Mordecai Brown was an ace pitcher on the Chicago Cubs teams that dominated baseball in the earliest days of the Twentieth Century. Brown won twenty or more games in six consecutive seasons between 1906 and 1911. One of baseball’s great pitchers, Mordecai Brown won 239 games. He was elected to the Hall-of-Fame in 1949. But none of that is why he is remembered today…
As a youngster, Mordecai lost one finger and damaged another during an accident with a feed chopper on a farm. It was because of these “deformities,” that he became known as “Three Finger” Brown. Many believed that the unique grip he had on a baseball contributed to his success. But Mordecai Brown was not baseball’s only three-fingered pitcher.
In 1934, the New York Yankees had a prospect named Floyd Newkirk. Like the great “Three Finger” Brown, Newkirk had only three fingers on his pitching hand. Like Brown, Floyd lost his two fingers in a childhood accident of his own. Also like Brown, the injury did not dissuade Floyd Newkirk from playing, and ultimately achieving success, through pitching a baseball.
Known as “Three Finger” Newkirk, Floyd followed a somewhat traditional path to the Major Leagues. His professional career began by playing unaffiliated minor league baseball in 1930. These were the days when minor league baseball was primarily run independent of the Major Leagues. In 1930, Newkirk’s began playing with the Single-A Albany Senators of the Eastern League. Newkirk appeared in fifteen games that summer, winning five and losing six with an ERA of 4.93. A number of future Major Leaguers were part of that Albany squad. Most notable among these was Billy Werber who enjoyed an eleven-year big league career primarily as an infielder. Werber played for the Yankees in 1930 and 1933.
Floyd Newkirk stayed at Albany for the 1931 season where he showed some improvement by winning twelve games (while still losing twelve) with a respectable 3.10 ERA. Red Rolfe, who is considered one of the best third basemen in New York Yankees history was a teammate of Newkirk on that 1931 Albany squad.
By 1932, minor league baseball was changing. Major League teams were developing their own minor league systems. It was in 1932 that the Yankees minor league system was originally formed. Floyd Newkirk was brought into this new Yankees’ system.
Interestingly, during his early days in baseball, Floyd Newkirk also attended college. In 1933, while still progressing through the farm leagues, Newkirk graduated from Illinois College where he starred in baseball and basketball in addition to running track. Newkirk’s abilities in college sports were such that in 1984, he was posthumously enshrined in the Illinois College Hall-of-Fame for his baseball and basketball prowess.
Newkirk split the 1932 season between B-Level Binghamton of the New York Penn League and the AA Newark Bears of the International League. In those days, Double-A baseball was the highest level in the Minor Leagues. By now, Newkirk was playing with a host of future (and past) big leaguers including Johnny Murphy, Dixie Walker, Joe Glenn, and Jack Saltzgaver.
It was in 1933 that Newkirk had his greatest Minor League season. Now a graduate of Illinois College, he pitched for the independent St. Paul Saints of the American Association. (PLayers were not tied to organizations as they are today.) During that 1933 season Newkirk logged 219 innings while winning twelve games against nine losses. It was during that 1933 season that Newkirk threw a no-hitter against the Kansas City Blues.
In 1934, Newkirk returned to the Yankees organization and his inclusion on the Newark Bears in 1934 indicated that he was knocking on Major League Baseball’s front door. Twenty one of the twenty seven players from that Newark squad eventually played in the big leagues. These included future MVP Spud Chandler and the man who replaced Babe Ruth as the Yankees’ right fielder, George Selkirk.
And it was during that 1934 season that Floyd Newkirk earned his promotion to the Major Leagues. Unfortunately for Newkirk, his Major League career would not last long.
Newkirk’s one and only Major League appearance came on August 21, 1934 at Yankee Stadium. On that day, the second place Yankees, managed by Hall-of-Famer Joe McCarthy, were playing the sixth place St. Louis Browns. The Browns team was an uninspired group that would win only 67 games that year. They were managed by legendary player, and future Hall-of-Famer, Rogers Hornsby.
As he put on the Yankees pinstripes, and looked around the clubhouse, Floyd Newkirk, must have been in awe. Standing in that room were some of the greatest of the great Yankees. These included Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez. All would, someday, be honored with plaques in the Hall-of-Fame. While those players were an impressive bunch, also present in that locker room were two of baseball most legendary players, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Newkirk may have been put at ease by also seeing some of his former Minor League teammates, among them Jack Saltzgaver and the aforementioned George Selkirk.
Ed Wells, a former Yankee, playing in his final Major League season took the mound that day for the Browns. He was pitted against the Yankees’ Russ Van Atta. Neither pitcher lasted through the third inning. Van Atta allowed 6 runs (5 earned) off seven hits and three walks in 3.1 innings. Wells had allowed 2 runs off two hits and a walk in his only two innings of work.
It was Jack Knott, with six innings for St. Louis, and Danny MacFayden, with 4.2 innings of work for New York, who did the heavy lifting in the pitching department on this day.
By the time Floyd Newkirk was called into the game, it was the top of the ninth inning, and the Yankees were trailing 8-3. The first batter Newkirk faced was second baseman Ski Melillo, a solid veteran in the ninth season of his twelve year Major League career. Melillo hit a double to center field. Another long-time veteran, catcher Rollie Hemsley, then flew out to center for the first out of the inning. Rookie shortstop Alan Strange came up and walked putting runners on first and second with only one out. The Browns pitcher, Jack Knott, then sacrificed both runners. On this play Floyd Newkirk earned the assist as he fielded the bunt cleanly and threw to his first baseman, Lou Gehrig, to record the out. This brought up the Browns’ lead-off hitter Ollie Bejma, also a rookie, in the first of his brief four year Major League career. Newkirk retired Bejma on a ground out to shortstop Frank Crosetti to end the inning and the scoring threat.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Yankees staged a comeback. Leadoff hitter Jack Saltzgaver, the Yankees third baseman, singled. That brought up the right fielder Sammy Byrd who had entered the game in bottom of the seventh inning as a pinch runner for Babe Ruth who had walked with two outs following a Saltzgaver double. Byrd reached on an error by left fielder Ray Pepper. This brought up Lou Gehrig. Earlier in the game, in the first inning, Gehrig had homered following a walk to Ruth. In this ninth inning, he did it again blasting a three-run home run that narrowed the score to 8-6.
It was at this point that the manager of the Browns, Rogers Hornsby, removed pitcher Jack Knott and brought in George Blaeholder. Fortunately for the Browns, Blaeholder was perfect as he retired Ben Chapman and two future Hall-of-Famers, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri. None of the three batters got the ball out of the infield as the Browns held on for the 8-6 victory.
Floyd Newkirk’s day was finished. He had acquitted himself well. In his lone Major League appearance, he faced five batters. Newkirk allowed one hit and one walk while striking out none. By allowing no runs, he gave the Yankees a chance to win, although their efforts came up short. Records indicate that Newkirk earned two assists in the field his one inning of work, but the play-by-play data (a fly out to center, a bunt handled by Newkirk, and a ground out to shortstop) does not seem to indicate that he earned two assists.
Soon Floyd Newkirk would be once again pitching for Newark not aware that his Major League career had ended and that his future included being part of one of the most important trades in Yankees history. In fact, one of the unique aspects of this unanticipated trade to the West Coast included playing a season alongside the player he was actually traded for.
Throughout the 1934 baseball season, the Yankees were keeping an eye on a tremendously talented baseball player starring for the San Francisco Seals of the highly competitivePacific Coast League (whose level of play was compared by some to the Major Leagues). This player had compiled a 61-game hitting streak along with an overall .340 batting average as an eighteen year-old rookie. In 1934, the kid just kept on hitting batting a stellar .341. Yet, a concern arose in August of that year as a knee injury kept him from playing. Numerous teams that had been scouting this young star became leery and backed away. Not the Yankees.
After the 1934 season, the Yankees and San Francisco Seals agreed on a significant trade. To acquire this player, the Yankees sent $25,000 along with players Doc Farrell, Jimmy Densmore, Ted Norbert, and Floyd Newkirk to the Seals for the rights to a certain Joseph Paul DiMaggio. Since DiMaggio was still nursing the torn ligament in his left knee, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert required that Joe DiMaggio stay with the San Francisco Seals for the 1935 season to prove he was healthy.
As such, in spite of the fact that he was traded for him, in 1935 Floyd Newkirk appeared in 25 games as Joe DiMaggio’s teammate winning eight games and losing five with a 5.22 ERA. During that season, DiMaggio proved that his knee was indeed healthy. DiMaggio hit a robust .398 with an equally impressive 34 home runs. For Joe DiMaggio, the Bronx was calling…
Floyd Newkirk, on the other hand, hung around for a few more seasons in the minor leagues playing for the Tulsa Oilers and the Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League in 1936, and, after seemingly taking off the 1937 season, enjoying one last hurrah in 1938 with the New Orleans Pelicans and the Oakland Oaks.
After his baseball career, Floyd Newkirk served with the United States Army as a Private First Class in World War II. He lived until 1976 and is buried in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
(This story comes from Dr. Semendinger's upcoming book The Least Among Them. The story can also be found at www.drpaulsem.com. Please contact Dr. Semendinger for more information on this project.)