Review The Short Life of Hughie McLoon

Abel, Allen. The Short Life of Hughie McLoon: A True Story of Baseball, Magic and Murder. Sutherland House, 2020. Pp. 211. Acknowledgments, dedication, epilogue, end notes, photographs, $22.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo

Baseball mascots today are cheery, funny and engaging figures, interacting with crowds and providing comic relief. The San Diego Chicken and the Phillie Phanatic come to mind. 

It wasn’t always that way. Baseball players are naturally superstitious. In the early 20th century, “mascots” were not employed to entertain crowds but to satisfy players’ superstitions. Players were fascinated with deformed people, small people, or even people of color. In a less politically correct environment, players thought it brought good luck to rub the hump of a hunchback or the hair of a young Black.

Few mascots from baseball’s early years had a roller-coaster life like Hughie McLoon. Born in Philadelphia, McLoon suffered a crushing injury when he fell off a seesaw when he was 3. He hooked up with the Philadelphia Athletics just after Connie Mack broke up his great squad that included the $100,000 infield. But even the luck of a deformed mascot could not help the A’s — his time with the Athletics thus was brief. McLoon then branched out into public relations, not only carrying water for and promoting boxers but also getting tangled up with gangsters as Philadelphia hoodlums tried to cash in on Prohibition.

McLoon’s life was short, as he was gunned down in August 1928 when leaving the Philadelphia speakeasy he owned.

Sutherland House, 2020.

It was a short yet fascinating life, and Allen Abel opens a window into the seamier side of baseball and life during the Roaring Twenties in his latest book, The Short Life of Hughie McLoon: A True Story of Baseball, Magic and Murder.  Abel, the White House correspondent for Maclean’s, a Canadian news magazine, honestly does not have a lot to work with, as the narrative of the book covers 177 pages. But he makes it work with interesting, informative prose.

So, why write a book about a hunchbacked bat boy who was later murdered? Abel told The Washington Times that after years of covering Capitol Hill, McLoon’s story was “a delicious change-of-pace.” “Philadelphia was politically corrupt, morally bankrupt, murderously violent, and too drunk to care,” Abel told the newspaper. “Philly embraced Prohibition with all the passion of Donald J. Trump kissing Rosie O’Donnell.” That is quite a visual.

McLoon has been featured in a book before, a 2016 true crime work edited by Guy Hadleigh, Death of a Mascot: The Shooting of Hughie McLoon. But Abel’s work takes a wider view, focusing on McLoon’s death but also painting a fine picture of Philadelphia during the first three decades of the 20th century. Abel also has a sharp sense of history and culture, referencing François Rabelais,  Bertrand Russell, Ring Lardner, artist Diego Velázquez, the ancient Egyptians, Billy Sunday, Edmond Audran’s “La Mascotte,” and even “Game of Thrones” character Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage). A fine parallel could be drawn from the Lannister character to McLoon. Both had the gift of gab, were witty, and hedonistic. Lannister was smart and McLoon won the Scholars’ Popularity Contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1910.

“I drink and I know things” would have been a perfect description of McLoon. And those things probably led to McLoon’s murder. 

Jack Kofoed knew it would end that way. A columnist for the Miami Herald for 44 years, Kofoed got his start at The Philadelphia Ledger in 1912. That is where he met McLoon, who was a copy boy at the newspaper. Kofoed warned McLoon not to get involved with Philadelphia’s criminal element, particularly with top gangster “Boo Boo” Hoff. Reminiscing in a June 1967 column that appeared in the Miami Herald, Kofoed said he told McLoon that “You can get yourself in an awful jam.” But “the little man had tried to hard to make himself important, and his bragging had become dangerous,” Kofoed wrote.

That could have been a product of McLoon’s upbringing. He never grew taller than 50 inches and weighed 58 pounds. And while McLoon tried hard to fit in with others, his physical handicaps made him stand out. His parents broke up when Hughie was 5, and the boy never really bonded with his stepfather.A hunchback, Abel writes, was “the karmic equal of a shaman or a Gypsy or a Hindu fakir.” The hump was thought to convey certain paranormal properties, he writes, including some magical ability to “prestidigitate a rabbit’s foot into a simple amulet simply by dismembering the rodent by moonlight in a cemetery.” (p. 31).

Abel presents a nifty history of superstitions in early baseball. When a rabbit’s foot could not be found — it had to be the left hind leg “caught in the dark of the moon by a cross-eyed colored man who first crawled into the graveyard backwards” (p. 36) — a hunchback or a person of color would do. They included Clarence Duval, “a little son of Ham,” and Willie Hume, L. Marshall “Lucky” Williams, “Brownie” Burke, and Willie Hahn. 

The template for mascots was set by Louis Van Zelst, a hunchback described as a “poor little bit of nature” who joined the Athletics in 1909 and by the following year, as a 15-year-old, “helped” Philadelphia get over the hump — pun intended — and win its first American League pennant in five seasons. Even Christy Mathewson, the New York Giants’ legendary pitcher, recognized Van Zelst’s power. Abel writes that in Mathewson’s view, “the hair of a Black boy could not hold a candle” to the hunchback’s magic (p. 46). “A hunchback is regarded by ball-players as the best luck in the world,” Mathewson said. Van Zelst’s luck ran out when he died in March 1915 The cause of death was listed as paralysis of the spine, or Bright’s Disease, or perhaps the 1914 Miracle Braves, who stunned the Athletics with a four-game sweep in the World Series (p. 61).

McLoon debuted as the Athletics’ batboy-mascot on July 11, 1916, in the middle of one of the worst efforts by a major league team. The 1916 Athletics went 36-117, finishing 54.5 games out of first place and 30 games behind the seventh-place Washington Senators. The only way the Athletics would get to the front, one comic strip panel jested, would be by joining the U.S. Army (p. 83). The batboy also had his share of bad luck, injuring himself in April 1918 when he tried to ignite the pilot light of a boiler in the Shibe Park clubhouse. The boiler exploded and McLoon was injured. Then, a mocking poem published by umpire George Moriarty (“Hey, Hughey McLoon, I could make you feel blue/If I cared to gossip or tattle on you.”) (p. 102). 

Leaving baseball, McLoon moved on to boxing, which was much more glamorous and allowed him to preen and keep “some very large company” as the 1920s dawned (p. 107). Abel writes that McLoon was everywhere, serving various roles as an athlete, promoter, mascot, manager, jinx-breaker, and protégé. He even scored nine points for the Mount Carmel Boys Club junior basketball team, back when games were low-scoring affairs and double figures were nearly unheard of. For a time, McLoon was even lucky in politics, helping Edward P. Carney, “The Dancing Judge,” win an election. Carney referred to McLoon as “my lucky stone.” (p. 116).

Abel’s narrative picks up the pace as he examines the events surrounding the fatal shooting of McLoon outside his speakeasy. Abel concedes, however, that the timeline of the first two weeks of August 1928 “is muddy as the river (Rancocas Creek)” located in New Jersey east of Philadelphia (p. 139). That’s because the area was known as “the recreation ground of the racketeers,” and the gangsters practiced their shooting in the secluded area.

Their target could likely have been McLoon, who allegedly made a pass at a girlfriend of gangster Danny O’Leary and was also suspected of being a police informer. Neither scenario promised a long life. And so it was that on Aug. 9, 1928, McLoon, coaxing two customers out of his speakeasy to prevent an incident — their names were William Meister and Joseph Fries, “two wise guys with names from a Hofbrau menu” (p. 1) — was caught in a fatal hail of bullets. “Hughie had been playing too close to the foul line,” Abel writes, using a baseball analogy (p. 152).

McLoon’s funeral attracted more than 2,000 people, and floral tributes were sent by Mack and Hoff. O’Leary would follow McLoon to the grave less than a week later as he was murdered. The trial of the people suspected in planning McLoon’s death solved nothing. No one was ever convicted.

Abel notes that McLoon suffered two major falls that bookended his life. One was the fall from a seesaw when he was a child, and the other came on a dark Philadelphia street. He “strutted in moonlight, and died in the dark.” (p. 175). “I liked Hughie McLoon, but I’ll have to say that he wasn’t a very good office boy,” Kofoed wrote in his June 1967 column for the Miami Herald. “And he didn’t work out well as a gangster, either.”

Abel has done extensive research and has notes for every chapter. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography or index. Because much of Abel’s material is drawn from newspaper accounts, the former is probably not necessary. But an index would have been nice; that is out of the author’s control, however. Abel has taken a quirky character who touched baseball, politics, history and crime, and has presented a readable, fun account. McLoon is a mere footnote in history, but Abel presents an interesting narrative.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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