Monday, July 21, 2014

Victory Faust Gets a Second Chance

One of the good things about getting the chance to do a full-scale book is that I am able to re-do many of my older drawings or, as in the case of Victory Faust, expand the illustration from a small card to a full-page. 

Victory Faust is a guy my father introduced me to, and it's fitting that he will be given a full-page in the book. As most of you probably know, the whole Infinite Baseball Card Set came from the terrible sence of loss I felt after my father died suddenly over 4 years ago. This site and the drawings became my place to continue to share the odd-ball characters and forgotten stars of baseball history. My father was no longer at the end of a phone to talk to, but I got the chance to share what was originally something between my father and I with thousands of others who have the same interest. Anyway, that's a little more than I wanted to say about that, let's get back to ol' Victory Faust.

This expanded illustration is more or less the same pose as in the original. I liked the way I depicted his arms in the crazed windmill style windup he was said to have. There is no photographs or motion pictures that captured his delivery, but many contemporary newspapers wrote about it and I think I was able to accurately capture the feeling of his wind up. For the larger canvas I had to work with I was able to include a few New York Giants players in the background watching him warm up. Faust was a sideshow attraction at the Giants games and fans and players stopped what they were doing to watch him limber up.

So that's the new Victory Faust illustration, and below is the story of Mr. Faust if you don't recall it from a few years ago:

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. 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 Russo-German immigrant and like many Midwesterners of Teutonic origin, spoke with a pronounced accent (think Lawrence Welk). Although by birth right 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 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 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. 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 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, removed his suit coat and bowler hat 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 began gathering around and the pre-game crowd began to pay attention. McGraw had him run out every ball he hit and then had Faust slide 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 next day Faust showed up at the stadium and this time McGraw gave Charley a uniform. Though a child’s size, it didn’t matter, 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 all over again. 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.
When the game started Charley stayed on the bench. The Giants won, 8 zip. Now that the team was slated to move on, 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.
A few weeks later the Giants were still playing mediocre ball, stuck in second place. McGraw was at his wits-end trying 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 had 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 him. 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.

Sportswriters soon picked up on the story and dubbed him “Victory Faust”. Fans began coming to the ballpark to catch a glimpse of this mysterious creature. And the Giants kept winning.

Now firmly in first place, McGraw began having Charley 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 when the Giants lost three games in a row. Charley took his place in the bullpen and the team 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 pitch.

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.

Charles Victor Faust had appeared in a major league game, becoming part of official baseball history and fulfilling part of his prophecy. It wasn’t exactly as he envisioned it, but still, the Giants 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 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 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 back then. Batters would rub the poor man’s deformed hump before stepping to the plate 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, taught himself to pitch left-handed to be twice as helpful and even pitched a complete game, giving up only four runs.

Though he wanted to get back to serious baseball, McGraw reluctantly took Charley back for there was one thing even the surly manager couldn’t deny - the Giants kept winning. As long as Faust was on the Giants’ bench New York won over 80% of their games! Still, McGraw tried to get the loon to leave and 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, but held on to win the pennant before being beaten in the series. The following spring Faust tried rejoining the team but McGraw had had enough. 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.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Frankie Zak, ESPN and Uncovering What the Pirates Wore in '44

Last week Steve Wulf from ESPN contacted me about Frankie Zak. It's All-Star time again and Steve was writing a column on Ol' Frankie, usually tagged as the worst All-Star of All-Time. Since I wrote the longest and most documented story on Zak's life (I aint braggin' it's just that who the heck but me would have been odd enough to do so!), Steve called me to talk about Frankie and his life. I gave him a copy of the illustration of Zak I re-worked for my upcoming book, and he used it for his article. 

Steve wrote a nice, balanced piece of him, calling him "The Accidental All-Star", which is much nicer than what other authors have called him in the past. You can read Steve's piece HERE and take a trip down memory lane to my original story HERE.

And below is the illustration I recently finished of Frankie Zak. He's more or less the reason I got into researching these odd-ball baseball characters many years ago and when I worked out my "line up" of players I wanted in my book, Frankie, of course, made the starting squad. Take a gander at the illustration, and if you're still interested, below it I'll tell you a little about the process of drawing the piece.

My original drawing of Frankie Zak, completed in what seems like a million years ago. Since he started out with the Tarboro Orioles and the a good part of the story dealt with how he started out in organized baseball, I depicted him with that minor league club. Now when I outlined my book, I wanted a chapter to be called "The Short Timers", guys who played only a short period but have a great story (you gotta see the new Moonlight Graham illustration I finishing up!). That meant I needed to show Zak on the Pirates, his major league team. No problem, big league teams are the most photographed and documented out of any sport in history. How hard would it be to accurately depict a 1944 Pittsburgh Pirates uniform? Turns out, much harder than could be imagined!

When I am working on my illustrations, I try to be as accurate as possible - I'm weird that way. I love the details of the old jerseys and caps, which I guess is why I have had a 25 year relationship will Will from Cooperstown Ballcap Company and now runs Ideal Cap Co., makers of the most accurate and beautiful caps in the universe. Since the 1980's Marc Okkonen's "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" has been the go-to for anyone trying to accurately depict major league uniforms. It's a monumental and ground-breaking work, and as such, it has some flaws, and the 1944 Pirates is one of them. Here's what happened: The Pirates colors back then were medium blue and red. I know this by a documented Pirates jersey in the Hall of Fame from the summer of 1944. Ok. that was easy. Now for the cap. All reference shows a dark blue cap with a yellow "P". Since it's in the Okkonen book, anyone doing something with the mid-forties Pirates followed the guide. But the combo never made sense to me. yellow "P" with a navy cap coupled with the red and royal jersey? I dug deep. Looked at contemporary press photos and modern auction catalogues to find the truth. The old black & white photos show a slight difference in the colors of the brim and crown of the cap. Hmm. Ok. That's interesting can it be medium blue and red? The designer in me says yes, so I updated my drawing to a red and royal two-tone cap with a yellow "P". Looks kind of nice, but still I wanted to make sure I did this right. Then I found the Holy Grail - a bona-fide Honus Wagner cap from the 1944 season! It came up for auction a few years ago and has a rock-solid provenance to date it to 1944 - he kindly mailed it a Pittsburgh native who was serving in the Navy during the war. The sailor kept Wagner's letter in which he tells the Navy man that it is his own cap that he wore all summer - the summer of '44. The cap was beat to hell - the recipient was a lieutenant who saw much action in the Pacific, but it verified my suspicions that it was medium blue and red. The "P" was a yellow-ish hue so ok, I made my illustration with a yellow "P". But something didn't sit right with me, so I went back to the auction photos of the old cap and looked closely: the button on top of the cap, though worn, was obviously white. The "P", though appearing to be yellow, must have been discolored by being worn all summer and then being sent to a war zone. It was originally white.

I know, who cares, right? Well, I do. I can't stand it when artists can't take the time to properly research their subjects. The way I always go about my own work is that I try to be as realistic as I can always keeping in the back of my mind that someone may use my work as a guide for theirs. Plus, the research keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. And just for the record, I'm not faulting Okkonen's book and research in the least! It was an unbelievable undertaking and if I ever meet the man I'd like to buy him a drink or two to say thanks. He's a giant in baseball history and one of my favorite authors/researchers. Heck, his Federal League book makes my top 5 book list every time.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the drawing, Steve's article and a look under the hood of The Infinite Baseball Card Set!