It was the general consensus that Elmer Wagner had been born unlucky. Three months before the tiny infant made his debut in the world, his father was killed in a construction accident. As if that wasn't enough misery for one so young, only moments after his lungs filled with air for the first time, his mother died in childbirth.
Being an orphan was not the only adversity the poor child had to endure. A fall from his baby carriage during the second year of his life led to a severe spinal injury that stunted his growth and left him with a hunched back. Although not technically a midget, Elmer, when fully grown, reached a height of only four and a half feet.
Despite the popularly held belief that one's childhood years are a time of innocence and play, in reality it is not a particularly pleasant time in someone's life, especially in the decades preceding the passage of child labor laws. Because of Elmer Wagner's deformity, his formative years were worse than most youngsters'. Not only had his physical condition presented a wide range of challenges more able-bodied children didn't have to conquer, but the mother- and fatherless boy also had to endure the pitying glances of adults and the cruel, hurtful taunts of his peers.
Nevertheless, little Elmer refused to let his misfortunes dampen his spirits. His fortitude was bolstered by an uncle, William MacDougal. Not yet eighteen himself, he took a keen interest in his late sister's only child. Every Sunday Uncle Will spent the afternoon with his growing nephew. Sometimes the two of them would go to the Bronx Zoo or to Central Park, and there was always the yearly trip to Coney Island on Elmer's birthday.
What Uncle Will and Elmer enjoyed doing most, however, was going to Hilltop Park—and later to the Polo Grounds—to watch the New York Highlanders play, for long before the team changed its name to the Yankees and established baseball's most enduring dynasty, Uncle Will was a fan of the local New York team.
"I got a feeling about these Highlanders," he told his nephew after the two of them sat through a game that ended in a devastating defeat. "They're going to be a great ball club someday. Just like I have a feeling about you, kid," he added with a wink.
"Me? I was born unlucky," the boy replied, cheerfully parroting what he had always heard other people say.
"Yeah, but look at it this way," William reasoned. "You got all your bad luck over with early. Seems to me you've got nothing to look forward to but the good."
At eight years old, Elmer thought his uncle's logic was sound. Hadn't people always talked about taking the good with the bad in life? All he had to do was be patient and wait for the good times that surely lie ahead.
* * *
In the spring of 1919, when Elmer Wagner was sixteen years old, he and his Uncle Will went to the Polo Grounds to see the Highlanders, who were becoming more widely known as the New York Yankees, play the Chicago White Sox. The visiting team was behind by three runs when Chicago's centerfielder, Oscar "Happy" Felsch, spied the boy sitting in one of the front row seats between home plate and third base.
Back in those days, before the world became concerned with political correctness, many baseball players—most of whom were notoriously superstitious—believed rubbing a hunchback's hump would bring them good luck. The Philadelphia Athletics even hired two hunchbacks (Louis Van Zelst and his successor Hugh McLoon) to serve as batboys and team mascots.
It didn't seem out of the ordinary then when, with the bases loaded and two outs, Happy Felsch ran to the stands and rubbed young Elmer's misshapen back for luck before stepping up to the plate to bat. The centerfielder then faced the Yankee pitcher and, with a count of three balls and two strikes, hit a grand slam over the right field wall. As Felsch crossed the plate scoring the game-winning run, he tipped his cap to Elmer.
"Wow! Did you see that?" the excited young man asked his uncle. "I just brought Happy Felsch good luck!"
Uncle Will affectionately ruffled his nephew's hair and laughed.
"Didn't I always tell you your luck would change? Only next time, do me a favor and save it for the Yankees, okay?"
After the game came to an end, as the fans were exiting the stadium, one of the White Sox coaches approached Elmer and offered him a job as the team's batboy. Although the position would require he move from New York City to Chicago, the young man quickly accepted the offer. Not only would he be guaranteed a salary of eighteen dollars a week during the baseball season, but he was also promised a bonus of two hundred dollars if the White Sox made it to the World Series.
"Such an opportunity might never come again," Elmer declared.
"I'm gonna miss you, kid," Uncle Will said when he took his nephew to Grand Central Terminal three days later.
The boy lowered his head and blushed with embarrassment.
"I'm not gonna be gone forever—just until baseball season ends. Then I'll come back here to New York."
Once he arrived in Chicago, Elmer became the White Sox's unofficial mascot as well as the tender of the team's bats. It was soon common practice for hitters Felsch, Ray Schalk, Buck Weaver and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson as well as pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams to rub the orphan's hump before a game in hopes of getting a win. Even if the White Sox lost a game, the players attributed a base hit, a double play or a needed strikeout to their young mascot.
Elmer's days as a hero in the Windy City were numbered, however. When the White Sox—heavily favored to be the victors in the 1919 World Series—lost the October classic to the underdog Cincinnati Reds, Chicago's faith in the "little hunchback" faltered. Maybe he wasn't so lucky, after all, they reasoned.
With the baseball season behind him, Elmer Wagner decided it was time to go back to New York. Uncle Will was at the station to meet his train, happy to have his nephew home.
"It's good to see you," William said.
"It's good to see you, too," Elmer replied. "Did you miss me while I was gone?"
"You know I did."
Tears came to Uncle Will's eyes. His feelings for Elmer were more of those of a father for a son than an uncle for a nephew.
"But don't think that you're going to be able to sit around the house and take it easy all autumn and winter long just because you worked over the summer," the older man teased. "I expect you to help me rake the leaves out of the back yard and clean out the gutters."
The following year, when eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series and subsequently banned from baseball for life (including his mentor, Happy Felsch), Elmer began to doubt himself. Had his bad luck rubbed off on the White Sox (or as they later came to be known, the Black Sox)?
Even though Chicago lost their bid at the championship, the Brooklyn Robins management hired Elmer Wagner as batboy for the 1920 season. As was the case with the White Sox the year before, the Robins went on to win the league pennant. However, Brooklyn's president, Charlie Ebbets, didn't believe in luck or team mascots, and he decided to leave Elmer in New York when the Robins faced the Indians in Cleveland.
To many players and fans, the Indians' winning the World Series, five games to two, was the direct result of Ebbets' failure to take the hunchback on the road. It was popular opinion that had the batboy accompanied the team, the Robins might have been the world champions.
Although Elmer received five hundred dollars from the losers' share of the Series money, he took the loss and Ebbets' lack of faith in him to heart. Again, he doubted himself. Had he brought bad luck to the 1920 Brooklyn Robins?
* * *
Despite his having to endure two bitter disappointments in as many years, Elmer Wagner was not through with baseball. In 1921 he signed with a third team, one that could definitely use some good luck since it hadn't won a single pennant in its nineteen-year history: his Uncle Will's favorite team, the New York Yankees.
Back in the Polo Grounds, the stadium the Yankees shared with the National League New York Giants, Elmer finally found a home. He not only maintained his close relationship with Uncle Will, who was now married to a young woman from New Jersey, but he also made friends with his new teammates including Wally Pipp, Bob Meusel and a twenty-six-year-old power hitter named George Herman "Babe" Ruth (whose departure from Boston supposedly brought bad luck to the Red Sox for the next eighty-six years).
Even though the Yankees went on to lose the World Series to their stadium mates, the New York Giants, the team finally succeeded in winning its first American League pennant in 1921 and even repeated the deed in 1922. Then in 1923, after the team moved into their newly constructed stadium on the corner of River Avenue and East 161st Street in the Bronx, the Yankees finally beat the Giants and got their first World Series win.
After the final game, Uncle Will threw a party to celebrate not only his team's victory but also his nephew's good fortune.
"Didn't I tell you the Highlanders would become a good ball club?" he asked as he handed his nephew a mug of beer.
"You were right!" Elmer conceded.
"And I was right about you, too. You may have gotten a rotten deal when you were born, but look how you turned out: you're a member of New York Yankees."
Although his nephew Elmer was only a batboy with the team, Uncle Will took great pride in the young man. In fact, he couldn't have been prouder if Elmer had been elected the president of the United States.
* * *
During his twelve-year tenure in pinstripes, the hunchbacked batboy and team mascot witnessed the Yankees win seven American League pennants and four world championships. He made friends with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, Bill Dickey and many other great players whose names have since become legendary.
Not long after the start of the 1932 baseball season, however, Elmer injured his back in an automobile accident. Unable to perform his duties due to his injuries, he was forced to take off his uniform and retire from baseball. The next three years were marked by both physical pain and mental anguish, both of which the former batboy tried to drown with alcohol.
The year he left the Yankees, 1932, Elmer attended the World Series on crutches, and he and Uncle Will cheered the team on to yet another championship. Then in both '33 and '34, the club ran out of steam and finished second in the American League.
At the conclusion of 1934 season, Yankee slugger Babe Ruth was sold to the Boston Braves, but the Bambino's heyday was over. On May 30, 1935, he played his final game against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Although an era had come to an end, the Yankees, like the mythological Phoenix, were to rise again. Under manager Joe McCarthy, the Bronx Bombers would pick up where Miller Huggins's Murderer's Row left off. Sadly, the little hunchback would not live to see the team's rebirth.
When William MacDougal discovered his nephew's body surrounded by twelve years' worth of memorabilia from his days with the Yankees, he broke down in tears.
"I always knew his drinking would kill him in the end," Will's wife claimed, turning her head away from the pitiful sight of the small, malformed body lying dead on the living room couch.
"The alcohol wasn't to blame," her husband argued. "Poor Elmer died of a broken heart."
Will leaned over and picked up a blue cap with the familiar white NY embroidered on the front of it.
"Or maybe," he said with a sigh, "he gave all his good luck to the Yankees."
* * *
In the summer of 2008, Charlie MacDougal, Uncle Will's great grandson, sat in his tier reserved seat on the first base side of home plate, looking over the left field wall at the new stadium that was being constructed directly across 161st Street from the existing one. At the end of the season, the House that Ruth Built would be abandoned.
Charlie had attended games in other stadiums, including Boston's Fenway Park, Baltimore's Camden Yards, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium. In his travels, he'd seen mascots like Mr. Met, Wally the Green Monster, Captain Jolly Roger, Phillie Phanatic and Mr. Redlegs become heroes in their respective ballparks. Yet the New York Yankees, indisputably the team with the best record of any sports team in history, had no big, furry character to cheer the team on, no lovable mascot to bring it good luck—at least none that the fans could see.
But Charlie knew that for the past seventy-five years, every time Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Alex Rodriguez, Don Mattingly or Derek Jeter stepped up to the plate or Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, Roger Clemens or Mariano Rivera took the mound the unseen spirit of Elmer Wagner, the little hunchback, stood beside him bringing him luck.
This story, although fictional, is based on the life of Eddie Bennett, former batboy and team mascot of the New York Yankees.
You might want to put your back down, Salem, you don't stand a Yankee's chance in Fenway of taking Elmer's place.