News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 17, 2011

MARK BENNETT: He told tales of great-uncle Mortecai Brown, but Fred Massey's story is worth hearing

Fred Massey loved to talk about his family.

His wife and daughters, his parents, his brothers and sisters. And, his great-uncle, Mort. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, that is, the Hall of Fame pitcher who led the Chicago Cubs to their last World Series title in 1908 with an amazing curveball and without an index finger.

Over breakfast in a downtown Terre Haute diner back in 1994, Fred shared stories with me of his Uncle Mort, told to Fred by his mother.

He described Mordecai raving about her biscuits and gravy, practicing his pitching by throwing old baseballs against a smokehouse on the family farm in Parke County, and sitting and talking baseball with kin for hours.

Fred never witnessed his famous Uncle Mort’s exploits on the diamond. The calendars of their lives didn’t overlap enough. Brown’s pro career ended in 1916, eight years before his niece, Nell, gave birth to Fred. As Mordecai reached the twilight of his life, Fred was in Europe, serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.

But family, even distant, meant everything to Fred. He and his great-uncle shared that trait.

Every fall, Brown left behind all the adulation and attention showered upon him in Chicago and returned to his quiet, rural hometown of Nyesville, where he would hunt, fish and reconnect with loved ones. “He never forgot where his roots were,” Fred said.

Brown died on Valentine’s Day 1948, a year before his election to the Hall of Fame. Fred was 23.

As the decades passed, Fred became more and more determined to keep his great-uncle from being forgotten. That’s why he told and retold the stories of “Three Finger” Brown. That’s why he worked so hard, for years, to get a memorial erected at Mordecai’s birthplace in Nyesville. That’s why he called me, asking for help in spreading the word about the project and the need for donations. Through his tireless persistence, the contributions gradually kept coming from the Wabash Valley and beyond.

Finally, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July 1994, that granite monument was unveiled. In front a crowd of 200 relatives, friends, neighbors, Cubs fans, contributors and dignitaries at the memorial’s dedication, Fred paused, blinked back tears and said, “My secret dream isn’t a dream anymore. It’s a reality. I think this monument will be a part of history for many, many years to come.”

It would be easy to presume that ceremony honoring Mordecai Brown was Fred Massey’s defining moment. Indeed, he clearly felt satisfied. Yet, proud as he was, Fred lived a life worth remembering, too. You had to ask him about it, though; he gushed about his family, but rarely spoke of himself.

I got that chance three summers ago. The Chicago Tribune was sending a columnist and a photographer to Nyesville to see the Brown monument and talk with the pitcher’s closest living relative, Fred. The Trib’s timing was ideal. The Cubs had the best record in the National League in July 2008, exactly 100 years after “Three Finger” led the club to its last World Series title. Fred agreed to the interview, and arranged to meet the visiting journalists at Nyesville.

Then 83 years old, Fred called me and asked if I could pick him up at his West Terre Haute home and drive him to the monument site. Fred worried about his own driving skills on the winding Parke County roads and hoped I would handle that task while also prepping him for the interview. Plus, he figured we could grab lunch in Rockville and catch up, like old friends do. Once we reached Nyesville, the Trib guys took notes, photographs and video as Fred told Mordecai stories in his usual folksy style.

On the drive back, Fred filled in some details of his own background.

He worked for 27 years in the steel mills around Joliet, Ill., running a ladle crane. In his off time, Fred counseled inmates as a volunteer chaplain at Statesville Correctional Center and nearly two dozen other Illinois prisons. An unwavering Christian, Fred changed troubled lives. He was tough, too. Some of those encounters got intense. Once, an agitated prisoner grabbed Fred’s ink pen. Fred didn’t flinch. He reminded the guy about the consequences of harming a chaplain. He reminded the guy about his faith. The situation ended peacefully. Fred kept going back.

“If it’s starting to get too tough for everybody else, that’s when it’s getting just about right for me,” he said, grinning. “And I’ve maintained that philosophy all the way.”

Just like Mordecai Brown, Fred was a darned good ballplayer from Nyesville, who caught the attention of pro scouts. But he came of age as World War II broke out, so he became an Army demolition expert and combat engineer overseas. Near the war’s end, Fred got chosen to play center field for Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army Battalion team in the European Theater World Series at Munich, Germany. Fred did OK. He won the Most Valuable Player award in a series that also involved big-leaguers Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reecer, and Negro League player Pete White.

When Fred got back to Parke County after the war, his baseball aspirations changed, but didn’t end. He played a bit more, coached some, and remained a faithful fan of the Cubs. He frequently voiced his frustrations to me about his Cubbies, but stuck by them, even though he never saw them repeat the success they last enjoyed with his Uncle Mort on the mound. Fred stuck by his dream of creating a memorial to Mordecai. Its dedication occurred during the annual Nyesville town reunion, an event Fred faithfully attended.

As we munched on bacon and eggs at that Terre Haute diner nearly two decades ago, Fred reminisced about the peaceful times of his boyhood near the creek and covered bridge at Nyesville. “When I die, I want my ashes sprinkled there. I’ve spent many hours there bass fishing,” he said.

Last Saturday, on his 87th birthday, Fred passed away. His obituary described him as a “devout Christian, a selfless and humble man, and a dedicated husband.” Friends and family gathered Wednesday to remember Fred at a memorial service. Soon, his ashes will be scattered along that creek and a baseball diamond where he once played.

Fred Massey never forgot where his roots were. Somewhere, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown is one proud great-uncle.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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