News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 26, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Legacy of Mordecai Brown holds special place for Terre Haute

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Guys with a lifetime ERA of 2.06 don’t pump your gas anymore.

Actually, most Americans fill their own tanks nowadays. But even if old-school filling stations still existed, the last man you’d expect to tap on your window and ask “Fill ’er up?” would be a Hall of Famer with two World Series rings for the Chicago Cubs.

Actually, that would be impossible. Only four pitchers in big-league baseball history allowed 2.06 earned runs or less per 9 innings, and they’re all dead. So are all the ex-Cubs with a pair of World Series rings. (Their last championships were in 1907 and 1908.)

Still, in the 21st-century reality, players of Cooperstown caliber – Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey, Greg Maddux – probably wouldn’t change the oil in your Ford Ranger.

That’s why the legacy of Mordecai Brown is so special to Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley. Next week, the community will unveil a commemorative marker on the northeast corner of Seventh and Cherry streets, the site of the Texaco gas station Brown owned and operated after his playing days ended, from 1935 until his death in 1948. That’s where average Hauteans got a chance to meet a legend, “Three Finger” Brown – the curveballer from Parke County who pitched more shutouts than Don Drysdale as the ace of what is now an incomprehensible entity, the world champion Chicago Cubs.

“It’s definitely a landmark,” said Mike McCormick, Terre Haute’s resident historian.

Beginning several years ago, McCormick led a push for some sort of “Three Finger” recognition at the spot, which is now the National Road Plaza in front of the Cherry Street Multi-Modal Transportation Facility (aka “the new parking garage”). “I was quietly advocating they name it the ‘Mordecai Brown Parking Garage,’” McCormick said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Eventually, McCormick conveyed the idea to Kevin Runion, vice president for facilities management at Indiana State University. Runion designed a 4-foot-by-4-foot cast metal marker with Brown’s image and personal history on one side and his major-league statistics on the other. Its cost, $2,000, was covered by the scrap resale of aluminum cans dropped off at the ISU Recycling Center. Its official dedication – at 10 a.m. June 5 – coincides with the debut weekend for the new Terre Haute Rex baseball franchise, which is owned the ISU Foundation.

Its significance is strong.

“We thought opening weekend would be the best fit, having one of the most noted names in American baseball and Terre Haute history connected to it,” said Gene Crume, ISU Foundation president.

Players from the Rex – a fledgling club in the Prospect League, which uses promising collegians – should consider “Three Finger” Brown a role model. “The opportunity’s there, waiting for them,” Crume said.

Brown’s legacy allows those young players no excuses. At age 5, Brown caught his right hand in a corn chopper, losing his index finger and mangling the others. Five weeks after that accident, he fell into a rain barrel, breaking six bones. Instead of feeling abnormal, Brown kept being a boy and then a man. Using that misshapen claw, Brown developed one of the nastiest curveballs in baseball history. A coal miner, “Three Finger” didn’t begin his major-league career until he was 26 years old. Despite all that, from 1903 to 1916, he won 236 games, threw 55 shutouts and starred for the Cubs’ last two championship teams.

“And to think he maintained a 2.06 ERA is just amazing,” Crume said.

In fact, Brown is the all-time National League ERA leader at 1.93. (Near the end of his career, he spent two seasons in the old Federal League.) Better than Seaver, Koufax, Marichal and Gibson.

After his playing and coaching career ended, that same guy earned his living as proprietor of a Texaco station at 101 N. Seventh St. in Terre Haute. Multimillion-dollar contracts were light years away for ballplayers of his era. Still, Brown also owned some stock in Indian Refining Co. in Lawrenceville, Ill., according to the 2006 book “Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story” by distant cousins Scott Brown and Cindy Thomson. In that biography, Brown is quoted in a Sporting News interview as saying, “I haven’t got much, but they’ll never have to give a benefit for old Brownie. And I don’t owe anybody a dime.”

Atop his two-bay, one-story gas station was his name “Mordecai Brown” spelled in large letters. According to the biography, Brown came to work as a businessman, dressed in a three-piece suit, and employed attendants and mechanics. Sometimes, though, he tossed the jacket, rolled up his sleeves and serviced cars himself.

Imagine Nolan Ryan doing that.

During the Depression, Brown’s station and others were social hangouts, according to the book. He talked with customers and told baseball stories. He even put the infamous corn chopper on display there. A couple blocks away, Brown and his wife, Sarah, lived in an apartment at 331 N. Seventh St. Decades earlier, he led the 1901 Terre Haute Hottentots to the Three-I League title. In 1919 and 1920, he served as player-manager of that same Three-I club — renamed the Terre Haute Browns, in his honor.

This city looms large in “Three Finger” Brown’s colorful life.

“Hopefully in years to come,” Runion said, “this marker will let people know Terre Haute has a rich connection to baseball.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or