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Dream, Believe, Succeed- The Mordecai Brown Story

Posted by on April 20, 2020 at 10:10 PM

I have written quite a few blog posts about baseball players that have inspired me with their determination, overcoming terrible obstacles to play the game they love. Few men have overcome more than the subject of my blog today- Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. As you might guess from Brown’s nickname, his is not the run of the mill baseball story. Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown was born October 19, 1876 in Nyeville, Indiana, a mining town about 30 miles northeast of Terre Haute, Indiana. The name Mordecai most likely came from the Mordecai in the Old Testament book of Esther, and the “Centennial” middle name paid tribute to the fact that Mordecai was born in the year of our country’s centennial celebration. At the age of 5 (some accounts have him at 7 years of age) Mordecai lost his index finger and a portion of his pinky when he stuck his hand in a piece of farm machinery. Not long after this first accident he fell while chasing a rabbit and broke the remaining fingers of his right hand. The result of the two accidents was a hand that had a missing index finger, a permanently bent middle finger and a partially missing and paralyzed pinky finger. For most people in that era, an injury of that sort would have rendered someone disabled. Mordecai Brown not only overcame his injury, but became one of the best baseball pitchers that you’ve probably never heard of. During his teenage years, Brown worked in the coal mines in southwestern Indiana and played ball with the baseball teams that these mining towns often had. In 1898, at 22, he substituted for his team’s regular pitcher and found that he was able to deliver the ball to the plate with a vastly different curve than most pitchers had. By 1901, Brown’s success as a pitcher earned him a spot on the Terre Haute Triple I League. A hugely successful season earned him a promotion to the Western League in 1902 and then to the Major Leagues, pitching for the St Louis Cardinals. His major league debut took place April 19,1903 against the Chicago Cubs. He pitched five innings of a rain shortened game, giving up only one hit. Although his rookie record was only 9 wins against 13 losses, it must be taken into consideration that the Cardinals were not a good team, finishing 46 ½ games out of first place. Brown’s 2.60 earned run average was the best on the team. At the end of the season, the Cardinals traded Brown to the Chicago Cubs for veteran pitcher Jack Taylor. It was during his tenure with the Cubs that Brown established himself as one of the top pitchers in early baseball history. With the nickname “Three-Finger”, Brown was about to embark on one of the best 8 year stretches in the history of pitching. Starting in 1904, Brown won 188 games for the Cubs while losing only 86. He won 20 or more games every season from 1906 to 1911 including a 29-game win season during the Cubs championship year of 1908 and a league leading 27 games won in 1909. Although Brown was not a high strikeout pitcher, no less a hitting authority than Ty Cobb, who holds baseball’s all-time highest career batting average said this about Brown’s curveball, “It was the most devastating pitch I ever faced.” Brown was especially stingy in allowing runs. His 1.80 earned run average is the Cubs record to this day and he threw 48 shutouts for the Cubs and 55 overall in his career which still ranks 14th all time. In addition to the 1908 championship team, Brown also led the Cubs to the World Series in 1906, 1907 (another championship) and 1910. He won 5 World Series games and lost 4 for the Cubs during that period with an earned run average under 3.00. Brown’s earned run average in 1906 (1.04) is the third lowest of all time for a season. Even more fascinating to me was the fact that although saves did not become an official Major League stat until 1969, by researching old records, baseball statisticians discovered that Brown accumulated 49 saves during his career, leading the league in every year from 1908 to 1911. Often, “Three Finger” Brown would start the first game of a doubleheader with a complete game victory and then come in for the “save” in the second game of the twin bill. Brown started his career at the relatively old age of 26. After a lackluster 1912 season when he won only 5 games while losing 6, the Cubs traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. He rebounded with 11 wins in 1913 and then, like many players hopped to the short-lived Federal League in 1914 and 1915, winning another 31 games in those two seasons. When the Federal League merged with the National League in 1916, Brown came back to the Chicago Cubs for one last season. By this time Brown was 39 years old and only pitched in 12 games that season, winning 2. His final game took place on September 4, 1916, starting against the great Christy Matheson who was also pitching in his final game. Neither pitcher lived up to their former glory in that game, with Matheson winning his only game of the 1916 season a 10-8 Reds victory. Brown retired from the Major Leagues, but went on to pitch a couple of more seasons of semi-pro ball, winning games well into his 40’s. His final Major League win total was 239 wins against 130 losses with an ERA of 2.06. Upon retirement, Mordecai Brown ran a gas station in Terre Haute for over 20 years. He was one of the first ballplayers to take up writing with a book “How to Pitch Curves” written to young would-be ballplayers. In that book’s conclusion Brown wrote this, “I would like to meet every one of you personally if such a thing were possible. But as it isn’t possible, I want you to believe right now that Mordecai Brown’s hand is reaching out to you in the distance and he is wishing you–good luck.” That final sentence sums up the love Mordecai had for youth and for the improvement of youth. Mordecai Brown unfortunately didn’t live to see himself inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. He died on February 14, 1948 of complications from diabetes. The following year, he was inducted posthumously into baseball’s greatest shrine. On a quiet farm off the beaten path of Rockwell, Indiana you can visit a small memorial that family members erected in 1994. It has Brown’s amazing statistics and some interesting facts about his career. But to really appreciate Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown, you should explore the Mordecai Brown Legacy Foundation. This foundation was established to continue to promote the life mission of Brown- “Dream, Believe, Succeed”. The foundation teaches self-reliance and team unity, promoting positive life lessons through the game of baseball. Brown once said, “Baseball teaches a cooperative effort, the necessity of a player to become part of the whole of the machinery, doing the work planned for him not for personal glory, but for the good of the team as a whole. It teaches to do a particular work as well as the individual can and spurs them to help the team to victory with no reward saving the consciousness of having helped.” I have only hit the highlights of the incredible life of Mordecai Brown. I will close with a story about the moral character and courage of “Three Finger” Brown. During the 1908 season, a blunder by young New York Giant Fred Merkle cost his team the National League Championship outright. The Giants and the Cubs were forced to play a one game playoff to determine who would play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Before the game, Brown had received several death threats with a black hand embossed on the threats. These were from the infamous crime outfit known as The Black Hand. With these papers in his hand, Brown weaved through the hostile crowd at New York’s Polo Grounds. He yelled “Get the hell out of my way, if I am going to be killed I sure know I’ll die before a capacity crowd.” After starter Jack Pfister’s rough start, Brown came into the game in the first inning and held the Giants scoreless the rest of the way, paving the Cub’s return to the World Series, and an eventual victory against the Tigers.

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