RIP to lefthander pitcher Tom Browning, a World Champion with the 1990 Reds and one of 23 pitchers to ever throw a perfect game in the American or National Leagues. Browning died at his residence in Union, Ky., on December 19. The 62-year-old Browning was found unresponsive on his couch at approximately 1:01 PM and was pronounced dead at 1:13. No cause of death was announced, but authorities said that no foul play was suspected. Browning played for the Cincinnati Reds (1984-94) and the Kansas City Royals (1995).
Thomas Leo Browning was born in Casper, Wyoming, on April 28, 1960. He played American Legion baseball in Wyoming but moved when he was 14 years old to Utica, N.Y., with his mother and stepfather, per his SABR bio. He attended high school (Franklin Academy) and college (LeMoyne College) in New York before transferring to Tennessee Wesleyan University. Browning was a fair pitcher there but had a great season in 1982 after deciding to take baseball more seriously. But he did it in relative anonymity, as scouts didn’t make it to his games. Then he faced the University of Kentucky and struck out 13 batters. Kentucky coach Keith Madison, a former pitcher in the Reds organization, was suitably impressed and called his friend, Reds scout Chet Montgomery, with a recommendation. Montgomery liked what he saw of the young southpaw, and Browning was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the Ninth Round of the 1982 June Amateur Draft.
Browning debuted with the Billings Reds of the Rookie-Level Pioneer Reds in July of 1983. He won 4 of his 14 starts and tossed 3 complete games. He split 1983 between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Waterbury and won a combined 12 games, with nearly 200 innings pitched. Eight of those wins came with Tampa in 11 starts, and Browning had a 1.49 ERA with the team. One of Browning’s best weapons was a screwball that he learned from Reds pitching instructor Harry Dorish in the Florida Instructional League after his unimpressive start in Billings. “And Harry and [Tampa manager] Jim Hoff have taught me a lot about how to go about setting up a hitter,” Browning said. His screwball, mixed in with a good fastball and slider, helped him strike out 101 batters in each of his stops in 1983, for a total of 202 K’s.
Browning moved up to Triple-A Wichita in 1984 and won 12 games there as well, including a 7-inning no-hitter. The Reds promoted him to the majors in September, and he barely had settled in the locker room before he made his first start. Reds starting pitcher Mario Soto left the team to be with his wife before she gave birth, so Browning was given the spot start against Los Angeles on September 9, 1984. He came within a couple of batters of being the first Reds pitcher in nearly 15 years to throw a shutout in his major-league debut, but he tired in the ninth inning and gave up a run. Still, Browning lasted 8-1/3 innings, scattered 11 hits and earned the 5-1 win. Reds player-manager Pete Rose compared the rookie to Fernando Valenzuela for his poise and use of the screwball. The opposition was impressed, too.
“He went 3-2 to me in the first inning, and then came with a screwball,” said Dodger shortstop Dave Anderson, who became Browning’s first strikeout victim. “He’s not bad.”
Browning had two more excellent starts but got a no-decision in them both, so his brief time with the Reds resulted in a 1-0 record, a 1.54 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 23-1/3 innings. He became a part of the Reds starting rotation for 1985, and thanks to manager Rose’s four-man starting rotation, he made 38 starts and threw 261-1/3 innings. Browning became the dominant rookie pitcher of the National League in ’85. He won 20 games with a 3.55 ERA, throwing 6 complete games and 4 shutouts. He was the first rookie pitcher to win 20 games wince Bob Grim did it for the New York Yankees in 1954, and the first National Leaguer to accomplish the feat since Harvey Haddix of St. Louis in 1953. Opposing batters hit .245 against Browning and struck out 155 times. As late as August 9, Browning had a 9-9 record. After that, he won 11 of his next 12 starts, beating Houston on September 28 to capture his 20th win.
Browning ended up in sixth place in the Cy Young Award vote, and he finished as the runner-up in the Rookie of the Year Award. Realistically, Browning was robbed. St. Louis outfielder Vince Coleman stole 110 bases and won 100% of the first-place votes to capture the award. Beyond the stolen base numbers, there’s not much to justify voting for Coleman over Browning. The Sporting News, at least, recognized the pitcher as the NL Rookie of the Year.
Among all the victories in 1985, Browning also surrendered 29 home runs, and he was never exactly a dominating pitcher. Rose and Reds third baseman Buddy Bell both compared him to Catfish Hunter, another pitcher who knew how to win without blowing the ball past every hitter. “Catfish used to give up some monstrous hits, but when he needed an out, he’d get it for you. Catfish pitched well enough to win,” Bell told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Browning knows what the score is. All good pitchers are like that… he pitched good enough to win every time out.”
Browning’s next couple of seasons didn’t live up to his rookie campaign. He had a 14-13 record in 1986 and led the majors with 39 starts, though his ERA jumped to 3.81. The ’87 season never got on track. Browning spent much of the first half of the season with an ERA in the 7s. By June, after scoreless 2-inning relief outing left him with a 4-6 record and 7.76 ERA, he was demoted to the minor leagues for a month. The problem wasn’t his arm; it was his confidence, he said. “I’m very disgusted with myself right now, very disgusted,” he said as he removed his Reds uniform after the June 9 game and prepared to leave the team. “I’m disgusted for allowing myself to lose confidence and lose aggressiveness, for allowing this to get to the point where I get sent down, for not going out there and attacking people, for letting them attack me. Instead of buckling down, I just gave in and pitched defensively. That’s not like me,” he said.
Browning’s month-long stay in Nashville didn’t result in any massive improvement. Still, he returned to Cincinnati in July and won his first start, and he reached 10 wins by the end of the season. His second-half ERA was a solid 3.50, leaving him with a season mark of 5.02 — not great but a big improvement over where he had been.
Browning didn’t quite reach the 20-win plateau in 1988 — but he came close with an 18-5 record and .783 winning percentage, which was second-best in the NL. He was one of six pitchers that year who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning, when he almost threw a no-no against the Padres on June 6. Tony Gwynn broke up that effort with a one-out single, but nothing could stop Tom Browning on September 16, 1988. He retired 27 straight Dodgers for a 1-0 perfect game, which was just the 14th perfect game in the history of the game to that point and first in Reds history.
For five innings, it looked like a different historic event was unfolding, because Dodgers starter Tim Belcher held Cincinnati hitless, though he walked Eric Davis in the second inning. The Reds finally put a hit on the board in the bottom of the sixth inning when Barry Larkin doubled, advanced to third on a Chris Sabo infield hit and scored when Dodgers third baseman Jeff Hamilton threw the ball away. It was the only run the Reds could muster and the only offense Browning needed. He threw 72 of his 101 pitches for strikes, including 21 first-pitch strikes. He never reached a three-ball count on any batter, and the only tough play the Reds made was a grounder by Mike Marshall that third baseman Sabo had to backhand before nipping him at first base by half a stride. Browning struck out pinch-hitter Tracy Woodson to end the game and was immediately buried under a pile of cheering teammates, who eventually carried him off the field on their shoulders.
After the game, Browning was asked to make numerous television appearances. Commissioner Peter Uberroth sent a congratulatory telegram, and Reds legend Johnny Bench sent a bottle of champagne. Even Reds owner Marge Schott presented Browning’s wife Debbie with a full-length mink coat in recognition of Browning’s accomplishment.
During his prime, Browning was one of the most durable pitchers in the National League. From 1986 to 1990, he led the league in starts in four of five seasons — the demotion to the minors robbed him of that opportunity in 1987. Between 1985 and 1991, Browning averaged 36 starts and 235 innings pitched. In the month of August 1989, Browning made six starts and threw 53 of those 54 innings. He went 6-0 with a 1.70 ERA and threw 5 complete games in a row, including 2 shutouts. The only pitcher who saw any work in those games was John Franco, who threw a scoreless inning for a save on August 27.
Browning won 15 games in both 1989 and 1990. He was the only Reds starter in 1989 to pick up double digit win totals. It was a difficult year for the team, which had to deal with the sideshow of the Pete Rose gambling scandal and subsequent lifetime ban. The Reds finished with a 75-87 record with a distracted Rose as a manager and interim replacement Tommy Helms for the final 37 games. Lou Piniella took over the managerial role in 1990, and the Reds won 91 games to finish first in the NL West. They then shocked the baseball world by reaching the World Series and sweeping the heavily favored Oakland A’s. The Reds pitching staff was known for its “Nasty Boys” bullpen, featuring Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. However, Browning was the team’s ace, with the most wins and most innings pitched (227-2/3).
In the NL Championship Series, Browning started Game 2 and outdueled Pittsburgh’s Doug Drabek 2-1. Browning worked 6 innings and gave up a home run to Jose Lind. (Fun fact: Jose Lind hit 9 home runs in 1,044 regular season games and 2 home runs in 20 postseason games.). The two aces matched up again in Game Five, and Drabek and the Pirates won 3-2. Browning, who was a naturally fast worker on the mound, said that he possibly worked too fast and gave up a couple of early runs to take the loss. Browning started Game 3 of the World Series and cruised to an easy 8-3 win. He threw 6 innings and gave up 3 runs, all the runs scoring on homers by Hall of Famers Harold Baines and Rickey Henderson. Jose Rijo beat the A’s in Games One and Four, and the Nasty Boys bullpen led the way to a World Championship.
Browning missed much of the second game of the World Series, but he had a good reason for being AWOL. His wife, Debbie, was at the game in Riverfront Stadium while nearly nine months pregnant. She began to go into labor in the fifth inning, but her car was blocked by a van, and she couldn’t get to the hospital. She went to stadium personnel for help, and one of them alerted Browning. The pitcher, still wearing his Reds uniform, drove his wife to the hospital. Tucker Browning was born minutes after the game ended in a 5-4 Reds win. Browning’s only mistake was that he had not let pitching coach Stan Williams or Piniella know that he had to leave. It didn’t become a problem until the game headed toward extra innings, the Reds had gone through several pitchers, and Piniella was looking in vain for Browning to warm up. The Reds radio broadcast even made an announcement for Browning to return to the ballpark. Fortunately, the Reds ended the game in 10 innings, and new dad Browning was able to make his scheduled start.
After the 1990 season, Browning became a free agent. He was seeking a multi-year deal, and Reds ownership had a strict policy against multi-year deals that dated back to a long contract given to injury-prone Mario Soto that went badly. However, Browning’s value to the Reds was such that the team was willing to break its own policy and give Browning a four-year deal worth $11.9 million, with a fifth year if he topped 200 innings in either of the final two years of the deal.
“I think baseball’s gone a little berserk, and now they’ll probably say that I’m berserk,” Schott said. “But there’s are certain times when you have to do something. Tommy’s such an integral part of this team and this town. And he’s not injury prone. That’s the main thing.”
For a season at least, Browning remained as durable as ever. He made 36 starts in 1991 and finished 14-14, with a 4.18 ERA that was below league average. He led the NL with 107 earned runs allowed, and Browning’s 32 home runs surrendered were the most of any pitcher in the majors. His 10-5 record and 3.99 ERA at the midseason break helped earn him his only All-Star Team selection. He did not pitch in the 1991 All-Star Game, which the AL won 4-2, thanks to a 3-run homer by Cal Ripken Jr. off Dennis Martinez.
Browning’s struggles in the second half of the ’91 season spilled over to 1992 and beyond. He won his first two starts of the ’92 season but struggled beyond that. Piniella vowed to stick with his pitcher, but Browning’s season came to an early end, thanks to a baserunning injury. Browning ran into Houston catcher Scott Servais during a 3-2 loss on July 1 and ruptured his posterior cruciate ligament. The injury didn’t require surgery, but Browning was lost for the season. He finished with a 6-5 record in 16 starts, with a 5.07 ERA. Browning struggled through 1993 in a similar fashion (7-7 record, 4.74 ERA in 21 games). He also felt that the Reds were rushing him back from his knee injury, feuded with general manager Jim Bowden and accused Bowden of conspiring to keep him under 200 innings pitched, which would kick in the additional year on his contract. In fact, the highlight of Browning’s season probably came on July 7, and it had more to do with where he sat than how he pitched.
The Reds were in Chicago playing a series against the Cubs. Browning, who had a day off, decided to exit the stadium and watch part of the game while sitting on the rooftop of one of the apartments across the street at Wrigley. Years later, Browning said that his original plan was to watch part of the game from the Wrigley Field scoreboard, but they wouldn’t let him in. So he got in touch with an apartment manager, who invited him to join the fans on the rooftop. You can see a brief clip of the event here and a more recent clip of Browning revisiting the moment here. It was a unique moment in baseball, with Browning’s teammates waving to him from their dugout and Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray laughing about it on WGN. More serious baseball people thought it was disrespectful and insulting to the team, while others put Browning in the pantheon of left-handed baseball flakes. Manager Davey Johnson and general manager Jim Bowden were less than amused, and Browning ended up making a donation to a children’s hospital in lieu of an official fine.
The remainder of Browning’s season wasn’t as funny. Less than a month later, on July 30, he was arrested for marijuana possession. A policeman pulled him over for a driving infraction and, after smelling the drug, found a joint in the ashtray of Browning’s truck and less than 8 ounces total. For a first-time offense, Browning wasn’t suspended, and after passing a drug test and denying that the weed was his, Browning agreed to enter a diversion program and perform community service. Just a couple of starts later, Browning fractured a finger on his pitching hand while trying to snag a grounder off the bat of Los Angeles’ Cory Snyder. Once again, an injury ended Browning’s season early.
Browning looked like his old self to start the 1994 season, as he had a 3-1 record through his first 7 starts. He threw back-to-back complete game wins in April against Philadelphia and Florida. The win against the Phillies was a 2-hit shutout. But Browning felt something was wrong with his arm. Bullpen coach Grant Jackson saw that Browning was altering his delivery when he was throwing screwballs during warmups before a May 9 start against San Diego. Then in the fifth inning with the bases loaded, Browning threw a fastball to Archi Cianfrocco, and there was a snap loud enough to be heard in the press box. Browning collapsed to the ground with a broken left humerus and had to be stretchered off the field. The one person besides Browning who knew what had happened immediately may have been Reds outfielder Kevin Mitchell. He was on the field when San Francisco pitcher Dave Dravecky broke his arm during a pitch in 1989. “It was the exact same thing,” Mitchell said. “As soon as [Browning] fell, I said, ‘He broke it.'”
Even as he was being loaded on the stretcher, Browning tried to make light of the situation, asking if a run scored on the play.
“He told the doctor, ‘I was throwing a fastball, and I’ve only got an 84 mile an hour fastball,” said Reds trainer Greg Lynn, who called it a stress fracture. “Over a period of time the bone reacts to the stresses placed on it. Who knows when it would have happened. It just happened at that particular moment.”
Dravecky’s injury ended his career, and many felt that Browning’s career was over as well. Even the pitcher was unsure, though he wanted to pitch again. “I’d certainly like to try,” he said of a comeback. “If I can get a baseball in my hand in August, with no risk of re-breaking it, that would be great.”
The Reds bought out Browning’s contract for $583,000 and let him become a free agent. The lefty signed a one-year deal with the Kansas City Royals for $300,000 after pitching a little in Puerto Rico in the offseason. He pitched well in the Royals’ minors and was brought to the majors again in May. He made 2 starts for Kansas City, gave up 9 runs on 13 hits in 10 innings and suffered a shoulder jury. The Royals returned him to the minor leagues to rehab his arm, and he even signed a minor-league deal with the Royals for the 1996 season. However, Browning decided to retire after a couple of bad outings in spring training.
“My grind is over,” Browning said. “I get my life back. I just think it’s time.”
In his 12-year career, Browning had a 123-90 record and a 3.94 ERA in 302 appearances, 300 of which were starts. He had 31 complete games and 12 shutouts, and Browning struck out an even 1,000 batters. His last strikeout victim was Greg Myers of the California Angels. He had a WHIP of 1.271 and an ERA+ of 97, and Baseball Reference credits him with 19.8 career Wins Above Replacement.
Browning was a good amateur golfer and spent much of his time in retirement on the links, competing in amateur tournaments. Browning spent 2003 and 2004 as the manager of the independent Florence Freedom of the Frontier League. He took over on short notice when Chris Sabo quit in the 2003 pre-season, and he lasted on the job until July of 2004, when he was fired and replaced by Pete Rose Jr. After that, he coached off and on in the Reds minor-league system for several years.
Browning was inducted to the Wyoming Sports Hall of Fame in 2001, as one of the inaugural 10 inductees. He was also named to the Reds Hall of Fame in 2006, in a class that included Lee May and Tom Seaver. In 2006, Browning wrote a book, Tales from the Reds Dugout in 2006, along with Dann Stupp. He and his sons owned and operated a bar in Newport, Ky., for a time as well.
Debbie Browning, Tom’s wife, died on March 23, 2022 at the age of 61. Browning is survived by children, Tanner, Tucker, Trevor, Tiffany, Tianna, and Logan.