SABR

Brownie Burke

This article was written by Phil Williams.

“Beware of robbing a wretch or attacking a cripple. Do not laugh at a blind man, nor tease a dwarf, nor cause hardship for the lame. Don't tease a man who is in the hand of the god (i.e. ill or insane)..." [Instruction of Amenemope, Ancient Egypt]1

Frank James Burke was born on March 19, 1893, in Marysville, Montana, the fourth of eight children in a large Irish-Catholic family. His father, William, was a carpenter. His mother, Ann, was a housewife. Marysville was home of the famed Drumlummon Mine, one of the richest sources of gold and silver wealth in the West. By the turn of the century, however, the mine’s production was running out, and sometime thereafter, the Burke family moved to nearby Helena, the state capital.

“Brownie” found him sometime in childhood, and stuck. Quite likely, the “mischievous little men” created by Palmer Cox inspired the nickname. One of the earliest mass-marketed sensations in American popular culture, they almost certainly had found their way – in the form of dolls, comics, toys, or brand products -- into the teeming Burke household.2

If so, the nickname was apt, for the boy’s growth lagged behind his siblings and schoolmates. By the time he turned thirteen he stood 3’4” tall. By photographic evidence, it appears he had a growth hormone deficiency. He was proportionate, and looked younger than his actual age. In his time, such men and women were called midgets (a term now widely considered pejorative). A century later, this condition is known as hypopituitary dwarfism. Today, children with this condition usually can achieve normal stature with synthetic growth hormone treatments early in their development. This was not to be the case, however, for Brownie. He would grow gradually over his teenage years, before reaching a peak 4’7” at adulthood.3

He was an industrious, outgoing youth: “bright as a flash and sharper than a whip’s cracker”. He managed the routes of the two competing Helena daily newspapers and, once, when a popular play arrived in town, purchased all of the tickets to then re-sell them at profit. During at least four Montana winters — the first as an 11-year old in 1905 — he served as a page in the State Senate.4

He also joined the Boston and Montana Band, a prize-winning source of statewide pride, as a drum major. Wearing a white costume, topped with a large bearskin cap, and paired with the beefy 6’2” Jim Shoemaker, he led the forty-piece band through the flagged-draped streets of Helena in Fourth of July and Lewis and Clark commemorative parades. Brownie and the band accompanied the Montana Elks into Denver for national competition (and boisterous merrymaking) in 1906, and to Los Angeles the next summer with the Montana Shriners.5

But in the summer of 1909, when the Elks national convention was held in Los Angeles, Brownie was working as a bellhop at Yellowstone Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Cincinnati Reds president August “Garry” Herrmann, however, had journeyed to the gathering, for he was campaigning for the office of Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks. He was not so elevated that July — the honor would come to him the next year. But on the journey back east, with a northern trajectory to accommodate additional campaigning and sightseeing, Herrmann met Brownie at the resort hotel.

Perhaps they had met at Denver several years before. If not, certainly the honorary member (the appropriate status for a minor) of Helena Elks Lodge #193 and would-be Grand Exalted Ruler shared Elkdom news and stories. Impressed by the lad’s outgoing, confident demeanor, Herrmann offered him the role of “continual mascot” with the Reds, contingent upon parental approval. Brownie wrote his mother, obtained her blessing, then traveled eastward to catch up with the Herrmann party in Chicago. On August 3, 1909, owner and mascot arrived in Cincinnati. Over the next few days Brownie was fitted for a uniform, and watched from the stands as the Reds took a series from the Giants. Then, on Sunday, August 8 — Elks Day at the Palace of the Fans — Brownie made his on-field debut with the Reds, in a 6-2 loss to the Phillies.6

His role had a clear lineage. The French word mascot had entered American lexicon with the 1881 New York debut of the operetta La Mascotte. During the 1880s, the term was often used in the States as it had in France: as a “mystic agent of good luck”, such as the archetypal rabbit’s foot. Quickly, it was applied to humans themselves, and in baseball, towards the sport’s functional errand boys. (And, almost as quickly, critics greeted the trend as anti-intellectual bunk: “the most absurd invention … of modern times.”) The most famous nineteenth century baseball mascot was Clarence Duval, the young African-American who served with the Chicago White Sox and was part of the 1888-1889 Spalding World Tour.7

A generation later, little mystic aura surrounded Brownie. Herrmann hardly ever trumpeted his mascot as a magical charm. There are no accounts of Reds players ‘rubbing’ their mascot for luck. Brownie himself only made rare, and mostly banal, predictions, such that the Reds would compete for the pennant in an upcoming season. Local newspapers rarely played with the theme and, when they did, often did so with a robust cynicism. For example, on an upcoming series with the Dodgers, the Cincinnati Post on July 9, 1912 quipped: “Now if the Reds can’t defeat Brooklyn somebody ought to take Brownie Burke over his knee and spank him.”8

The Reds’ course, during Brownie’s five-year stay with the team, was a decidedly unlucky one. Managers came and went: Clark Griffith from 1909 through 1911, Hank O’Day in 1912, Joe Tinker in 1913, Buck Herzog starting in 1914. The young 1909 squad overachieved to a 77-76 mark. From there the team could not progress, and after the 1914 edition raced out to a 28-18 record on June 8, the subsequent 32-76 collapse left the team in the cellar. Cincinnati fans voted with their feet: team attendance plummeted from 424,643 in 1909 to just 100,791 in 1914. The other two famed human mascots of the decade — the Athletics’ Louis Van Zelst and the Giants’ Charles Victory Faust — were often regarded as human charms by their teams’ fans and players.9 In contrast, no one placed the Reds’ fortunes at Brownie’s feet. Perhaps, then, a mascot’s spell could only be cast for a team capable of winning pennants.

Of course, in the Expansion Era and beyond, baseball fans distinguish between mascots and batboys. The former are costumed humans solely providing entertainment value by providing pantomimed shtick to the fans; the latter uniformed humans providing non-entertainment value to the sport’s actors. Circa 1910, both terms existed in baseball vernacular, although the former much more in use than the latter, and in Brownie’s case, exclusively. Nonetheless, during the games, he diligently performed the mundane duties of running balls to umpires and equipment to the Reds’ players. We would recognize him today as a batboy, albeit with an occasional Deadball Era flavor.

On July 12, 1910, for example: “Brownie Burke had a tough job keeping the balls dry after the rain set in the seventh round. Brownie would gather in the soaked spheres, wipe them off carefully in sawdust, then return them to Mr. Klem.” Or, prior to a July 24, 1911 matchup with the Giants, Brownie struggled to catch Frank Smith’s spitter in warm-ups, amusing Christy Mathewson to distraction. And, during a June 24, 1912 visit from the Cubs, well-suited Reds manager Hank O’Day notices his counterpart Frank Chance displaying an apparent pair of silk socks as he swung one leg over the other on the Chicago bench. Brownie is sent over for reconnaissance and reports back to his skipper “the sad tidings that they were finest he had ever seen and as spotless as the new-fallen snow.”10

Gradually, it seems, this role expanded to duties off the field. This much became apparent after the 1913 season, per Joe Tinker, in the wake of his fallout with Herrmann. First, Tinker noted: “whenever a player was released they would not tell me about it, but give the notice to Brownie Burke, the mascot, to give to the player.” Second, the ex-skipper claimed Brownie (along with club secretary Harry Stephens) served as a ‘spotter’, keeping an eye on off-field player activities.11

Even so, Tinker did not seem to bear Brownie any personal ill will, nor is there any evidence of any difficulties between the youngster and any other Reds during his tenure. At the same time, while there are glimpses of friendship, little close personal affection appears (Griffith being the possible exception). Perhaps, as Brownie reported to Herrmann, without any other loyalties in the sport, it was all professionally amiable at the park.

Herrmann is remembered as a gregarious and generous politician, sometimes overlooking his own team’s fortunes for the greater good of the sport’s harmony and prosperity. He was also a considerable egotist. “Glory has picked out Garry Herrmann for its special pet” a wag noted, and he enjoyed benevolent rule over many fiefdoms, from the Cincinnati Reds to the Elks to the American Bowling Congress. And if Brownie was the Reds’ batboy on the field, in the Herrmann kingdom writ large, he was the court dwarf.12

Often in this role he was found at the Laughery Club, an island resort Herrmann also captained, located some 20 miles down the Ohio River, and catering to prominent Cincinnati gentlemen. In a representative 1911 “feast of the gods” at the club, prior Grand Exalted Ruler Herrmann pitted Brownie against current Grand Exalted Leader John P. Sullivan in a footrace, with the teenager winning comfortably. The next year, at the club, Herrmann hosted a gathering of 40 elite baseball figures, with Brownie making the hit of the post-dinner entertainment with “several clever imitations” of Clark Griffith, Armando Marsans, and Hank O’Day. He was, one observer noted, “cute and coy” with his entrances, stories, and stagecraft, and “seldom fails to bring down the house”.13

Away from Laughery, Brownie accompanied Herrmann to the 1910 World Series, seeing the Athletics triumph over the Cubs. In “moving pictures” of the series, he appeared “as a rather conspicuous character” and received “the biggest applause in the pictures” from Cincinnati theater patrons. Also, across three years, he met three presidents. When Theodore Roosevelt visited Cincinnati in 1910, “the youngster nailed the colonel as he went out and asked him if he would tell him how to make the Reds win. ‘You tell them to hit the balls squarely,’ replied T.R. smilingly, ‘and with lots of ginger.’” He called upon Cincinnati native William Howard Taft in May 1912, when the latter was visiting his hometown in the midst of his re-election campaign, for a friendly chat about Reds baseball. Then, along with Griffith and Cap Anson, he visited Woodrow Wilson at the White House in October 1913.14

In fact, Brownie Burke was such a successful ambassador for the Herrmann court, one might well return to the divide between mascot and batboy, and wonder if he was under-utilized as on-field entertainment. Only in isolated instances did he provide any on-field entertainment — playing a few minutes of first base during batting practice, or racing around the bases prior to an exhibition game. Might he, for instance, have been sent up to bat during a game?

The notion occurred to many. From the June 23, 1910 Chicago Tribune: “Here is a suggestion from [famed scout] George Huff: If Brownie Burke, the diminutive mascot of the Reds, is on the Cincinnati pay roll and under contract, why doesn’t Griffith send him up to bat some time when the opposing pitcher is having troubles with his control. It would be almost impossible to pitch between Brownie’s shoulders and knees.” Reds fans also saw the potential – in at least one instance – trailing the Cardinals 7-2 in the ninth on June 29, 1912, they called for him to come to the plate.15

Despite the voices, and despite the penchant Griffith would later show with end of the season farce games with the Senators, it never happened. Years later, Bill Veeck Jr. would recall the genesis of the famous Eddie Gaedel at-bat as being conversations his father, Bill Sr., then the Cubs president, had with John McGraw about “a little hunchback he kept around the club as sort of a good luck charm. His name, if I remember, was Eddie Morrow.” But this memory was faulty. Eddie Bennett, who had suffered a spinal injury in infancy, would be a notable mascot in the 1920s with the Yankees. Veeck Sr. knew Brownie far earlier, and far better. As a Chicago sportswriter during the era, he may well have been part of the conversation with Huff. As for McGraw, in addition to the Giants-Reds contests, Herrmann threw a January 16, 1912 dinner in his honor, with Brownie introducing the New York manager on stage and presenting him afterwards with a “miniature diamond” of roses.16

Alas, such an opportunity for baseball immortality eluded Brownie Burke, and he is largely forgotten today. During his half-decade in baseball, however, his wide-ranging role with the Reds made him one of the sport’s most public figures. By all evidence it was a very happy existence, one a turn-of-the-century boy from a remote, working class background could only dream of.

An analogy fit for his time is that it was a Horatio Alger fable realized. As they were still widely read during his Montana boyhood, Brownie may well have grown up digesting these tales of hard-working, confident, and morally sound youth from lowly origins. In these books, a central plot device was the wealthy benefactor. Through a chance encounter, these gentlemen would come across the young hero, recognize the boy’s innate potential for success, and provide him with a golden opportunity within a professional environment.17

Within the Herrmann papers stored at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, there exist a number of letters from Brownie to Herrmann, where he is directly seen in the role of an Alger boy hero. He is well-mannered and courteous throughout, concerned for Herrmann’s family and other Reds employees. He is a devoted employee; eager in the off-season for spring training to arrive and sharing tidbits of news he has heard from others. The successful hold his attention: whether a battle to choose a Montana Senator, or Griffith’s wealth (“I have been reading in the papers that Mr. Griffith has become a millionaire is it true? I hope it is true.”). And, in the aftermath of the disappointing 1914 season, he is asking Herrmann for advice in his new career.18

This was, logically enough, as a stage actor. In the 1911 off-season, and with Herrmann’s full support, Brownie made his stage debut in the role of Bud, a stable boy, in a Cincinnati production of the racetrack drama Wildfire. By 1914, it likely occurred to Herrmann that no one, least of all loyal Brownie, would be well served by the mascot role continuing indefinitely. Thus, as his charge quietly stepped away from his baseball career, Herrmann generously offered financial backing to The Dummy, a whodunit for which Brownie had earned an understudy role.

For the next several years, Brownie took to the road, while maintaining his home base at the Laughery Club. There are occasional mentions of a transition to moving pictures – Brownie himself writes Herrmann in late 1914 of overtures towards the Essanay Company – but no evidence he left his blossoming stage career for these. In 1915, Brownie traveled with one of the era’s brightest stage stars, Maude Adams, playing the part of Master Arthur Wellesley Thompson in a production of Quality Street. Then he took on the role of Murphy, the river boy, in The Forest Fire. Throughout, the reviews were quite positive, from “the little fellow certainly deserved the plaudits” for Wildfire to “sagaciously and vivaciously enacted … a work of art” for The Forest Fire.19

With America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917, he was seized with desire to serve his country; stage career and military height requirements (5’ for the Army) be damned. Returning to Montana, he worked every connection he had. By May 1918, his frustration with months of fruitless efforts was palatable: “I’m going to telegraph Senator Walsh again and if he can’t do anything to hasten my going into service, I’m going to pull my freight and go to Canada where I’m pretty certain I will have my chance.” Finally, friends on a Helena draft board came through, and on June 1, 1918 he was enlisted into the 90th Infantry Division, Headquarters Detachment.20

Within weeks, he was overseas. He was still the outgoing Brownie: “every solider and the Germans in Berncastle knew this little fellow.” But he was also, soon enough, something else: Corporal Frank Burke. Giving “Fritz” hell and chasing “Wild Bill” during the day, and at night falling asleep with lighted cigarette in hand — apparently avoiding burns, although not the wrath of the elderly women maintaining the billets.21

A few weeks after being discharged on June 18, 1919, he took part, as he had so many times as a youngster, in a Fourth of July parade through the streets of Helena. He then moved to Idaho, where he is found in the 1920 census as a stage actor, and staying in a boarding house in Idaho Falls. Then, within a year or two, he set off for California, where he seems to have worked in the commissary of the American Potash & Chemical Corporation in Trona. He apparently remained in the Golden State, although he did not have any family connections there (nor did he ever marry).22

With the onset of the Great Depression, like so many other veterans of the World War, his fortunes collapsed. The 1930 census documents him as unemployed, and in October 1931, he was apparently given probation on a liquor charge. He passed away destitute, on November 7, 1931 in a Bakersfield hospital, by one account of tuberculosis, by another of pneumonia and pleurisy.23

“He had been in ill health since leaving the service” mentioned one Montana obituary, and this points towards a likely explanation behind his relative disappearance into private life.24

The 90th Division (the ‘Tough ‘Ombres’) was composed mostly of Texans and Oklahomans, who trained relentlessly for almost a year before leaving for France. Brownie was a newcomer, in any case not destined for immediate combat, and went through relatively scant training.

After arriving, the 90th quickly played a key role in the Battle of St. Mihiel over September 12-15, 1918. Among American troops, the 90th almost exclusively bore the brunt of enemy gas attacks. German canisters were launched at front lines and beyond, and for weeks after the battle, resulting in some 1500 gas casualties (i.e. hospitalizations). Brownie quite possibly was engaged in running messages during the battle. Moreover, while the “regulars” had trained extensively on “gas discipline”, newer recruits may not have been accustomed to fully donning their gas masks, or prone to removing them too soon, or even abandoning them in panic.25 Had Brownie been exposed to such an attack, and had the gas scarred his lungs, it may well have left him seeking the therapeutic relief provided by the hot California deserts. So too, it may well have left him susceptible to tuberculosis and pneumonia.

In Cincinnati, where Garry Herrmann had passed away some six months before, there was no mention of the former Reds’ mascot upon his death. But Brownie, likely the first of her sons to appear in a major league uniform, was warmly recalled in his native Montana.26 He is buried in Helena’s Resurrection Cemetery, under a veteran’s headstone.27

 

Sources

The author would like to thank Zoe Ann Stoltz of the Montana Historical Society for her assistance in obtaining materials related to Brownie Burke’s life in Montana. He also thanks the staff at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library for their guidance in reviewing the August “Garry” Herrmann papers.

In addition to sources noted, the author also accessed:

www.ancestry.com

www.baseball-reference.com

www.genealogybank.com/

mmp.montanastatelibrary.org/

www.newspapers.com

 

Notes

2http://www.phsc.ca/Brownie2007.html, accessed January 26, 2014. The ‘Buster Brown’ character seems a less likely source of the nickname, as that character was introduced in 1902, well after the ‘Brownies’. Brownie himself had no association with the American League’s St. Louis Browns, and was a Pirates fan when he met Herrmann.

3Contemporary accounts of his height vary, often reported with some exaggeration. The 3’4” account is from “Elks Leave for Denver To-day,” The Anaconda [MT] Standard, July 15, 1906 and is accompanied with a photograph of Brownie and a 6’2” man from which the contrast suggests the 3’4” figure is correct. The 4’7” account is from Burke himself: “Bantams in Ring for Shortest Honors; Others-Ests Entered,” Stars and Stripes, March 14, 1919. For hypopituitary dwarfism background, see Adelson, Betty. Dwarfism: Medical and Psychosocial Aspects of Profound Short Stature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 18, 28-31.

4“Brownie Burke Will Help to Enliven Shriners in Los Angeles”, The Salt Lake [UT] Herald, May 8, 1907; “Lost a Friend”, Big Timber [MT] Pioneer, November 19, 1931.

5“Elks Leave”; “Enliven Shriners”.

6For background to his arrival, see: “’Brownie’ Burke, Mascot, On the Job; Reds Win in a Canter”, Cincinnati Post, August 6, 1909.

7“A Gambler’s Mascot”, Cincinnati Enquirer, July 5, 1889; “Whims of Ball Players”, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 6, 1890. On recalling Duval as Brownie debuted, see: Ren Mulford, Jr. “Ye Red Dope”, Sporting Life, August 21, 1909. This article recalls the matter-of-fact racism that Cap Anson also used in describing Duval.

8Cincinnati Post, July 9, 1912.

9For Van Zelst, see Macht, Norman. Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007), 462-465. For Faust, see Schechter, Gabriel. “Charlie Faust,” The Baseball Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d1ee8535, accessed January 26, 2014.

10Cincinnati Enquirer, July 13, 1910; “But ‘Matty’ Moved and Saved His Head Anyhow”, Cincinnati Post, July 25, 1911; Cincinnati Enquirer, June 25, 1912.

11“Tink Says He Was Not Satisfied; Tells Why”, Cincinnati Post, November 26, 1913; “Tinker Loses Long Battle”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 3, 1913.

12For Herrmann, see Saccoman, John. “Garry Herrmann,” The Baseball Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d72a4b39, accessed January 26, 2014; “Garry Likes Badges; He’s Busy President”, Cincinnati Post, July 20, 1910; for the lives and roles of court dwarfs through history, see Adelson, Betty. The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey From Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 4-21.

13“Sullivan is Beaten”, [New Orleans] Times-Picayune, August 28, 1911; “Player’s Association”, Cincinnati Enquirer, September 17, 1912; A. R. Cratty, “Pirate Points”, The Sporting Life, January 20, 1912.

14On the 1910 World Series film, see Cincinnati Enquirer, November 1, 1910; on TR: “Tolerable Day in Taft’s Town”, Washington Herald, September 10, 1910; on Taft: Cincinnati Enquirer, May 20, 1912; on Wilson: “Wilson is Visited by Baseball Stars”, Washington Times, October 16, 1913.

15“Notes of the Cubs”, Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1910; “Notes of the Game”, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 30, 1912.

16Veeck, Bill. Veeck—As in Wreck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 12; for Bennett: Morris, Peter. “Eddie Bennett,” The Baseball Biography Project, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/40572eaa, accessed January 2, 2014; on McGraw being feted: “Redtown’s Joy”, The Sporting Life, December 28, 1912.

17Alger, Horatio, Jr. Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (New York: Penguin Books, 1990) provides a representative look into this literature, as does historian Alan Trachenberg’s introduction.

18August "Garry" Herrmann papers, BA MSS 12, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York. This collection contains both a letter from the play’s management to Herrmann on sponsorship, but also personal correspondence from Brownie to the owner soliciting advice on salary.

19See Herrmann papers for Brownie’s November 6, 1914 letter with mention of Essanay. Cincinnati City Directories, as available via Ancestry.com, show the Laughery Club residence from 1915 through 1918; for the Wildfire review: “’The Hen-Pecks’ a Big Vaudeville; Brownie Burke Makes Stage Debut”, Cincinnati Post, December 11, 1911; for The Forest Fire: “What the Press Agents Say”, Colorado Springs Gazette, December 29, 1916; for Quality Street coverage: “Big House Delighted by ‘Quality Street’”, Anaconda [MT] Standard, July 9, 1915.

20For Canada option: “Only 56 Inches High, But He Demands Chance of Army Service Just the Same”, Flathead [MT] Courier, May 2, 1918; for Helena draft board: Del Leeson, “The Prospector”, Helena Daily Independent, November 10, 1940.

21For these insights into Brownie’s WWI service: “Then – and NOW again!”, American Legion Magazine, November 1940, 32-33, 66; “Brownie Burke, Former Page of Senate, Writes of Battle”, Fallon County [MT] Times, December 12, 1918.

22On the California evidence, see: “Brownie Burke, 38, Dies in California of Sudden Illness”, The [Helena, MT] Independent Record, November 8, 1931; “’Brownie’ Burke to be Buried Here at 9 from Cathedral”, The [Helena, MT] Independent Record, November 16, 1931.

23On the liquor charge: [San Diego] Evening Tribune, October 13, 1931; on the destitute end: “Tiny Overseas Man to be Buried Here”, Bakersfield Californian, November 10, 1931.

24“’Brownie’ Burke, Former Big League Mascot, Stage Player, Passes Away”, The Billings [MT] Gazette, November 11, 1931. Note the liquor charge seems to be an isolated incident. The author was unable to uncover any other apparent criminal history for Burke.

25Cochrane, Rexmond C. “The Use of Gas at St. Mihiel, The 90th Division, September 1918” in Gas Warfare in World War I, Study Number 5, U.S. Army Chemical Corps Historical Studies (U.S. Army Chemical Corps Historical Office, 1957).

26Rees “Steamboat” Williams was born in Cascade, MT a year before Brownie, but did not debut with the Cardinals until 1914.

27Brownie’s grave: http://image2.findagrave.com/photos/2012/230/95559721_134532624751.jpg accessed January 26, 2014.

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