Three Finger Brown’s Greatest Day

In the previous post I featured a mid-1940s recollection of Casey Stengel’s self-identified greatest day in baseball, as told to Chicago Daily News reporter John Carmichael. Here is another from that wonderful series, as told to Jack Ryan by Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three-Finger” Brown. He was a seven-year-old Indiana farmboy when he accidentally put his right hand into his uncle’s corn grinder. His index finger was so badly damaged that it was amputated just below the knuckle. Because his index finger was barely a stub, he was forced to exert extra pressure on the ball with his mangled middle finger. Because of Brown’s unique grip, his curve dropped like a modern forkball, and it was his signature delivery.

He named his greatest day as the 1908 National League playoff contest dictated when the Giants and Brown’s Cubs concluded the regular season in a tie for the top spot, because the “Merkle Boner” game of September 23 could not be played to a conclusion. That game was tied 1–1 in the last of the ninth. With the Giants’ Moose McCormick on first and one out, rookie Fred Merkle shot a single to right that moved the runner to third. After another out, Al Bridwell singled to center, the winning run crossed the plate, and the Giants had extended their slim lead in the pennant race. Or had they?

Merkle, in the excitement, never bothered to touch second, instead running off the field to avoid the rush of fans storming out to celebrate. Somehow Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers got the ball (or some ball, at any rate) and stepped on second, showing the ump he had forced Merkle and the run didn’t count. Less than three weeks earlier the Cubs had tried to win a ruling on a similar force-out against the Pirates and were overruled.

Not this time. The umpires, Hank O’Day and Bob Emslie, declared the game a tie, as there was no way to clear the joyously cascading fans from the field. League president Harry Pulliam backed them up. The game was to be replayed if necessary to determine a pennant winner.

Now let Three Finger Brown tell the rest of the story.

When manager Frank “Husk” Chance led the Chicago Cubs team into New York the morning of October 8, 1908, to meet the Giants that afternoon to settle a tie for the National League pennant, I had a half-dozen “black hand” letters in my coat pocket. “We’ll kill you,” these letters said, “if you pitch and beat the Giants.”

Those letters and other threats had been reaching me ever since we had closed our regular season two days before in Pittsburgh. We’d beaten the Pirates in that final game for our 98th win of the year, and we had waited around for two days to see what the Giants would do in their last two games with Boston. They had to win ‘em to tie us for the National championship.

Well, the Giants did win those two to match our record of 98 wins and 55 losses, so a playoff was in order. I always thought that John McGraw used his great influence in National League affairs to dictate that the playoff  must be held on the Giants’ home field, the Polo Grounds.

I’d shown the “black hand” letters to manager Chance and to the Cubs owner, Charley Murphy. “Let me pitch,” I’d asked ‘em, “just to show those so-and-sos they can’t win with threats.”

Chance picked Jack Pfiester instead. Two weeks before, Pfiester had tangled with Christy Mathewson, McGraw’s great pitcher, and had beaten him on the play where young Fred Merkle, in failing to touch second on a hit, had made himself immortal for the “boner” play. Since Mathewson had been rested through the series with Boston and would go against us in the playoff, Chance decided to follow the Pfiester–Mathewson pitching pattern of the “boner” game. I had pitched just two days before as we won our final game of the schedule from Pittsburgh.

Matter of fact, I had started or relieved in eleven of our last fourteen games. Beyond that, I’d been in fourteen of the last nineteen games as we came roaring down the stretch, hot after the championship.

In our clubhouse meeting before the game, when Chance announced that Pfiester would pitch, we each picked out a New York player to work on. “Call ’em everything in the book,” Chance told us. We didn’t need much encouragement either.

My pet target, you might say, was McGraw. I’d been clouding up on him ever since I had come across his sly trick of taking rival pitchers aside and sort of softening them up by hinting that he had cooked up a deal to get that fellow with the Giants. He’d taken me aside for a little chat to that effect one time, hoping, I suppose, that in a tight spot against the Giants I’d figure I might as well go easy since I’d soon be over on McGraw’s side.

Sure, it was a cunning trick he had and I didn’t like it. So the day after he’d given me that line of talk, I walked up to him and said, “Skipper, I’m pitching for the Cubs this afternoon and I’m going to show you just what a helluva pitcher you’re trying to make a deal for.” I beat his Giants good  that afternoon. [The film underlying the 1907 flip book below may be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzkyW7WcybU.]

But that was early in the season, and I want to tell you about this playoff game. It was played before what everybody said was the biggest crowd that had ever seen a baseball game. The whole city of New York, it seemed to us, was clear crazy with disappointment because we had taken that “Merkle boner” game from the Giants. The Polo Grounds quit selling tickets about one o’clock, and thousands who held tickets couldn’t force their way through the street mobs to the entrances. The umpires were an hour getting into the park. By game time there were thousands on the field in front of the bleachers, the stands were jammed with people standing and sitting in the aisles, and there were always little fights going on as ticket-holders tried to get to their seats.

The bluffs overhanging the Polo Grounds were black with people, as were the housetops and the telegraph poles. The elevated lines couldn’t run because of people who had climbed up and were sitting on the tracks.

The police couldn’t move them, and so the fire department came and tried driving them off with the hose, but they’d come back. Then the fire department had other work to do, for the mob outside the park set fire to the left field fence and was all set to come bursting through as soon as the flames weakened the boards enough.

Just before the game started, the crowd did break down another part of the fence, and the mounted police had to quit trampling the mob out in front of the park and come riding in to turn back this new drive. The crowds fought the police all the time, it seemed to us as we sat in our dugout. From the stands there was a steady roar of abuse. I never heard anybody or any set of men called as many foul names as the Giants’ fans called us that day, from the time we showed up till it was over.

We had just come out onto the field and were getting settled when Tom Needham, one of our utility men, came running up with the news that back in the clubhouse he’d overheard Muggsy McGraw laying a plot to beat us. He said the plot was for McGraw to cut our batting practice to about four minutes instead of the regular ten, and then, if we protested, to send his three toughest players, Turkey Mike Donlin, Iron Man McGinnity, and Cy Seymour, charging out to pick a fight. The wild-eyed fans would riot, and the blame would be put on us for starting it, so the game would be forfeited to the Giants.

Chance said to us, “Cross ‘em up. No matter when the bell rings to end practice, come right off the field. Don’t give any excuse to quarrel.”

We followed orders, but McGinnity tried to pick a fight with Chance anyway, and made a pass at him, but Husk stepped back, grinned, and wouldn’t fall for their little game.

I can still see Christy Mathewson making his lordly entrance. He’d always wait until about ten minutes before game time. Then he’d come from the clubhouse across the field in a long linen duster, like auto drivers wore in those days, and at every step the crowd would yell louder and louder. This day they split the air. I watched him enter as I went out to the bullpen, where I was to keep ready. Chance still insisted on starting Pfiester.

Mathewson put us down quick in our first time at bat, but when the Giants came up with the sky splitting as the crowd screamed, Pfiester hit Fred Tenney, walked Buck Herzog, fanned Roger Bresnahan, but Johnny Kling dropped the third strike and when Herzog broke for second, he nailed him. Then Turkey Mike Donlin doubled, scoring Tenney, and out beyond center field a fireman fell off a telegraph pole and broke his neck. Pfiester walked Cy Seymour, and then Chance motioned for me to come in. Two on base, two out.

Our warmup pen was out in right-center field, so I had to push and shove my way through the crowd on the outfield grass.

“Get the hell out of the way,” I bawled at ‘em as I plowed through. “Here’s where you ‘black hand’ guys get your chance. If I’m going to get killed, I sure know that I’ll die before a capacity crowd.”

Arthur Devlin was up—a low-average hitter, great fielder, but tough in the pinches. But I fanned him, and then you should have heard the names that flew around me as I walked to the bench.

I was about as good that day as I ever was in my life. That year I had won 29 and, what with relief work, had been in forty-three winning ballgames.

But in a way it was Husk Chance’s day.

That Chance had a stout heart in him. His first time at bat, it was in the second. The fans met him with a storm of hisses—not “boos” like you hear in modern baseball—but the old, vicious hiss that comes from real hatred.

Chance choked the hisses back down New York’s throat by singling with a loud crack of the bat. The ball came back to Mathewson. He looked at Bresnahan behind the bat, then wheeled and threw to first, catching Chance off guard. Chance slid. Tenney came down with the ball. Umpire Bill Klem threw up his arm. Husk was out!

Chance ripped and raved around, protesting. Most of us Cubs rushed out of the dugout. Solly Hofman called Klem so many names that Bill threw him out of the game.

The stands behind us went into panic, they were so tickled, and the roar was the wildest I ever heard when Matty went on to strike out Harry Steinfeldt and Del Howard.

Chance was grim when he came up again in the third. Joe Tinker had led off the inning by tripling over Cy Seymour’s head. We heard afterward that McGraw had warned Seymour that Tinker was apt to hit Mathewson hard, and to play way back. But Seymour didn’t. Kling singled Tinker home. I sacrificed Johnny to second. Jimmy Sheckard flied out, Johnny Evers walked, and Frank Schulte doubled. We had Matty wabbling, and then up came Chance, with the crowd howling. He answered them again with a double, and made it to second with a great slide that beat a great throw by Mike Donlin.

Four runs.

The Giants made their bid in the seventh. Art Devlin singled off me, and so did Moose McCormick. I tried to pitch too carefully to Bidwell and walked him. There was sure bedlam in the air as McGraw took out Mathewson and sent up the kid, Larry Doyle, to hit. Doyle hit a high foul close to the stand and as Kling went to catch it, the fans sailed derby hats—and bottles,    papers, everything to confuse him. But Kling had nerve and he caught it.

Every play, as I look back on it, was crucial. In the seventh after Tenney’s fly had scored Devlin, Buck Herzog rifled one on the ground to left, but Joe Tinker got one hand and one shin in front of it, blocked it, picked it up, and just by a flash caught Herzog, who made a wicked slide into first.

In the ninth a big fight broke out in the stands, and the game was held up until the police could throw in a cordon of bluecoats and stop it. It was as near to a lunatic asylum as I ever saw. As a matter of fact, the newspapers next day said seven men had been carted away, raving mad, from the park during the day. This was maybe exaggerated, but it doesn’t sound impossible to anyone who was there that day.

As the ninth ended with the Giants going out, one–two–three, we all ran for our lives, straight for the clubhouse with the pack at our heels. Some of our boys got caught by the mob and were beaten up some. Tinker, Howard and Sheckard were struck. Chance was hurt most of all. A Giant fan hit him in the throat and Husk’s voice was gone for a day or two of the World Series that followed.

Pfiester got slashed on the shoulder by a knife.

We made it to the dressing room and barricaded the door. Outside wild men were yelling for our blood—really. As the mob got bigger, the police came up and formed a line across the door. We read the next day that the cops had to pull their revolvers to hold them back. I couldn’t say as to that. We weren’t sticking our heads out to see.

As we changed clothes, too excited yet to put on one of those wild clubhouse pennant celebrations, the word came in that the Giants over in their dressing room were pretty low. We heard that old Cy Seymour was lying on the floor in there, bawling like a baby about Tinker’s triple.

When it was safe, we rode to our hotel in a patrol wagon, with two cops on the inside and four riding the running boards and the rear step. That night, when we left for Detroit and the World Series, we slipped out the back door and were escorted down the alley in back of our hotel by a swarm of policemen.

2 Comments

It sounds as if the players of that era have a bum rap. The fans appear to have been the rabble and hard drinkers rather than the players. I think Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of their Times” altered my perceptions that those players were all like Ty Cobb.
This article explains,in my mind, why McGraw was so beloved and yet hated by many of his players and opponents. His book also gives fref Merkle’s defense of his “boner” play which is very understandable especially since Chance allegedly found a new ball to force him out.

Love these old photos, interesting to people watch in them. The one of the crowd, seen from the front: along the right side there’s a fireman, a clergyman and at the top right a black man.

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