Baseball AotD: 4/3/21

How the Yankees’ Luckiest Batboy Ended Up in an Unmarked Grave

Eddie Bennett earned fame in the dugouts of the Major Leagues. He had almost slipped from memory when New Yorkers teamed up to honor his short, dramatic life.

April 2, 2021

Eddie Bennett in 1921, the year he became the Yankees’ batboy.
Eddie Bennett in 1921, the year he became the Yankees’ batboy.via Library of Congress

For 85 years, visitors to St. John’s Cemetery in Queens skipped past an unmarked grave in Section 34, Row DD. This is where Edward Bennett, a batboy for the New York Yankees — maybe the most famous batboy in the Major Leagues — was buried and forgotten.

For most of the 1920s, Eddie Bennett was the Yankees’ handyman, mascot and good luck charm. He was the first to shake hands with a player after he crossed the plate, and he ferried Babe Ruth’s bats from the locker room to the dugout for the slugger to find the perfect fit — sometimes as many as 33 of them. “There ought to be a law,” Eddie jokingly complained to an adoring press corps that had made him a fixture of the sports columns.

He was such an integral part of the team, in fact, that he was voted a share of the team’s earnings. When the players got diamond rings to celebrate the Yankees’ crushing World Series victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927, the batboy got one, too. “Feel the weight of it,” he bragged to a reporter.

How Mr. Bennett ended up in an unmarked grave in Middle Village, Queens — and how it was discovered and marked by a lifelong Yankees fan and a diocesan priest — is a tale of luck and charity and a fitting denouement to his drama-filled life.

Babe Ruth in 1927 with his favorite batboy, who served as the team’s handyman, mascot and good luck charm.
Babe Ruth in 1927 with his favorite batboy, who served as the team’s handyman, mascot and good luck charm.The Stanley Weston Archive, via Getty Images

His back story was a big part of his appeal. By the time he got to the Yankees, Eddie Bennett had come a long way. He was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1903, and as an infant, he fell out of his carriage and twisted his spine, which stunted his growth and left him with a misshapen back.

When he was around 16, he was sacked from his job as a courier on Wall Street, the year after the Spanish flu swept through Brooklyn and killed both his parents. Looking for work, he found himself walking to the Polo Grounds, where the Chicago White Sox were visiting the Yankees for a doubleheader.

As he slipped under the bleachers to get a drink of water, Happy Felsch, a White Sox center fielder, spotted him. He laid his hand on the lump on the teenager’s back.

“Kid, are you lucky?” Mr. Felsch asked.

“Well, of course,” Eddie replied. What else could he say?

A newspaper profile the year after the Yankees’ 1927 World Series victory gave Eddie Bennett’s career a boost.
A newspaper profile the year after the Yankees’ 1927 World Series victory gave Eddie Bennett’s career a boost.The Brooklyn Citizen

Where many of the time would have dismissed the youth for his physical ailment, Mr. Felsch saw a talisman.

“In baseball, it was a superstitious age, far more than we can appreciate today,” said Gabriel Schechter, a baseball historian and author of a biography of Charlie Faust, a mentally challenged mascot for the New York Giants.

The White Sox went on to win the second game. They had gotten themselves a new mascot, and Mr. Bennett, a new job. In time, his reputation as a jinx chaser made it to Miller Huggins, the Yankees’ manager. In 1921, he offered Mr. Bennett $25 a week to serve as a batboy, the equivalent of $335 today.

Mr. Bennett’s arrival came a year after Babe Ruth’s. Ruth’s thunderous homers would catapult the Yankees to seven pennants and four World Series, but the sportswriters always ensured that the batboy got some of the credit. “Both are doing much to bring the Yankees home first in the pennant race,” said the caption to a syndicated picture of Mr. Bennett and Ruth.

Eddie Bennett, front row, second from left, with the 1921 Yankees team at the Polo Grounds.
Eddie Bennett, front row, second from left, with the 1921 Yankees team at the Polo Grounds.Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

By the time Murderers’ Row trampled the Pirates in the 1927 World Series, the orphan’s domain had expanded to organizing transportation and handling baggage, duties normally assigned to the traveling secretary. He took to wearing well-tailored suits and brightly colored ties.

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On the road, Mr. Bennett roomed with Urban Shocker, a pitcher. Shocker’s heart disease forced him to sleep sitting up, and he was worried he would lose his job if the team found out. But he knew he could trust Mr. Bennett with his secret, said Steve Steinberg, a baseball historian who wrote a biography of Shocker.

Yankees (including Babe Ruth, far left, Eddie Bennett, center, and Lou Gehrig, far right) heading for spring training in the 1920s. 
Yankees (including Babe Ruth, far left, Eddie Bennett, center, and Lou Gehrig, far right) heading for spring training in the 1920s. Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

Alas, the jinx the batboy chased off the field caught up to him. And then, it all ended, no less improbably. In May 1932, a taxicab pinned him against a pillar, breaking one of his legs and sending him to the hospital. Hobbling about on crutches, he tried to return to the dugout but was soon replaced by Jimmy Mars, an ambitious youngster who ran away from his Chicago home as soon as he heard about the mascot vacancy.

The Daily News

Three years later, Mr. Bennett was found dead in a furnished room on West 84th Street. Autographed photos from Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, both pitchers for the Yankees, hung on the walls, The New York Times reported. Balls and bats signed by Ruth and Lou Gehrig decorated the room. An autopsy found that Mr. Bennett had died of alcoholism. He was 31.

A few staff members from the Yankees front office braved the January cold to attend his funeral. None of the players went, possibly because they were scattered about owing to the off-season. The team paid for the burial at St. John’s.

The team would go on to win 23 more World Series, but the batboys who came after Eddie Bennett would never be as famous.

As big a Yankees fan as Charles Papio was, he had never heard of Mr. Bennett. One day in the fall of 2019, he came across the mascot’s name on the St. John’s Cemetery website, listed among the famous buried there, like Carlo Gambino, the crime boss, and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mr. Papio, a 73-year-old retired police officer, has a family grave at St. John’s and is a regular visitor. He had little trouble locating Mr. Bennett’s plot the next day, right next to Cooper Avenue.

When he got there, all he found was a patch of grass littered with dead leaves and a small American flag staked in it. There was no stone. Mr. Papio said a silent prayer. “My feelings were that he was a child of God and a mother’s child who had fallen through the cracks,” he said.

He started reading up on Mr. Bennett’s life. A practicing Catholic and an equally devoted Yankees fan — he owns mementos signed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle — he felt like something had to be done to honor the batboy’s memory.

Soon, he’d persuaded Ed Wilkinson, an editor at The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocese’s newspaper, to write a story about Mr. Bennett’s short, sad life.

The article soon made the rounds, and word that Mr. Bennett’s grave remained unmarked made it to the owner of a monument company on Long Island, who offered to donate a marker. The coronavirus pandemic delayed plans to hold a memorial service.

Finally, one sunny day last November, Mr. Papio put on a dark suit and drove to St. John’s. He stood by Mr. Bennett’s grave as the Rev. Michael Udoh, the cemetery’s chaplain, sprinkled holy water on a newly installed granite stone. It read: “Edward Bennett, 1903-1935. New York Yankees Mascot/Batboy, 1921-1932.”

Honoring Mr. Bennett at his gravesite were, from left, Anthony Spadolini, whose company donated a marker; the Rev. Michael Udoh; Anthony Nicodemo of the Catholic Cemeteries Office; and Charles Papio, a Yankees fan who initiated the effort to commemorate Mr. Bennett’s life.
Honoring Mr. Bennett at his gravesite were, from left, Anthony Spadolini, whose company donated a marker; the Rev. Michael Udoh; Anthony Nicodemo of the Catholic Cemeteries Office; and Charles Papio, a Yankees fan who initiated the effort to commemorate Mr. Bennett’s life.Ed Wilkinson/The Tablet

Father Udoh, who was born in Nigeria, had learned of Mr. Bennett only the day of the service, but he said he was moved by his story. “Even in his condition,” he said, “he was dedicated to bringing joy to people.”

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