Claim to fame: Browning was one of the first great stars of the game with his career that spanned 1882 to 1894. Among his numerous accomplishments, Browning won three batting titles, hit .402 in 1887, and finished with a career batting average of .341. That lifetime clip is 13th best all-time, and his career OPS+ of 162 is 12th best. Browning even inspired the name for the Louisville Slugger.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Browning never appeared on the Cooperstown ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America and can be inducted through a section of the Veterans Committee that considers players whose careers began before 1943.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? If this column has shown anything in the months since its June 1 debut, it’s that there are many outstanding baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Pete Browning is one who should have been in 60 years ago.
A few weeks ago, I asked if it was time for the Hall of Fame to have another mass induction of old timers. In the early days of Cooperstown, the backlog of old stars was so apparent that an Old Timers Committee was created that enshrined 30 greats between 1939 and 1949, men who played primarily in the early 1900s. It’s hard to say if the committee members deliberately passed on Browning, a notorious hard drinker whose career was relatively short, though they declined to honor a number of 19th century standouts.
It could be argued that the skill level in baseball was sufficiently lower prior to the modern era that few players from those days deserve enshrinement. But 60 years on, there are things now understood in baseball research that I doubt entered the Hall of Fame conversation in the 1930s or ’40s.
Take Browning’s OPS+ ranking of 162, which is his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with his park and league factored in. The stat helps show how vastly superior Browning was to most of his contemporaries, at least offensively. Granted, his non-adjusted career OPS of .869 is nothing to write home about, but it’s not terrible either. In fact, it’s better than many Hall of Famers, including Honus Wagner, Roy Campanella, and George Brett.
OPS+ has been developed and embraced in the last 25 or so years, through John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and other members of the Bill James statistical revolution, and I admit I’m only just starting to grasp its importance. It’s one of many metrics today that make it far easier to rank and compare long-dead baseball greats. Were statistical analysis better understood when the Old Timers Committee was at work, I suspect Browning would be enshrined, though I also think his batting achievements should have been enough for a plaque.
All this being said, it’s not too late to honor a man who died in 1905. Browning is a darling of the baseball research community and was named the Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend for 2009 by the Society for American Baseball Research. I think it’s time Browning received broader recognition.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.