By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Through his professional baseball career, pitching perfect game and winning a World Series title, Tom Browning stayed the same Wyoming guy.
“He was tough,” said childhood friend Ron Franscell. “He was everything you would expect someone growing up in Wyoming to be.”
Browning died at his home in Union, Kentucky, on Monday at the age of 62.
He was born in Casper and lived there until moving away at the start of the eighth grade.
On The Sandlot
Franscell grew up playing baseball with Browning in their Casper neighborhood sandlot.
In many ways, their 1970s childhood was a lot like the 1993 coming-of-age movie “The Sandlot,” but in place of the movie’s maintained grassy baseball field, their empty lot was filled with sagebrush, rolling gullies and prairie dog holes.
“That sandlot was a kind of ‘thin place’ where the inexplicable rhythms of the universe – good and bad – hummed a little closer to the surface,” Franscell said. “Tommy was a special beneficiary of it.”
Brushes With Greatness
Franscell said there were no obvious signs at the time Browning was destined for baseball greatness.
“Most of the kids went on to live regular lives doing regular things,” Franscell said. “Teachers, mechanics, me – a writer. Tom just happened to be a Major League Baseball player.”
Franscell became a legend in his own right in his neighborhood for hitting a ball over a nearby house. When Browning introduced Franscell to the legendary Pete Rose in 1988, he gave his old neighbor a very flattering introduction.
“‘Skip,’ Tommy said, ‘This is my old friend Ron Franscell, who is the best hitter I ever knew.’ That was Tommy,” Franscell remembered.
Road To The Majors
Tom’s father Bill Browning said he knew his son was athletically talented growing up, but never guessed he would become a Major League Baseball player.
“I didn’t know how much he’d be able to push it,” Bill Browning said. “When you’re playing in a sparsely populated state, you don’t get much competition.”
Franscell said Tom’s ability to achieve a childhood dream made his friend “larger than life.”
“Even now, I see him as that skinny little kid who was always moving and full of life,” he said.
The whole Browning family is athletically gifted, with Tom’s sister Judy a softball player, his brother Bill Jr. also a talented baseball player and a his younger brother a rodeo cowboy. Tom also earned All-American basketball honors in high school.
“The Brownings were all athletes, no matter what sport they were playing in,” said Tom’s cousin, David Browning.
Although Tom spent the rest of his childhood and most of college in New York, Bill Browning said his son moved back to Wyoming temporarily the summer after his senior year of high school to play American Legion baseball. By this point Tom was already an accomplished ballplayer.
Before the season started, Bill asked his son which team he wanted to pitch against.
Tom responded confidently, asking, “Who’s got the best team?” Bill remembered.
In the second game of the season, Tom helped his team beat a talented squad from Cherry Creek, Colorado, only giving up three hits and one run in six innings of work.
It would be the last game Tom would play that summer before breaking his arm while working a summer job on an oil rig.
A Star Is Born
Browning was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1982. David Browning said he was overjoyed when he heard the news as he was already a Reds fan.
Tom quickly worked his way up through the minors and made his first Major League appearance two years later.
A lefty, Browning was able to beat batters with finesse rather than power, his fastest pitches topping out at less than 90 mph.
In 1988, he pitched what was at the time the 12th perfect game in MLB history. To date, he is still the only Cincinnati player to throw a perfect game, and did so while pitching against the top team in the league that year, the 1988 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
David Browning said the game was the lowest attended perfect game of all time and not televised, as it had been rain-delayed by more than two hours.
Tom told reporters a few days after the game he was proud to be from Casper, where he first learned to play the game.
Another milestone in Browning’s career came when the Reds won the World Series in 1990 over the Oakland A’s. The Reds were massive underdogs entering the series against the powerhouse A’s, featuring the likes of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.
But the Reds jumped out to a quick two-game lead in the series.
Around this time, David Browning had started his career as a school teacher, making a modest income of $19,000 per year. David had watched the first two games of the series on TV before receiving an unexpected call from his baseball playing cousin.
Tom invited him out to the last two games of the series in Oakland.
“I said, ‘That sounds awesome, but I literally have no money,’” David Browning said. “He said, ‘No, I’ve got it.’”
Browning paid all his cousin’s expenses to travel to California and watch the last two games of the series live.
“We were with the cousins and wives of Reds players, but the rest of the stadium was a sea of green with Oakland fans,” David Browning said.
With his cousin, father and other family members watching from the stands, Browning helped the team earn an important win in game three, pitching an effective six innings.
After the Reds won game four and the pennant, David got to attend an after-party celebration with the team.
“He’s wearing jeans and a flannel shirt at this get-together,” David said. “All these other guys are in suits. He was just a down-to-earth regular dude.”
A few years later, Browning left the Reds bullpen during an ongoing game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field to hang out with spectators at a house across the street. He was fined $500 for the incident.
Browning was nominated to the 1991 All-Star game, but battled injuries in the later part of his career. One of these injuries gained him national attention in 1994 when he snapped his humerus while delivering a pitch.
After retiring in 1996, Browning stayed involved in baseball through coaching and broadcasting. He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2006.
The closest he came to returning to Wyoming was in 2007, when he was a pitching coach for the Billings Mustangs, at the time a rookie level affiliate in the Reds farm system.
Browning is the second high level sports figure from Wyoming to die in the past two weeks, as college football coach Mike Leach from Cody passed away earlier this month.
Although Leach and Browning didn’t share much in common, what they did share was distinct personalities, unafraid to be themselves no matter the height of the platform they were standing on.
One of the key lessons Bill Browning believes he instilled in his son was a sense of humility.
“I told him, ‘Never tell them how good you are,’” Bill Browning said. “‘Let them tell you.’”
David Browning coached professional football player Logan Wilson when he was in middle school, saying he also still retains the same humble character.
Tom’s generosity also was renowned.
Bill Browning said Tom donated $50,000 to the Casper American Legion to buy new uniforms for their teams. When Browning would walk out with his son from the Reds locker room, Tom would spend the entire walk to his car signing autographs.
Nancy Curtis of Casper wrote to the Star Tribune in 1991, telling the story of how her son Jeremiah was a big fan of Browning, but missed seeing him play when they went to a Reds game earlier in the summer. When Browning came out to Casper to hunt that fall, he arranged for Jeremiah to come to the Browning home and have dinner, take photos and sign baseball cards.
“Can you imagine how much that meant to that boy to be able to hang out with someone he considered his hero?” Cheyenne resident Roy Barnes wrote in a Facebook post.
The Browning family was shocked to find out about Tom’s unexpected death at 62, which Bill Browning said was related to a heart issue.
“I said to my wife, ‘Holy cow, that’s not much older than us,’” David Browning remarked.
Tom’s wife died in March and David said Tom had been helping raise his grandchildren.
Although he only lived in Wyoming for a portion of his childhood, Browning’s career left an impact on a state that has produced a limited number of professional athletes, and an even smaller pool of professional baseball players.
“There’s been so few, the names really stick in the community,” David Browning said.