Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown (so-called because he was born in the American Centennial year of 1876) didn’t start his big league career till age 27 in 1903, but he made up for lost time. His six 20-game seasons with the Cubs, combined with his being digitally challenged due to a couple of accidents, made Three-Finger Brown a familiar name during the deadball era.
Brown retired as a Cub in 1916, but his last notable season was 1915 with the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League. At age 39 he pitched 236.1 innings in 35 appearances, winning 17 and losing eight.
While Brown was mowing ‘em down for the Whales that year, a 15-year-old boy in East Harlem lost his right thumb and forefinger in an industrial accident. This incident was to prove as important to the identity of this boy, Palermo-born Gaetano Lucchese, as it was to Mordecai Brown.
As the crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern) in The Asphalt Jungle once said, crime is nothing more than “a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Well, I don’t know if Lucchese was left or right-handed before his accident, but I’m sure he used his left hand more after the accident. And baseball lore is rife with stories about southpaws! So draw your own conclusions.
You may not have heard of Gaetano Lucchese, but you might be more familiar with Tommy Lucchese, one of the patriarchs of the Lucchese crime family. He carved out a long career in crime under the nickname of Three-Finger Brown and his alias Tommy Brown evolved out of that nickname. The moniker dates back to 1920 and his arrest on Long Island for auto theft. He was booked by a cop, apparently a baseball fan, who dubbed him Three Finger Brown.
With gangsters as with ballplayers, a nickname often sticks, whether the subject likes it or not, and even if no one utters it in his presence. Lucchese didn’t care for his nickname any more than Benjamin Siegel liked Bugsy or Al Capone liked Scarface. No word on how Mordecai Brown felt about his nickname being applied to a gangster. Since he died before Lucchese reached the top of the heap, he may not have been aware of his namesake.
According to my Dictionary of American Slang, two of the most fertile sources of slang are “Baseball Players and Fans” and the “Underworld,” so it is understandable that colorful nicknames would also be the province of gangsters and ballplayers.
Some nicknames require explanation, but Three Finger Brown is readily explicable in the case of both men. The name is strictly literal, not metaphorical.
Mordecai Brown lost most of his index finger in a feed chopper on the family farm. His other fingers were also damaged and, in a separate accident, were broken and failed to heal properly. He was left with a badly mangled hand composed of a thumb and three fingers. The professional result was extra topspin on his curve ball, which made him an effective ground-ball pitcher. Lemonade out of lemons, anyone?
Brown retired with a lifetime ERA of 2.06, tops for any pitcher with more than 200 lifetime victories (his career won-loss record was 239-130). Among Hall of Fame pitchers, only two (Ed Walsh at 1.82, Addie Joss at 1.89) had lower ERAs.
It is doubtful that Tommy Lucchese’s disfigurement enhanced his ability as a gangster. One can’t help but think it would be a hindrance for a trigger man. Also, a customized set of brass knuckles might be necessary.
After his accident, Lucchese ran with Lucky Luciano in the 107th Street Gang, which was later absorbed into the operations of Gaetano Reina in the Bronx and East Harlem, and run by Gaetano Gagliano after Reina’s murder in 1930. I doubt that one had to have a Christian name of Gaetano in order to advance in the organization, but it certainly seems that way.
Lucchese, however, set aside the strong-arm tactics as he matured. In fact, his conviction for that 1920 auto theft marked the only time he spent behind bars. He was released in 1923 and never spent another night in jail. To be sure, there were arrests, but no convictions.
Actually, there was no need for him to get his hands—disfigured or intact—dirty. As he rose through the mob hierarchy, there were plenty of minions to handle the rough stuff.
Lucchese was like one of those ballplayers who flies under the radar for years, but one day you look up and notice that he’s had one hell of a career. As he grew older, he realized that the real money and power wasn’t in rough stuff—inevitable as it may be in his line of work—but in acting discreetly behind the scenes. In this respect, his organization mirrored the experience of other New York crime families who had integrated their ill-gotten gains with legitimate businesses.
As he worked his way up the ladder, Lucchese reached a point where he was hobnobbing with mayors, congressmen, and judges, yet kept a low profile. Obviously, these connections came in handy when it came to asking for favors.
By the time Lucchese became the head of the organization in 1951, bookmaking, loan sharking, extortion, and labor racketeering were all on his resume. The Lucchese Family, as it was called from that point forward, was one of the most profitable in New York. For those of you keeping score, the other families were Genovese, Gambino, Bonano and Colombo.
In a sense, the crime families were like teams in the same league. They were in competition, yet they had their own territories, and when necessary, they could act in concert. The famous 1957 gangster summit in Apalachin, New York is one example.
It appears that Lucchese was one of the mobsters present at that upstate confab that was raided by state and local police. Lucchese, however, was not one of the 60 mobsters captured. Even so, the raid shone a bright light on organized crime and placed the Mafia front and center in the public consciousness, setting the stage for Joe Valachi’s revelations six years later.
Lucchese escaped the cops in 1957, but 10 years later, at age 67, he was done in by a brain tumor. Today, the crime family to which he gave his name is still in existence. The current boss is Steven Crea, who first became involved in the organization 30 years ago. With somewhere between 115-140 members and 1,100 or so associates, according to Wikipedia, the family is currently involved in:
credit card fraud
murder for hire
Quite a legacy for a man of such humble origins!
Mordecai Brown also has a legacy involving his family. His great nephew, Fred Massey, saw to it that a monument to Brown was erected in his hometown of Nyesville, Ind. Also, another descendant, Scott Brown, heads the Mordecai Brown Legacy Foundation (see http://www.mordecaibrown.com).
There is also another intriguing link between Mordecai Brown and the mob, and it has to do with the Fred “Bonehead” Merkle makeup game. This was the Cubs-Giants game played on Oct. 8, 1908, to make up for the legendary Sept. 23 game that ended in a tie after Merkle, running at first base, failed to touch second base after what appeared to be a game-wining hit, and was forced out after Johnny Evers retrieved the ball and touched second.
As fate would have it, the Oct. 8 game would decide whether the Cubs or the Giants won the National League pennant. Brown was selected to start that game. Even in those days New York fans were impolite, to put it mildly; Brown received several death threats from the Mafia attempting to scare him into offering less than his A game. He emerged victorious, however, and the Mafia took no action. Still, considering 1908 was the last year the Cubs won a title, perhaps some sort of Mafia curse has played a part.
Mordecai Brown was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, one year after his death. Believe it or not, this is another area where Tommy Luchesse’s fate can parallel his namesake’s, for he is one of the 2012 nominees for the Mafia Hall of Fame. With help from internet voters, he can join the current roster of immortals: Lucky Luciano, John Gotti, Meyer Lansky, Albert Anastasia, Salvatore Maranzano, Joe Masseria, Al Capone and Carlo Gambino.
The competition this year is tough, however. Such men of renown as Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz would appear to be shoo-ins. Vito Genovese, Sam Giancana, Hymie Weiss, Fat Tony Salerno, and Joe Profaci are also strong contenders. Also, the Veterans Committee will surely be interested in Bugs Moran and Dion O’Banion,
Just goes to show you that the ties between organized baseball and organized crime didn’t end after Arnold Rothstein and the 1919 Chicago White Sox went their separate ways. Curious how a colorful nickname can connect two such disparate characters as a Midwestern farm boy/ballplayer and an immigrant boy/gangster.
In the meantime, If you’d like to help Three Finger Brown in his posthumous quest to enter the Hall of Fame, just go to http://www.mafiahalloffame.com and cast your vote!
If only the National Baseball Hall of Fame would expand the franchise to us so readily.