Friday, August 22, 2008

Detroit Tigers History Vol. 1: Charlie Bennett

As I'm sure I've written before and I suspect no one cares or remembers, about three years ago I received my undergraduate degree in history from Michigan State. It took all of two seconds after I received my diploma for me to realize I couldn't do dick with a bachelor's degree in history and the prospect of spending an additional six years pursuing my doctorate and researching in the libraries and archives on campus so I could write a 200 page dissertation on The Social Affects of Thomas Nast's Political Cartoons: Harper's Weekly Era 1865-1885 was slightly less appealing than being slowly disemboweled by a polar bear, or a shark, or some kind of indestructible polar bear/shark hybrid.

Of course I'm probably overstating things. I'm sure the usual channels of employment for liberal arts majors from state universities were available to me if I had bothered to look. For example I probably could have worked at Greenfield Village as a man hideously disfigured by smallpox who deceived and sold unsuspecting country girls from Ontario into brothels located near the rapidly expanding auto factories. Or rather I could have worked at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour as a Polish immigrant who was beaten and worked to death by Henry Ford's secret police after an unfounded rumor that I had led a meeting talking about unionizing with some fellow workers at the local Dom Polski in Hamtramck. Unfortunately these positions don't exist at Greenfield Village, because according to them all anybody did at the turn of the century was ride penny-farthing's and court girls carrying parasols before dying at the ripe age of 80 from diseases like happiness and contentness.

Finally there was always the option of stripping. But I don't think there is a market for historical strippers, although there may be as people have all sorts of strange fetishes such as my obsession with Omorashi. Regardless, I didn't want to show up for some bachelorette party and announce, "Hello ladies, did someone dial back back to 1857 and order James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States?" before taking off eight layers of frock coats and linen shirts while lecturing about Bleeding Kansas only to reveal a body so scrawny and translucent that I would look more like some street urchin dying of tuberculosis rather than some stately president. Long story short I ended up doing what the vast majority of people in my position do. I panicked and enrolled in law school. Now here I am three years later, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, countless more grey hairs on my head and after finishing near the bottom of my class still looking for a job as a stripper but this time with an all new angle. "Order, order, Judge Brandeis holds that this party isn't sexy enough!!!!"

Well at least during my summer long layoff from blogging (studying for bar exam), I didn't forget how to write long rambling introductions. In case you fell asleep while reading this post my main point is that ever since I read about the demolition of Tiger Stadium in the Detroit Free Press a couple of months ago my interest in history has once again been piqued. I'm not going to get into the political debate of whether to save or destroy the stadium but rather I'm going to look at some of the interesting and I think overlooked aspects of Detroit Tigers history. This stuff is probably already familiar to hardcore Tigers fans to which I say, "Get a life", but may not be known to the casual fan. The first, and if my history for updating this site holds likely the last, entry is about Charlie Bennett.

Bennett joined the Detroit Wolverines of the National League in 1881 after playing sparingly over the course of a few seasons with the Milwaukee Grays and Worcester Rubylegs, which, if I may digress, sounds like the name of a company softball team at an all gay steel mill rather than a professional baseball team but apparently that's just how things were in the late 19th century. Extremely gay. However, following the 1880 season Bennett lwft Worcester and followed his manager, Frank Bancroft, to the more ferociously named Detroit Wolverines where he would begin his tenure as one of the most popular athletes in 19th century Detroit.

Bennett became the starting catcher for the Wolverines during his first season west and quickly established himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball batting .301 and slugging seven home runs which was good for second place in the National League. Of course the low home run total was normal during this early era of baseball, when the ball used was much softer, which made it more difficult to hit long distances and the mere fact that a baseball player wasn't dying from cholera, dysentery or Black Lung by the age of 18 was the modern day equivalent of an athlete injecting a barrel full of horse steroids into their bodies.

By all accounts, namely Bill James who, in full disclosure, is the only account I bothered to look up Bennett was also an amazing defensive catcher. This was doubly important during the deadball era because the style of play, i.e. more bunting and base stealing, meant several more defensive chances a game than the modern catcher. What makes Bennett's play behind the plate even more astounding is the fact that Bennett fielded his position using less protection than I use when I'm sleeping with the prostitutes I pick up on Cass Ave. Essentially nothing! Hobbes may have been talking about the career of a deadball era catcher when he said life is "poor, nasty, brutish and short", either that or he was talking about Hugo Grotius' momma. Whatever. (If I make a time capsule of the saddest moments of my life it would have to include right now when I'm writing a blog at 4:30 A.M. wearing only a bed sheet and making jokes about 17th century philosophers who probably didn't even know each other along with everything that happened in my life ages 13-24). Catching equipment in the late 19th century was rudimentary at best. The catcher's mask wasn't invented until 1878 when somebody finally became annoyed enough with having their teeth smashed in by foul tips that they finally sat down and designed one. (This seems like common sense to me. If someone would have asked me to catch a game back in the early 1870's my first question would have been "O.k. but what am I going to use to cover my face with?" but that may be because I'm so vain and handsome. You know I have an insurance policy for my face in case of some horribly disfiguring accident. A modern Douglas Fairbanks the ladies call me). Also catchers mitts appeared to be of the same quality as those cheap work gloves you can buy at ACO for $1.99 that inevitably get crusted to the bottom of your wheelbarrow during the winter, and Bennett (or rather his wife) is credited with creating the first chest protector, even though he was razzed by opponents and teammates alike for wearing one, which is the equivalent of a junkie giving another addict shit for insisting on using a clean needle. Or not like that at all. I don't know.

This post is bogging down slightly so I'll get back to Bennett. Bennett remained a potent hitter and popular player in Detroit over the next several seasons and in 1887 Detroiters were able to witness their Wolverines tear through the National League and win the pennant by 3.5 games. After the season the Wolverines challenged the St. Louis Browns of the rival American Association to a best of fifteen series of exhibition games throughout the U.S. The Wolverines won this precursor to the World Series 10-5 and brought home the first professional title ever to the city of Detroit, and from the looks of that team photo it appears the Wolverines would have more then held their own in a World Series of Moustaches contest, although I'm sure the French and German squads would have something to say about that. However by the 1887 season the years behind the plate had begun to wear considerably on Bennett and his hitting skills began to decline rapidly as he split most of the playing time behind the plate with a young catcher named Charlie Ganzel. Despite their success the Wolverines would fold after the 1888 season mainly because the city was still populated mostly by farmers, lumberjacks, actual wolverines and a young Henry Ford still trying to figure out what to do with his burgeoning genius and anti-semitism.

After the Detroit franchise folded Bennett moved on to play five more seasons with the Boston Beaneaters until tragedy struck (Duh-duh-duh). In early 1894 Bennett was returning from a hunting trip when he got off the train to talk to a friend and presumably brag about all the quail he had shot or all the boars he had strangled to death with his bear hands (I know its supposed to be bare but I misspelled it and bear hands sounds way more badass so its staying). As Bennett was telling his story his train started to pull away and Bennett raced to catch up with it. He leaped while trying to reboard and slipped falling underneath the tracks. Unfortunately Bennett wasn't wearing the leg protectors his wife had sewn for him for just such an occasion as he had succumbed to the peer pressure and razzing of his fellow hunters. There is a lesson in there for you kids.

As it turns out nothing ends a baseball career faster than having two wooden legs, even for a catcher who seemingly could catch every inning of every game without having to worry about getting tired. Alas, artificial limb technology in the late 19th century wasn't what it was before or since that time so Bennett spent most of the remainder of his life confined to a big scary wheelchair that looked like the kind found in the basement of a mental asylum in some Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. (Seriously, in the 1500 and 1600's armorers made artificial limbs for knights and soldiers out of iron and as you can see from the photo on the right they looked ultra badass, like something a villain would wear in a Beastmaster or Conan movie. Apparently practicality is more important then looking cool when one has an artificial limb so wooden limbs became common for obvious reasons). After his accident Bennett returned to Detroit where he had remained quite popular, and opened up a candy/tobacco/newspaper/elixir/snake oil store across the street from the minor league ballpark located at Michigan and Trumbull. Shortly after his arrival in Detroit the minor league team, that would eventually become the Tigers, held a Charlie Bennett Day where they presented the former catcher with a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars, which if you adjusted for today's inflation would be the equivalent of giving him 4.7 billion dollars. In 1896 a new ballpark was built at the location that was to become famously known locally as "The Corner" and the fans voted to name the teams new digs Bennett Park a name that barely, and fortunately, beat out the push for corporate sponsorship from Bayer Brand Heroin and Lloyd's Cocaine Toothache Drops. Bennett himself caught the first pitch ever thrown at the park named in his honor an event that became an opening day tradition that would last for 30 years until Bennett's death in 1927 at the age of 72.


Dr Huxtable said...

Nice to see another post from you. Hilarious, just like always. Did you take the bar yet, or are you still studying?

Anonymous said...

welcome back-- I check your blog like a crazy lady.