All Mordecai Brown ever wanted to do was pitch.
On the morning of October 8, 1908, the Cubs were about to meet the Giants in a one game playoff for the National League pennant (technically a replay of the "Merkle Boner" game). It was the biggest game in the history of baseball to that point, and Brown was angry. He was angry with the Giants, who had engaged in a bitter feud with the Cubs all season long and were starting rumors about Brown to try to throw him off his game. He was angry at the death threats that he had received from the Black Hand organized crime syndicate. But most of all, he was angry at his manager Frank Chance, who told him that Jack Pfiester would start the game instead of him.
To be fair, Chance had some good reasons to go with Pfiester rather than his ace Brown. First, Pfiester wasn't called "The Giant Killer" merely because of his name. But a bigger reason was that Brown had pitched as either a starter or reliever in 11 of the previous 14 Cub games. But for Brown, it must have felt like he was back in Indiana all over again, and someone was once again telling him he couldn't pitch. Not only that, but his biggest rival, Christy Mathewson was out there pitching for the Giants. He couldn't stand sitting on the sidelines.
Chance did tell Brown to warm up in secret behind the fans in right-center field. When Pfiester gave up two runs in the first inning. Chance signaled for his ace. To get to the mound, Brown had to push his way past the Giant fans standing behind the ropes in centerfield. "Coming through!" he shouted. "Get the hell out of my way!" The New York crowd booed and threw things at the Cub ace as he worked through the crowd. "Here's where you `Black Hand' guys get your chance", Brown shouted defiantly at those who threatened to kill him if he pitched.
Once on the mound, Brown struck out Art Devlin to get out of the first inning. He then proceeded to shut out the Giants for the final eight innings, and his Cub teammates scored four runs off of Mathewson to win the game, 4-2. Under a police escort against an angry mob looking for revenge for a pennant they considered stolen, the Cubs quickly fled the field as the National League champions. They would later beat the Detroit Tigers in five games for their final World Championship. Brown won games one and four of the Series.
Brown would later say that October 8, 1908 was his greatest day in baseball. It may have been the greatest day any Cub has ever had in baseball.
Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown was born on October 19, 1876 in Nyesville, Indiana, the son of a coal miner. On his uncle's farm at the age of seven, he stuck his hand into a corn shredder. The doctors had to amputate his index finger and his little finger became permanently paralyzed. Then, a few months later, young Mordecai, apparently having not learned his lesson from the corn shredder, fell chasing a rabbit and damaged his two good fingers, permanently mangling his middle finger.
By the time Brown was a teenager, he started working in the local coal mines. For recreation, Brown played third base for his mine's baseball team, although his mangled hand made it difficult for him to catch the ball. One day in 1898, his team's regular pitcher was out and Brown, eager to get off third base, volunteered to pitch that day. His pitches had an unusual movement to them that kept hitters off stride and his quickly became the team's regular pitcher after that. For the next three years, he would pitch in the coal miners' league to great results, but no professional team would sign him because of his hand. Finally in 1901, his popularity had become so great that 600 fans of the Terre Haute team in the Triple-I team threatened a boycott if the team didn't sign Brown. At the age of 24, Mordecai Brown got his first professional baseball contract.
Brown pitched so well in Terre Haute that his contract was purchased by Omaha in the Western League for 1902. It was in Omaha that the local sportswriters began to call him "Three Finger" Brown. It was a name that Mordecai neither liked nor hated. He never called himself that, and his friends and teammates called him "Miner" Brown after his coal mining days. But if someone called him "Three Finger," he never corrected them nor asked to be called something else. He accepted it, just like he accepted his hand. When he was asked if his mangled hand gave him an advantage as a pitcher, he would always just say, "I don't know. I've never tried to pitch without it."
Brown's big pitch was a curveball delivered with his crooked middle finger and the stump of his index finger. From the descriptions that we have from his contemporaries, it seems to have broken something like a modern forkball, a devastating pitch in the era before the forkball was invented. In 1903, the St. Louis Cardinals decided to give that devastating pitch a chance in the majors.
Brown pitched well for St. Louis in 1903, leading the Cardinals with a 2.60 ERA and tied for the team lead in wins with nine. But the Cardinals were a terrible team that year and in an era when most teams only looked at a pitcher's W-L record, Brown's 9-13 didn't look so good. But Cub first baseman Frank Chance thought the Brown looked good and lobbied the manager Frank Selee to trade for him. In one of the more lopsided trades of all time, the Cubs gave up twenty-game winner Jack Taylor for Brown.
Mordecai Brown quickly became one of the best pitchers in the league and was the ace for the Cubs pennant winning teams in 1906-1908 and 1910. His curveball got lots of easy groundballs to the Cubs great infielders. He won 20 games every year from 1906 to 1911. He was famous for his duels with Christy Mathewson of the Giants, the one-game playoff just being the most famous. It was a rivalry without a bad guy, either in the press accounts of the day or in reality. Mathewson was the good-looking aristocrat with a strong sense of honor and fair play and Brown was the common-looking man-of-the-people who embodied the traditional values of the heartland. Overall, Brown and Mathewson met 25 times in their careers. Brown won 13 of those games to Mathewson's 12.
Brown was not just one of the greatest starting pitchers of his era, he was also its greatest reliever. As in the one-game playoff, Frank Chance rarely hesitated to bring in Brown in relief if another Cub started got into trouble. Although usually it was when the Cubs were behind, Brown did retroactively lead the National League in saves for four straight years starting in 1908. Believe it or not (and Brown wouldn't have, since saves weren't invented until after he died), Mordecai Brown retired as baseball's all-time saves leader.
In 1912 at the age of 35, Brown began to develop arm troubles and missed most of the season. Sensing his years of effectiveness were over, the Cubs shipped him to Cincinnati that off-season. He rebounded nicely in 1913 with a good season for a bad team, but Brown decided to retire at the end of that season. However, when the St. Louis team in the new Federal League offered him the chance to manage, he decided to take one last shot at pitching. Brown pitched well enough, but the St. Louis team wasn't very good, so he lost his managerial job he returned to Chicago for the Federal League in 1915. After the Federal League folded, he returned to the Cubs as a part-time player in 1916. That final season, he mostly only pitched in blowouts and what could be more accurately termed in-season exhibitions than real games, especially a well-publicized final duel with Christy Mathewson on Labor Day.
Brown managed in the minors for a few years before retiring from baseball for good in 1920. He opened a filling station in Terre Haute, Indiana that he would run for the next twenty-five years. He bought his uncle's old corn shredder (the one he stuck his hand in) and put it on display there for everyone to see. Mordecai Brown's filling station became a big hangout for anyone wanting to talk baseball with the all-time great. It was considered a must for any old ballplayer traveling across the country to stop there and reminisce with old Miner Brown.
Brown died in Terre Haute in February of 1948, just shortly before he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. -- although he was told to expect induction shortly before he died, so he didn't exactly die not knowing he was heading to Cooperstown. He was survived by his wife, Sallie. They had no children.
Mordecai Brown was not only one of the greatest Cubs of all-time, he was one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all-time. If not for his late start in baseball, he would almost certainly have been well north of 300 wins in the majors. For Cub fans, he was the best player on our last World Series Champions. So if all you know about Mordecai Brown is that he had "three fingers," take this opportunity to get to know one of the greatest Cubs ever. And thank those fans in Indiana all those years ago that demanded that the young man with the funny hand be allowed to pitch.
On a final note, two descendants of Mordecai Brown's cousin, Cindy Thomson and Scott Brown, recently published the first full-length biography of Mordecai Brown. In addition, they maintain a nice companion website that contains an online "museum" and other information about this all-time great.