To say that baseball is a game steeped in superstition would come as news to absolutely nobody. It is, after all, the sport of rally caps, Turk Wendell, and no-hitter jinxes. Throw in the whole ion necklace thing as a cousin and, without running a formal poll, I'd say the number of players and coaches who believe in the power of the irrational is far greater than the number who don't.
For a long time, it was my understanding that manifestations of superstition were limited to harmless little customs regarding behavior and clothing. Sitting in the same position, or wearing lucky socks, or other things of that nature. When I was young I had a song I liked to sing whenever I wanted a guy to miss a field goal, and I've always figured the process was similar within baseball circles. Do this one little thing, and events will break in your favor.
Then, last week, I was linked to the Baseball-Reference page of one Charlie Faust. The page is interesting enough just on its surface; Faust threw two innings for the 1911 New York, allowing one run, and he never appeared in a game again. But it was when I did some exploring that a whole new chapter of baseball history was introduced to me. A chapter that others have known, and that others have written about, but of which I'd personally never heard, outside of the most recent example.
Human mascots. Or human good luck charms. No matter what you want to call them, they've existed, and while they don't really exist anymore, there's no denying the role a few of them played in the early part of the last century. This is superstition to the extreme. These were people - often disabled people, as it happens - kept around baseball teams for the sole or primary purpose of imparting good fortune, and with our collective education in mind, I've done some research, and I'd like to take this opportunity now to discuss the five of them that I consider to have been the most significant.
Note: just because the whole thing doesn't seem right doesn't mean it isn't worth talking about, or that the stories aren't fascinating. Baseball history is often off-color, but baseball history is also amazing. Human mascots!
(5) Nelson de la Rosa
Nelson de la Rosa is the guy people are most likely to know, because while the rest of the people on this list showed up in the early 20th century, de la Rosa was in the spotlight as recently as 2004.
Born in the Dominican Republic in 1968, de la Rosa would grow to a height of all of 54 centimeters, making him one of the shortest men in the world. He made some television appearances and had his share of acting gigs, including appearing alongside Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau, but de la Rosa appeared in baseball circles in 2004 after befriending Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.
The two met through a mutual friend in Providence and started to hang out. It wasn't long before de la Rosa began appearing in the Red Sox clubhouse, and Pedro and the rest of the team took a shine to him quickly. He was adopted as an unofficial good luck charm, and hung around the team all the way through their World Series victory - their first in 86 years. During the World Series parade that followed, de la Rosa and Martinez rode together in a float.
Unfortunately, that was the peak of things, and when Martinez left for the Mets as a free agent in the offseason, de la Rosa was steamed. Martinez referred to de la Rosa's presence with the Red Sox as "just a trick," and in response, de la Rosa said that Pedro had broken his heart, and that he wished he would've stayed with Boston. The two broke off contact, and de la Rosa faded from sight, ultimately dying two years later due to heart failure.
(4) Little Ray Kelly
Now we're going way back in time, where the information is harder to come by. Returning from a game in 1921, Babe Ruth spotted a crowd of people watching a three-year old toddler play catch with his dad. The child's name was Ray, and Ruth asked the father if he'd be willing to let his son join Ruth and theas a sort of mascot. The father, naturally, told Ruth "sure, you can take my three-year-old child and surround him with professional baseball players," and so began Little Ray's tenure with the team.
Little Ray wasn't the Yankees' only human good luck charm at the time, but he served as a sort of personal mascot for Ruth, who would go on to post monster season after monster season with New York. Ray would sit in the dugout at home and sometimes travel with the team on the road, and he actually stuck around with Ruth for 11 seasons - and four World Series championships - before moving on with his life, when his father decided it was time for high school.
Ray would go on to lead a normal life, serving in World War II, becoming an accountant, and fathering six kids. In 1997, he wrote a letter explaining that he was present for Babe Ruth's famous called shot. Wrote Ray:
I was there in a box seat right alongside of the Yankee Dugout where I saw and heard everything vividly. Also, I confirmed it with Babe right after the game.
(3) Louis Van Zelst
Louis Van Zelst was born in 1895 and was disfigured, the result of an early childhood fall. However, while Van Zelst grew to have a humpback, he was never particularly self-conscious about it, and willingly served as a mascot for a few teams at the University of Pennsylvania.
The University of Pennsylvania happened to share a city with the Philadelphia, and Van Zelst came to know some of the team's players and its manager, Connie Mack. Van Zelst approached Mack in 1909 saying he was lucky, and after giving him a tryout, Mack was sufficiently superstitious to believe him and bring him on in an official capacity.
Van Zelst began as the Athletics' bat boy in 1910, and while the team had been good the year before, in 1910 it won the World Series, and Van Zelst was paid a substantial bonus. The Athletics would then win the World Series again in 1911 and again in 1913, before losing in 1914. Still, Van Zelst had four Series appearances and three championships to his name as a mascot, which is about as good as it gets.
In the day-to-day, Van Zelst was on hand for pretty much every home game and many road games. Prior to each game, players would walk over and rub his humpback for good luck. He was popular with both Athletics players and visitors, and was even invited to second baseman Eddie Collins' wedding. At one point Mack tried to send him out to coach first base before the umpire told him to return to the dugout.
Unfortunately, Van Zelst fell ill after the 1914 season and soon died of kidney disease. After advancing to the World Series with Van Zelst in 1914, the Athletics finished in last place in 1915, the first of seven consecutive years they'd finish in the basement.
(2) Eddie Bennett
I mentioned that Little Ray Kelly wasn't the only Yankees mascot at the time. The other was Eddie Bennett, and where Little Ray hung around mostly with Babe Ruth, Bennett was more of a team-wide kind of guy.
Bennett was born in 1903 and very early in his life suffered a spinal cord injury that left him deformed. Left orphaned after the 1918 influenza epidemic, Bennett was lost in life before catching a break in 1919 at the Polo Grounds, when he was noticed by a member of the visiting. They thought that Bennett's humpback could bring the team good luck, and so they brought him on as a batboy and mascot.
The White Sox, of course, lost that year's World Series, and Bennett left the team. Instead of disappearing, though, he started showing up at Ebbets Field and was soon thereafter hired by theto fill a similar role. It worked, and the Dodgers advanced all the way to the World Series before losing, which many chose to blame on the fact that Bennett couldn't attend games on the road.
Again, Bennett found himself looking around, and again, Bennett was hired - this time by the Yankees, in 1921, as they also believed in the power of his humpback. This is the chapter of his life for which Bennett is best remembered, because for the nearly 12 years that he hung around, he served as arguably the most popular bat boy in history.
Bennett took his job seriously, keeping all the bats in order while keeping his mouth shut about official team business. He was very invested in his work, and it was said that he'd often be seen crying after losses. And he was popular among the players, who he never tried to overshadow. He'd be the first guy at home plate to greet a player who'd hit a homer. He'd help reliever Wilcy Moore warm up. A lot of guys refused to let anybody else touch their bats.
The bond between Bennett and some of the players was so great, writes Peter Morris, that Babe Ruth once had Bennett deliver an admiring note to his future wife. Pitcher Urban Shocker roomed with Bennett for a time on the road when he was trying to keep a health condition from his teammates. Bennett was a mascot, but he also managed to hold many of the players' respect.
Bennett enjoyed his highs with the team, including many trips to the World Series, but his story took a nasty turn in 1932, when he was hit by a cab and suffered significant injuries. Bennett healed slowly - too slowly to be able to perform his duties as the bat boy. He gave up his job, but missed it dearly, and fell into an alcohol-fueled spiral of depression. He'd die early in 1935, surrounded by memorabilia from his days at the center of the baseball universe.
The Yankees paid for Bennett's interment. While the players were away, the entire front office would attend the funeral.
(1) Charlie Faust
Stumbling upon Faust was a complete accident that wound up introducing me to a whole new world. Born in 1880, Faust grew up on a Kansas farm, but was too slow and incompetent to run the business. He didn't really have much to offer anyone until a visit to the county fair in 1911, where a fortune teller told him he would pitch and lead the Giants to the pennant.
Emboldened by the prediction, Faust made his way to St. Louis, where the Giants were playing a series on the road. Faust met up with manager John McGraw and told him what the fortune teller had said, persuading McGraw to give him a tryout. Faust's tryout was terrible, but the Giants won later that day, and they won again the next day as well. McGraw was still reluctant and left town without taking Faust along, but by the time the Giants finished their road trip and returned to New York they found Faust waiting for them at the stadium. They won a few games, and it was thus decided that Faust should be brought on as a mascot.
Faust became almost instantly popular. He'd clumsily work out on the field before games in front of the fans, pitching, hitting, running, and attempting to shag fly balls. Sometimes he'd attempt to lead the brass bands that in those days would be seated in the stands. During games he'd either cheer from the dugout or warm up beyond the outfield wall, just in case he was needed. And the Giants kept winning, eventually locking up the pennant. Between the initial meeting and the day the Giants clinched the pennant, the team went 39-9. When Faust was actually in uniform, the Giants went an unthinkable 36-2. Faust's middle name was "Victor," but he decided to start calling himself "Victory," which the local sportswriters picked up.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. At one point Faust attempted to join on with Brooklyn after McGraw wouldn't let him pitch, but he came back a few days later. He missed a few more days to try a little vaudeville. And he missed one day while traveling around New York sampling pie. But the theme was always the same: when Faust was around and in uniform, the Giants were almost unbeatable. And the players loved joking with him, since he was always happy and his feelings seemingly couldn't get hurt.
Faust badly wanted to pitch, given the terms of the fortune teller's prediction, and once the Giants had the pennant sewn up there was little reason not to give him the opportunity. McGraw finally sent him out for an inning against Boston, and he allowed one run. He then came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, even though three outs had already been recorded.
Faust would pitch again one more time, in the last inning of the last game of the regular season. This time he held his opponent scoreless. He'd bat in the bottom half, where he was beaned intentionally, then allowed to steal second and third. He'd score on a bunt, after which he returned to his dugout, beaming, and asked his teammates "who's loony now?"
The bad news for the Giants is that they'd lose the World Series to the Athletics, who had Louis Van Zelst on their side. But Faust was quick to remind everybody that the fortune teller had only guaranteed a pennant, and not a championship.
Faust attended spring training in 1912, much to the surprise of McGraw, who didn't count on having Faust back. But Faust was again persuasive and hung around with the Giants for the first few months of the season, during which they got off to a record 54-11 start. Yet over time, Faust's continued insistences that he was a pitcher began to get on McGraw's nerves, and Faust wound up being convinced to return to Kansas during the summer. Faust waited for the call to come back, but the call never came. The Giants would lose the World Series.
Over the next couple years Faust would send several telegrams to the MLB commissioner asking for a contract with the Giants, but nothing came of it. He moved with a brother to Seattle, and then decided he wanted to re-join the Giants, but he wound up walking to Portland, where he was arrested by police. Sent to a mental asylum, Faust listed his profession as "professional ballplayer" and wound up getting diagnosed with dementia. He was released from that hospital without improvement but admitted to another soon thereafter, and on June 18, 1915, Faust died of tuberculosis. That day, the Giants lost.