The Beautiful Madness of Victory Faust

They called him “Victory,” because he brought wins with him – as if pulling them out of his customary derby bowler like some sort of sportsman’s magician.

The real trick, of course, was how he carried all of that winning inside such a modest piece haberdashery. However, the secret behind such sleight of hand resided in only one place – inside the head of the man who wore that magical hat. And a good magician never reveals his secrets.

So, when Charles Victor Faust wandered onto Robison Field in St. Louis seeking the manager of the visiting New York Giants – the legendary and perpetually grumpy John McGraw – he was the only one who knew the furtive key to the team’s inevitable championship success. It was him, only him – Charley Faust, pitcher extraordinaire.

Call it manifest destiny or galactic alignment or whatever term best describes that mysterious mix of fate and symmetrical circumstance, but Faust was certain of its power and his conductive usefulness in bringing McGraw and his underlings baseball glory.

After all, his ironclad belief in such preordained triumph was confirmed by a travelling fortune teller who told him so. And the seer’s vision hadn’t an ounce of vagary – Faust was destined to lead the New York Giants to the 1911 World Series title as one of the greatest pitchers the game had ever seen. Besides, Faust knew that such an agent of the mystic arts couldn’t be mistaken.

There was only one small problem – Faust had no discernible pitching talent. Zero. Nada. Th-th-that’s all, folks.

In fact, Faust’s overall baseball ability was thinner than the lightest dusting of powdered sugar on a stingy helping of french toast. And what McGraw needed for his skilled but floundering ball club during that troubled season was a great, big bag of pure cane sweetener.

The instant the newcomer went into his cartoonish pitching motion and let fly his first lagging throw McGraw felt his stomach churn. Were it possible for a baseball to ooze through the air, that was precisely how slowly the ball crept forward. Ever the pragmatist, the terse New York leader demonstrated his displeasure – and verdict – by dispensing his glove and catching most of Faust’s audition bare-handed.

McGraw hoped that would be that. A little humiliation went a long way with most people. However, Faust was certainly not like most people.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Consider his trek to St. Louis in the first place.

Before that fortune teller conjured up his diamond destiny, Faust led an invisible life. For thirty years, the heat, dust, and hardship of Marion, Kansas had swallowed him up. If anything seemed preordained, it was that Faust – who was born on the family farm in Marion – would die there, too.

And had he a greater level of self-awareness, he likely would have resigned himself to that fate. However, Faust was oblivious to the harsh intersection of social expectancy and personal limitation. Actually, most considered him a simpleton, a dim-witted outcast without a trace of potential.

He was the only one who thought differently. With a childlike naiveté, he latched onto fantastic stories – no matter the unlikeliness of the yarn. So, when he was finally told one with himself as the protagonist, he held onto it with unshakeable resolve – determined to maintain his grip on the tail of that particular frenzied tiger wherever it took him. That it bolted from everything and everyone he knew in Marion solely on the words of a carnival prophet didn’t faze him for an instant.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As John McGraw was to find out, a little bare-handed catch proved no match for Faust’s runaway Bengal that afternoon in St. Louis. The lanky, self-appointed savior simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In an effort to embarrass the prodigal imposter into submission, the Giants’ skipper made him take batting practice.

Still dressed in his street clothes and customary bowler, Faust flailed helplessly at the plate until he finally managed to stub the slowest offering. As the ball sputtered a few precious feet away, McGraw urged him to race around the bases.

As with his pitching, Faust’s base running was uncommonly slow. By the time he ambled to second, McGraw implored him to slide. Since he didn’t know how, he mostly just fell – as if he was on fire and was trying to put himself out. The painful tumble repeated itself at third and finally – mercifully – at home.

All the while, the Giants players and most of the pregame crowd howled with laughter. McGraw, himself, couldn’t help a chuckle. Faust – as always – remained oblivious. Now that he had shown New York’s famous manager his pitching and batting prowess, he was ready to assume his rightful place on the team.

To his surprise, McGraw cheerfully but firmly sent him on his way, and the Giants lost the subsequent game to the Cardinals that afternoon.

Undeterred, Faust showed up at the park the next day to continue to plead his case. This time, he was intercepted by New York players who gave him a spare uniform and – as bullies as always do – made him the focus of their ridicule. For sheer sadistic amusement, they urged him to repeat his wild romp around the bases. What they didn’t realize was that Faust felt none of their intended humiliation. He not only basked in the attention, he felt that such an effort put him ever closer to reaching his destiny.

Sensing the team’s lightened mood, McGraw even allowed Faust to stay on the bench – in uniform – to watch the game and provide levity for his players.

The Giants beat the Cardinals handily – ironically, by running the bases flawlessly and relentlessly.

In fact, New York won the next day and the day after that, as well – all with Faust watching anxiously from the bench.

When they left St. Louis, McGraw decided to abandon his eccentric rabbit’s foot. Accordingly, the Giants resumed their pre-Faust struggles, losing four of six games before returning home – solidly in third place.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball is filled with superstition. For many players and managers – and even fans – winning and losing isn’t just a matter of skill or lack thereof or of random portions of good and bad luck. Historic losing streaks have been attributed to – among other things – a haunted trade, a cursed billy goat, and a fixed World Series.

Individual success is sometimes traced to wearing the same unwashed garments or eating the same pregame meal or letting facial hair grow to impressive tangles. When that winning karma wears off, the next fortune-inducing ritual is deployed in its place.

For a sport that prides itself on painstaking technique and probability-driven game strategy, it is odd that such irrational tendencies coexist with the otherwise overwhelming logic and precision of baseball – it’s akin to going to the Mayo clinic and getting treated by a witch doctor.

So, when Charley Faust reappeared in New York to greet the stumbling third-place Giants, it should have come as no surprise that the team welcomed back its lanky talisman with open arms.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Within a month of having Marion’s luckiest farmer riding shotgun, McGraw’s ball club won 19 of 26 games and surged into first. And it was about this time that Charley morphed into “Victory” Faust – the magical source of the Giants’ winning ways, just as the fortune teller had predicted.

By then, the press had picked up on the story and – realizing what a gold mine of anecdotes and zany adventures they had on their hands – simply let Faust be Faust and raked in the windfall as it tumbled into their laps.

Among the endlessly entertaining things the wide-eyed rural-ite did while unleashed on the unsuspecting city was to secure an inexplicable vaudeville engagement. His “act” was merely to be himself, as he reenacted his base running exploits and his elaborate pitching delivery on stage while audiences hooted with delight.

He was also among the most quotable members of McGraw’s squad. Without hesitation, Faust continued to opine publicly on his confusion as to why he hadn’t been allowed to display his fearsome pitching prowess.

Although he adored all of the attention he received, Faust was troubled by how New York won all of those games – without his direct help. While the impressive string of victories satisfied a part of the vision that guided him to the Giants, it lacked the most important element – as far as he was concerned – him, in the middle of the action.

After all, what good was it to be so close to the field – his toes were practically inside the foul lines – without the chance to lead his team to glory? No, Faust knew he had to convince McGraw to put him in a live game in order to fulfill his destiny.

And when he finally did, the baseball universe would never be the same.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

The Giants clinched the National League pennant on October 5. However, New York still had a full week’s worth of meaningless games to survive before the start of the World Series.

So, on October 7 – the first of such contests – McGraw considered his options; gave a long, hard look at the very end of his bench; and decided to let all hell break loose.

Trailing 4-2 to the dreadful Boston Rustlers, he summoned Faust – the epicenter of ridicule, the very heart of derision – to pitch the ninth inning of this otherwise empty contest.

And from the very moment he stepped onto the field, Faust lived up to every bit of the spectacle. To acknowledge the stunned but lusty applause of the home crowd, he not only took a bow, he performed a luxuriously sweeping genuflection – melting nearly prostrate to the ground in appreciation.

Once on the mound, he went into his dramatic windup – leaning backwards as if pushed by a violent gale, pulling his arms behind his head as far as they would go, and then sweeping his throwing arm forward in big windmill-like fashion. For all of that smoke and fury, the results were just as they were that very first day he stepped on the field in St. Louis – pitches that practically defied all laws of physics by remaining airborne while crawling forward.

Perhaps, Boston’s Bill Rariden – Faust’s first-ever batting opponent – was so mesmerized by the sight of the odd contortions from the mound or that New York’s unofficial mascot was actually in an official Major League game that he couldn’t bring himself to swing at the first two offerings. Nonetheless, both were strikes – slow as hourglass sand but strikes, all the same.

Fearing the utter humiliation of striking out under such circumstances, Rariden came out of his trance just long enough to belt the next pitch deep into left field for a double.

Undaunted, Faust kept going into his manic windup and kept throwing his utterly hittable lobs. Inexplicably, the next three batters made outs. Although Rariden did eventually score on a sacrifice fly, Faust had not only realized his goal of appearing in a live game he performed surprisingly well, pitching a full inning while only allowing a single run.

As if the day couldn’t get any stranger, the game still had another half-inning to go and it did, indeed, get more bizarre.

Needing three runs to tie the score, the Giants were down to their final out when catcher Grover Hartley stepped up to the plate. However, few fans likely noticed Hartley because all eyes were fixed on the player standing on deck, the Kansas phenom himself – Victory Faust.

Although Hartley couldn’t extend the game and made the final out, Faust simply refused to leave. With a juvenile’s insistence to make reality conform to his desires, Faust walked into the batter’s box, anyway.

Sensing an opportunity to enliven an otherwise awful year, Boston players went along for the ride. Allowing the enthusiastic but woefully unskilled hitter to tap a ball into play, the Rustlers bungled throws and tags while Faust furiously circled the bases.

As he rounded third and anticipated scoring, Faust couldn’t help himself and went into a frantic and awkward slide. Unfortunately, he was tagged out – more than ten feet short of home plate.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

If it had ended there, it would have been a remarkable thing. Faust had appeared in a Major League game and would forever be part of baseball’s official record. He had dreamed of being a big league player and – thanks to one inning of cosmic serendipity – he was.

However, it didn’t end there.

On the last day of the 1911 season, the Giants played an arduous and unenviable doubleheader against Brooklyn. And with the light of the long year fading at last, McGraw called on his eager right-hander one more time.

In the ninth inning of New York’s final regular season game, Faust took the mound with the Giants trailing 5-1 and proceeded to retire the side without giving up a run. Although nothing had changed in terms of his pitching ability – or lack thereof – he accomplished what many pitchers of legitimate skill fail to do, hold a big league lineup scoreless for an inning.

As it turned out, his encore surpassed his debut in every imaginable way.

After dispatching Brooklyn without denting the scoreboard, he lead off New York’s half of the ninth – finally securing a much coveted Major League at-bat, the earlier farce against Boston notwithstanding.

Whether the Brooklyn players felt sorry for the enthusiastic but hapless Faust or if they had ultimately been charmed by his unabashed earnestness, they made sure his trip to the plate was a success. Of course, given a hitter of Faust’s “unique” talents, such an undertaking wasn’t as it easy as it sounded.

If he made contact, he would undoubtedly race around the bases without stopping – or thinking – and Brooklyn would be forced to kick the ball around in an actual Major League game until he eventually barrel-rolled into home. The only plausible way to prevent that was to get him to first base without the complications of having the ball put in play.

So, Brooklyn pitcher Eddie Dent hit him.

Once he was on base, Faust had a bit of a quandary. He had been so used to racing around the bases directly from the batter’s box that he wasn’t quite sure what to do from first. So, he improvised, and stole second base.

Sensing how easy stealing bases was – never mind that the catcher hadn’t bothered to throw until after the fact – Faust pilfered third as well. And when New York third baseman Buck Herzog grounded out, the Giants’ most celebrated rookie came lumbering home.

Although the final box score read – Brooklyn 5, New York 2; it just as easily could have read – Victory Faust 1, Probability 0.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Faust’s long, dizzying fall from grace was probably inevitable, but there was an undeniable heartbreak to it.

His fortunes as the Giants’ good luck charm – the only real value he had in John McGraw’s eyes – turned sour when the team needed him most. New York lost the 1911 World Series to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, four games to two.

Although the players, who had come to befriend Faust rather than disparage him, never blamed the affable innocent for the Series defeat, they couldn’t save him, either. McGraw was the king of the castle, and he had no use for his jester once he failed to amuse – and help them win.

So, he turned his back on Faust – refusing correspondence and personal pleas – leaving the simple-minded Kansan to wonder why the greatest pitcher on Earth was no longer welcome on a team he had lifted to such heights.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

It could be argued that giving a deluded fellow like Charles Faust fuel for his delusion only made things exponentially worse. After all, hope to a man like that necessarily provided his mirage with structure and strength. And, ultimately, it gave his fantasy the hunger it needed to devour what little sense of reality remained around him.

Once professional baseball moved on without him, he went to pieces. He found the idea of being a pitching ace – with Major League experience, no less – without a team to save appalling. A glorious and deserved return to the big leagues became an all-encompassing obsession.

However, financial troubles forced him from the East Coast. back to Kansas, and then out West, where he finally settled in Seattle – near one of his brothers. All the while, he insisted that once his money issues were settled he would make it back to New York in time to help his old team win another pennant. As a final, twisted chapter of his rampaging fixation, he was found wandering the streets insisting that he was walking to New York to resume his baseball career.

On December 1, 1914, Faust was committed to the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane in Steilacoom, just outside of Tacoma. He died there six months later of tuberculosis – no doubt wondering why John McGraw hadn’t invited him back to the Giants to fulfill his inevitable athletic glory.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Over time, the strange tale of Victory Faust has become more fable than fact – the central character somehow more loveable cartoon than flawed man. Still, if Charles Faust – not Victory – is owed anything by history, it is that he was genuine in his desires and – for a pair of remarkable days – lived every bit of them while people cheered.

And that is the sort of magic trick worthy of the very best of magicians.

Sources:

Schechter, Gabriel, “Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants.” Charles April Publications, Los Gatos, CA, 2000.

Photos:

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/001/238/572/faustcharliethumb_medium_display_image.jpg?1314756038

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c8/Charlie_Faust.jpg/165px-Charlie_Faust.jpg

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Matt Cain’s Perfect Night

It was a long time coming, but Matt Cain’s timing – among other things – was perfect.

The San Francisco/New York Giants franchise is 130 years old – one of the cornerstone organizations in Major League Baseball.  So, there were few “firsts” left to be forged in team history.

From the mound, no fewer than eight Hall of Famers have pitched their way into the record books while wearing a Giants uniform.  However, there was one sterling achievement that eluded them all – the perfect game.

Among the great Christy Mathewson’s 373 career wins were two no-hitters, but neither was spotless – with walks or errors as blemishes on each.

During Juan Marichal’s extraordinary 14-year run in San Francisco, he made nine All-star teams and threw a no-hit gem in 1963.  However, like Mathewson, his brilliant performance was slightly tinged by a pair of walks.

Of course, perfection is rarely part of the human condition.  And in baseball, being perfect is an especially profound accomplishment.

Consider the basic structure of the game.

Batters typically succeed less than thirty percent of the time.  Most fielders commit double-digit errors over the course of a season.  And pitchers, on average, allow better than a hit or walk per inning.

On some level, baseball players are expected to fail – in varying increments – every time they take the field.

So, when Matt Cain took the mound for the Giants on June 13 in a game against the Houston Astros, perfection was likely the last thing on his mind.  He just wanted to pitch well and help his surging ball club continue to make upward progress in the standings.  However, what he and his teammates didn’t know – what they couldn’t know – was that they were all about to play the game of their lives.

On a flawlessly placid evening in San Francisco, timing – as they say – was everything.

Cain’s control was uncanny from the start.  He threw his fastball precisely where he wanted, and his curve had the kind of crisp break that maximized its deception.  His fearsome arsenal produced so many empty swings and baffled looks that there was legitimate wonder as to whether or not the visitors would even touch the ball, let alone produce a hit.  In all, Cain struck out 14 hitters.

On the rare occasions when Houston batters eventually made solid contact, the cool night air pulled would-be extra base drives back into outfielder’s gloves and the momentum of hard hit grounders pushed them just foul.

However, one play in the seventh inning typified the serendipity of the game.

Houston’s Jordan Schafer hit the one ball that Cain left too far in the strike zone – the one small mistake that seemed likely to smash everything to pieces – and sent an ominous, soaring drive deep into the right centerfield gap.  Out of nowhere, right fielder Gregor Blanco dashed into the area and made a headlong dive, plucking the ball out of the air just before it destroyed Cain’s masterpiece.

Later, Cain expressed amazement that Blanco was even in position to make the extraordinary play in the first place.  After the game, he jokingly asked the outfielder, “What were you doing there, anyway?”

On the mound, though, Blanco’s thrilling catch provided Cain with the boost he needed to finish his perfect night.  His demeanor settled into characteristic resolve.  Cool and – under the circumstances – inexplicably calm, he dispatched the remaining Astros hitters with the quiet efficiency of a cat burglar.

The moment was finally his.

He’d spent his entire Major League life covered by someone else’s shadow.  Perhaps, it was his quiet public persona – particularly on a team filled with flamboyant personalities – or his steady but understated playing style.  But others always leapfrogged him for media attention.

However, on that night – that beautifully flawless evening – he was rightfully, finally in the spotlight.  And he will now always be able to claim his place in Giants history – a place not even the franchise’s biggest legends reside.

Yes, it was a long time coming.  But because of the class and grace of the man who finally accomplished the feat, it was worth the wait.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/maricju01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN196306150.shtml

Photos:

http://l.yimg.com/j/assets/p/sp/getty/c7/fullj.55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0/55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0-getty-146308763.jpg

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http://www.sportsgrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Matt-Cain-Perfect-Game.jpg

Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTNYsdQWAgc

A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.

Sources:

Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/granted01.shtml
http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/history/upton/lost.htm
http://www.baseballreliquary.org/EddieGrantPlaque.htm

Photos:
http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/7/29/1280431494969/Arlington-close-to-Washin-006.jpg
http://www.thedeadballera.com/GravePhotos/GravePhotos_G/Grant.Eddie.Grave01.jpg
http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Cleveland-Naps-1905-8×10-B-W-Team-Photo-/00/s/MTIxOVgxNjAw/$(KGrHqF,!qEE9d9LigOPBPZIhJPqig~~60_57.JPG http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0qKW3Fsfqzs/Td6B62ecNjI/AAAAAAAASMA/92Okv8JKE0c/s1600/eddie+grant+%25283%2529.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a8/Epiphany_church_1900.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/46/T205_Edward_L._%22Eddie%22_Grant,_third_baseman,_Cincinnati_Reds,_1911.jpg/421px-T205_Edward_L._%22Eddie%22_Grant,_third_baseman,_Cincinnati_Reds,_1911.jpg
http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/29/6cb1361d-4764-4be2-a53f-021b012efa41_lg.jpeg
http://www.sfgate.com/blogs/images/sfgate/giants/2006/04/27/egrant3.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d5/Captain_Eddie_Grant.jpg
http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lrh52wqL9j1qib7wuo1_500.jpg
http://i377.photobucket.com/albums/oo219/mlalli01/wreath.jpg
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/jpg/0208egrant.jpg