Day 19 of 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Long unsolved story short, something’s looney about a Philly mascot named Hughie

“The Short Life of Hughie McLoon:
A True Story of Baseball, Magic and Murder”

The author:
Allen Abel

The publishing info:
Sutherland House
220 pages
$22.95
Released March 9, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At The Last Book Store in L.A.
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

In much the same way our last review, “The Best Little Baseball Town in the World,” was about “a story that reads more like fiction than nonfiction,” the cover blurb atop “The Short Life of Hughie McLoon: A True Story of Baseball, Magic and Murder” has this declaration by former Sports Illustrated scribe Michael Farber: “This could be a great work of fiction. The damndest thing is it’s all fact.”

Fact it, it’s as accurate as one can glean from a gaggle of Philadelphia newspapers in the roarin’ ’20s.

So here’s the front-page scoop as we’re told:

Hughie McLoon, who grew to just 50 inches tall and only 80 pounds because of a spine injury suffered when he fell off a seesaw at age 3, was once the team mascot for Connie Mack’s hapless Philadelphia Athletics at a time when major-league teams were not only eager but sought out boys who had deformities to come aboard in hopes of giving them good luck.

“I tol’ him I’d bring him luck an’ I did!” McLoon is once quoted as saying he told Mack.

That depends on what your definition of luck might be. The Athletics, who would end up losing 117 games (out of 154) in 1916, decided to bring in McLoon during a stretch when the team, playing 23 in a row at home at Shibe Park, had already lost 11 straight, 15 of 16 and 26 of 28. When McLoon joined, they lost the first game of a double header against the St. Louis Browns, but somehow won the second game, 3-0.

The Athletics then went on to win once in their next 28 games.

One of the takeaways from this book is that, as messed up as that sounds, having cripples invited to hang around with a team as a bat boy, or simply as a mascot, was all too common. Abel explains on page 5:

The genesis lies in humanity’s deepest superstitions, our yearning to bring a sense of control to lives riddled with uncertainty. Stir our unyielding, if ridiculous, faith in fairies, charms and totems together with our competing feelings of pity, curiosity and revulsion for the disabled and deformed, then combine them with the maddening difficulty of hitting a speeding, spinning sphere with a hickory bat, and the product is Hughie McLoon. … Hughie discovered to be the luckiest, you first had to be unlucky. Then you had to convince the gods of the diamond that the crucible of your own suffering rendered you a guardian against ill fortune.”


(We need only to think back to the Boston Red Sox’s run to their 2004 championship, and Pedro Martinez’s infatuation with tiny Dominican actor Nelson de la Rosa, carried around as the team’s “good luck charm.” De la Rosa’s death at age 38 less than two years later merited an obit in the New York Times.)

McLoon actually replaced another cripple and was following the line of those living a “charmed” MLB life such as Ulysses Harrison, Louis Van Zelst, Charlie Faust, Eddie Naughton and Eddie Bennett. While McLoon was connected to this version of the Athletics that were often then called the “Pathetics” from July of 1916 through 1918, they were trying to recapture something from their recent run as a three-time World Series champions, yet they never really pulled out of that pre-World War I skid.

Connie Mack meets up with Hughie McLoon not long before McLoon’s murder in 1928.

McLoon’s life then shifted as he became an adult, trying to push his luck with prize-fighters, then getting into the boxing game as a promoter, befriending heavy weight champ Jack Dempsey. McLoon, who once traveled to Los Angeles promoting fights in Hollywood in 1926 at one point, eventually went to becoming in what was referred to as the hospitality business, co-owning a cafe/speakeasy at the height of prohibition.

Everybody knew him, everybody loved him,” Abel, a Washington-based writer who is the White House correspondent for Maclean’s, tells Paul Davis, a crime columnist for the Philadelphia Weekly in a recent interview.

“And then he got shot a dozen times.”  

It might not have ended pretty for McLoon, but when Abel caught wind of this tale nearly 100 years later, it grabbed him.

Abel tells Davis he first heard of this story about 20 years ago from a TV documentary. Eventually a fellow historian from the Philadelphia area send him a pack of newspaper clippings that included one headline from the Aug. 9, 1928 Philadelphia Bulletin: HUNCHBACK MASCOT MURDERED BY SAWED-OFF GUNS.

“What writer wouldn’t be hooked by a story like that?” said Abel, who in 2003 started on a 15-year journey trying to find out more, and realizing there was far less out there.

McLoon was mowed down at age 26, collateral damage in a drive-by blast outside his establishment at just before 2 a.m. Was he the target? What of the two others who were with him? Why did so many show up to Abel’s funeral?

Abel’s ability to access editions of Philadelphia newspapers like the Evening Bulletin, the Record, the Evening Public Ledger and the Inquirer allows the story to be retold as best as journalism could make it work in those days.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2021, the problem – or the beauty – is that it’s difficult to unearth anything new. As Abel found, anything related to McLoon (whose name was often spelled various ways and actual birthday logged as three different dates) leaves “a vibrant and fascinating, if frustratingly incomplete trail … It is impossible to fill the blank spaces of chance and fortune, acceptance and rejection that colored McLoon’s life. We have mere hints … (but) the traces left in interviews and affidavits are few. His were not the people that posterity cherishes. … No letters, no diary, no memoir, and no offspring of Hughie McLoon.”

So, no book? Ah, no way.

If we’re only left with scraps here and there, including a rehash in a 1930 edition of a scandal sheet called “True Detective Mysteries,” then it creates a compelling reason to try to learn more.

How it goes in the scorebook

Berries.

If you’re a sucker for stylized paragraphs, puckered and plastered with gun-toting gangsters, leather pushers, lawless bootleggers, bluenose gum-shoes, juju midget mascots and never-to-be-solved mysteries, don’t be a dewdropper. Fire up your gasper and grab another jigger of giggle water.

More to cover

* “Death of a Mascot: The Shooting of Hughie McLoon” by Guy Hadleigh and published in 2016 may still be available for a read. But we aren’t sure how to land it.

* Abel’s previous personalized book: “Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the Heart of Brooklyn,” in 1995 (McClelland & Stewart, 368 pages).

* An excerpt of the first chapter of Abel’s book on CrimeReads.com.

* Abel’s Facebook page on the book started last summer.

* Episode 211 of GoodSeatsStillAvailable.com has Abel talking about the book on April 18.

* Abel talks about his book on the March, 2021 Bob McCown Podcast:

1 thought on “Day 19 of 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Long unsolved story short, something’s looney about a Philly mascot named Hughie”

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