Sunday, January 30, 2011

Victory Faust

One of the things I was anticipating the most about working at the Baseball Hall of Fame last summer was getting to meet a couple of researchers whom I had always admired; Tom Shieber and Gabe Schechter. I had known both through SABR but had never met either in person.

Neither disappointed. Tom may be the best baseball researcher on the planet. It amazes me the things he is able to figure out and find. He started SABR's Pictorial History Committee and is really good at identifying stuff through photos (like who a person is based on their ears, for instance). Unfortunately, Tom tends to vacation during the summer so I was not able to spend much time with him.

Gabe, on the other hand, I got to spend time with almost every day. He actually worked as part of the library (whereas Tom is in curating). I use the word "worked" in the past tense since Gabe was let go by the Hall in the fall, presumably because of this essay. Fortunately, this message has been taken up more through the media and people are recognizing that there is a difference between a Hall of Famer and a winner of the Spink or Frick award.

One of the best things about Gabe is that in addition to being a top-notch researcher, he is a great storyteller and writer. On occasion Gabe would gather myself, the other library intern and maybe another intern or two for Uncle Gabe's Storytime and tell us a really entertaining story about baseball, the Hall, or maybe about himself. There's a lot to tell about Gabe. He's an interesting fellow. Dealt poker in Vegas for awhile, won almost 20 grand on Jeopardy, started his own publishing label which he named after his cat, and is just an all-around nice guy. Getting to work with him was a definite highlight of the summer.

Gabe provided me with an inscribed copy of his book on Victory Faust. Amazon doesn't carry it but you can buy it from Gabe. I decided to read it now because one, I had wanted to read more baseball this year and two, after seeing the Tod Sloan/John McGraw connection, I had a hankering to read something about McGraw's Giants and three, I got involved in an e-mail discussion about the 1911 season with a couple folks, including Gabe. Seemed like the right time.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I don't think highly of the readability of many baseball books. I think there is an over-reliance on statistics or too much reporting: "On June 23, the Giants won 3-1. On June 24, they lost 4-2 as Doyle committed two errors and Clarke hit a pair of doubles". Zzzzzzz......Thus, I tend to read books about other subjects.

Schechter manages to avoid falling into the same trap for the most part. He does follow the New York Giants' 1911 season and does get into the scores and the big plays. He does it, though, with the skill at storytelling that I mentioned above so that it doesn't get as dull as most.

The main story, and one that requires some work getting to, is that of Victory Faust. Charles Victor Faust was a man born in Kansas who was part of a farming family. Faust's elevator didn't quite reach the top floor. Whether he suffered from mental illness or just wasn't that bright or some combination of both isn't quite clear. He did seem to be very gullible and trusting. It is this gullibility, in part, which helped form this book.

Faust went to a fortune teller at age thirty who told him that he was to meet a woman in California named Lulu with whom he would fall in love. He was also told that he would pitch the New York Giants to the World Championship. Faust believed all this, went to St. Louis, where the Giants were playing the Cardinals, and began his quest to be part of the Giants.

The other aspect of Faust's story is his tenaciousness. Faust was not a ballplayer. He would say that he had some experience playing but that he had learned most of his skills from reading baseball guides. One look at him and his exaggerated windmills as he prepared to pitch showed he was no ballplayer.

The Giants and manager McGraw recognized he was no player and that he was gullible. They made him run the bases, telling him to slide at each one until he was banged up and his clothes ruined. They allowed him to sit on the bench with them and the Giants took two games from the Cardinals. When it came time for the Giants to depart by train, they waited to the last minute, told Charley his ticket was back at the hotel, and left as he raced back to get his ticket.

That could (and maybe should) have been the end but Faust was determined. He found his own way to New York and rejoined the Giants. Faust was given the opportunity to warm up and run the bases again which entertained the crowd immensely. The Giants won and he became a mascot and good luck charm for the team.

Fans and players took to Faust. The Giants would have Faust make speeches about baseball on train rides and he also would mimic ballplayers stances and deliveries. Opposing players also took to Faust. Faust would take the mound during batting practice and "strike out" opposing hitters to the fans' delight. Faust, however, felt that his appearances before the game were indicative of his ability as a pitcher and he pestered McGraw to let him pitch in a game.

The Giants had a successful summer, perhaps with the aid of Faust. With Faust traveling with the team, the Giants went an astounding 36-2 when he was at the game. There were times when he was absent from the squad (such as when he had a brief engagement doing his routines as part of a vaudeville show) and the Giants went 3-7 in those games. Most games he spent warming up so that he would be ready to pitch if McGraw needed him.

Finally, once the Giants clinched the pennant, McGraw relented and let Faust appear in a couple of games, pitching an inning each time. Faust also got to bat once, which the opposition took as seriously as they did his warmup appearances. Faust was hit by a pitch and then was allowed to steal second and third, partly to allow him to demonstrate his awkward sliding skills.

Faust's good luck didn't show for the World Series. The Athletics defeated the Giants and so the fortune teller's prediction for Faust didn't hold. Faust had a brief run in a vaudeville show during the offseason but then began preparing for the 1912 season. Faust tried to return in 1912, even teaching himself to throw left-handed to make himself more valuable. His antics had lost their luster, though, and he started to become threatening and creepy.

Faust found his way out west, perhaps to hunt for Lulu, and ended up dying in an insane asylum in 1915.

Faust may have gone unhidden for a long time if not for an interview with Fred Snodgrass that appeared in Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times. That interview inspired Schechter to research the life of Faust. Faust's short life and brief impact on the game of baseball made research material hard to come by. As such, this book is as much a review of the 1911 season as it is a biography of Faust. It's a fascinating story and told well. I was disappointed by the lack of notes although many of the newspaper stories mentioned are cited in the text. I was also really disappointed in the general treatment of Faust by the folks of his era. It was obvious that he either lacked intelligence, suffered from a mental illness or both. While at the height of the Giants' success, he seemed to be treated well by the players, he was also abused and made fun of and treated as an object more than a person. That always bothers me.

All in all, Schechter's book is one of the better baseball reads I've encountered and I recommend it for fans and non-fans alike.

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