Under the ownership of the Ricketts family, the Cubs have done a fairly good job of acknowledging and celebrating their history. Legends like Billy Williams and Andre Dawson are routinely feted at Wrigley Field while greats like Lee Smith and Randy Hundley often return to be applauded by the fanbase.
One thing underlying most of these celebrations, though, is that each of them is really a nostalgia trip for the generation of fans who remember when they played. Because of this, Cub greats from before 1950 are given much less visible accolades in the ballpark and tributes to Cub teams that won championships prior to 2016 exist only as flags on the Wrigley Field roof.
At this time, the Cubs do not give prominent acknowledgement to the greatest pitcher in team history. This is a shame because what Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown accomplished in a Cubs uniform made him worthy of not just a celebration but also a statue alongside Williams, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. Simply put, he was the most important player on the only Cubs teams to win the World Series in the 20th century.
Even though it’s been a full one hundred years since he threw his final major league pitch, Mordecai Brown still fires the imagination because his story remains one of the most unique in baseball history. After all, there are several inspirational tales of players overcoming various disabilities to reach the major leagues from Dummy Hoy to Pete Gray to Jim Abbott. (Admittedly, the tales became a lot more inspirational when they stopped referring to the disabled as “Dummy…”)
But outside of Brown, there aren’t any other instances of an athlete using his specific disability to become one of the most dominant players of his era. From Brown’s retelling of the origin of his disability:
“I was a kid of five and lived in Nyesville, Indiana…My brother used to cut feed for the horses in a patent box fitted with circular knives. One day I was feeding the knives and my hand slipped in among the knives. Every finger was chopped to ribbons but the doctor managed to sew them together, although you see he didn’t do much of a job.” (Thomson, 11)
Yikes. Brown’s childhood sounds like what would happen if Rookie of the Year was rebooted by Eli Roth. To make matters worse, Brown added that a subsequent accident five weeks later resulted in him breaking six bones in the same hand (12). Due to both of these calamities, that Brown “lost his right index finger below the second joint, mangled his middle finger, and suffered permanent nerve damage to his little finger.” (11)
As a reminder: This was what would become his pitching hand. Mordecai Brown is the only pitcher in history who could watch Jake Arrieta work out and get away with calling him a pantywaist.
If Brown had taken his right hand to a career fair and told his counselor that he wanted to be a pitcher, he would have been laughed out of the building. And yet, he eventually used this disfigurement to help him develop the most hellacious curveball of his generation.
But there was more to his determination than simply discovering that his disability made the ball behave in ways that batters had never seen before. If it were that easy, organized baseball eventually would have suspended him due to a positive test for Performance Enhancing Feedcutter.
In reality, pitching for Brown was not just a matter of making an adjustment. It was also an endurance test that no other hurler could understand. As Brown admitted after his career was over, “…those fingers were a tremendous handicap. Few know the excruciating pain I suffered when I had to grip the ball certain ways.” (Burkholder)
Sportwriter Ed Burkholder elaborated on what made Brown’s pain so unique by describing his delivery in detail:
“His forefinger, stiff and twisted, had to be bent back almost to the breaking point to get a firm grip on the ball. After several years, the constant bending of the finger limbered it up a little, but to the end he was never able to throw the ball without some twitch of pain.” (ibid)
Reading that wince-inducing passage, one thing becomes clear: If Mordecai Brown had founded a baseball camp for young players, it would’ve had to have been located in Guantanamo. And yet Brown lasted for 14 years at the professional level. And during a time in baseball history when managers used their starters in such a way that, if he had managed back then, Dusty Baker would have been known as “the healer.”
Over the course of his career, Brown threw 271 complete games. And yet year after year, he overcame this workload and intense pain to put up transcendent numbers and become one of the main reasons why the Cubs dominated the first decade of the century.
The last Cubs dynasty was driven primarily by a pitching rotation that was without peer in terms of talent and depth. And Mordecai Brown earned his place as one of the most important Cubs of all time by stepping up as the unquestioned ace of this group. Even within the context of the deadball era, the numbers he amassed in his prime were so eye-popping that they bordered on the absurd.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brown’s World Series championship years. Brown anchored the 1907 and 1908 rotations, turning in ERAs of 1.39 and 1.41 augmented by FIPs of 1.80 and 1.73, respectively. While players of his era signed deals to pitch tobacco and pantaloons, Mordecai Brown’s sterling performances could have made him baseball’s only player to endorse amputation.
And those stats just scratched the surface of his dominance. Like the present day Cubs rotation, Brown knew how to take advantage of sterling team defense, which explains how during a time when power was non-existent and every batted ball was a ball in play, Brown allowed an almost comical .218 BABIP in 1908. In other words, the Cubs won the World Series that year specifically because they had a pitcher who spent an entire season facing nothing but Todd Hundley.
But Brown’s best year might have been the season he led the 1906 Cubs to 116 wins. That year, he paced the league with a 1.04 ERA, a 2.08 FIP, and 9 shutouts. On top of all that, Brown left every other hurler in his dust with a 253 ERA+. By that metric, Brown’s 1906 was the eighth greatest pitching season of all time–only five points behind Bob Gibson’s 1968.
He was more than just a Cubs great during the franchise’s best era—Mordecai Brown was a true pitching legend compared to anyone in baseball history. In order to properly appreciate his dominance, we had to wait for the invention of advanced stats. And then to find a context in which those numbers seemed real, we had to wait for the invention of video games.
Both his unique story and Hall of Fame level performance made Mordecai Brown an inner circle all-time Cub. But what defined him as a statue-worthy hero was his performance in 1908’s make-up of the infamous Merkle Game. Until Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, this was the single most important contest in Cubs history–a win-or-go-home moment that enabled the 1908 team to advance to the World Series where they would win the franchise’s second championship.
After the original Merkle Game was ruled a tie, it was almost impossible to overstate the amount of hatred that the Cubs inspired in Giant fans. During the make-up game, they ran into a level of vitriol that New Yorkers usually only reserve for a fifteen second delay on the subway or pizza that tastes like someone spent more than two minutes making it.
In the days leading up to the game, Brown received hate mail reading, “If you pitch tomorrow and beat the Giants, we’ll kill you.” (Thomson, 1) This demonstrates that he was such an important baseball Cubs star that he inspired Giant fans to invent the Twitter Egg before anyone had ever dreamed of the internet. Despite this, Brown would emerge as the key figure in the greatest triumph of the season.
The game itself could not have started any worse for the Cubs, with starter Jack Pfiester giving up a first inning run and eventually finding himself with runners on second and third with two outs. Going up against Christy Mathewson, the Cubs could not afford to give up even one more run. So Frank Chance decided that he had no other choice but to bring in his ace.
Brown entered the game to a torrent of abuse. And worse. Apparently the Giants picked an unfortunate time to schedule “Glass Bottle, Brick, and Rock Day.” As he reached the mound, Brown confronted a heckler:
“Get the hell out of my way!…If I’m going to get killed, I sure know that I’ll die before a capacity crowd.” (Thomson, 5)
The definition of a clutch pitcher is someone who spends the biggest game of his life worrying less about death threats than he does about guessing the attendance. The only thing keeping Brown from giving Giants fans the middle finger is that it would have taken them too long to figure out which one it was.
And then Brown rose to the challenge, striking out the Giants’ Art Devlin to end the threat. From there, the McGraw-men had no chance as Brown mowed down the Giants lineup inning after inning while the Cubs took a 4-1 lead. New York’s only threat of the game was a bases loaded, no out situation in the seventh. Undaunted, Brown allowed only a sac fly and no more.
Brown would later say, “I was as good that day as I ever was in my life.” (Thomson, 78) All told, he pitched 8.1 innings and gave up just that one run as the Cubs claimed the pennant with a 4-2 victory. It was a Madison Bumgarnerian performance. If Bumgarner had also pitched in 11 of the previous 14 games.
By itself, this game was enough to make Brown a Cubs legend. That it was just one amazing moment in career full of brilliance should certainly make him statue-worthy.
Or, at the very least, it should inspire the Cubs to retire the number 3.
Burkholder, Ed. “Three-Fingered Immortal.” Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years, 1870-1945, Edited by Randy Roberts and Carson Cunningham, University of Illinois Press, 2012
Thomson, Cindy and Scott Brown. Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story. University of Nebraska Press, 2006
Lead photo courtesy of Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports