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1914 Boston Braves

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  • 19to21: July 23, 2007

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    The Legend of Faust...Charlie Faust, That Is

    John Shiffert

    19 to 21

    No, that’s not how many times Charlie Faust got into a game, it’s...Baseball, Then and Now

    News Item: July 29, 1911: Charles “Victory” Faust introduces himself to John McGraw prior to a Giants/Cardinals game in St. Louis.

    It would be hard to find a less-ordinary major league baseball player than Masumi Kuwata… even though he’s on an exceedingly ordinary team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s not that there still aren’t a huge number of Japanese-born pitchers in the Bigs. It’s not that 39 year-old major league rookies are exceedingly rare (although they are). It’s not that he’s a 5-8 (i.e., short) righthanded pitcher, although they are almost as rare as 39 year-old rookies. And it’s certainly not his record, a very ordinary 0-1, 6.60, even though, outside of a terrible outing on July 2 against the Brewers (two-thirds of an inning, seven runs allowed) he’s pitched pretty well (four earned runs in 14 1/3 innings.) No, what makes Masumi Kuwata extra-ordinary, or at least unusual, is something else. As Clayton Trapp has pointed out, “Masumi's apparently an adherent to Perfect Liberty Kyodan, a/k/a, the Japanese Golf Religion” or PL or PLK.

    The what? Now, it’s well-known that a lot of major league baseball players are golf addicts… they have been back to at least Ty Cobb’s era (he called it Pasture Pool… on the other hand Rogers Hornsby refused to play, supposedly saying, “when I hit a ball I want someone else to chase it.”)And it’s also well-known that golf is a veritable religion among many, be they baseball players, baseball fans or anything else. But… the Japanese Golf Religion? Yes indeed, grasshopper. You just need Mr. Trapp to enlighten you, from an article he authored that appeared in the magazine Fringe Golf about seven years ago. Trapp prefaces his thoughts by adding, “PLK views strike me as quite benevolent, actually.” Here’s his story for all you non-golfers…

    “Religions throughout the world have attached a special significance to cats, snakes, and wine. It should surprise no one that a religion now attaches a special significance to golf.

    “Perfect Liberty Kyodan (Kyodan is Japanese for “Church”) is the religion in question. Perfect Liberty (PL) is so enamored with the sport that the religion’s international headquarters, its Holy Land, is surrounded by three golf courses.

    “In fact opponents malevolently branded PL “the golf religion.” To their consternation PL embraced the moniker for several reasons: it creates interest in the religion, the more interest the more members; and the members love golf.

    “PL membership numbers several million worldwide. Members worship in more than 500 churches located on every continent but Africa. Besides Japan, where one out of every 44 citizens is a member, PL has gained significant popularity in California [Editorial Note: why is that not surprising?] and South America (particularly Brazil and Argentina).

    “Founded in 1924, PL was persecuted sporadically for the next 25 years. One respite from persecution came when General MacArthur liberated PL leadership and members from prison. He was substantially less concerned about PL’s denial of the “divine absolutism” of Japan’s rulers than were... the divine rulers who then replaced the PL leadership in confinement.

    “OK. PL is a legitimate religion, it’s paid its dues. What’s up with the golf business?

    “`Our Second Founder, the late Reverend Tokuchika Miki picked golf as a method of spiritual teaching,’” explains Tatsumi Yano, a Perfect Liberty Minister in New York, adding that `PL is a practical religion, and we focus on how to live life happily and meaningfully rather than talking about previous or next lives, or ‘What is God?’ issues.’

    “The core teaching of PL is that “Life is Art.” Golf is an art of special esteem, and self-expression through golf is wildly popular among PL members.

    “`Golf is very good training for us in learning how to control our emotions, change our points of view, and accept various daily situations positively while making our best efforts at each moment,’” Yano says.

    “Several PL churches feature rooftop driving ranges so that members can practice self-expression as the spirit moves them. `Man suffers if he fails to express himself’ if a basic belief of PL, and one that you might keep handy next time your wife questions your golfing priorities.

    “The caricature of PL as the `golf religion,’ if taken seriously, detracts from what its adherents consider important. PL is a religion of serenity and humility. The interlocking concepts of five-irons and spiritual liberation can be attractive, but the real goal of PL is to make one’s life art.”

    While life may or may not be art, or golf, it would seem reasonable to classify Kuwata’s beliefs under the “Unusual” heading… putting him on a firm footing with other major leaguers who also had unusual beliefs, some of which could be termed “superstitions,” some of which were just idiosyncratic, some of which may have gone against commonly-accepted conventions. For instance, how do you feel about vegetarians? Unusual? Maybe. Well, Hank Aaron is one. Along another tack… it should be noted that the 50 or so Mormons who have played major league baseball were all born well after the LDS Church’s doctrine of plural marriage was withdrawn in 1890, so there haven’t been any doctrinal polygamists in baseball. And, Pedro Cerrano, the Cleveland Indians Cuban voodoo adherent from the movie “Major League” was, after all, a fictional character.

    Of more recent and realistic (well, sort of) vintage, recall two pitchers, Scott Erickson and Turk Wendell. Erickson caused a stir back in 1991 by winning 20 games for the Twins in his first full major league season. Although he didn’t win the Cy Young Award that year (he was second to Roger Clemens) he did win an award from Kiwi Shoe Polish for totally covering his spikes with black shoe polish before each game. Seems as if he didn’t want any identifying marks showing on his footwear. (I should know about the award, I’m the one that gave it to him.) Wendell came up with the Cubs a couple of years later, already somewhat renown for his personality quirks, which included chewing licorice all the time, brushing his teeth between innings, and always jumping over the baselines.

    While these oddities may be dismissed by some because they involve pitchers, what are we to make of Reds’ outfielder Ryan Freel? An August 2006 story in The Dayton Daily News reported that Freel talks to an imaginary voice in his head named Farney. Freel apparently told the Daily News that everyone thinks he talks to himself, so he tells them he’s talking to Farney. As in… “Hey, Farney, I don't know if that was you who really caught that ball, but that was pretty good if it was.”

    Talking heads and brushing teeth aside, superstition has been a part of baseball from the 19th Century to the 21st Century. A hundred or so years ago, these beliefs tended to focus on things like hairpins or a truckload of barrels or hunchbacks – all of which were said to bring either good luck or good hitting. In fact, the Giants and Athletics, among others, had hunchbacked batboy/mascots for luck.

    More recently, individual players, like Erickson, have been known for their specific unusual beliefs. For example, most current fans will remember that Wade Boggs obsessively used to eat chicken as his pre-game meal. There might also be some older fans who remember Babe Phelps, a catcher just before World War II. A devoted hypochondriac, Babe would stay up all night checking his heart beat. You see, Babe was convinced that he had heart problems and that while your heart could miss three beats in a row without dire consequences, if it missed four straight beats… call the undertaker. So Babe stayed up, counting his heart beats. Going back a good bit farther, and similarly obsessive, was one of the great hitters of the old American Association, Pete Browning. The Gladiator, as Browning was known, not only never got rid of a bat, but he kept them all in his house… and, he named them all as well. This may or may not have had anything to do with Browning also being nicknamed the Louisville Slugger, but he apparently not only remembered the names of all his bats, but how many hits he had with them as well. And, when he felt a bat’s hits had all been used up, he retired it.

    As interesting as these idiosyncrasies might be, Boggs, Phelps, Browning or pretty much anyone else couldn’t hold a candle to a couple of early 20th Century managers, George Stallings and John McGraw. Although this was, as Charles Alexander has noted, “a period in which almost all ballplayers had some kind of superstition,” Stallings was a piece of work. A southern gentleman off the field and raging maniac on the field, he was profoundly superstitious -- he absolutely hated to have any peanut shells or scraps of paper around his team’s bench, and would fly into a rage at the presence of either type of detritus. Even better, he would freeze in whatever position he happened to be in if his team mounted a rally.

    One story, perhaps apocryphal, has it that once he was leaning over to pick up something – probably a piece of paper -- when the Braves broke out in a flurry of hits. By the time the rally was over, he couldn’t move and had to be carried from the bench. It should be noted that Stallings managed in street clothes, so he had to stay in the dugout. One can only imagine the sort of stories that might be if he coached on the baselines.

    And yet, Stallings wasn’t in the same league as John McGraw. In addition to employing the hunchbacked Eddie Morrow, he designed the Giants’ uniforms on whim and superstition. After his 1905 team took four out of five games from the Athletics in the World Series, McGraw was convinced that the special all-black uniforms he had dressed his team in held some kind of special post-season magic, despite the fact that the Giants had previously worn all-black uniforms some 20 years before, without any magic results. So, when the Giants next faced the Athletics in the fall – in 1911 – he dressed them in all-black once again. However, Home Run Baker, Jack Coombs and the $100,000 Infield weren’t impressed, and took the series in six games. Undeterred, McGraw continued to mess with the J’ints unis almost every year, once going so far as to use violet as the trim color, because he liked NYU.

    Even his uniform frolics couldn’t compare to McGraw’s relationship with Charles Victor (or Victory) Faust – one of the strangest tales in baseball history. Various versions of the Victory Faust story abound, including those told by Noel Hynd, Alexander and Fred Snodgrass in “The Glory of Their Times.” Although they all differ somewhat in detail, the essential story is the same. That is, McGraw received a telegram from Faust during the 1911 season, wherein he offered Little Napoleon his services for the pennant drive, having been told by a fortune teller that he (Faust) would lead the Giants to the World Series. Mac didn’t think much of it until Faust, a 30 year old Kansan with minimal, if any, athletic ability, showed up in St. Louis in late July and asked for a tryout.

    Despite finding out that Faust indeed had minimal, if any, athletic ability, McGraw kept him on after the Giants beat the Cardinals that day. One thing lead to another, and Faust stayed with the Giants as a good luck charm for most of the rest of the year, either helping out the batboy or warming up in expectation that he’d actually get into a game. And, what do you know, McGraw actually DID put him in two games after the Giants clinched the pennant. In both cases, the opposing team went along with the gag, deliberately making three outs and even letting him tour around the bases after he was hit by a pitch while batting.

    However, neither Faust’s magic nor the black uniforms helped McGraw much against the Athletics in the 1911 World Series, so Mac tried to lose him before the 1912 season started. It didn’t matter, since Faust, although certainly a few bricks shy a load, knew where the Polo Grounds were located and still believed that he was destined to lead the Giants to victory. McGraw finally relented in that he let Faust stay on the bench in street clothes and, wouldn’t you know it, the Giants won the pennant again. This time, though, Faust decided to skip the World Series, believing his imaginary sweetheart, Lulu, had summoned him home. And, the Giants lost the 1912 World Series as well. By this time, though, Faust was mentally unstable enough that his brother had him committed to an insane asylum, where he eventually died in June 1915.

    Thus ended the strange tale of Victory Faust. A strange story indeed, but no stranger than a story behind a real baseball player, James “Deacon” White. In the list of “Unusual Beliefs in Baseball,” even John McGraw’s belief in Victory Faust can’t top Deacon White. An historic figure of the 19th Century, White started playing early enough to have faced the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. He then played on three of Harry Wright’s champion Boston Red Stockings teams, plus the Chicago White Stocking team that won the first National League pennant. One of the first major supporter’s of players’ rights, his career continued all the way through to the Players League in 1890. One of the three or four great catchers of the 19th Century (he also played third base, though not especially well), White totaled 2066 hits and an Adjusted OPS of 126 while racking up 28 points on the Black Ink Test, leading his league in batting, slugging, OPS, hits, total bases, triples and RBIs at various times. For a catcher, that’s Hall of Fame quality hitting

    In addition, he was, by all accounts, an exemplary fellow. A religious, non-smoking, non-drinking, non-card-playing, sober and serious individual, he was indeed a deacon, although he also looked like a deacon, with a long face, walrus mustache and a solemn expression (at least he had one in his pictures.) Bill James named him “The Most Admirable Superstar of the 1870s” in “The Historical Baseball Abstract.”

    There was just one little thing about Deacon White… he thought the earth was flat. It’s a story apparently first told in the 20th Century by Lee Allen in “The National League Story” in 1961 and later picked up by Hynd in “The Giants of the Polo Grounds.” And, not only was White convinced the earth was flat, but he tried to convince his teammates as well, pointing out that, if a pop fly came back down to the same spot, well the earth couldn’t very well be a spinning globe, could it? Reportedly, he did convince one teammate, but, sadly, he failed to prove his theory any further than that. Oh well, at least he’s a hero to the Flat Earth Society.

    - John Shiffert

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