Victory Faust: The First Sports Media Celebrity Creation
Celebrity today can be worldwide and instant and is getting faster all the time. You don’t even have to set out to do anything to earn the world’s attention. You merely have to be caught on film doing something remarkably nimble or stupid that cracks the lineup on YouTube, or look photogenic enough to land on a heavily concocted “reality” show on television. More and more, celebrity and talent are becoming mutually exclusive phenomena. They do intersect sometimes, but they don’t have to. It wasn’t nearly that easy a century ago, before radio, much less television, when the most common form of direct communication was the handwritten letter and the nearly exclusive disseminator of news was the daily newsletter. But Charles “Victory” Faust did it in 1911, thanks to a group of New York sports reporters that included rookie Gotham scribes Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun. Despite displaying an unabashed lack of athletic prowess, Faust nonetheless became the darling of the reporters covering the New York Giants, and their ingenious accounts of his shenanigans made him a character of note all around the National League.
How, and why, did this happen? How did the least athletic person to find his way into Major League baseball’s permanent record (with the possible exception of Browns’ manager Bill Veeck’s stunt of adding 3’7” Eddie Gaedel to the batting line up) become the most celebrated good-luck charm in the sport’s history? In 1911, New York City had more than a dozen daily newspapers, not including those published in the many native languages of its inhabitants. The majority were published in the morning, with others appearing in the afternoon and evening (along with later editions of the morning). The competition for readership was fierce, and sports coverage was seen as a way of attracting both new and repeat readers even though baseball and boxing were the only acknowledged professional sports. One result was the florid, hyperbolic writing style of the time. Another was the magnified importance of “characters”—personalities displaying a combination of flair, eccentricity, and curiosity—whether they existed, had to be invented, or merely embellished, as in Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al several years later.
Charley Faust more than filled the bill from the reporters’ point of view. A 30-year Kansas hayseed, he foisted himself on John McGraw when the Giants were visiting St. Louis in late July 1911. Though he showed no pitching or batting skill, his claim that a fortune teller had assured him he would pitch the Giants to the title allowed McGraw to play a prank on him. While Faust circled the bases and dutifully slid into each, the Giants deliberately threw the ball away until Faust arrived at home plate with his street clothes dusty and torn. The Giants had a big laugh at his expense, but they shut out the Cardinals that day.
He showed up at the ballpark the next afternoon, was given a uniform and a chance to cavort about the outfield before the game, and watched the Giants win another shutout. The third day he got to sit on the bench, and the Giants won again. McGraw ditched him at the train station as the Giants headed to Pittsburgh. They won only two games out of six on the trip, and when they returned to the Polo Grounds they found Faust waiting for them. He had hopped the freights while they floundered, and he was ready to make good on the prophecy. He had just enough room in his brain for one big idea, and he never shook the notion that he was a ballplayer with a destiny for success.
McGraw put him in uniform, and two things quickly became clear to the writers: The Giants never lost when he was there and carrying on, and he was the new star of the pregame show. In those days the Polo Grounds would open several hours before the late-afternoon game time, and the time would be filled by musical performances, ceremonies, extended practice, and novelty acts. Faust eventually participated in all of those activities, though his most entertaining act was to pretend to be a ballplayer. He would get hit by the ball while shagging flies in the outfield, pitch batting practice to players who would let him appear to strike them out (including Pittsburgh Pirates’ star Honus Wagner, after Faust became famous), and race around the bases to execute a series of awkward (he was a lanky 6-feet-2), dangerous, and dusty slides. The fans couldn’t get enough of him, and during the game he’d either warm-up so he’d be ready when McGraw needed him, or sit on the bench and tell every batter he was going to get a hit.
Sid Mercer was the first writer to champion Faust as a unique character. Writing for the afternoon Globe, Mercer didn’t repeat the blow-by-blow descriptions of the games available in the morning papers. Instead, he wrote columns full of profiles, sidebars, and notes. He latched onto Faust’s cheerful, naïve nature, turning him into a sort of idiot savant whose one unaccountable skill was making the Giants win.
Within a week of Faust’s arrival, and with the Giants riding a five-game winning streak, Mercer wrote an account of a delegation going to Faust’s room to negotiate a contract. Faust was asked what his middle initial (“V”) stood for and replied, “Victory.” Mercer’s invention stuck, and the nickname was the first gimmick on the road to fame. Mercer soon found some tidbit to report about Faust nearly every day.
Damon Runyon of the American also became obsessed with Faust and peppered his game reports with details of his positive influence on the team. Like the other New York writers, he began by ignoring Faust’s German accent and depicting his speech in a hayseed vein. But by the end of the season, Runyon had turned Faust into an early version of Nathan Detroit, as in this declaration he attributed to Faust the day the Giants returned from a long trip with the pennant secured, having won an incredible 37 of 39 games in Faust’s presence: “My friends, far be it from me to boost myself, but you can very plainly see what is what.” Runyon, feeling his oats, provided color by giving Faust a central role in the celebration.
The third sportswriter to fixate on Faust was the Herald’s John Wheeler. Faust had pestered McGraw since mid-August with demands to pitch, but was ignored until the pennant was clinched. McGraw let him pitch twice in the final week, and Faust tossed enough pitches near the plate to get away with allowing just one run in two innings. When he made his debut, Wheeler featured him in his daily column, Window of Fame, extolling Faust as some kind of natural force: “The three most persistent things—Tennyson’s ‘Brook,’ the rent collector, and Charles Victory Faust, of Marion, Kan. . . C. Victory announced not so long ago that he would pitch for the Giants, and every one laughed long and loud. Listen. You can hear the echo of the smile yet. He pitched for them yesterday. This morning he is in the Window of Fame. Any one who can get away with anything like that deserves to be made immortal.”
The greatest measure of the New York writers’ ability to create a celebrity out of thin air was the vaudeville contract offered to Faust less than three weeks after his arrival. It was probably the work of Mercer and/or Wheeler, who also provided the material for his act, which consisted mainly of imitating famous players and demonstrating his arsenal of clumsy slides (the wooden stage left him splintered). He took the stage on Labor Day with a one-week contract, but halfway through it, after the Giants lost two games and tied one in his absence, he abandoned vaudeville because “the Giants need me.”
Why did Faust become so popular? The fans wanted to be amused. The players wanted to be distracted, wanted to laugh at Faust’s antics and play practical jokes on him after a summer of listening to McGraw’s tirades. McGraw wanted to get his way, but even more than that he wanted to win, and he couldn’t deny Faust’s jinx-killing prowess. The writers wanted to win the battles for scoops and angles, and above all they wanted copy that would amuse their readers. How unlikely that so many interlinked desires and hopes could be satisfied by the addition of one person to the mix of personalities and forces already present on McGraw’s Giants. And how incredible that that decisive person was Charles Victor Faust, alias Victory Faust, the greatest jinx-killer of all time. The writers detected the oddness of this circumstance from the start, and helped create the public persona that made their readers open the newspaper and think, “I wonder what stunt Faust pulled yesterday.” He couldn’t tweet his own horn, but once they got hold of him, immortality was sure to follow.