Monday, April 16, 2012

115. Victory Faust: Fulfilling a Prophecy

Another season has begun and frankly I've been stricken with writers and artist block, unable to settle on who should be next in the Infinite Baseball Card Set. After attending Cincinnati's famous opening day parade and the Reds home opener I came home and sat down at my desk, instinctively reaching for the phone to call my Pop to give him a report of the game. Then it hit me - it's been 2 and half years since he passed away and I could keep dialing all night but he wasn't going to answer. Putting the phone back down I thought about a day more than 10 years ago when I got a call from my Pop...

"Victory Faust." said the gruff voice on the other end of the phone. I knew it was my Dad, calling from work at the factory because I could hear the familiar hum of the Maimin garment cutting machines in the background.

"What?" I said.

"You heard me: Victory Faust."

It was a challenge. The Old Man and I had a long running baseball trivia contest which normally consisted of him calling me at random times during the work day, spitting out an impossible baseball history question he either read about in that morning's New York Daily News or heard on WFAN, followed by me correctly answering it and him swearing and abruptly hanging up on me.

But this time he had me. I tried to delay...

"What did you say?"

"Victory Faust - C'mon tough guy, you can't answer it, can you?"

I racked my brain searching every nook and cranny for a remembrance of that odd name. Try as I might, I knew the Old Man had me dead to rights. After a few minutes of silence, save the hum of the cutting machines in the background, he made that nasty game-show buzzer noise of his.

"Time's up! - you bastard, I got you!"

For the next few minutes my Pop told me all about Victory Faust. I can still hear the happiness in his voice knowing that he was telling his grown son something he didn't know about the game they both loved so much. So, to open the 2012 Season of the Infinite Baseball Card Set, I bring you the story of "Victory" Faust, a player I learned about from my Dad...

In the summer of 1911 a strange, gawky, 30-something year-old fella walked up to three men in the lobby of the Planter's Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. The largest of the men was John McGraw, long-time manager of the mighty New York Giants. His companions were two of the team's starting pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Red Ames. The three men quickly learned that the odd man before them wasn't your ordinary eager ballplayer looking for a tryout. No, this weird, intense man was on a mission to fulfill a prophecy. According to him, Charley Victor Faust was destined to lead the New York Giants to World Series victory.

Charley Faust was what was back then referred to as "dim-witted." Although we'll never know what exactly his deal was, it's safe to say he was suffering from some sort of mental health issues. Though apparently able to speak and write quite well, his eyes didn't seem to lineup properly and he went around with an nonstop goofy smile on his face. In other words, Charley just wasn't all there.

He'd grown up on a farm in Kansas, the oldest of six children born to a strict Russian immigrant of German extraction and like many Midwesterners of Teutonic origin, spoke with a pronounced accent (think tv's Lawrence Welk). Although by rights Charley should have taken over the family homestead, due to his state of mind his younger brothers were tapped to run things, leaving Charley free to daydream and explore the countryside aimlessly. That fateful summer of 1911, Charley's wanderings brought him to a country fair where he plopped down a five-spot and had his fortune read. Charley Faust, it seems, was destined for great things: he was going to pitch the New York Giants to the world's championship, meet a woman named Lulu and produce a long line of baseball prodigies.

After wrestling with the prediction for a few weeks he came to the conclusion that there was only one thing for him to do - hop a train to St. Louis where the New York Giants were playing the Cardinals and join the team.

The Giants were on their second western road trip of the season and stuck in second place behind the Chicago Cubs. Despite a first-rate pitching staff that included future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, the Giants just couldn't catch a break that season. In fact the Sporting News had run a front page feature that week speculating on the end of the great Mathewson's career. With that thought in the back of his mind, or maybe he just wanted to give his boys a few pre-game chuckles to keep them loose, McGraw invited this strange man to join the team on the field the next day - Charley Faust was going to get his tryout for the Giants.

The next day Faust walked onto the field at League Park. Taking off his suit coat and bowler hat, he picked up a glove and took the mound. John McGraw grabbed a catchers mitt and crouched down behind the plate.

Charley threw his arms back and forth in a crazed windmill wind-up, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. One writer likened it to "a worm being chopped in three pieces." Round and round his lanky arms went and then he unleashed his best pitch - a disappointingly average fastball with no movement on it. After a few of these, released only after that excruciatingly long crazy windmill wind-up, McGraw had the fella grab a bat to see how he could hit.

By this time the other Giant players caught on to the gag and began gathering around. The pre-game crowd began to pay attention as well. McGraw had him run out any ball he hit fair and Faust ran around the base paths sliding into base after base, wrecking his suit and scraping the hell out of himself. The crowd and players loved it. As a reward, McGraw let him watch the game from New York's bench. The Giants lost 5 to 2.

The next day Faust showed up at the stadium again. This time McGraw had the clubhouse attendant give Charley a uniform. Though practically child's size, it didn't matter, Charley Faust walked on the field dressed as a New York Giant. Again McGraw had him warm up and run and slide for the amusement of the crowd. Diving into bases getting bruised and bloodied in the process, Faust believed he was getting an honest chance to make the team. In this day and age it's considered bad taste to extract amusement by exploiting a mentally disabled man, but back in 1911 this was a rip-roaringly good show. In fact it was common practice for a manager to treat a country bumpkin in just that manner when he had the audacity to ask for a tryout. Usually even the most dim bulb would eventually realize he was being made fun of and just go away. Not Charley Faust.

When the game started, McGraw again invited Charley to sit on the bench. The Giants won, 8 zip. Now that the team was slated to move on to Chicago, McGraw and the rest of the Giants figured they'd seen the last of this kook. Charley Faust thought otherwise - he was destined to pitch the Giants to the world championship.

By the time the Giants swung into Boston they were still playing mediocre ball that got them no better than second place. McGraw was at his wits-end trying to find something to break the jinx his team was under when Charley Faust turned up. Still insisting he could lead them to the championship, McGraw let him sit on the bench again.

The Giants began winning.

Soon Charley was in his own appropriately-size Giants uniform and repeating his pre-game warm-ups. The players thought him a good-luck charm but were relentless in the jokes they played on the dim-witted fellow. Though he knew he was the butt of many a joke it didn't deter him from trying to help his team.

It was his destiny to lead the Giants to the world championship.

When a player got hurt he talked to them to convince them that the injury was only minor. Each morning he would sit in the hotel barber shop as the players got their shaves. Lathered up and unable to poke fun at him, the muted players would listen as Charley would launch into a one-sided conversation telling each man what great hits or plays he destined to do in that day's game. More often than not, Charley was right.

Baseball players, naturally superstitious anyway, began to look on the crazy-eyed kook as a bona fide good-luck charm. Sportswriters soon picked up on the story and fans began coming to the ballpark to catch a glimpse of this mysterious creature. From a profit standpoint, McGraw and the Giants ownership liked that Faust's antics filled more seats in the ballpark.

And the Giants kept winning.

Now firmly in first place, McGraw began having Charley, now dubbed "Victory Faust" by the press, warm up in the bullpen when the team was losing. More often than not the New Yorkers staged a rally and won. By the end of August Victory Faust was a minor celebrity around the league. The city of Pittsburgh presented Faust with an ornate medal which he pinned to his Giants jersey before every game. Vaudeville came knocking and Faust left the team for $200 a week to appear on stage and be, well, himself. Unfortunately his stage career ended prematurely as the Giants lost three games in a row. Charley took his place in the bullpen and the Giants began winning again.

Now for the crazy part: all-told, when Charley was suited up and on the field with the Giants, the team was an astonishing 36-2. But Charley wasn't satisfied with his good luck-charm notoriety - that fortune teller made it clear - he was destined to PITCH the New York Giants to the championship. John McGraw was happy to string the odd fellow along with vague promises to pitch him, but the old Oriole was a serious baseball man, unwilling to take the chance on a man who obviously had no business in a big league uniform - that is at least until after they clinched the pennant. In the 9th inning of the October 7th game against Boston, McGraw finally let Faust take the mound for New York.

The Giants were down 4-2 as Faust lumbered to the mound. The crowd laughed as Faust went through his crazed wind-up and threw to Bill Rariden. Holding back laughter, Rariden took a strike and a ball before he belted the third offering for a double. Lefty Tyler executed a textbook sacrifice bunt and Rariden took third. He then scoring on Bill Sweeney's sacrifice fly. Faust had given up an earned run but now had two out as Turkey Mike Donlin came to the plate. Laughing heartily, he grounded out to end the inning. Faust was on deck to bat in the bottom of the ninth when the game ended. Boston however was caught up in the spirit of things and stayed on the field to allow Charley, who evidently failed to notice that the game was over, to take his turn at bat. Lefty Tyler served up a slow one and Charley bopped it over to first baseman Fred Tenney, who bobbled it. Faust awkwardly ran around the bases as the Boston infield continued to misplay the ball. With the crowd screaming, Charley rounded third and began a hook-slide into home. About ten feet short of the plate he ran out of momentum and was tagged out. The fans rushed the field and all hell broke loose.

Although the crowd echoed with laughter, his teammates kidded him and the press lampooned the whole exhibition, Charles Victor Faust had appeared in a major league game, becoming part of official baseball history and fulfilled part of his prophecy. He'd pitched in a regular season game and the New York Giants had clinched the pennant. It wasn't exactly as he envisioned it, figuring that he'd have more of an active role in the Giants rotation, but still, they were champions of the National League.

For good measure, McGraw let Charley pitch an inning in the last game of the season against Brooklyn. This time he kept the opposing batters scoreless and even scored a run after he was intentionally hit by a pitch. Walking off the field after the game Faust asked his teammates: "Who's a loon now?"

But now Charley and the Giants came up against 2 things that threatened to derail Faust's prophecy: Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics and their good-luck charm: Louis Van Zelst.

The humpbacked Van Zelst was originally University of Pennsylvania's mascot but the Athletics stole him away for occasional games during the 1910 season. Although a young black boy was a common mascot on quite a few major and minor league teams, a real-live humpback was the penultimate good-luck charm to ballplayers back then. Batters would rub the poor man's deformed hump before stepping to the plate in order to ensure a hit. During the run-up to the 1911 World Series, the A's stepped up their association with Van Zelst in order to counter Victory Faust's good-luck mojo.

If the outcome of the 1911 series is to be used as definitive proof, let it be known that a humpback trumps a dim-wit. See, the Athletics beat the Giants 4 games to 2.

The following season Charley tried to take his former place with the team but he'd lost his former novelty. He spent spring training with Brooklyn and taught himself to pitch left-handed - he wanted to be twice as helpful to the Giants when he joined the team at the start of the season. Brooklyn even let him pitch a complete game and he surprisingly gave up only four runs.

Rejoining the Giants, McGraw grew tired of Faust and wanted to get back to serious baseball. Charley was convinced he was a real pitcher and constantly pestered McGraw to let him pitch. The manager refused to let him put a uniform on but let him sit in the dugout - for there was one thing even the surly McGraw couldn't deny - the Giants kept winning. Through Faust's time with the team over both seasons New York won over 80% of their games! Still, McGraw tried to get the loon to leave. The players eventually convinced Charley to go home to Kansas and await McGraw's call for him.

It never came.

After Charley left, the Giants started losing, barely winning the National League pennant before being beaten by the Red Sox in the series. The following spring Faust tried rejoining the team but McGraw had had enough of this silliness. After getting nowhere with McGraw he tried peppering the National League Chairman Garry Herrmann with claims of contract obligations and back pay from the Giants, all to no avail.

By the winter of 1914 he was in a Washington State insane asylum. Five months later, Charles Victor "Victory" Faust, former Major League baseball player, was dead of tuberculosis. There is no record of whether he ever met his Lulu or not.

Happy Opening Day, Pop! I miss you so damn much and I hope I never stop reaching for my phone to give you a call you...

You want THE final word on Victory Faust? Try Gabriel Schechter's unbelievably well-researched book "Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants" - my overview you just read pales next to Schechter's great book. After I got off the phone with my Pop that afternoon more than 10 years ago, I went across the street to the public library and check it out. Track it down, you wont be sorry!

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Seriously. Happy belated opening day. Go Cubs.