Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Three Finger Brown

By: C.G. Morelli

Mordecai Brown was visiting his uncle’s farm in Indiana when he was given the greatest gift he would ever receive. At the time, however, it didn’t seem like much of a gift at all. 

It was the summer of 1884 and Mordecai, only seven years old, was busy playing outside, when something happened that would completely change the course of his life. He stepped too close to a feed machine and accidentally caught his hand on the blade.  Before anything could be done, Mordecai lost most of his index finger and parts of his thumb and middle finger. It seemed like a painful burden he’d have to carry with him forever. It would later transform him into one of the greatest major league pitchers of all time.

From Weakness Comes Strength
By the time he was 20 years old, Brown was busy working in the Indiana coal mines and playing for the company baseball team on weekends. He was known as a hard worker, but only as an average third baseman whose hand gave him trouble both in the field and at the plate. Because of his childhood accident, people saw Brown as handicapped and never gave him much attention for playing the game. That is, until the regular pitcher on his company team suffered a minor injury of his own. Suddenly, Brown found himself staring opportunity right in the face. Before he knew it, he was on the mound gripping the ball tightly between his three fingers. It took him just one pitch to realize the gift he’d been given, and to know that he’d never play third base again.

“That old paw served me pretty well in its time,” Brown once said of his injured hand.  “It gave me a firmer grip on the ball, so I could spin it over the hump. It gave me a greater dip.”

Although Brown lacked a powerful fastball, his three-fingered grip allowed him to throw a variety of curves and breaking pitches that left batters speechless. Many experts credit him with throwing the very first split-finger fastball.

Three Finger Brown
After winning 50 games for his company team over the next two seasons, Brown signed a professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Some of his major league teammates started calling him “Miner” Brown, because of his experiences in the coal mines, but most others referred to him simply as “Three Finger” Brown.

After only one season with St. Louis, Three Finger was traded to the Cubs. It was in Chicago where he shined. Brown became one of the few players in baseball history to pitch simultaneously both as a starter and a reliever, notching 239 wins and 48 saves in his career. He did this while posting a 2.06 ERA, and while winning 20 games six years in a row (1904-1910). Three Finger Brown eventually propelled the Cubs to a World Series Championship with a game six shutout of the Detroit Tigers in 1908.  It was the last time the Cubs won the World Series.

A Hall of Fame Battle
Three Finger Brown is perhaps best known for his legendary battles with another Hall of Fame pitcher of the time. Christy Mathewson, perhaps the most dominating pitcher in history with 373 wins and over 2,500 strikeouts, spent almost his entire career playing for the New York Giants. He was tall and lanky, and seemed to have the ability to shoot bolts of lightning from his gifted right arm. 

From 1905 to 1909, “Matty” and Three Finger faced each other a total of ten times.  Mathewson won the first meeting, out dueling Brown to a 1-0 shutout, but Three Finger went on to win the next nine meetings between the two all-time greats. In 1916, Mordecai Brown faced Christy Mathewson one last time. It was fitting that both men were pitching the final games of their legendary careers. Matty took this one, 10-8.

The Gift of Inspiration
Much of Brown’s impact as a player stems from the amazing feats he was able to accomplish on the mound, but his greatest achievement took place when he was still a young child. It was when he overcame his frightening injury and found a way to use it to benefit not only him, but the great game of baseball as well.

“I haven't space enough to tell of all the grand deeds of Brownie on and off the field,” Hall of Fame teammate Johnny Evers once said.  “(He had) Plenty of nerve, ability and willingness to work at all times and under any conditions…There was never a finer character -- charitable and friendly to his foes and ever willing to help a youngster breaking in."