Veteran sportswriter, reporter, and author Allen Abel’s “The Short Life of Hughie McLoon: A True Story of Baseball, Magic, and Murder,” recounts the life of a deformed youngster who navigates through 19th-century professional baseball, boxing and organized crime in Philadelphia, my hometown.
As Mr. Abel tells it, the professional athletes at the time were a superstitious lot, and sports teams adopted human mascots, such as a short hunchback, as good luck charms.
Hughie McLoon (1902-1928) was deformed by a fall at the age of 3. He became one of the best-known mascots after he told Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack in 1916 that he could break the teams’ losing streak. The legendary baseball manager hired McLoon as a bat boy and McLoon stayed with Mack for three years and then shifted to boxing, where he brought good luck to several legendary boxers.
This led to his becoming a boxing manager and a manager of a Philadelphia speakeasy during Prohibition for Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, the Philadelphia king of illegal booze.
I reached out to Allen Abel and asked him why he wrote the book.
“After a dozen years on the Hill and in the White House briefing room, writing the 100% true biography of a murdered hunchbacked bat boy was a delicious change-of-pace,” Mr. Abel said. “Philadelphia was politically corrupt, morally bankrupt, murderously violent, and too drunk to care. Philly embraced Prohibition with all the passion of Donald J. Trump kissing Rosie O’Donnell.”
I asked how he would describe Hughie McLoon.
“He’s a wise-cracking, street-smart, umpire-baiting, fatherless boy searching for love and acceptance and finding it at the highest level of sport, celebrity, and organized crime — a broken boy who lived a leprechaun’s life and died a gangster’s death.”
Why were deformed children used as sports mascots, I asked?
“It’s complicated. Hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest feat in sports, and batters have been searching for a psychic edge over the pitcher for more than 150 years — good-luck coins, four-legged chickens, that sort of thing,” Mr. Abel said.
He explained that the origin goes back to an 1880 French operetta called “La Mascotte,” which introduced a new word to the language, and the then-unknown idea that a human being could be congenitally lucky.
“Then you stir in the immemorial human fascination with very small and deformed people — from Quasimodo to General Tom Thumb to Tyrion Lannister — and you get this belief that these boys’ own suffering somehow forged them into talismans and totems.”
He noted that McLoon wasn’t Mack’s first hunchbacked mascot, as a hunchbacked boy named Louis Van Zelst was with the Athletics for four pennants and three World Series in the early 1910s.
“Known as “Little Van,” he suffered terrible pain from a spinal injury, but glowed with an angelic inner spirit that captivated the players. He would call out “Rub my hump! Better rub my hump for a hit!”
Mr. Abel said that Mack was a devout Roman Catholic, but as a former big-league catcher he understood the power of superstition to shape a batter’s mind. When “Little Van” died in 1915 and the team finished last, Mack hired McLoon, a 14-year-old, 58-pound boy. But they finished last anyway.
“Boo Boo was as shy and humble (publicly) as Al Capone was brash and visible — more of an El Cheapo than an El Chapo,” Mr. Abel said. “But Hoff ruled a wider illicit-booze territory than Scarface did and paid millions in bribes to the Philly cops every year. Professional boxing was Hoff’s front window and boxers, like ballplayers, always thought of hunchbacks as lucky — that’s how Hughie became the personal charm of Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard, the heavyweight and lightweight champs.”
McLoon was involved in all of Hoff’s enterprises, and he was also a police informant, which was a dangerous parlay, as gamblers would say. McLoon was shot dead in 1928 as he left his speakeasy. The murder remains unsolved.
“In the end, Hoff paid for Hughie’s funeral, and Boardwalk Emperor Mickey Duffy “contributed lavish” to the wake even though it might have been Duffy’s boys who gunned the mascot down,” Mr. Abel said. “Hoff eventually was exposed by a grand jury and lost everything. He was reduced to running a milk bar before he either killed himself or was poisoned.”
“The Short Life of Hughie McLoon” is a well-researched and well-written account of an earlier time in professional sports and organized crime when a poor deformed boy became one of Philadelphia’s best-known characters.
• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.
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THE SHORT LIFE OF HUGHIE MCLOON: A TRUE STORY OF BASEBALL, MAGIC, AND MURDER
By Allen Abel
Sutherland House, $22.95, 220 pages