Victory Faust: The Prophet

 

“Victory Faust.” said the gruff voice on the other end of the phone. I knew it was my Dad calling from work 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 workday, 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.

“Times up! – you bum, I got you!”

For the next few minutes my Pop told me all about this odd ballplayer, 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. That phone call with my Pop took place almost twenty years ago, and it’s been 10 since he passed away in the Fall of 2009. I think about that Victory Faust conversation every time I uncover a new and interesting baseball character and wish I could pick up the phone and tell him all about my discovery, but I can’t. So, to open the Second Season of the Infinite Baseball Card Set Booklet Series, I bring you the story of Victory Faust, a player I first learned about from my Pop…

* * *

JOHN MCGRAW, manager of the mighty New York Giants, stood in the lobby of the Planter’s House Hotel in St. Louis. His team was in town to play a 4-game series against the Cardinals, and the only thing on his mind was how to break the slump they were currently mired in. The Giants had a solid team and had won 54 games so far that summer, but they always seemed to be a game or two behind Pittsburgh and Chicago in the standings. 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 all season. In fact, The Sporting News had run a front page feature that week speculating on the end of the great Mathewson’s career. McGraw had been around the game long enough to know the team needed something “extra” to get them over the hump and snag the pennant. He just had to find it.

After a while McGraw was joined by Christy Mathewson and another pitcher, Red Ames. No doubt the conversation revolved around what the team could do to pull away from the pack. It was at this point that the trio was interrupted by a man insistent on meeting John McGraw.

At first, the men thought the fellow before them was just another rabid fan, or “bug” as they were called back then. Those types were always hanging around the team’s hotel lobby, looking for a tip on who to bet on that afternoon or giving unwanted advice on how to run the ballclub. But upon closer examination, something seemed different about this tall, gawky man in the rumpled dark suit. He was in his early thirties, slightly disheveled, with a shock of brown hair that kept becoming dislodged and falling over his forehead. When he looked your way, his eyes didn’t seem to quite match up, giving him a strange aura, tempered by a perpetual grin. It was obvious he wasn’t all there in the head. In a steady voice tinged with a Germanic accent, he introduced himself as Charles Victor Faust, and he was on a mission to fulfill his destiny of leading the New York Giants to a World Series victory.

THE STORY HE TOLD was unlike anything McGraw had heard before. He’d grown up on a farm in Kansas, the oldest of six children born to a strict Russian immigrant of German extraction. Although by rights Charley was heir to the family homestead, he just wasn’t cut out for the farming life. So, while his younger brothers ran things, Charley was free to daydream and explore the countryside. He explained that earlier that summer, his wanderings brought him to a country fair where he plopped down a five-spot – an extravagant sum in those days – and had his fortune read. The swami told Faust that he was destined for three great things:

1. Pitch the Giants to the world’s championship
2. Meet an heiress named Lulu
3. Produce a long line of baseball prodigies

As he wrestled with this weighty foretelling of his future, Faust began to study the National League standings each day and came to the same conclusion McGraw had – the team needed something extra if they were going to win the pennant. But, while McGraw was at a loss as to what that might be, Charley Faust was certain he knew – it was he, Charley Faust. With that, Charley set out to meet the Giants when they were in St. Louis, and now here he was, presenting himself to John McGraw and promising to not only secure the pennant, but the world championship as well.

NOW, MOST MANAGERS would have told the bizarre character before him to buzz off. But John McGraw was not most managers. Besides having one of the most respected baseball minds in the game, the Giants manager was also a very superstitious man. Sure, fortune tellers were all hokum – but then again, what if they weren’t? Who could be sure? What if this guy was the key to the Giants winning the 1911 pennant? McGraw nodded his approval and told the man to come along to the ballpark; he would give him a tryout.

Sure enough, when the Giants took the field for batting practice, Charley Faust was waiting. Taking off his suit coat and bowler hat, Faust picked up a glove and took the mound. McGraw grabbed a catcher’s mitt and crouched down behind the plate. Looking in at the Giants skipper, Faust clutched his arms tight against his chest and rocked back so far it looked as if he would tumble off the mound. After freezing in this perilous position for a moment, Faust threw his arms back and forth in a crazed windmill wind-up, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. One writer would later describe it like, “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 absolutely 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 Giants players caught on to the gag and began gathering around. The sleepy pre-game crowd began to pay attention as well. McGraw had Faust run out any ball he hit that landed in fair territory, and he began chipping weak grounders around the infield. With a little help from Giants players, who made sure to drop or misplay any ball that reached them, Faust ran around the base paths sliding 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 Giants lost 5 to 2.

The next day Faust showed up at the stadium again. This time McGraw had the clubhouse attendant give Charley a uniform. Though practically a child’s size, it didn’t matter, Charley Faust walked on the field dressed as a New York Giant. Once again, McGraw had him warm up and run and slide for the amusement of the crowd. Diving into bases, getting bruised and bloodied in the process, Faust believed he was getting an honest chance to make the team. 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. In fact, it was common practice for a manager to treat a country bumpkin in just that manner when he had the audacity to ask for a tryout. Usually even the dimmest of bulbs would eventually realize he was being made fun of and just go away. Not Charley Faust.

When the game started, McGraw again invited Charley to sit on the bench. The Giants won, 8 zip.

WORD OF THE STRANGE NEW Giants player spread fast, and the next afternoon 27,000 fans showed up to the ballpark. This time, the Cardinals players wanted in on the fun, and held an on-field ceremony before the game in Charley Faust’s honor. One of the Cardinals players respectfully removed his cap and, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pronounced, “Mr. Faust, on behalf of the fans of St. Louis, who thoroughly appreciate your great work since becoming a member of the New York team, I present this slight token to you and hope you will continue to succeed in your chosen profession.” With that, Faust was presented with a jewel box containing a gaudy gold medal suspended from a ribbon. He pinned it on and took his seat in the dugout as the Giants won their third game in a row, 6-0. They then won the last game of the series, 3-2.

With all this attention heaped upon him, it was no wonder Faust pestered McGraw for a contract, to which the Giants manager seemingly agreed but never seemed to produce. With the team getting ready to move on to Pittsburgh, McGraw and the Giants figured they’d seen the last of this kook. Yet, when the team boarded the train east, there was Charley on the platform, demanding his contract and seat on the train. Thinking fast, McGraw told him that the contract and ticket was waiting for him back at the hotel. By the time Faust ran to the hotel, discovered the ruse and returned to the station, the Giants were well on their way to Pittsburgh.

WITHOUT CHARLEY, the Giants lost 2 out of 3 to the Pirates and duplicated the same record against the Cubs before slinking back to New York to start a home stand, still stuck in second place. To everyone’s surprise, Charley Faust was waiting for them. The bizarre prospect had spent the past week and half hopping freight trains to make his way to New York. And instead of being miffed by the shabby treatment back in St. Louis, Charley cheerfully greeted his teammates.

After dropping two series in a row, McGraw was in a foul mood, but reluctantly allowed Charley to sit on the bench during the next couple of games. The Giants won the first one, 6-0, but dropped the second 2-0. At this point, the Giants skipper began to lose interest in Charley and tried to get him to take a hike, but it was too late. The more games he showed up for, the more the Giants won, and the players went to bat for their odd teammate.

Soon Charley was in his own appropriately- sized Giants uniform and performing his pre-game warm-ups every game. The players all thought him a good-luck charm but were relentless in the jokes they played on the dim-witted fellow. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Marquard was playing catch with Charley before one game and whipped a chin high fastball at him. Faust’s google eyes misjudged the ball, and it crashed into his head. Charley staggered back to the Giants bench but recovered enough to do his base sliding act for the crowd. When you realize that no Giant benefitted more from Charley’s good luck mojo than Marquard, who would go a remarkable 33-2 when Faust was on the bench, the stunt seemed extra cruel. But, whatever we may think today, Charley took it in stride because he truly believed it was his destiny to lead the Giants to the world championship.

When a player got hurt, Charley was soon by his side to convince him that the injury was only minor. Team dinners were often followed by one of his motivational speeches, eloquently delivered in his German-accented voice. 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 launched into a one-sided conversation foretelling what great hits or plays he was destined to do in that day’s game. The eerie thing was, more often than not, Charley was right.

About this time, the venerable New York sportswriter’s corps took notice of Faust. All the major papers fell over themselves writing Charley Faust pieces, and soon he was as well-known as Christy Mathewson. That’s not to say all the coverage was flattering; for example, John Wheeler of the New York Herald assessed his talent level as such: “He runs like an ice wagon and slides as if he had stepped off a trolley car backward. He plays ball as if he were a mass of mucilage.” On top of all the press coverage, vaudeville came knocking and Faust briefly left the team for $200 a week to appear on stage and be, well, himself. Unfortunately, his stage career ended prematurely as the Giants lost a few games in a row.

Thus, it was now too late for McGraw to get rid of Charley Faust. Besides, the Giants kept winning; from August 11 to September 9, the Giants went 19 and 6 with 1 tie.

On September 11, the Giants embarked on a grueling 23-game road trip. At this point, the Giants were in first place, up 1 ½ games. A sportswriter for the New York Evening World covering the team’s departure noted the bizarre entourage that accompanied the Giants, calling it “the greatest collection of freaks, good luck pieces, mascots, rooters and just plain fans that ever went out of New York on a road trip.” This included not only Charley Faust, but the team’s Swedish batboy, Dick Hennessey and coach Arlie Latham, who was known as “King of the National League Clowns.” The savvy McGraw knew that his team had to be kept loose if they were going to win the pennant, so he willingly put up with this traveling freakshow. In fact, he encouraged it.

John McGraw began having Charley, now dubbed “Victory Faust” by the press, warm up in the bullpen when the team was behind or in trouble. More often than not the New Yorkers staged a rally and won. Opposing players and fans caught the Victory Faust bug and came out in droves during the Giants long road trip. In Pittsburgh, the city presented Faust with another sham medal, after which he struck out Honus Wagner on three pitches as the crowd roared. Up in Chicago, the Cubs hung a large banner outside their ballpark promoting Victory Faust’s arrival.
Now for the crazy part: the Giants went 19 and 4 during their western trip and arrived back in New York up 8 games. But Charley wasn’t satisfied with his good luck-charm notoriety – the fortune teller had 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 deep down he was a serious baseball man. During a tight pennant race when every win mattered, he was unwilling to take a 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 take the mound for New York.

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 scored 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, 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.

Although the crowd echoed with laughter, his teammates kidded him and the press lampooned the whole exhibition, Charles Victor Faust had appeared in a major league game, becoming part of official baseball history and fulfilled part of his prophecy. He’d pitched in a regular season game and the New York Giants had clinched the pennant. It wasn’t exactly as he envisioned it, figuring that he’d have more of an active role in the Giants rotation, but still, they 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 intentionally hit by a pitch. Walking off the field after the game Faust asked his teammates: “Who’s a loon now?”

Now Charley and the Giants came up against two 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 for occasional games during the 1910 season. Back in 1911, a real-live humpback was the penultimate good-luck charm to ballplayers back then. Batters would rub the poor fellow’s deformed hump before stepping to the plate in order 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 whammy.

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. Undaunted, Faust headed to Los Angeles where he was convinced Lulu awaited him.

THE FOLLOWING SEASON Charley tried to take his former place with the team but never received an invite to spring training. He spent spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers and taught himself to pitch left-handed – he wanted to be twice as helpful to the Giants when he joined the team. Brooklyn even let him pitch a complete game, during which he surprisingly gave up only four runs.

Rejoining the Giants, McGraw soon grew tired of Faust and wanted to get back to serious baseball. Charley was convinced he was a real pitcher and constantly pestered McGraw to let him pitch. The manager refused to let him put a uniform on but allowed him to sit in the dugout, for there was one thing even the surly McGraw couldn’t deny – the Giants kept winning. Through Faust’s time with the team during both seasons, New York won over 80% of their games!

Besides, having him around didn’t affect the team’s bottom line because unlike batboy Dick Hennessey and coach Arlie Latham, whose expenses were picked up by the Giants, Charley paid his own way on the road. Where the money came from is not known because he was penniless when he arrived in New York, but his brief vaudeville career or payouts from sportswriters in exchange for his story may have been the source.

Still, McGraw tried to get the loon to leave as his growing insistence that he knew better was beginning to undermine his own leadership of the team. The press also moved on from the Faust story, the Brooklyn Standard Union going so far as to quip, “Charley Faust has been released to the Squirrels in the Nut League.” The sympathetic Giants players eventually convinced Charley to go home to Kansas and await McGraw’s call for him.

It never came.

AFTER CHARLEY LEFT, the Giants began losing, barely winning the National League pennant before being beaten by the Red Sox in the series. The following spring Faust tried rejoining the team, but McGraw had had enough of this silliness. After getting nowhere with McGraw, he showed up at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings and personally pestered National League Chairman Garry Herrmann with his claims of contract obligations and back pay from the Giants, all to no avail.

He joined one of his brothers in Seattle and watched helplessly as the Giants won their third consecutive pennant, only to lose in the World Series. The next year he anxiously followed the team’s struggles as they trailed the Braves all summer. Still convinced he held the key to the Giants world championship, Faust set off on foot in early June to rejoin the team. He made it as far as Portland before he was picked up by the local authorities. A commission declared the former Giant “insane,” and shipped him off to an asylum in Salem. According to Gabriel Schechter’s indispensable book, Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants, Charley listed his occupation as “ballplayer” and was diagnosed with “dementia.” Despite being deemed “not improved,” he was turned over to his brother after seven weeks.

By the winter of 1914, he was a patient at Western State Hospital for the Insane at Fort Steilacoom, Washington. 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.

* * *

ALTHOUGH THERE WERE countless newspaper articles about Charley Faust during his time with the Giants, many of which I used to write this piece, his story quickly faded from memory. If it weren’t for 1911-12 Giants outfielder Fred Snodgrass’s interview in Lawrence Ritter’s book The Glory of Their Times, this curious chapter of baseball history may have been lost forever. His odd story in that seminal 1966 book launched several well-researched pieces including Thomas S. Busch’s “In Search of Victory: The Story of Charles Victor (Victory’) Faust” in the Summer 1983 volume of Kansas History, and the Big Daddy of all Faustian research, Gabriel Schechter’s 2000 biography, Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants – that was the book I ran out to get as soon as I got off the phone with my Pop…

* * *

This week’s story is Number 18 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.

4 thoughts on “Victory Faust: The Prophet

  1. This trivia question should be easy—Who is the only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to win a national bowling championship?

    1. My Pop did give me that question! And honestly, I got it wrong back then, I said Stan Musial (great hitter, demon harmonica player – why not bowling, too). But as you know, I was wrong. Kid Nichols, right?

    2. Though Kid Nichols was a good bowler, the answer is Cap Anson. He bowled with the 1904 American Bowling Congress team champions. the team was called “Ansons.”

    3. Man, 0 for 2 on that one. My Pop must be laughing his butt off up there… Great trivia question, I’m committing it to memory now.

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