Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Worth a thousand wordsPosted by Matt Bowling
In this panoramic photograph taken on Oct. 24, 1913 (from the Library of Congress), a proud world champion Philadelphia Athletics team looks out at the camera having just defeated the New York Giants four games to one. Connie Mack at center stage looks beyond impressive—tall, dapper and still young—and out of uniform, naturally. The old-time sweater warm-ups (complete with prominent white elephants) look rather wooly and out-of place on a baseball field—even during October in Philly. And looking into the face of Chief Bender (real name Charles Albert) one wonders what kind of taunts he took in those days when a Native American ballplayer was a rare racial lightning rod in what was still a white man’s game.
But it is the gentleman on the far left that caught my eye with his short stature and rather maniacal grin. It’s funny how quickly the mind works. In the few seconds it took me to register his face and cast my eyes downward at the name, "Mascot Van Zelt," I had already considered and thrown out the possibility of his being an extremely short and extremely happy player or coach. By the time I got to the name, I had begun to wince, realizing that Van Zelt (actual name: Louis Van Zelst) was probably a victim of the extreme pre-PC culture of those years.
Indeed, a little research turns up that Van Zelst was a hunchbacked-dwarf teenager whose misshapen body was the result of a fall he took at the age of eight. Taken on as a mascot by Connie Mack in 1910, an arrival that coincided with the Atheltics’ rise to American league prominence, he was considered to be so lucky that players often rubbed their bats on his hump when attempting to get out of a slump. At first glance all of this seems to be the worst of early 20th Century ignorance.
Such practices were not rare in those days. They stemmed from the rather out-of-control belief in superstitions which resulted in midgets, humpbacks and other unfortunates joining the ranks of youngsters in the dugouts of major league baseball teams. In Baseball: The Golden Age, Harold Seymour explains that “Lefthanders, hunchbacks and cross-eyed people were all considered (lucky). …Touching a hunchback was popularly believed to bring good luck…. Brownie Burke, a midget to whom Gary Herrmann took a fancy was in uniform daily with the Cincinnati Reds.” There are countless other examples from Ty Cobb’s unfortunate black boy mascot Li'l Rastus to Babe Ruth’s not-so-unfortunate Little Ray Kelly. Indeed, the crosstown Phillies would soon match the A’s with a hunchback mascot of their own.
However, it seems that Louis Van Zelst’s stay with the A’s was a bit more enlightened than first appearances suggest. In fact, the Athletics players treated Van Zelst quite kindly during his five years with the champions. Arriving at a 1909 game at Shibe Park, Van Zelst had originally asked Connie Mack if he might serve as batboy and performed well during a double-header tryout. He soon became a permanent part of the team, winning approval among both players and fans.
According to Norman Macht’s Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball, “Van Zelst became one of the Athletics family; he was invited to Eddie Collins' wedding and a Baseball Writers Association of America dinner” and was a fine mimic and comedian. The A’s cared a great deal for the youngster, allowing Jack Coombs and Jack Barry to serve as unofficial guardians of Van Zelst when he occasionally traveled on the road with the A’s. And he received at least one partial share following an Athletics World Series victory. In 1915, Van Zelst died from Bright’s Disease at the young age of 20.
Clearly the rules for the treatment of the handicapped have changed a great deal in the century since the A’s first employed a hunchback dwarf for good luck, but as the A’s players proved, the rules for what counts as kindness have not.
Matt Bowling is a history buff and baseball fan from Boston, MA