Wednesday, June 29, 2011

82. Frederick Benteen: Baseball & Custer's 7th Cavalry

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm always interested in presenting characters and situations in history you normally wouldn't associate with the game of baseball. Without any further meandering, I bring you a story of baseball and the man who saved what remained of Custer's 7th Cavalry in The Battle of Little Big Horn...

Frederick Benteen was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1834. His family was originally from Baltimore and he was brought up in a thoroughly Southern family which became important when his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri as a teenager. Missouri at this time was a territory in flames - half of the settlers wanted slavery and the other half did not. Many acts of unspeakable terrorism was perpetrated on both sides in the years leading up to the Civil War and identifying oneself with either the North or the South was a matter of both pride and preservation.

After relocating to St. Louis, the young Benteen developed a love for the new game of "base ball." As in New York City, the game appealed to the new generation of young, urban middle-class gentleman of which Frederick, as a professional sign painter, belonged. The strong, athletic young man apparently was pretty good for he played on the city's Cyclone Club, one of the best in the area. The new game was associated with the North, something Benteen's staunch Southern father was against, and to make matters even worse, Frederick went one step further and sided with the Union when war broke out in 1861. In a terrible showdown, the elder Benteen told his son that he hoped the first bullet fired in the war killed him, preferably fired by one of the plethora of Benteen's who were fighting for the South.

With that, Frederick Benteen embarked on a career in the U.S. Army, but base ball was never far away.

Starting out as a 1st lieutenant in the 10th Missouri Volunteer cavalry he quickly rose through the ranks as the list of battles he took part in piled up: Wilson's Creek, Bolivar, Milliken's Bend, Pea Ridge, and Vicksburg. By the time the war ended he was a full-bird colonel commanding the 138th United States Colored Infantry. He was judged by his superiors to be an exceptional combat leader and was offered the chance to stay in the regular army at the wars end. A newspaper article that quotes from a letter from Benteen himself describes him organizing and playing in 3 ball games in one day!

Benteen was reduced to the rank of captain (the officer corps of the peacetime army was very small so everyone was reduced in rank) and posted to command H Company of the newly-formed 7th Cavalry Regiment. The field commander of the unit was the famed "Boy General" George Armstrong Custer (reduced in rank to Lt. Colonel). Benteen, who was older than Custer, did not like him from the get-go. For one, Custer was younger and Benteen considered it a slight to be under Custer's command. There was also a great divide between officers who had been educated at the elite West Point Military Academy and those, like Benteen, who were appointed to officer rank from the civilian world. Their style of leadership was also at odds - Custer was somewhat of a romantic, daydreaming of glorious cavalry charges and dashing knights of old. He liked to think of himself as a gentleman who appreciated the finer things in life and meticulously fussed over his appearance and image. Benteen was more of a modern man, more practical when it came to envisioning warfare and looked not to the past, but to the present, for things to inspire his men: things such as baseball. He was something of a 1870's stud - he had muscular biceps, carried himself with a manly swagger and wasn't afraid to be hands-on.

The 7th Cavalry was as dysfunctional as a unit could be and still stay together. The regiment was divided into 2 camps: those who liked Custer and those who didn't. Those who did were treated to never-ending social engagements sponsored by Custer's wife Libby and it was alleged preference when advancement time came. Custer was also a teetotaler and didn't have much respect for heavy boozers. Being posted to a cavalry regiment on the great plains or the Black Hills back in those days was one long battle against boredom and many officers destroyed their careers because they turned to the sauce in order to cope with the hard and lonely life. Benteen tended to overdue it on occasion, sometimes making a spectacle of himself. Away from his family he also earned a reputation of turning into "Mr. Hands" when intoxicated. In his defense, by the early 1870's he had seen the death of 3 of his 4 children due to a hereditary condition passed down by him, and his beloved wife and surviving son were far away in Atlanta. He was also increasingly at odds with the Custer group that ruled the regiment.

Benteen quickly formed "Benteen's Base Ball Club" which helped not only to satisfy the captain's baseball fix but game helped create a sense of camaraderie and pride that made H Company the 7th best unit. The Benteen's played ball regardless of their surroundings and their captain would invite other local nines to engage his team at every chance he could get. Even in the remote regions the 7th campaigned there was always a small town or group of miners who enjoyed a good game of base ball. Benteen and his boys prided themselves on bringing the game to the most inhospitable places in the west. During the Black Hills expedition of 1874 the team found time to play a few games, making temporary ball fields complete with grandiose names such as "Custer Park" and "Genevieve Park." To underline the fact that danger, in the form of Indians on the warpath, was always near, armed pickets were posted nearby for protection. The games were very popular with the cavalrymen and Custer even grudgingly attended a game. When Company H was rushed east to New Orleans to help quell a race riot in the fall of 1874, The Benteen's made sure to pack their equipment and find time for games with other army teams stationed nearby.

I've been unable to find out exactly what position the captain regularly played. I'm guessing that he didn't participate in actual games at this point in his career. Officers were discouraged from mixing with the enlisted men so he probably held a managerial role with the club. By the time the 7th Cavalry embarked on the Sioux Expedition in the spring of 1876 the Benteen's were known through out the west as a first-class ballclub. A few players were deemed good enough to pursue professional careers when they left the service.

The Benteen's captain and starting pitcher was 1st Sergeant Joseph McCurry. He was regarded as the best player on the team and was due to be discharged in 1877 where he was encouraged to pursue playing the game professionally. Second baseman "Fatty" Williams was another Benteen who was considered good enough to turn pro. Company H's own baseball reporter, Trooper Theodore Ewert, recorded that Williams had signed a contract to play ball for Pittsburgh after his enlistment was up. (Although his name is given as "George Williams," I believe Fatty was actually named William Williams. A look at the company H muster rolls made me draw this conclusion).

However, a little place called Little Big Horn would end that hope for many.

Many better historians can tell you what happened on the Little Big Horn better than I can, so I am going to just give a quick summation as it relates to Benteen. Since Custer and Benteen were at odds much of the time, the Captain was given command of a battalion and told to protect Custer's left flank. Custer and his favorite officers would lead the rest of the 7th Cavalry in a triumphant charge and defeat the Sioux on their own. After wandering around for a few hours a rider from Custer's command delivered a note telling the Captain to: "Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs."
Benteen collected the pack animals that carried the supplies and ammunition Custer asked for and rode off towards where he was supposed to be. Along the way Benteen's command met up with a battalion led by Major Reno. They had been routed by a huge number of Sioux and were taking a beating while loosely defending a hilltop where the retreating troopers had paused. Major Reno had all but cracked under the pressure and it was here that Benteen became a hero.

With the addition of his command, including the formidable H Company, Benteen usurped command and mounted a spirited defense of the hilltop. Coming to the aid of Custer was out of the question - it was all they could do to save their own hides. The attacking Sioux were joined by the Lakota and Cheyenne who had just wiped out Custer and his men. Benteen commanded his men in a 24 hour defensive fight where displayed immense leadership and bravery by leading from the front and making calm, rational command decisions under heavy fire. While Reno hid with the pack horses, Benteen was wounded in the thumb and had the heel of his boot shot off. At two separate time when it looked as if his precarious position was about to be overtaken, he and his troopers turned the tables on the attacking Indians and charged.

Benteen's leadership saved the remaining men of the 7th Cavalry.

Later Benteen would be criticised for not trying to get to Custer quicker and his decision to make a defensive position with Reno rather than charge towards Custer's command was said by some to have caused Custer's demise. From what I have read, I think Benteen acted correctly and it was only his cool actions under fire that saved the entire 7th Cavalry from decimation that June afternoon. I can also field the idea that Benteen's elite H Company, which displayed such a high degree of esprit de corp and discipline during the hilltop battle, was able to hold out against vastly superior numbers due in part to the pride and teamwork drilled into them through the baseball team.

But what became of The Benteen's? The team's captain and pitcher Joseph McCurry was wounded in the shoulder that day and never made it to the big leagues. Likewise future Pittsburgh player "Fatty" Williams was wounded in the hilltop battle and though he lived until 1919, he never appeared in a ballgame with Pittsburgh. Pitcher Alex Bishop's baseball career ended after sustaining wounds on the hilltop defenses and Charlie Bishop was wounded in the arm.

I've been unable to find any other reference to baseball in the 7th Cavalry after Little Big Horn. It's possible to surmise that the game was no longer played after the decimation of more than half the regiment. The once proud unit was now demoralized and I'm sure revenge, not baseball was on the minds of the remaining officers and troopers. Besides, it looks like almost half of the Benteen ballclub was wounded in the battle. Benteen himself remained in the Cavalry although he remained a controversial figure. Custer's wife Libby and her highly placed political benefactors launched a tireless campaign that used every excuse imaginable to shift blame for the massacre from her husband to anyone else and Benteen bore part of this unwarranted slander. He continued to be a talented and brave combat officer and was decorated for his part in the campaign against the Nez Perce Indians. A bitter man, he sank deeper and deeper into alcohol abuse and was suspended for a year after he was convicted of being drunk and disorderly. He retired from the army in 1888 due to rheumatism which he claimed was caused not by 25 years of combat, but by playing his beloved game of baseball.

Among the many references I used for this little piece was Tim Wolter's article in The National Pastime Number 17 called "Bats and Saddles", a great website on 19th Century baseball in St. Louis called "This Game of Games", and James Donovan's superb book "A Terrible Glory."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

80. Farmer Dean: His Own Meal Ticket

Let me first start out by saying that what follows is a true story - it might not read like it is, but it's all taken from a wide variety of period newspapers and wire services from February to April, 1935... While digging up old newspaper articles on the Tokyo Giants games against the Pacific Coast League teams during the spring of 1935, I happened upon one of those crazy characters that only baseball seems to attract: Oscar "Farmer" Dean. The first mention was of the Great Farmer Dean being slated to pitch against the Giants. The name sounded interesting and I made a note of it. Later I noticed his name kept popping up as I read the west coast newspapers from the spring of that year. When I found a mention of his eating capacity, I decide I had to dig deeper. Who was this guy? The truth was weirder that I ever imagined...

Out of thousands of baseball hopefuls who turned up at spring training camps all across America trying to escape the grips of the great depression, "Farmer" Dean quickly set himself apart from the pack. After writing to every club in the Pacific Coast League bragging of his unbridled talent, the Los Angeles Angels were the quickest on the draw and invited The Farmer to camp that spring. Even before he arrived the press was abuzz with anticipation of yet another great hurler with the "Dean" moniker.

In the previous year the brother duo of Dizzy and Paul Dean devastated the National League not only with their fastball but with the great copy their wild bragging and colloquial quotes brought. The Dean's won all 4 of the Cardinals victories in the '34 World Series and now there seemed to be yet another one of these "diamond in the rough's" out there. The aspiring pitcher that reported to the Angels camp on February 11th wasn't a spring chicken - he claimed to be 23 but looked like he was well into his mid-30's, six foot four and over 190 lbs. When not in uniform, Farmer wore an old suit of overalls complete with a sign sewn on the back declaring "I Am Farmer Dean." And just in case you failed to take notice of all that, he brought along his own agent/manager, Herb Levine, to make sure you did. The beat writers ate this stuff up.

While most of the Angels' hopefuls tried their damnest to distinguish themselves on the field, Farmer Dean made headlines with his prodigious apatite. His relentless assaults on the team's hotel restaurant became legendary - eating 2 steaks before morning workout became his routine. While others threw the ball around or worked on their curve ball, Farmer Dean held court, giving the eager sportswriters plenty of copy for their papers.

He was was fresh out of the U.S. Army, he said, where he learned how to pitch while posted at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "My best throws are my cannon and submarine throws" the Antelope Valley resident said. While he claimed to be of no blood relation to the Cardinals' two sibling superstars, Dizzy and Paul Dean, The Farmer admitted that he possessed the same level of ability, and while he'd never seen either one in person, by reading about them he could confidently state they "haven't anything on me." Apparently The Farmer could do the the Dean's of St. Louis one better: he claimed he was such a good hitter he played outfield when he wasn't mowing 'em down with that fire ball of his.

Apparently the Angels management didn't think the same way because after a week Farmer Dean and his agent/manager Herb Levine were cut loose.

On February 19th sports pages across the country carried the UP article exclaiming Farmer Dean's signing by the Mission Reds of San Francisco. The Reds sent Dean a contract and told him to travel north to Marysville, California where the Mission team was opening their training camp on February 25th. The Red's manager, Gabby Street, who a few years earlier was Dizzy Dean's catcher on the Cardinals, optimistically told the press: "He's just like Dizzy when he signed with the Cards" and The Farmer himself added confidently "I'll win 20 games in this league."

The article also went on to list Farmer Dean's weight as 200lbs.

Before the Reds even opened the doors to their spring training camp in Marysville, Farmer Dean was a local superstar: he was presented with the key to the city. Earlier in the month the Reds' Bay area rivals, The Oakland Oaks, were chastised in their local newspapers for not being quick enough in responding to The Farmer's letter of introduction and letting him slip away to the Angels. Now that he turned up in the rival Reds' camp made it even harder for the Oaks fans to take.

The reporters who covered the Reds badgered manager Gabby Street for updates on the team's prized rookie. "Well, I'll tell you. The big fella has a lot of color and is sure attracting a lot of attention. He's plenty big, says he can pitch and certainly acts the part of a fellow looking to make good. He talks a great game and he eats like a big leaguer." Street went on to contrast The Farmer with Dizzy, saying The Farmer was more modest because when asked how many games he planned on winning that year said: "I guess about twenty games would be enough for the first year, eh Sarge?"

The Sarge promised to put The Farmer through a rigorous tryout to determine the full extent of the rookies prodigious talent. "I will find out mighty quick if this big boy has anything of value in a baseball way. What a card he will be if he can really pitch. If he can't, the Mission club will be out the price of his car fare and the meals he absorbed."

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 2nd Gabby Street handed the The Farmer the ball to see what he could do in a game situation. The Mission Reds faced the touring Tokyo Giants in the first of a series of games they scheduled against Pacific Coast League teams. The Tokyo Giants were a young team, mostly made up of college stars and featured the schoolboy sensation, Eiji Sawamura who made history that winter when he struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx in succession during an exhibition game in Japan. Before the game Dean went over the pitches he planned on unleashing that afternoon: "I got a submarine ball and a fire ball, but my fire ball is the best. It starts out fast and leaves a smoke screen as it curls up."

The Farmer, employing a novel submarine-style pitching motion shut out the Tokyo Giants for 2 innings until the roof caved in during the 3rd. Slapping him around for 6 runs, Tokyo knocked him out of the box on the way to a 12-5 win.

Obviously choosing to focus on only the first 3 innings of that afternoon's game, Dean went out on the town celebrating. By the time he meandered into the team's hotel, the Reds' president, Joe Bearwald, confronted his star hurler about breaking training rules. An indignant Dean declared; "I am a farmer, and Saturday is farmer's night. I do not care to retire now." The two men began a heated exchange but Bearwald had the last word: "You're fired."

The next morning as The Farmer and his agent/manager Herb Levine packed up their stuff, the Reds' manager Gabby Street spoke to the shocked press: "Farmer Dean didn't have a thing as a chucker." Dean had a lot of color he said, "but nothing on the ball."

At a rival meeting of the scribes, no doubt set up by agent/manager Levine, The Farmer gave his side of the story. "I walked out on The Missions because that old miser Joe Bearwald complained because I ate two steaks for dinner." The most famous pitcher in the Pacific Coast League was now free to take his talents elsewhere.

On March 5th he suddenly turned up in Santa Barbara and presented himself to the Seattle Indians owner Bill Klepper. At a press conference the following day Dean reported that Klepper and the Indians promised him "plenty of food" and promptly proved the point by devouring 2 full steaks before making his way to the field for practice. The newspapers described him as "... the 205lb Dean..."

Now boasting that he would win 25 games for Seattle this season, The Farmer was treated to a rigorous running regimen by the Indian's manager Dutch Reuther. Seeing as he put away 2 steaks, Reuther had Dean run around the field for 3 hours. The following morning the press reported seeing The Farmer only put away one steak at breakfast. Ruether adjusted his training regimen accordingly and made Dean run for only one hour. He was yet to appear in a game claiming the cards were not right yet. Farmer Dean, you see, consulted his horoscope before every game and if the stars were not favorable, Dean didn't pitch.

The newspaper now all seemed to focus on The Farmer's appetite instead of his fire ball. One paper claimed he ate "20 hot cakes every morning" and "carries with him a loaf of french bread and a roll of bologna sausage in a paper bag" to stave off hunger between meals. At the end of March he challenged teammate and the reining Indians eating champ, Mike Hunt, to an eating contest. The Farmer packed in "eight pounds of hamburger steak, three plates of potatoes and then ripped a beefsteak apart" on the way to thrashing Hunt and claiming the team title. After the crumbs settled Dean told manager Reuther that if they had a better class of steak he could really show 'em how to eat. Incredulous, Reuther called his bluff and ordered the pitcher a fresh T-bone. 10 minutes later it was gone.

Indians owner Bill Klepper declared: "if he could play ball like he can eat he'd be worth as much as Dizzy Dean."

The last traces I can find of The Farmer is at the end of March where the UP syndicated a photograph of Dean sitting awkwardly on the ground in front of the Indians dugout eating an impressive-looking sandwich. The supplied caption notes that to construct the sandwich he is consuming "...required 14 inches of bologna and a loaf of bread." He is also noted as being: "6' - 4" and 220lbs."

So who was Farmer Dean? There is no other mention of him after April 2nd of 1935. A teammate on the Indians did say that he had known Dean under a different name back on an unnamed Eastern team and that he was 35, not 23 as claimed. But he never gave the man's former name. Another clue I found was a mention of him being a resident of Lancaster, California. Then I found it. In a Los Angeles Times article, back when the L.A. Times still employed reporters that actually reported, writer Bob Ray's secret contacts told him that Oscar "Farmer" Dean's real name was "West" and that he once played with a team in the now-defunct Eastern League. Going through all the records found on I found no "West" who played in the Eastern League that would fit his age group (assuming he was born between 1900 and 1905). The only close fit I could see would be a Tommy West who played for the Lindale Pepperalls of the Georgia-Alabama League in 1930. The league collapsed following the 1930 season so it fits what was reported about Dean being out of a job after the folding of the league he played in. And taking into consideration that before showing up on the west coast he'd just served a 4 year hitch in the Army, that would fit into the timeline just fine. But this is all just a wild, though educated, guess on my part. So was this guy a real prospect or a publicity-hound trying to be his own meal-ticket? I'm guessing the latter and the teams in the Pacific Coast League played along. 1935 was one of the worst years of the depression and Americans grasped at any kind of distraction to keep their minds off their current predicament. If anything, Dean's romp through the P.C.L.'s spring training was beneficial to both himself and the league: the ever-hungry Dean gained in excess of 30lbs from free food and the Coast League gained national publicity and a much-needed boost to spring training attendance because of The Farmer and his personal publicity machine. I love the history of this game!

I wasn't happy with the original drawing I did of The Farmer, he was too... animated. (You can still see the original version HERE on my facebook page) I decided to do a 2nd version showing the Ace Fire-baller Farmer Dean, staying out of the sun, contemplating what the afternoon's lunch menu may hold...