, Jimmy Piersall, Tug McGraw, Bill Lee, and other noted characters of the game.
Pete was the baby of the family, but that family was severely disrupted when his father died as a result of injuries sustained during a tornado. Pete was 13 at the time. It may be that this episode made him particularly close to his mother. In fact, he lived at his mother’s house the rest of his life! He never married, but he was a frequent client of prostitutes. One assumes he never gave honest answers to the perennial maternal questions:
1. Upon leaving: Where are you going? What are you going to do? Who else will be there?
2. Upon returning: Where did you go? What did you do? Who else was there?
Browning’s defining flaw, however, appears to have been mastoiditis, an inner ear infection that took away most, if not all, of his sense of hearing in childhood. This one affliction induced him to skip school, since his inability to hear made conventional education an excruciating experience, and educational institutions for the deaf were in their infancy. Gallaudet College, the first institution in the world geared for the education of the deaf, was not founded until 1864, when Browning was three years old.
At an early age, Browning figured out that alcohol was a superb antidote to the pain caused by his mastoiditis. Heavy drinking was hardly unusual among ballplayers of that era, but Browning insisted that alcohol was a PED (performance-enhancing drug) and not purely recreational. “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle,” was his motto. That explanation apparently sufficed for Browning in the late 19th century; it would probably not work for Josh Hamilton in the early 21st century.
Browning’s mastoiditis was frequently accompanied by vertigo, so many observers might have assumed he was drunk when he wasn’t, just as many people confused Grover Cleveland Alexander’s epileptic fits with his bouts of drunkenness. Curiously, like Browning, his nickname was also Pete, and no one knows why.
As is often the case with legendary ballplayers, fact and fiction mingle, and at this late date, it would be difficult to disentangle the two. As Yogi Berra supposedly said in more recent times, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” We don’t know if Browning really did everything he did; nonetheless, here are a few anecdotes.
His drinking supposedly started during a game when a keg of beer had been placed near third base, and each runner reaching the sack was entitled to knock back a glass of brew. Pete’s prodigious hitting entitled him to the lion’s share of the suds, and thus a drinking man was born.
A possibly apocryphal story concerns Browning’s response when informed of the death of James A. Garfield by a reporter. Browning wondered what league Garfield played in. Maybe he was making a joke, maybe not. It certainly wasn’t the last joke inspired by a Presidential assassination. (I think the first was, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?”)
Like many hitters, Browning was concerned about his eyesight and took steps to keep it as keen as possible. His eye maintenance routines, however, were a tad unorthodox. His regular therapies included staring at the sun and buttermilk eyewash.
Browning’s self-prescribed health regimen probably didn’t enhance his hitting, but he was justifiably proud of his achievements. He scribbled his batting stats on the cuffs of his shirts and was known to step down from the train and publicly proclaim (even when the station was deserted) that the American Association batting champ had just hit town.
His success as a batsman was accompanied by a personal relationship with the tools of his trade. He spoke to his bats and gave each one a name. Wonderboy springs to mind, but Bernard Malamud wasn’t born till 1914, so we can safely assume that wasn’t one of the monikers chosen.
Actually, Pete had a fondness for Biblical names, and there certainly is no shortage of names in those so-and-so begat so-and-so chapters! When Pete felt a bat had no more hits left in it, he retired it and stored it at his mother’s house. How fitting that Browning would be the first player in baseball history to get a customized bat!
Browning’s fielding techniques were also distinctive. Whether playing infield or outfield, he stood on one leg and held out the other leg with the knee flexed! Unusual batting stances have long been part and parcel of the game, but fielding stances tend to be less idiosyncratic. This may be one reason why stories circulated about Browning’s lack of proficiency in the field, even though the statistics suggested otherwise.
The theory beyond Browning’s oddball fielding technique was that he couldn’t hear the players around him and was afraid of being run into by his teammates or baserunners. Yet he also refused to slide when running the bases, and hearing wouldn’t appear to be a factor in that pursuit. Unusual behavior, to be sure, but especially so for a man nicknamed the Gladiator. No surprise that baserunning was the weakest point of his game.
Throughout Browning's career, there were many instances of public drunkenness, but since he was such a gate attraction, the authorities were loath to do much about it until things really got out of hand during the 1888 and 1889 seasons and suspensions were imposed.
Meanwhile, nephew Tod Browning was also doing the distant drummer thing. Some people fantasize about running away and joining the circus, but Browning actually did so at age 16. For whatever reason, perhaps to signify the sharp break with his past, he began using the name Tod (as inexplicable as his uncle’s nickname), and embarked on a career path in show business that included sideshows, clown shows, vaudeville, magic tricks, and other somewhat less-than-respectable theatrical pursuits. Of course, not every actor was born to play Shakespeare; in fact, in Browning’s day and age, show biz folk and professional baseball players were equally suspect in polite company.
While performing in New York, Browning met fellow Kentuckian D.W. Griffith and acted in some of the latter’s short subjects. When Griffith moved to Hollywood, Browning did likewise and found plenty of work as an actor and director.
One defining moment of Browning’s life was a 1915 auto accident that left him with a broken leg, a lifelong limp, and scarring. Apparently self-conscious about his disfigurement, he never again appeared in a bathing suit or shorts (i.e., short pants, not short subjects).
Eventually, Browning went to work for Universal, where producer Irving Thalberg (widely considered to be the inspiration for Monroe Stahr, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon) introduced him to Lon Chaney, the famed “man of a thousand faces,” whose mastery of macabre makeup inspired the line, “Don’t step on it—it might be Lon Chaney!”
Thalberg had started in the film business by working in the Universal offices in New York after he finished high school. By his early 20s, he was in Hollywood producing features. Sickly and not in the least athletic, he probably never swung a Wonderboy, but he was widely regarded as a boy wonder. His quick rise to prominence was astonishing to industry veterans and was later echoed by the experiences of the twenty-something general managers of major league baseball teams in the early 21st century.
His rapid rise also engendered no shortage of resentment among those who had labored in the vineyards for years and found their upward mobility less meteoric, as well as those whose careers were trending in the other direction.
The death of Browning’s father in 1925 appeared to inspire some sort of mid-life crisis, and he turned to alcohol for solace. Despite losing his wife and his position at Universal, he managed to snap out of it. His wife gave him another chance, and he went to work for MGM, where Thalberg and Chaney were now employed.
Now all the pieces were in place, and Browning hit his stride as a filmmaker. His films are still closely scrutinized by film scholars today; to the uninitiated, try to imagine movies that reflect a fusion of Edgar Allan Poe with P.T. Barnum. Robert Ripley of Believe-It-or-Not fame was a contemporary and, more than likely, a fan of Browning’s films, as a similar mindset appears to be at work.
Browning’s first film for MGM was The Unholy Three, with Chaney as one of a trio of circus performers moonlighting as thieves. The film was so popular it was remade a mere five years later as a talkie, the only one Chaney ever made.
The late 1920s coincided with the career high point for Browning, who made ten more silent features (seven with Lon Chaney) for MGM. After the advent of talkies, Browning directed the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula in 1931, and the one-of-a-kind Freaks in 1932. Unlike his previous films for MGM, the latter was not a success and the controversy surrounding the film, a realistic rendering of the sub-culture of sideshow freaks, put a halt to his career, but he recovered in time to churn out a few more features, including the highly regarded Mark of the Vampire in 1935 and The Devil-Doll in 1936.
Browning’s career was negligible before his collaboration with Chaney. In fact, it would be impossible to seriously discuss the career of one without dealing with the other. During this period, Browning was as “bankable” as any director in the industry, and MGM was the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. It is not unusual for certain directors and actors to work together on numerous projects, but the Browning-Chaney collaboration is one of the most productive in motion picture history.
We can only speculate as to why the two men were able to work so well together. Perhaps the answer lies with their experience with deaf relatives. Chaney’s parents were both deaf, so he had grown up skilled in non-verbal communication. Browning, of course, had an uncle whose hearing was severely impaired. Just as important, Browning and Chaney were intimately acquainted with people on the fringes of society. Doubtless, Browning’s experience with his Uncle Pete and his subsequent experience with sideshow denizens proved invaluable to his work, as almost all his films dealt with unconventional people doing unconventional things, to put it mildly.
Though often characterized as a director of horror films, Browning’s work rarely featured supernatural elements. Dracula is a notable exception, but in this case Browning was dealing with a preexisting novel and stage play. Typically, his films dealt with people who were tortured or twisted—in some cases literally, thanks to Chaney’s talents as a contortionist. Yet Chaney’s protagonists always invited sympathy, even if they were just damaged goods in the great human department store.
Uncle Pete had his share of demons when he was a ballplayer, but his skills helped him overcome his handicaps and endowed him with a certain amount of celebrity status in Louisville. When his playing career was over, he was pretty much a lost soul. Second careers as a saloon owner and cigar salesman did not pan out.
In 1905, he was declared insane and committed to an asylum. A month later he was released, but various other health problems placed him in the hospital. Suffering from brain damage, alcoholism, cancer, and cirrhosis, Pete Browning died on September 10, 1905 at age 44.
His nephew, on the other hand, found retirement from filmmaking less problematic. After making his last film age 59, he lived quietly—reclusively, according to some—at his home in Malibu for many more years. Reclusive? Well, if you had a home in Malibu, why would you go anywhere else? At any rate, he died on October 6, 1962 at age 82.
One wonders if Tod Browning ever pondered making a biopic of his famed uncle. Perhaps it was too close for comfort or he didn’t want to embarrass his family. More than likely, some facets of his Uncle Pete’s personality showed up in the characters of his movies.
Had Browning gone ahead with a movie about his uncle, Chaney would have been ideal for the role! Pete Browning’s life was characterized by his biographer, Philip Von Borries, as “a timeless, horrifying human tragedy.”
In other words, right in Chaney’s wheelhouse!
References and Resources
JockBio.com: Two-part biography of Pete Browning, Philip Von Borries. 2004.
The Films of Tod Browning, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath, Black Dog Publishing (London, 2006).
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.
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