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Remembering Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Indiana’s First Baseball Hall of Famer

Brown, a two-time World Series champion with the Chicago Cubs, pitched for the Indians in 1919
Indiana native and World Series champion Mordecai Brown returned to his home state to finish his career on his terms. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
May 9, 2020

Let your mind leave Victory Field westbound on Washington Street. You have passed the Indianapolis Zoo. The street quickly changes to Rockville Road and eventually becomes Highway 36 at the I-465 ramp. Continue your imaginary trek into the Indianapolis metro. You cruise through Avon and farmland soon swallows your journey.

Let your mind leave Victory Field westbound on Washington Street. You have passed the Indianapolis Zoo. The street quickly changes to Rockville Road and eventually becomes Highway 36 at the I-465 ramp. Continue your imaginary trek into the Indianapolis metro. You cruise through Avon and farmland soon swallows your journey. Danville. Bainbridge. Morton. Bellmore. Four small towns and an hour later, you run into Nyesville, Ind. Don’t blink, you might miss it.

Sixty miles west of Indianapolis lies the hometown – a small Amish community that hasn’t participated in census population reports because it’s that small – of a two-time World Series champion, the first Indiana native inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and a former Indianapolis Indians hurler, no less. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. It was Nyesville where Brown was born and raised, a childhood that included a corn grinder (a machine designed to separate corn kernels from stalks and husks) and two lost fingers in a farming accident. An incident that led him to the top of the baseball mountain in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Brown’s baseball career began as a third baseman for a semi-pro team in Coxville, Ind., but his first impression on the mound led to a permanent change. Seven no-hit innings. A third baseman no more.

His first taste of professional baseball came in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, also known as the Three-I League, with the Terre Haute Hottentots. According to _Baseball Reference_, the right-hander went 25-8 with a 2.79 ERA in 37 games that summer. He ascended to the Omaha Indians of the Western League the following year and registered a 27-15 record and 2.22 ERA in 43 games. He was 25 years old at the time. He didn’t make another appearance in the minor leagues until his age-40 season.

Brown broke into the major leagues in 1903 with the St. Louis Cardinals and led the team in ERA (2.60), strikeouts (83) and wins (T-1st, 9). But harnessing the movement on his pitches was a struggle early on. The Chicago Cubs acquired Brown that offseason and the struggles disappeared; 15 wins and a 1.86 ERA in 1904, 18 triumphs and a 2.17 ERA the next year. In 1906, his league-best 1.04 ERA and astounding 26-6 record propelled the Cubs to a record 116 wins and World Series appearance. Brown’s ERA from that ’06 campaign remains the lowest among National League qualifiers in the modern era.

He continued as the anchor of the Cubs pitching staff during the organization’s first two World Series titles in 1907 and 1908, going a combined 49-15 with a 1.44 ERA in 78 games (58 starts). At one point during the ’08 season, he became the first pitcher in MLB history to toss four consecutive shutouts. Another World Series appearance came in 1910 before his Cubs tenure ended in 1912. He then endured a one-year stint with the Cincinnati Reds before jumping to the Federal League in 1914 and ’15, pitching for the St. Louis Terriers, Brooklyn Tip-Tops and Chicago Whales. He returned to the Cubs in 1916 for one final major league hurrah at age 39.

Add it all up and Brown had a remarkable 14-year major league career. He won 239 games and eclipsed 25 wins in a single season four times, including a career-best 29 victories in 1908 and 27 the following year to lead the National League. He owned a lifetime 2.06 ERA, the sixth-lowest career mark all-time, and had six individual seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA. He fired 271 complete games, 55 of them shutouts.

But just how much of an impact did Brown’s farming accident play on his baseball career? To Brown, the answer was simple in his Hall of Fame bio: “I always felt if I had a normal hand, I would have been a greater pitcher.” Three Finger Brown was elite. How good would a five-fingered Brown have been?

Fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb tabbed Brown as one of the nastiest pitchers he ever faced. Cobb, the owner of the highest career batting average (.366) in Major League Baseball history, was quoted as such in Brown’s Hall of Fame bio about his tremendous curveball: “It was a great ball, that downward curve of his. I can’t talk about all of baseball, but I can say this: It was the most deceiving, the most devastating pitch I ever faced.”

After the doors closed on Brown’s major league career, the minor league doors reopened. And Brown, already with two World Series championships under his belt, left the game on his own terms. He spent the 1917 and ’18 seasons with the Columbus Senators in the American Association and opened the ’19 season with Indianapolis, recording a 3.48 ERA in six games (three starts). He left the Tribe roster early that summer and returned to Terre Haute where his professional career first began, completing the ’19 and ’20 seasons closer to home. His second go-around with Terre Haute’s Three-I League ballclub featured a new nickname; it was no longer the Hottentots, but instead, fittingly, the Browns. There he won another 20 games in 46 appearances to put the finishing touches on a career that spanned 20 seasons.

Almost 30 years after his career ended, Brown became Indiana’s first National Baseball Hall of Famer in 1949 after being elected by the Veterans Committee. Sadly, for Brown, the induction came one year too late; he passed away the year prior at age 72 due to complications with diabetes. Brown was the second former Tribe player to earn Hall of Fame status, following in the footsteps of all-time great Nap Lajoie, who, like Brown, played for the Indians after an illustrious major league career. Since Brown’s induction, another 10 former Indians have joined him and Lajoie on the road to Cooperstown.

So, here is one last reminder. If you head westbound from Victory Field on Washington Street, Rockville Road and soon after Highway 36, you will hit the home of a Hoosier baseball legend, Hall of Famer and two-time World Series champion. Nyesville. Don’t blink, you might miss it.