You wouldn’t think that Babe Ruth and his teammates would need luck on their side. Not when the New York Yankees, spearheaded by the Babe’s prodigious slugging, earned the moniker “Murderers’ Row” in the 1920s.
But even the Yankees and their mighty home run champion liked to have lady luck on their side. That’s what led to the presence of little Eddie Bennett, at the birth of the greatest dynasty in sports history, of a sympathetic figure who earned a living for being good luck.
As noted baseball author Gabriel Schechter pointed out with his book “Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw’s Giants,” there was a time in American history when the sight of an unusual person, even what some might call an odd duck, could be taken as a good omen. One hundred years ago folks clung to rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers, and they believed strongly in the luck that was attached to a horseshoe.
To ballplayers, a boy like Eddie Bennett was a sign of special luck that only came with his unusual circumstances. Because back in those days, an individual with a disability or a birth defect, could be seen as good luck.
Bennett was born in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn to poor parents. Some people claimed Eddie had been washed ashore from a ship that sailed into New York Harbor, and others thought he was a “community child” that didn’t belong to anyone. But his origins were not so extraordinary. Bennett was a normal boy in most ways. Except for his size and fortune.
When he was very little, Bennett was seriously injured in a carriage accident that left him with a twisted spine. Whether from that accident or some genetic reason, Bennett did not grow much. By the time he was a teenager he was only a few feet tall and frail, with arms like pool cues. With his spine bent like a question mark, he developed a hunchback. Things got even worse when both of Eddie’s parents died in the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.
Despite the tragedy of Eddie’s youth, he somehow maintained a sanguine attitude. So much so that he earned the nickname “Smiling Eddie” from his acquaintances in Brooklyn.
At some point and somehow, the enterprising orphan befriended Chicago White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil, most likely while loitering at the Polo Grounds. Bennett earned Gandil’s friendship, and Chick was convinced that Eddie’s luck was responsible for a good day he had on the diamond in New York. In 1919, the 16-year old Eddie became the personal valet for Gandil and a sort of good luck charm, even traveling on road trips with the White Sox. When the Sox won the pennant, Gandil and his teammates evidently rewarded Smiling Eddie with $25 and a steak dinner.
But when Gandil and seven of his teammates were caught conspiring to lose the World Series a year later, Bennett’s days with the White Sox came to an end. Fortunately, the New York native latched on to an even bigger fish.
By all accounts, Babe Ruth loved at least four things without reservation:
- Hitting home runs
- Chasing women
- Drinking beer and
Despite the women and beer, kids loved Babe. They saw him as an overgrown kid, which is what he was.
In 1921, Bennett became batboy for the Yankees, though how he grabbed that position is lost to history. At any rate, when the Yanks opened the season at the Polo Grounds against the Athletics, there was the little hunchback teenager in his pinstriped Yankee uniform, on the field with the Babe and Home Run Baker. There he was picking up the bat used by Long Bob Meusel, and sitting on the bench with another little fella: the pipsqueak Yank manager Miller Huggins. Smiling Eddie must have shown his teeth a lot on opening day in ’21: the Yanks scored 11 runs.
Was Eddie good luck? The Babe went 5-for-5 that first game with Bennett in uniform. That was all the proof Ruth and the Yankees needed.
Eddie and Ruth gradually became great friends. For a while, Eddie was the only person the Babe would play catch with before a game. Ruth liked Bennett to sit near him in the Yankee dugout, and he insisted that the little Flatbusher join the team on the train for road games. In early September when a seven-game winning streak lifted the Yanks into first, Babe presented the team good luck charm with a new suit.
Ruth belted an astonishing 59 home runs and drove in 168 runs that season with Smiling Eddie Bennett as his good luck charm and go-fer. The team played in the World Series in each of the first three seasons that Eddie was in uniform. As far as success goes, Bennett was the greatest good luck charm in baseball history.
Gradually, as the 1920s wore on, Eddie gobbled up more responsibility. Not only was he the Babe’s favorite tossing partner, but Bennett also helped plan hotel reservations and train schedules, working as a de facto traveling secretary for the Yankees. He also earned the trust of Huggins, who taught Eddie how to steal the opposing team’s signs.
But things didn’t end well for Bennett.
You just knew it would end badly, didn’t you?
In May of 1932, Eddie was crossing a street in New York when a taxi cab plowed into him. His injuries were not life-threatening, but the fragile Bennett was never the same. With his mobility limited, Eddie left the Yankees in 1933. Ironically, the ’32 season was the last in which the Ruth Yankees won a championship.
Without his close pal Ruth around, and without his job with the Yanks, Eddie spiraled out of control. He spent any money he had on gambling and drinking, while the Yanks also suffered. In both 1933 and 1934, the Yankees failed to win the pennant, a fact that observers noted considering the absence of Eddie in the dugout.
On January 16, 1935, Eddie died alone at a lodging room in Manhattan, hung over and penniless. Sadly, not a single Yankee player attended his funeral, which was paid for by Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, rescuing Eddie from being buried in a pauper’s grave.
The story of Smiling Eddie Bennett is strange and sad. Today we would never exploit a person like Eddie (thankfully). But in a way, it’s heartwarming that for at least a few years of his otherwise tragic life, Eddie was an eyewitness to greatness, and a personal friend (at least for a while) to baseball’s most cherished ballplayer. In 12 full seasons with Eddie as Yankee batboy and charm, Babe Ruth blasted 549 home runs, averaging 46 per.
Who knows? Maybe without Eddie, the Babe wouldn’t have been such a Sultan of Swat?