Four-Finger Ernie, a Baseball Van Gogh

Rogers Hornsby helped Four-Finger Ernie on the path to the majors. (via Public Domain)

In the 1958 James Bond novel Doctor No by Ian Fleming, a doctor tries to explain to the spymaster M that one of his agents has been sidelined by the cumulative stress of his profession. M is unimpressed and responds by referencing a book he has just read:

This man talks about how much punishment the human body can put up with. Gives a list of the bits of the body an average man can do without… Gallbladder, spleen, tonsils, appendix, one of his two kidneys, one of his two lungs, two of his four or five quarts of blood, two-fifths of his liver, most of his stomach, four of his twenty-three feet of intestines and half of his brains.”

“I wonder he didn’t add an arm and a leg, or all of them.”

Fleming might have had M add that sometimes human beings undergo such losses willingly, in pursuit of career success, creativity, or knowledge. On December 23, 1888, the psychologically troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh attacked his own left ear with a razor, severing all or part of the organ. That was madness, but: Following the incident, Van Gogh painted multiple self-portraits featuring the remains of his ear covered in a huge bandage; painted the ward of the hospital in which he was afterwards institutionalized; painted the garden of said hospital; painted his doctor.

That was redemptive, perhaps. While a life without pain is undoubtedly superior to a life with it, while it would be morally wrong to suggest that self-inflicted pain is not generally synonymous with self-harm, what the greatest minds among us have always seemed able to do is transmute their suffering into art.

The risk at the very least is that all self-mutilation gets you is an absent body part, a phantom itch you can’t scratch, a phantom career without achievement. This might have happened in baseball, but in the final analysis, an event that at first seems to be located somewhere at the intersection of tragic and profound represented a noble and meaningful sacrifice.

This more innocent Van Gogh who gave up part of his body for baseball was Ernie Nevel, a pitcher who was a major leaguer for the New York Yankees in 1950 and 1951 and, significantly, a minor leaguer for a lot longer. When you’ve spent five consecutive summers in places ranging from Augusta, Georgia to Quincy, Illinois to Beaumont, Texas, no doubt you’ll do what you must to get up and get out. A ring is a ring, even if you lack a finger to wear it on.

Nevel’s professional career began when he signed with the Yankees organization in 1946. At 26, he was old for a tyro ballplayer; it’s possible the start of his career was delayed by service in World War II, although contemporary reports don’t mention this, and a search of government archives doesn’t reveal a military record. It’s possible Nevel had just been making his desultory way across Midwestern sandlots and semi-pro teams.

In any case, though “Big Ernie,” as he was often called (he was officially just 5-foot-11, but blocky), sometimes pitched well, he had a difficult time convincing his managers to give him regular rotation work. Paradoxically, he credited his inconsistency to the effectiveness of his sinking fastball. “I guess you can’t blame all those other managers,” he said. “They’d plan to start me, but they’d get into a jam and they’d remember that low, fast ball and the way it sunk. So in I’d go to reliever again. It happened wherever I went.”

It took no less an icon of obstinacy than Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby to put Nevel on a path to the major leagues. The reverse, that Nevel helped put Hornsby on a path back to the majors, is also true. By the early 1940s, Hornsby’s general red-ass-ness and gambling had burned his bridges in terms of managerial and coaching jobs in both the majors and minors—as Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen put it, “He was frank to the point of being cruel and subtle as a belch,” or, in John B. Sheridan’s more terse formulation, he was, “deficient in the social relation.”

Nevertheless, when Chick Autry, manager of the Yankees-affiliated Beaumont Exporters of the Double-A Texas League, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack in January, 1950, Yankees general manager George Weiss and manager Casey Stengel, a longtime Hornsby supporter who would later make him a major-league coach with the 1962 New York Mets, decided to give him another shot.

The Exporters, renamed the Roughnecks at the start of the 1950 season, started slowly and by early June were 19 games behind the front-running Fort Worth Cats, a Dodgers farm club. From that point on, perhaps because of Hornsby’s relentless goading and non-communicative managerial style, perhaps in spite of it, they played .700 baseball the rest of the way and finished the regular season at 91-62, 2.5 games ahead of the Cats.

Hornsby had two key contributors to that great run. One was his second baseman, future major league great Gil McDougald, who hit .336 and slugged .490 on his way to winning the league Most Valuable Player award. “He got all the votes in the Texas League,” Stengel said of McDougald the following spring, “and he wasn’t going around buying them up. Those guys down there know what they’re looking at all the time.” Hornsby knew what he was looking at too: Though he justifiably considered himself an authority on hitting, he refrained from tampering with McDougald’s unorthodox batting style and strongly recommended that no one else in the organization tamper with it.1

Hornsby’s other insight was to pull Nevel out of the bullpen. That season he made 29 starts, relieved on 17 other occasions (this was not an atypical usage pattern in the 1950s), and pitched 251 innings, by far a career high. In an era in which win-loss records spoke loudly, Nevel went 21-12 with a 3.37 ERA in a 3.75-ERA league and made the circuit’s all-star team.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Hornsby was asked if Nevel, by this time 30 years old, was of major league quality. “Well,” he said in his passive-aggressive dad way, “he’s as good as a lot of the pitchers they’re carrying around on the teams today.” He was more decisive in Yankees councils, arguing the club should call Nevel up in September. The righty made his major league debut at Yankee Stadium in a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, pitching a perfect ninth in a game one loss.

With the Yankees leading the American League by 3.5 games with four to play, there wasn’t any risk in giving Big Ernie more work, so Stengel brought him on again in the nightcap, using him to staunch a potential rally in a two-on/one out situation. This he did, but the Senators whacked him around in the later innings and he ultimately gave up three runs on three hits and three walks in 2.1 innings. Undeterred, or just beyond caring, Stengel gave Nevel the start in the meaningless last game of the season against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. He allowed seven hits, three walks, and four runs in three innings. Ted Williams went 2-for-2 with a double and three RBI against him.

That winter, the Yankees sent Hornsby to manage Ponce in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Nevel went with him. Accounts of what happened next differ slightly, and it’s probable that, to borrow from the 1980s band Too Much Joy, some of the following is true and some of it is better.

In the ninth inning of his first start of the season, Nevel faced outfielder Luis Marquez, 25, a future major leaguer (he would be just the third Puerto Rican to play in the majors) whose career, badly damaged by apartheid baseball, was split across the Negro Leagues, American minors, and Mexican Leagues.2 Marquez smashed a line drive up the middle which hit Nevel directly on the pinky of his pitching hand. The blow drove the first joint of the finger down into the second and the force of that impact smashed the cartilage between the second and third joints back toward the palm of Nevel’s hand.

The Yankees knew nothing about this. They first heard about it when Hornsby traveled to New York to attend an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the National League’s founding and casually revealed the injury to the media. “First the doctors said he would have to be out 10 days,” the Rajah said, “then they said another 10 days and finally we had to put him on our 45 days disabled list. Then the doctors said the first two joints of his finger would have to come off; they said the bones were all smashed. It won’t bother his pitching.”

It is strange to contemplate a baseball world in which such a severe injury to a rookie pitcher (however old for a rookie Nevel was) didn’t merit his manager notifying the team. Very likely such a world never existed and this was just Hornsby being Hornsby. His account, which was published in the Herald-Tribune, disproves some details in the version of the Nevel story the Yankees’ team doctor would tell many years later. In Sidney S. Gaynor’s recollection, the Yankees were completely unaware of the injury until Nevel showed up at camp in the spring of 1951 with only four fingers on his pitching hand. However, it still leaves open a key difference between Hornsby’s version and Gaynor’s—whether the amputation was insisted upon by Nevel’s doctors in Puerto Rico or by the pitcher himself.

Gaynor remembered the injury as occurring in Cuba and being no more severe than a fracture of the fifth metacarpal. “They put the finger in a splint so he couldn’t pitch for a while.” Noting the missing digit, Gaynor asked, “‘Hey, what happened?’ He said he had been in a hurry to get back in action and a doctor told him the fastest way would be to have the finger amputated; that he wouldn’t miss the finger and it wouldn’t hurt his pitching.” Imagine the scene:

NEVEL: I’m missing a real opportunity here, Doc! The whole season is going by with me out, and now it seems like I might not even be ready for camp! Look at me, Doc. I’m over 30 now. This could be my last chance.

DOCTOR: You have to have patience.

NEVEL: I can’t afford patience. I’ve got a wife, you know, a kid. If I don’t make the Yankees now… There’s nothing else for me. You’ve got to help me get back on the mound now!

DOCTOR: You must give the bones time to heal. [The doctor decides to make a weak attempt at jocularity.] The only alternative is to just… cut it off. [He chuckles mildly.]

NEVEL [Grimly]: Do it.

However the amputation happened, the Yankees didn’t seem all that upset; Gaynor recalled Stengel phlegmatically shrugging, “Maybe he’ll come up with a new pitch.” If Stengel did say that, he was undoubtedly thinking of Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, a Hall of Famer who had dominated for the Cubs in the early years of the century (Stengel had hit against him in his early seasons as a Dodgers outfielder). Brown’s badly mangled paw, the result of a childhood encounter with a corn grinder followed by a subsequent fall while chasing a pig or a rabbit, allowed him to throw a unique curve which was controlled via pressure exerted by Brown’s stub.3

It was a good, generous dream for Nevel, but it was not to be. In spring training that year, all the attention was on McDougald and a teenager named Mickey Mantle. There was one opening on the staff for an unproven pitcher. It went to 21-year-old Tom “Plowboy” Morgan, not the now-31-year-old Four-Finger Ernie, who got little work and didn’t pitch well when he did take the mound. Losing a pinky, it seems, bestows no competitive advantage. Nevel was sent down to Kansas City of the American Association, where he posted another above-average ERA, 3.86, but all it earned him was a relief appearance in the meaningless second-to-last game of the season. He pitched four scoreless innings following Morgan.

Nevel spent all of 1952 with Kansas City, struggling with back and shoulder problems and generally pitching poorly, although on September 7 he no-hit the Minneapolis Millers, shutting them out on no walks and three strikeouts. He might have had a perfect game, but the defense made two errors, one by future major-league first baseman and infamously poor fielder Marvelous Marv Throneberry. The Millers were a Giants affiliate, and Nevel did face a future Hall of Famer that day, the former Negro Leagues star Ray Dandridge, a player of clear major league quality who the Giants would permanently keep in the minors out of the twisted notion that adding the third baseman to a big-league roster that already included African Americans like Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson would tip the roster past a socially acceptable number of dark-skinned players.

Nevel would get one more chance at the majors courtesy of Hornsby. The manager’s strong, Nevel-aided showing at Beaumont had earned him more chances in the big leagues, and in 1952 and 1953 he skippered the Cincinnati Reds. In August of the latter year he swung a trade with the Yankees, picking up four players, Nevel among them, and $35,000, in return for the formerly dominating right-hander Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell. Nevel got 10 relief appearances, every single one of them in losses, allowed seven runs in 10.1 innings, and was sent down again, this time for good. In June he’d be sold off to the Tigers, and in August Hornsby was fired from what would prove to be his final big-league managing job. There would be no more Rajah rescues.

Say this for Ernie’s sinker: in 20.2 not particularly distinguished major league innings, he never allowed a batter to hit one out of the park.

Nevel pitched in the minors through 1954, then hung up his spikes to become a pipe fitter in Kansas City and, subsequently, an instructor at the still-extant Sho-Me Baseball School, a position he maintained until his 1988 passing.

Did he ever show his pupils his finger and say, “Look at what those butchers did to me?” or did he perhaps answer the questioning eyes of the young ball players, ranking in age from eight to 18, when they noticed his deformity by saying, “This is what I did for the love of the game. No, not just love, but lust, because there is no other life but this one, and, for some of us, no other life within life but baseball.”

Or maybe he just shook his head, laughed, and said, “Jesus, what was I thinking?” In the end, what he was thinking, and whose idea it was, while interesting and even amusing, is not all that important. What matters is that he did make it, however briefly, that he did pitch a no-hitter, however lowly the league, that he came back to the game and passed on what he had learned. Art out of pain, baseball out of pain: Van Gogh could have done no better.

1. McDougald had initial success in the majors despite his unusual hitting style, winning the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, but struggled in subsequent seasons and Stengel did eventually insist that he find a new approach.

2. Marquez was murdered by his son-in-law in March, 1988, a few months before Nevel himself died, presumably of natural causes, in Branson, Mo.

3. Tom Zachary (1918-1936) remains something of a mystery. Parenthetically, during Brown’s career far more contemporaneous sources referred to him by his other nickname, “Miner,” than they do by “Three Finger.” The dominance of the latter seems to be an artefact of his baseball afterlife, most likely because it’s an easy, visual hook by which to remember him.

Resources and References

  • National Archives, Online Veterans and Military Documents
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Charles C. Alexander, Rogers Hornsby. New York: Holt, 1995.
  • Ian Fleming, Doctor No. New York: Macmillan, 1958
  • Rogers Hornsby and Bill Surface, My War With Baseball. New York: Coward-McCann, 1962.
  • Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • Rich Marazzi and Len Fiorito, Baseball Players of the 1950s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
  • Bill Nowlin and Edwin Fernandez, eds, Puerto Rico and Baseball. Phoenix: SABR, 2017.
  • Harold Rosenthal, New York Herald-Tribune, “Baseball Is Only an Avocation To Gehringer, Former Tiger Star,” February 20, 1951.
  • Harold Rosenthal, New York Herald-Tribune, “Hornsby’s Find Looms Large in Yankees’ Plans,” February 24, 1951.
  • Harold Rosenthal, New York Herald-Tribune, “Stengel Views McDougald as Likely to Stick,” March 15, 1951.
  • William N. Wallace, The New York Times, “Yanks’ Tidrow Breaks Hand,” March 31, 1975.

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.

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