Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Victory Faust, Chapter 1

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Manager John McGraw was in a rotten mood as his New York Giants rode a train across the endless fields of Indiana and Illinois near the end of July 1911. It did not take much to disturb the volatile McGraw, but this time he had ample excuse for gloom. Come morning, the Giants would be in two places that genuinely distressed him: third place and St. Louis.

Awful things happened in St. Louis, the perilous western outpost of the major leagues. During their June visit, the Giants had lost two players when McGraw’s entire squad numbered only eighteen. Shortstop Al Bridwell got wobbly and weak-kneed before breaking down completely, felled by malaria blamed on bad drinking water. Fear of the perils of water may have cost them Bugs Raymond as well. A fine spitball pitcher when sober, Raymond fell off the temperance wagon in St. Louis with such a thud that he never climbed on again.

It wasn’t just the Giants who came to dread venturing to St. Louis. On July 26, the second-place Philadelphia Phillies, making their first pennant run in years, lost catcher-manager Red Dooin in a collision at home plate. Dooin’s broken leg shattered the Phillies’ pennant hopes, and the news of this fresh calamity reminded McGraw that there was no safe haven across the Mississippi River. The Cardinals were managed by Roger Bresnahan, a McGraw protégé who had taken second-division talent and raised them to within two games of the Giants and five games of the first-place Cubs.

McGraw wondered what might happen this time in St. Louis, though things couldn’t get much worse. July had been a disaster from the start, when the Giants dropped from first place to third by losing four straight games in Philadelphia during a brutal heat wave. The continuing hundred-degree heat slowed their running attack all month and sapped their pitchers’ stamina. The Giants staggered through July playing listless .500 ball.

McGraw tried desperately to ignite the needed spark. He brought back the most popular player from his 1905 champions, batting star Mike Donlin, who had “retired” to go on the stage in 1908 after marrying vaudeville star Mabel Hite. Bringing back Donlin succeeded only as a publicity boost. Donlin got plenty of headlines and ovations, but only four hits. Later in July, McGraw shook up his infield by trading the popular but weakened Bridwell to Boston for Charlie Herzog, a hard-nosed ex-Giant. The new alignment had not jelled yet, as the Giants lost two of the last three games in Cincinnati before boarding the train for St. Louis.

When nothing else worked, McGraw went berserk, his preferred motivational tool. The scourge of National League umpires, McGraw chalked up three ejections and one suspension in July. The first to toss him was old nemesis Hank O’Day, who had made the fateful decision on “Merkle’s Boner” that cost the Giants the 1908 flag. The day after O’Day nailed him, McGraw was bounced again, this time by Bill Finneran. Finneran still sported the scars of a pummeling three days earlier by Phillies outfielder Sherry Magee, an all-purpose slugger. McGraw stopped short of assaulting the rookie umpire but berated him all the way to the clubhouse, a long, loud walk.

Those eruptions made small blips on the screen compared with McGraw’s big blowup in Cincinnati on July 25. It began with an argument at the plate, McGraw claiming that a Reds runner veered out of the baseline to avoid a tag. It continued when the Giants came to bat and McGraw went out to coach third base. Few umpires could stomach the sight of McGraw, five feet, seven inches of rabid competitive fury, barking at them from such close range. When umpire Jimmy Johnstone had heard his fill and ejected him, McGraw went nuts, screaming at Johnstone for five minutes before consenting to leave the field. Everyone in the ballpark heard McGraw accuse Johnstone of being “drunk all summer.” Fuming in the clubhouse, McGraw fired off a letter to N.L. President Thomas Lynch, accusing Johnstone of bragging to players that he was “going to get” the Giants. Lynch, a former umpire who had just suspended Magee for the season for his attack on Finneran, probably felt he was letting McGraw off easy with the customary three-day suspension, his second of 1911. Like all suspensions of that era, it was effective immediately, with appeals rare.

McGraw began his suspension the last day in Cincinnati. Popular wisdom regarded the Giants as helpless without the “Little Napoleon” leading them, and games like this proved why. With McGraw banished to the bleachers, team captain Larry Doyle was the acting manager as the Giants took a 4-2 lead to the seventh inning. Pitcher Louis Drucke fell apart and was sabotaged further by a trio of infield misplays. Second baseman Doyle acted like an innocent bystander, leaving Drucke in so long that he not only blew the game but also blew out the tender shoulder he had nursed all summer. Doyle accepted the blame, but the damage was done. Drucke remained sidelined until October and never won another major league game.

Hurtling toward St. Louis, McGraw agonized over how to shore up his collapsing pitching staff. Drucke was through, and Raymond wasn’t coming back. That left only five pitchers. McGraw had not used a five-man staff since the days when Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity stood alongside Christy Mathewson as the only teammates in this century to win thirty games in the same season—and they did it twice. This 1911 crew could not handle a load like that. The ace, Mathewson, was past his prime and looked increasingly mortal, with four losses already in July. Two veterans, Red Ames and Hooks Wiltse, were cold-weather horses who wilted in the summer heat. The workhorse relief specialist, Doc Crandall, was suffering from recurring headaches, courtesy of a Red Dooin line drive that nailed him in the forehead and literally knocked him out of the Fourth of July disaster in Philadelphia.

Reluctantly, McGraw had to rely more often on the staff’s youngest pitcher, twenty-one-year-old Richard “Rube” Marquard. A lefty phenom with a high price tag, the erratic Marquard got his big chance when Raymond was jettisoned. Starting regularly for the first time, Marquard prospered, doubling his win total from five to ten during July. Still, the jury was out on the wry-necked kid dubbed “the $11,000 Lemon,” whose reputation for falling apart under the slightest pressure overshadowed the flashes of brilliance that made him Mathewson’s heir apparent.

Only Marquard and Mathewson could start more than once a week. The staff was full of part-timers and question marks. McGraw needed pitching help—lots of it and right away, wherever he could find it. He tried all month to make a trade for a pitcher. Rumons dangled and disappeared, as the other clubs saw McGraw’s dilemma and asked for more than he could bring himself to give. Frustrated, he turned to the minor leagues. In St. Louis he announced the signing of Birmingham ace Bert Maxwell. But Maxwell would not report until Birmingham’s season ended in September. McGraw needed another arm right away. He kept looking. The Giants had just won a court judgment against a team from Marion, Ohio, which now owed McGraw a player. Maybe he’d get lucky there.

Indeed, there was a lucky pitcher from Marion waiting for the Giants at Robison Field that Friday, though McGraw didn’t know it. This pitcher was from Marion, but not the one in Ohio. His home was a farm outside the little town of Marion in the middle of Kansas, and he had hopped a train for his first trip to the big city, just to meet John McGraw. Giants centerfielder Fred Snodgrass described the first appearance of the stranger who approached them during batting practice: “Out of the grandstand walked a tall, lanky individual in a dark suit, wearing a black derby hat. He walked across the grass from the grandstand to the bench, and said he wanted to talk to Mr. McGraw. So some of us pointed McGraw out, and he went over to him. ‘Mr. McGraw,’ he said, ‘my name is Charles Victory Faust. I live over in Kansas, and a few weeks ago I went to a fortune-teller who told me that if I would join the New York Giants and pitch form them that they would win the pennant.’” The desperate McGraw could hardly wait to give Faust a tryout.

The truth dawned quickly: Faust, despite elaborate signals and a furious windmill windup, had only one speed—slow. McGraw soon tossed off his glove and caught Faust barehanded, simmering at this waste of his valuable time. What was that fortune-teller crap? Was this somebody’s idea of a prank, or did this nut really think he was a ballplayer? McGraw needed a hurler, not a slowball twirler. It was a bad joke, and someone would pay for it.

McGraw plotted a swift revenge on the unsuspecting farmer. He told Faust to take batting practice and run the bases, then sent instructions around the infield. The plan worked better than he imagined. After a flurry of pathetic swings, Faust connected with a slow pitch and sent a soft roller toward shortstop. Heeding McGraw’s shouts, he took off for first base, lumbering up the line. The shortstop launched the first of several deliberate overthrows that chased Faust around the bases. At second base, the gawky Faust attempted a slide, bouncing along the pebbly dirt, biting the dust until a chorus of yells propelled him toward third base. McGraw raced around the infield to spur Faust onward, almost following him. This riled up the gathering crowd, and as Faust sprawled across third and hauled himself up again, he was surrounded by laughter and cheering. One more wild throw sent him staggering home, with frenzied voices telling him to slide one more time. When he tumbled across the plate with his make-believe run, his Sunday clothes torn and dusty, the crowd roared, and everyone had a big belly laugh at his expense. For the first time in weeks, the Giants saw their manager smile.

McGraw’s mood turned dark again during the game, the second of his suspension. The Giants played their sloppiest game of the season, committing five errors to undermine Mathewson and cost him a tough 5-2 loss. “Matty got non-support of the sort that a bunch of hucksters selling strawberries might give Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House,” wrote Sid Mercer in the New York Globe. Another apparent blunder by acting manager Doyle in the eighth inning multiplied McGraw’s disgust. Trailing 5-0, Doyle let Mathewson bat, then pinch-hit for leadoff man Josh Devore. The move may have been punishment for Devore, who had dropped an easy fly ball in left field and later heaved another ball into the stands to cap Mathewson’s nightmare. It was all the same to McGraw. The whole performance stank. Nobody could remember Matty losing five games in a month, but there it was. Worse yet, nobody could remember how to play ball in McGraw’s absence, and one more day remained in his suspension.

Next day at Robison Field, the Giants found Charles Victor Faust lurking again. Undaunted by his failed audition, he repeated his intention of pitching the Giants to the pennant. The players welcomed this comic relief, found him a uniform, and perpetrated more pranks son the determined gate-crasher during practice. The spectacle of Faust attempting to play baseball caused such a sensation that after only his second day of action, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that “Charley Faust, the Hector (Kan.) farmer boy, again amused with his awkward batting, fielding, and base running.” That hustling awkwardness soon became his trademark.

No matter how much the Giants tormented him, he took it all with a goofy lopsided grin. In fact, his good cheer buoyed the slumping players so much that they let him sit on the bench during the game. Inspired by his hyperactive pregame romp, the Giants ran wild, winning 8-0 before a huge crowd. They stole nine bases, leaving the Cardinals infielders dizzy and demoralized. The rampage made life easy for Rube Marquard, who didn’t need much help. His four-hitter was the first shutout of Marquard’s career, and Faust cheered every pitch, savoring his closeness to the team of his destiny.

Faust returned on Sunday, which greatly resembled Saturday. The Giants ran roughshod over the Cardinals, embarrassing the home team again. With McGraw back directing traffic from the coaching box at third base, the Giants piled up fourteen hits and five more stolen bases to win 6-0. Hooks Wiltse eclipsed Marquard’s performance. After the Cardinals loaded the bases in the first inning, Wiltse stifled them completely, retiring the last twenty-five batters.

For Charley Faust, it was a day he would never forget. He cavorted on the field in his Giants uniform, performing his already familiar baseball stunts to the acclaim of twenty-eight thousand fans, the biggest crowd in St. Louis baseball history. Just before the game began, players from both teams formed a circle near the plate for a ceremony, and Faust was summoned to their midst. Cardinals outfielder Steve Evans made a presentation. “On behalf of the fans of St. Louis,” Evans intoned, “who thoroughly appreciate your great work since becoming a member of the New York team, I present this slight token to you and hope you will continue to succeed in your chosen profession.”

After this touching speech, Evans handed a jewel box to the wide-eyed Faust, who bowed and doffed his cap to the cheering crowd. A moment later, persuaded that the real “token” was inside the box, Faust opened it and found a pocket watch. Encouraged to open the watch, Faust did so. That’s when the trick watch exploded like a pistol-shot, the parts scattering as quickly as the players who had perpetrated the prank, while Faust gawked at his empty watch chain.

The Giants, indulging Faust’s claim to be a pitcher, got him to warm up during Wiltse’s first-inning difficulties, telling him to get ready in case Wiltse needed his help. Picture Wiltse gazing toward the outfield, where the eager but weak-armed Charles Victor Faust prepared to rescue him. No wonder Wiltse refused to allow a base runner the rest of the way; he was afraid to.

The series ended Monday, and accounts conflict over Faust’s presence. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “things were dull. . .because Charley was missing. He simply dropped off the earth and the players know not what happened to him.” But according to the New York Globe, “Faust worked out every day with the Giants in St. Louis,” though he refused to put on a uniform Monday. “He says the old player won’t give the young fellows a chance.” This was not the first time a budding star complained about veterans stifling new talent by such means as muscling them out of their batting-practice swings. Ty Cobb had felt victimized by the same thing when he broke in, using it to justify his aloofness from even his own teammates. But Charley Faust? Did Faust expect McGraw to put him in the game?

Maybe if he had been left-handed McGraw would have given him a chance. Wiltse and Marquard, his only lefties, had smothered the Cardinals on six hits in two games. On Monday, McGraw brought Marquard back on one day of rest, doubting that the vulnerable Cardinals would put much pressure on him. The move worked. Marquard scattered five hits and won 3-2, keying both scoring rallies himself with singles. His seventh win of July moved the Giants back into second place.

Suddenly McGraw’s outlook brightened. Three days after their sluggish arrival in St. Louis, the Giants were revived. Five more stolen bases made a total of twenty-three in the series. The offense was alive, the new infield looked better, Marquard was blossoming, and Matty would have four days of rest when he opened the series in Pittsburgh. For the first time in weeks, McGraw relished the showdown with the Cubs in Chicago that would conclude the road trip.

Then McGraw did something stupid. He got rid of Charley Faust. Mathewson told the tale in his book Pitching in a Pinch, written after the 1911 season. Faust met the team at the St. Louis train station, “ready to go along. ‘Did you get your contract and transportation?’ asked McGraw, as the lanky Kansan appeared. ‘No,’ answered Charley. ‘Pshaw,’ replied McGraw. ‘I left it for you with the clerk at the hotel. The train leaves in two minutes,’ he continued, glancing at his watch. ‘If you can run the way you say you can, you can make it and be back in time to catch it.’ It was the last we saw of Charley Faust for a time—galloping up the platform in his angular way with that contract and transportation in sight. ‘I’m almost sorry we left,’ remarked McGraw as Charley disappeared into the crowd,” and the train left without him.

A superstitious man in a superstitious age, McGraw knew that he risked feeling sorry indeed. Good-luck charms and mascots, those stray freaks of human fate, came and went with some frequency (though Connie Mack of the Athletics kept one mascot, a hunchback dwarf, for the better part of a decade). Winning gave credibility to each new talisman, until losing inevitably blew his cover. But Faust was undefeated, and it could be bad luck to discard him while his jinxing power remained potent.

McGraw was willing to take his chances. He didn’t need a fortune-teller to know that it would take pitching help for the Giants to win the pennant. This unathletic hayseed, no pitcher at all, could not be the answer to his prayers. There was no denying that the Giants had won three straight games convincingly with Faust on the bench, but what was McGraw supposed to do, pay the bumpkin’s fare to Pittsburgh so that he could hang around with the team until they lost? On the basis of three games?

John McGraw managed the New York Giants, professional ballplayers about to engage in fierce battles of baseball skill with the powerhouses of the National League, the Pirates and the Cubs. Faust, with no baseball skills, was irrelevant, an aberration, a nut whose clowning had kept the team loose during one giddy weekend in St. Louis. Nothing could have made McGraw hold the train while Faust chased that wild goose. McGraw could not help expressing a twinge of doubt as he wondered how he got himself in this spot, but he couldn’t even have imagined then that Faust would indeed help the Giants win the pennant. How could he? He hardly believe it after it happened.

[End of chapter 1, beginning of the adventure]

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