Brown, Mordecai Peter Centennial

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BROWN, Mordecai Peter Centennial

(b. 19 October 1876 in Nyesville, Indiana; d. 14 February 1948 in Terre Haute, Indiana), Hall of Fame pitcher with the Chicago Cubs during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Brown, one of five children, received his middle name in celebration of the United States Centennial in 1876, the year he was born. His parents, Peter and Jane, were of Welsh and English descent. As a former mine laborer in the western Indiana coal mines of his childhood, Brown was known to his teammates as Miner Brown. His other nickname, Three Finger Brown, was the result of two childhood accidents. First he lost his index finger on his right hand in a corn shredder, leaving only a small stump. Weeks later, with a cast still covering his injured hand, Brown fell while chasing a pig, breaking several of the remaining fingers. This series of mishaps left young Brown short an index finger, with a paralyzed pinky, and with two severely misshapen third and fourth digits.

On 17 July 1898 the star pitcher of the Coxsville, Indiana, baseball team had to be removed due to a freak injury. The call went to the team's third baseman, twenty-one-year-old Brown. From the start of his pitching career Brown turned his handicap into an advantage, throwing a remarkable downward curve using the remaining stump of his index finger. Only one batter during the five innings Brown pitched that day was able to put this unorthodox pitch into play. Brown moved on to Terre Haute of the Three-I League (Indiana-Illinois-Iowa), where he won twenty-three games in 1901, and then to Omaha of the Western League, where he captured twenty-seven victories in 1902. Brown married Sarah Bingham in 1903. They had no children.

Brown's performance with Omaha was enough to attract the attention of the St. Louis Cardinals, who bought his contract for 1903. Brown struggled to a 9–13 record with the last-place Cardinals during his rookie year, but he showed enough promise that the Chicago Cubs manager Frank Selee traded twenty-one-game winner Jack Taylor to the Cardinals for Brown's services for the 1904 season. Brown continued to improve during his first two years with the Cubs, and established himself as one of the premier pitchers in baseball during the 1906 season. Brown finished with a record of 26–6, leading the league with 9 shutouts and a minuscule 1.04 earned run average (ERA).

The Cubs raced through the National League in 1906, winning 116 games while losing only 36 (still a Major League record). That season began what would long be considered one of baseball's great dynasties, a Cubs team that included the famed double play combination of Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, and Frank Chance, who won four pennants and two World Series titles between 1906 and 1910. Brown led the way for the pitching staff. He won 127 games between 1906 and 1910, while his ERA crept above 1.50 only in 1910. In the days before closers, good starting pitchers were often called upon to finish out games for their weaker teammates, and Brown was very successful in this role. He led the league in saves every year from 1908 to 1911.

Brown's only pitching rival in the league was New York Giants pitcher Christy "Matty" Mathewson, and the two were famous for their pitching duels. Mathewson's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame reads, "Matty was master of them all," but one opponent Mathewson could never master was Brown. Brown beat Matty thirteen out of the twenty-four times they squared off, including nine straight wins between 1905 and 1908. The two faced off in many memorable games over the years. On 13 June 1905, Matty beat Brown 1–0 with a no-hitter. The duo's most famous face-off was on 8 October 1908 at New York's Polo Grounds. The game was a play-off for the pennant between the Cubs and the New York Giants forced by the "Merkle's Boner" game of 23 September, where the Giants' first baseman Fred Merkle committed a base-running error that erased a New York victory. Cubs manager Frank Chance chose Jack Pfeister to start the game, but Pfeister allowed one run and retired only two batters. Chance called for Brown to relieve the shaky Pfeister. Brown later recalled, "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.'" Brown coolly walked to the mound and took over without even warming up. He shut down the Giants, allowing only one run over eight-and-two-thirds innings pitched. Mathewson was not as effective as Brown, allowing four runs in seven innings. Under Brown's leadership, the Cubs won 4–2 and captured their third straight National League Pennant.

Five feet, ten inches in height and weighing 175 pounds, Brown threw right-handed and batted both ways. He was extremely fit as the result of a stringent exercise system he inflicted upon his teammates and himself. Cubs manager Frank Chance called him "the greatest fielding pitcher the game ever had." His unique style can be attributed to the absence of his index finger, which forced Brown to exert extra pressure on the ball with his middle finger. His famous curveball would drop as if rolling off of a table, similar to a modern-day forkball. This "drop-curve" proved to be a constant nemesis to the hitters of his era. Ty Cobb said, "I can't talk about all of baseball, but I can say this: it was the most deceiving, the most devastating pitch I ever faced."

Brown's success in baseball also introduced him to some of the notable figures of early-twentieth-century America. He was on speaking terms with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and in 1913 John D. Rockefeller paid Brown to tutor his nephew, then a student at Princeton, in the art of pitching.

After his major league career ended, Brown managed and pitched for Indianapolis of the American Association in 1919 and returned to Terre Haute of the Three-I League in 1920. That year he retired and operated a filling station in Terre Haute; he later suffered a stroke and struggled with ill health for three years before his death. Brown is buried at Rose Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, and in 1994 a monument was dedicated in his memory near his birthplace in Nyesville, Indiana.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, maintains a biographical clipping file of information about Brown. The best resource on the Chicago Cubs dynasty is John J. Evers and Hugh S. Fullerton, Touching Second; the Science of Baseball, the History of the National Game; Its Development into an Exact Mathematical Sport; Records of Great Plays and Players; Anecdotes and Incidents of Decisive Struggles on the Diamond; Signs and Systems Used by Championship Teams (1910). Another helpful resource is Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (1996). Brown narrates his own story of the 1908 play-off game with the New York Giants in My Greatest Day in Baseball (1945). A thrilling account of the amazing 1908 season was compiled by Gordon H. Fleming in The Unforgettable Season (1981).

Jeremy Jones

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Brown, Mordecai Peter Centennial

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