The Mordecai Brown Story
Who Was Three Finger Brown?
Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine
Mordecai Brown pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket
pocket. "If you pitch tomorrow and beat the Giants, we'll kill
"Threats! They can't win with those." He stuffed the note away
and pulled out another. He squinted his eyes at the scrawling.
"Die!" A handprint made with black ink was pressed into the center
of the white page.
Mordecai knew other teammates had received threats from
the Black Hand Mob, and it angered him. He marched up to the
train's smoking room car and burst in, seeking out manager Frank
"Let me pitch tomorrow," Mordecai bellowed at the manager
the newspapers called the Peerless Leader. "Just to show those
so and so's they can't win with threats." Mordecai pulled wads
of the Black Hand letters from his pockets and held them under
Chance made no promises. Brown returned to the passenger
The steam-powered train was state of the art, the best travel that
money could buy. The Chicago Cubs stretched out in the spacious
Pullman cars, ate scrumptious meals,and puffed on cigars in the
smoking car. Those with pregame jitters played poker, while the
relaxed folks slept in red-curtained compartments as the train
whizzed through the night air toward its destination.
After breakfast on October 8, 1908, the Twentieth Century Limited
pulled into the New York station from which the Cubs would depart
and prepare to play the New York Giants.
Had Mordecai seen the morning edition of the New York Times,
he would have read the headline "Giants and Cubs in Final Battle."
Battle was a fitting term. By defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates
in their last game of the season, the Cubs had assured themselves
of at least a tie for first with the Giants. A tie is what they had gotten,
and so the Cubs would face the New York team for what was
essentially a playoff.
The Cubs and the Giants were rivals, and because of an earlier
game that had ended in a tie on a technicality, they were also enemies.
The New York Times said: "Although the regular scheduled
National League baseball season ended yesterday ... it will not officially
close until this afternoon when New York and Chicago will
play off the tie game of September 3, making to-day [sic] the most
important baseball event in the season of 1908."
When the team's train pulled up to the Grand Central Depot,
thousands of hostile New Yorkers turned out to pound the train
windows and jeer.
Despite an injury-filled season, Mordecai's team had managed to
stay in the hunt for first. Several teams had jockeyed for position all
summer long. The race was so tight no one could predict the outcome.
This uncertainty raised the stakes for gamblers and lured
the common man to make a bet and hope for a fortune. Money,
more than fan loyalty, motivated the hostile crowd.
The Chicago teammates huddled together and bulldozed
through the crowd like a football team running offense. Police
provided an escort to the hotel. When the players reached the registry,
more threatening letters awaited.
Still, Chance's men were confident. The team had come off a
good streak of games. The only way the Cubs had managed to
stay close to first place was by winning 3 of their 31 games in
Mordecai had come too far to lose everything now. Earlier in the
summer he had suffered the death of his mother. His sister had
also been ill. He was not alone, as several teammates had experienced
hardships as well. The Cubs clubhouse sometimes looked
more like a battleground than a locker room. Tempers flared;
punches were thrown-and not just between the players. Fistfights
also frequently broke out between the manager and his men. Still,
after all they'd been through-the fights, the injuries-the season's
end brought the possibility of a championship.
After wiggling through the crowd, the players traveled to the
Polo Grounds on the elevated train. In a pregame gathering in
the clubhouse, Chance announced his starter, Jack "The Giant
Chance pulled Mordecai aside. "Warm up behind the outfield
The Polo Grounds were filled to the brim, overflowing, bursting
at the seams. Every available seat, every vacant speck of ground, every
rooftop was filled with a black-suited man or a suspender-clad
youth. A few ladies wearing Merry Widow hats blocked spectators'
views, but their attire contributed splashes of color to the scene.
The sound was deafening inside the ballpark, creating a roar
like a locust invasion. Outside, an army of frustrated New Yorkers
lunged at the park walls. The gates had closed early because
the Polo Grounds could not hold all those demanding to see the
game. Police and firemen attempted to control the throng. Thousands
were shouting for blood-Chicago Cubs blood.
Giants fans believed the pennant had been stolen from them
on a technicality. The New York papers had proclaimed the news.
Many people had bet everything they owned on their Giants to win,
and lives were seriously at stake. This was more than a game.
Beyond the clamor, above the throng, the sky was a beautiful
autumn blue. The day was pleasantly warm. Somewhere perhaps,
beyond the Big Apple, folks were enjoying Indian summer. But inside
the Polo Grounds, and for miles outside, only one thing mattered
to the people: the Giants had to win.
Prior to the match the New York squad, looking like snarling
beasts, pushed the Cubs away from the field, not allowing the visitors
more than five minutes of batting practice.
"You're finished," Giants pitcher Big Joe McGinnity said, pushing
Chance, who had been hitting grounders from the plate. His statement
likely inferred more than just the end of batting practice.
It would have been tempting for Chance's men to try to settle
the score right then and teach those New York players who really
deserved the pennant. But they kept their cool, preferring for once
to act like grown men instead of impulsive hotheads. They were
determined not to take the bait. They'd make their statement on
the field, with their bats and their gloves.
When the game got under way, the noisy masses were too much
for Pfiester, who ran into trouble in the first inning. Summoned
from the center-field bullpen, Mordecai made his way to the field.
Fans with faces twisted into angry glares and fists pounding the
air tried to block his path.
"You're finished in this town!"
Glass bottles whizzed past Brown. Rocks and bricks had to
be cleared from the playing field. Mordecai knew he could be injured-or
worse. There weren't enough police officers to control
the crowd. Someone might have a gun.
"Hey, Three Finger! You big, old-"
Mordecai shouted back, "Get the hell out of my way.... 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."
Who was that man? What caused him to show such bravery?
There was more to worry about that day than just winning or losing.
If the Cubs won, as they intended to do, what then? After the
game ended, the Chicago Cubs would be encircled by a swarm of
livid people resembling killer bees.
Did Mordecai Brown hear what the fans were calling him? Did
he know what they threatened to do to him?
We don't know whether he considered those things. To understand
his actions that day, one has to go back to the beginning, before
he was a star, before he ever set foot in Chicago or New York
or Philadelphia or any of the cities he played in. His life has to be
studied from that point forward in order to understand not only
who he was but also how he was able to achieve such a high level
of success in the face of many obstacles.
Mordecai Brown's story is more than just that of a man who
overcame the loss of fingers on his pitching hand to become a Hall
of Famer. It's more than the story of a man who escaped the coal
mines to become popular enough to have his photograph taken
with the U.S. president. His story is more than just that of a ballplayer-but
it is that too. Brown's life is a tapestry. To understand
the whole, one has to look at all the threads to see how they were
woven together. By doing so, the legacy of this remarkable man
springs to life, inspires us, and sends us on our way to face our
The events of October 8, 1908, the day of the playoff game that
determined the National League pennant, provide a summary of
Three Finger Brown's identity, but that day is only a starting point.
Life is more than baseball, but sometimes life's challenges are
played out on the diamond.
Excerpted from Three Finger
by Cindy Thomson Scott Brown
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
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