RIP to Cal Browning, a left-handed pitcher who made one appearance with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960. He died in Oklahoma City on September 14, at the age of 84. Or quite possibly 85.
Calvin Duane Browning was born on March 16, 1938, in Burns Flat, Okla. At least, that is what is listed on Baseball Reference and all the baseball stat sites. His family-placed obituary lists his birth year as 1937. Ancestry, which usually has more definitive information like birth certificates, isn’t helpful in this case. There are signed documents that use both birth dates. A baseball questionnaire that Browning filled out in 1961 uses the 1938 birth year, while passenger information for a Pan-Am Airlines flight from Barranquilla, Colombia, (where Browning played winter ball) to Miami on January 17, 1958, states he was born in 1937. It’s not unheard of for a ballplayer to shave a year or two off his age to make himself more attractive to potential teams, and it was relatively easy to do so in the age before digital documentation, so I’d go with the 1937 date.
At any rate, Browning attended Clinton High School in Oklahoma starting in the fall of 1952. On the athletic side, he was a quarterback for the Clinton High Red Tornadoes before switching to fullback. He also pitched and played first base for the baseball team. Eventually pitching won out, and Browning announced in 1956 that he was giving up football to focus on baseball. His pitching career in high school indicates he made the right choice. He was an All-State baseball player in 1956 with an 8-2 record, 0.86 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 71 innings. He also hit .420.
Browning graduated from high school in 1956 and, after spending some time pitching for an amateur squad called the Oklahoma Natural Gassers, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957. Fred Hawn was the scout who signed him to his first pro contract. Browning’s first professional appearance came with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, as manager Cot Deal needed a lefty pitcher against a tough Columbus team that featured Howie Goss, Joe Altobelli and John Powers. The teenager (or more likely 20-year-old) got out of some jams but ultimately allowed 4 runs in 3+ innings and was sent down to Class-C Winnipeg, which was better suited to his experience level. He was 8-6 in 16 appearances there, including 14 starts. His ERA was a stellar 2.09, and he fanned 105 batters in 116 innings.
After an offseason pitching in Colombia, Browning was promoted back to Rochester. It wasn’t a unanimous decision. “I must admit he didn’t impress very much when I saw him in spring training,” said Cardinals general manager Bing Devine in June of 1958. Devine quickly came around after Browning won 13 games and looked like an ace pitcher while doing it. He was one of the best pitchers on the team, and keep in mind the Red Wings had Bob Gibson on the staff, albeit as a swingman. Browning was part of an International League All-Star Team that faced the Milwaukee Braves in an exhibition game. Browning worked the final two innings and retired all six Braves he faced, including Casey Wise, Red Schoendienst and Humberto Robinson on strikes. Browning slumped badly in the second half of the season and lost his last 7 decisions, which may have impacted any plans the Cardinals had to try him in the majors. He won 13 games again in 1959, but his ERA of 4.89 was more than a run higher than the previous season’s mark. Home runs were a particular problem, as he surrendered 34 of them in 1958 and 26 in ’59.
Browning threw Rochester’s first shutout of the 1960 season against Richmond on May 1. He evened his record at 3-3 by throwing a complete game against Montreal and their ace, Tommy Lasorda, a couple of weeks later. Following the game, Browning traveled to Los Angeles to join the Cardinals for the first time. He sat on the bench for a couple of weeks before he was given a chance to make his debut.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had lost the first two games of a four-game series in St. Louis prior to the contest on June 12, 1960. The Bucs jumped all over starter Ron Kline right from the start. Bill Virdon led off the game with a double, and Dick Groat singled him to third base. Virdon scored the first run of the game on a groundout by Bob Skinner. After Skinner stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by catcher Carl Sawatski, Dick Stuart clobbered a 2-run homer to make the score 3-0. Kline walked Roberto Clemente and gave up a single to Smoky Burgess before manager Solly Hemus yanked him and brought in the rookie Browning. Don Hoak welcomed him to the majors by hitting a 3-run homer on Browning’s very first pitch in the majors. After a single by Bill Mazeroski, Browning retired Vern Law and Virdon on fly balls to end the 6-run inning. Browning went out for a second inning and allowed the first four batters to reach base — Groat with a single, Skinner with a walk, and Stuart and Clemente with RBI singles. After that, Hemus brought in Curt Simmons, who ended the inning without any further damage. The Pirates cruised to a 15-3 win with 23 hits. Simmons was forced to take one for the team, allowing 7 runs on 14 hits over the final 8 innings.
As for Browning, he exited the game with a 40.50 ERA, with 3 runs allowed in 2/3 of an inning on 5 hits and a walk. He remained with the team for another few days but never got into another game. He was sent back to Rochester on June 16, and the Cardinals brought up another pitcher who’d been waiting in Triple-A for several years — Bob Gibson. Gibson had made several trips to the majors already, but this promotion marked his final goodbye to the minor leagues. He would remain with the Cardinals for the next 16 years.
Browning finished the year with Rochester and turned in a 5-9 record and 3.50 ERA. In October of 1960, the Cardinals bought the contract of veteran pitcher Al Cicotte (Eddie’s great-nephew) from the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and sent back Browning, Leon Wagner, cash and a player to be named later (Ellis Burton). Browning pitched for Toronto for the next three seasons, with occasional stops at Houston and Portland when he was loaned out. He was used both as a starter and reliever, and his best season came in 1962, when he turned in a 7-3 record, 2.95 ERA and 2 saves for the Maple Leafs. Browning retired after the 1963 season. He had a career 54-53 record in the minor leagues.
Browning attended Oklahoma State University when not playing baseball and started making plans for his post-playing career in his final years in the minors. He reported in 1963 that he hit the jackpot in the lumber business in Oklahoma. He returned to Clinton, Okla., and started working with his father-in-law, James Bartlett, at Elk Supply, a lumber and building materials store. He remained with the business until his retirement in 1995. Elk Supply still exists in Clinton as part of the Ace Hardware chain. Browning spent much of his later years enjoying retirement in New Mexico. He is survived by his four children and their families.
For more information: The Oklahoman