Saturday, February 12, 2011

Baseball's Great Inebriant

"The bases are loaded, and so is our left fielder."

Ladies and Transylvania Gentlemen, join me in a standing ovation for the greatest man that ever graced the diamond of our national pasttime. Kentucky's own Pete "Louisville Slugger" Browning was a mighty man in the major leagues from 1882 to 1894, with an astonishing career.

Wikipedia tells me:

A three-time batting champion, he finished among the top three hitters in the league in each of his first seven years; only twice in his eleven full seasons did he finish lower than sixth. During the era before 1893, when the pitching distance was lengthened from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches, Browning ranked third among all major league players in career batting average, and fifth in slugging average. His .341 lifetime batting average remains one of the highest in major league history, and among the top five by a right-handed batter; his .345 average over eight American Association seasons was the highest mark by any player during that league's 10-year existence.

Impressive, no? But what if I were to tell you that Mr. Browning achieved all this despite - well, he would say because - he was a total unrepentant degenerate alcoholic?

"I can't hit the ball until I hit the bottle," he would often say, and he was apparently right - the better he drank, the player he got. He often appeared on the field direct from the bar, having had a different kind of "relief pitcher" - the kind that made Milwaukee famous. Though his extreme intoxication sometimes resulted in temporary suspensions, no one could argue with his prodigious record.

But wait: even more astonishing, what if I told you that ol' Pete was deaf, and in constant excruciating pain?

Pete Browning suffered from mastoiditis, an inner ear condition which results in deafness, vertigo, facial palsy, and ultimately brain damage, especially in the 19th century. He turned to alcohol early in his youth, in order to help deaden the intense migraine-like headaches. Although he underwent surgery to try to treat his condition, it did little to stop the pain. And somehow, he played pro baseball and played it better than most, even drunk and even in agonizing pain.

He also was, as you might expect, a very eccentric man. He had a bizarre stork-like habit of standing in the outfield perched on one leg. He talked to his bats as if they were sentient beings, gave each of them names (often Biblical ones) and kept them at home after he retired them. He had odd ideas about eye care: he would stare at the sun for long periods of time and deliberately try to get train exhaust in his eyes, convinced that these were beneficial to his eyesight. He lived at home with his mother all his life and remained a bachelor till he died, but was infamous for his appetite for prostitutes.

After he retired from baseball, he worked as a cigar salesman and owned a bar even as his physical and mental condition was grinding to a halt. Pete was committed to the infamous Central Kentucky Insane Asylum, which once stood where the E.P. Sawyer Park is today, just 100 yards from where I presently reside and type these words to you this evening, dear reader; Each morning when I take my exercise walk, hot coffee in hand, I pass the spot where the building was where poor old Pete laid in bed and stared down the barrel of time.

He died on September 10, 1904 in a hospital. He had not only the mastoiditis and alcohol-related dementia, but also acute liver failure and cancer and, some say, paresis from syphilis. He was only 44.

- - JSH


Explosivo said...

Related to Tod, right?

Transylvania Gentlemen said...

Yep, Pete was his uncle:


Explosivo said...

Have you read David Skal book "Dark Carnival"?

JSH said...

Yeah. Even though they paint him as a total misanthrope, nevertheless makes me wanna be Tod Browning.

Well, except maybe the part about getting castrated when my car gets run over by a train.

But my next stage production, Son of Grimaldi, an almost-true story about a young man forced to go into Clown showbiz by his grotesque Clown father, and whose guardian angel appears to him naked and gives him inscrutable advice when he gets drunk, might well turn out to be a sort of theatre equivalent of a Browning flick :)