Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bentley was first "Next Babe Ruth," Part 2

(Continued from Nov. 13)

One of only a handful of career-contemporary
baseball cards of hitting-pitching star Jack
Bentley is this card from the 1925
Walter Mails card game.

  In an era when holdouts by major league stars were still a relative rarity, Brooklyn baseball writer Thomas S. Rice attempted to explain each side's position in Jack Bentley's holdout against the N.Y. Giants in 1923.

Speaking of Bentley's case, he said, "It is perfectly natural that a player who has done such good work that his club is offered a huge sum for him should feel that part of the sum was coming to him from somebody as a just reward of merit and endeavor. On the other hand the player seldom stops to consider that the sale of players is largely the life of a minor league. Nor does the average player consider that while a high price may have been obtained for a star such as Bentley, the club selling the star has probably spent thousands of dollars upon other players who have proved more or less worthless, and have caused the salary, training expenses, railroad and hotel expenses and other items to go entirely to waste."

Rice continued, "The minor club owners furnish the schools, or factories, in which most of the major leaguers are developed. They have all the risk in keeping the club going and in experimenting with new material, while the player risks nothing at all. If he makes good he gets his salary, if he fails he is no worse off than before the club lost money trying him. Therefore the clubs feel that when they have polished a rough diamond found among a lot of rubbish, they are entitled to all of the proceeds when the diamond was sold.

"And there you are," Rice ended, "Which has the better argument in a case like Bentley's, the club or the sold star?" It seems obvious where Rice's sentiment lay.

Bentley's holdout continued into the latter stages of spring training, when McGraw commented on the mercenary motives of young players, as opposed to the purity with which players of his day approached the game, "The attitude of the younger ballplayers certainly has changed. In the days when I was an active player we first wanted a chance to prove that we could play ball. Now the young players want to be paid a bonus for giving a mild demonstration of baseball.

"I blame no man for trying to get all that he thinks he is worth," the Giants' manager continued, "but what the club owners might think would be something else again. When Hughie Jennings and I were a couple of ambitious young players breaking into the big time we even used to report to the ball parks early and rake over our part of the playing field. No, in those days they did not maintain luxuries such as groundskeepers. Every player did his own raking over.

"The game remains the same, of course, Muggsy concluded, "The only startling developments are the increase in the size of the ball parks and the increased value which a young player puts upon himself."

 By the end of the month, Bentley had signed his Giants' contract. Two decidedly different versions for the impetus found their way into the sporting press.

One account indicated that the pitcher dropped his demands on Dunn as the result of the death of Dunn's son, Jack, Jr., in late March, at the age of 27. Bentley was said to have been "the boy's boon companion," and when he saw Dunn's great grief said to him, "You have sorrow enough, I will not add to it by asking what I think is my due."

According to a later version, Orioles vice president Butch Schmidt was negotiating with Bentley, probably during Dunn's bereavement, while a cadre of reporters waited in another office supping the club's liquor. As the meeting stretched for hours and the booze supply began to run low, another team official is said to have rushed into the negotiating room and announced, "Say, Butch, if he only wants $5,000 give it to him. If this session keeps up much longer it's going to cost us that much for drinks for those fellows out in the other room."

Whatever the reason, it is believed that each club kicked in $2,500 to Bentley. The deal was already beginning to cause problems in the commissioner's office, where Landis ruled that the Giants could not send the "players to be named later" to Baltimore without draft attachments. Because the International League would not accept drafts of its players from the major leagues. That ruling cost New York another $10,000 payment to Baltimore.  

Bentley made his debut with the Giants on April 20 at Boston. He was soundly trounced, 9-2, giving up 13 hits, walking two and hitting two Braves batters. He struck out three and was 1-for-3 at the plate. His second outing was before the home crowd on April 29 and the Phillies knocked him out of the box in 2-2/3 innings, scoring six runs on nine hits and a walk. He took the 9-8 loss.

His next turn on the mound came at Philadelphia on May 7 where he won ugly, 13-8, and was hit hard, giving up a dozen base hits and three walks while striking out five. On the 18th he was the loser in a 7-0 blanking by the Reds, going eight innings and being touched for eight hits, six walks and a balk.

The Sporting News said of Bentley's early outings, "Jack Bentley, some of the critics say, is suffering the penalty of delay in reporting to the Giants. He came into camp fat and it took all his time to reduce his belt line, without a chance to try out his arm. Now he is stamped with the fatal word 'lemon' and it will be a tough job for him to climb the grade."

Cincinnati baseball writer W.A. Phelon issued these sarcastic comments, "Jack Bentley is a great thing for the National League and should be applauded and encouraged. Every time he goes to the hurling hill he gets a beating, the Giants get tumbled and life looks more pleasing for the other clubs."

Baltimore writer Roger Pippen analyzed Bentley's problem thusly, "New York writers have Jack Bentley wrong when they say that when (he) gets runners on bases he loses his nerve, his poise and his effectiveness. The southpaw then loses form, control and poise. He seems to be flustered, worried and nervous. And that's why opposition teams, when Bentley is on the mound, have for their slogan, `Get one man on base and we'll have a marathon.'

"But when Jack gets men on the paths he loses only one thing  his windup. His nerve and his poise are just the same, but without his corkscrew windup, Jack is like Samson with his locks cut. When Bentley is able to take his windup, it is hard for the batsmen to follow the ball and it is upon him before he realizes it."

Baltimore fans got another look at Bentley on Sept. 27 when the Giants played the Orioles in an exhibition game. Bentley hooked up for 10 innings against Lefty Grove and came out on the short end of a 4-3 score.

If Bentley's pitching arm wasn't up to par to begin the 1923 campaign, his batting eye was. Through July 13 he was batting .474. On July 15 he was used for the first time by the Giants as a pinch-hitter, and produced the desired result.

By the end of the season, Bentley was the league leader with 10 pinch hits in 20 PH at-bats. Combined with continued fine production at bat when he was pitching, the season ended with Bentley carrying a .427 batting average; 38 hits in 89 at-bats. That is a record that stands to this date. No major leaguer in 50 or more games has hit for a higher mark than Bentley's 1923 performance. (Hershiser ended the 1993 season with 26 hits in 71 at-bats, a .366 average.)

Bentley also managed to put together decent pitching stats that season, winning 13 and losing eight despite an ERA of 4.48. He ranked third in the league in strikeouts per nine innings, 3.93.

Once again in 1923  for the third straight year  the Giants met the Yankees in the World Series. Bentley's hot hitting continued into the Fall Classic. In Game 1 he came through with a pinch-hit single to help the Giants to a 5-4 victory.

In Game 2, Bentley came on in relief of Hugh McQuillen in the third inning, with two men on. Bentley loaded the bases by soaking opposing pitcher Herb Pennock, but got out of the inning with no damage. In the next inning he gave up a home run to Babe Ruth, then settled down to pitch four-hit ball with no more scoring the rest of the way. He had no decision in the 4-2 loss. At the plate, Bentley doubled in two at-bats.

Called upon to pinch-hit again in Game 4, Bentley again was successful, singling in the seventh inning in an 8-4 Giants loss.

Bentley was given the start in Game 5, played at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 62,817, a World Series record. He was knocked out of the box after only an inning and a third, having given up five hits and two walks. He was tagged with the loss and had no plate appearances.

In the sixth and final game of the '23 Series, Bentley was called upon to pinch-hit in the ninth, but grounded out as the Giants lost the game 6-4, and the Series, 4-2.

Bentley led all hitters with his .600 batting average in the World Series, though his 9.45 ERA was nothing to be proud of.

Loser's shares of the 1923 World Series, the richest in the history of the contests, were $4,363.

Following the 1923 World Series, Orioles owner-manager Jack
Dunn (center) brought his two prize discoveries, Babe Ruth
(left) and Jack Bentley to Baltimore for an exhibition game.
Ruth wore a N.Y. Giants uniform for the engagement.

In 1924 Bentley's batting average dropped 162 points. Still, his .265 mark is one which any pitcher would brag on. More importantly to the Giants, Bentley's pitching record improved to 16-5, the third-best winning percentage in the league, though his ERA remained relatively high at 3.78.

The Giants went to the World Series again in 1924, with the same result as 1923, though in '24 it was the Senators who proved American League superiority.

Bentley played a minor role in Game 1. Coming on in the 12th inning as a pinch-hitter, he drew a walk and was replaced by a pinch-runner who later scored to help the Giants beat the Senators and Walter Johnson in the first-ever World Series game played in the nation's capital.

In Game 2 Bentley had a complete-game loss, 4-3 and went hitless at the plate. Pinch-hitting in the ninth inning of Game 4 back in New York, Bentley was unsuccessful and the Giants lost 7-4.

Bentley was matched against Walter Johnson in Game 5 at New York and came out the winner of the 6-2 contest. Bentley helped himself greatly with the bat. He singled in the third inning and homered in the fifth to give the Giants the lead. In the eighth he gave up a home run and a single before being pulled for a relief pitcher.

In Game 5 of the 1924 World Series, Bentley was thrown out at
home to end the third inning, but defeated Walter Johnson 6-2.

In the final game of one of the all-time great World Series, Bentley came on in relief in the 11th inning with the score tied 3-3. In an inning and a third he gave up a walk and three hits and lost the game 4-3 to Johnson.

Bentley hit .286 in the Series. His pitching line was a 1-2 record on 3.18 ERA. He pitched 17 innings, giving up 18 hits and eight walks while striking out 10. Loser's share of the 1924 World Series purse was $3,820.

Though Bentley's pinch-hig had dropped off to 4-for-18 (.222) in 1924, he performed much better in that capacity in 1925, tying for the league lead with 28 pinch-hit at-bats and coming through with a league-topping nine pinch hits (.321). Bentley raised his overall batting average back over .300 that season and, for the first time since 1917, played a handful of games in the outfield as well as a game on first base.

On the mound in 1925 Bentley's record evened out to an 11-9 mark and his ERA ballooned over 5.00. The Giants finished second that year.

This is a 1925 Universal Toy &
Novelty strip card from a
team-set sheet.
Because he was said to have lost faith in Bentley "as a money pitcher," McGraw traded him on Dec. 30, 1925, along with Wayland Dean, a "promising pitcher," for veteran Phillies pitcher Jimmy Ring. Considering the purchase price of Dean and Bentley, the Giants paid $122,500 for Ring, who was 11-10 for the Giants in 1926 before being traded to the Cardinals the next season with Frankie Frisch for Rogers Hornsby.

The Phillies had hoped Bentley could fill their long-standing need for a first baseman. Veteran ballplayer and baseball columnist Jess Altenburg said, "The
y say that Jack Bentley is to become (manager Art) Fletcher's regular first baseman. They want Jack in the line-up every day, as they figure his hitting will be a big asset to the Phillies. This seems like a wise move.

"Bentley is a big, powerful left-handed hitter, and in the Philly park, which is a small one, Jack should be able to get many a base hit. He seems made to order for his new surroundings.

"Fletcher may be planning to use Jack as Baltimore did," Altenburg speculated, "That is, play him regularly on first, but shove him in to pitch occasionally. Bentley can stand a lot of work, or he could, not long ago, and he'll give a good account of himself whether pitching or on first."

Unfortunately, Bentley was not the first baseman the Phils had been looking for. In 56 games he hit .258. He also appeared on the mound in seven games for the Phils, with an 0-2 record and an 8.28 ERA.

On this 1927 Exhibit card, Bentley is
pictured in a Phillies uniform, but
correctly listed as a N.Y. Giant.
On Sept. 15, the Phillies waived Bentley. Ironically, it was the Giants who claimed him for the $4,000 waiver price. He appeared in just three games for the Giants; twice as a pinch-hitter; once for two innings of relief work on the mound, with no decision.

About this time, Bentley became an off-season employee of John McGraw's, as well. The Giants' manager had become involved in the Florida land boom and was promoting a housing development at Sarasota called "Pennant Park." Bentley was hired to serve as New York agent for the project which eventually went belly-up and cost McGraw a fortune and his health.

Bentley closed out his big league career with the Giants in early 1927. He made four relief pitching appearances with no record, and played twice at first base, hitting .222. In late May the Giants bailed out the financially strapped Newark Bears of the International League. As the first transaction of their new working agreement, the Giants sent Bentley to the Bears in exchange for first option on the team's roster at season's end. Bentley's manager at Newark was Walter Johnson -- this was in the era when even the game's superstars didn't expect major league managerial reins to be handed to them without serving an apprenticeship in the minors.

Bentley pitched well in the minors, with an 11-3 record, even though he was sidelined for several weeks with the mumps. He hit .270 for the third-place finishers.

Back with Newark for 1928, Bentley hit .311. He went back to splitting time at first base as his pitching arm had lost its pizzazz. He had a 6-7 record and Newark finished seventh in the league.

At the close of the season it was announced that Bentley had been traded to the York White Roses (one of the all-time great minor league team nicknames) of the New York-Pennsylvania League, which team he was expected to serve as playing manager. York was a farm club of Newark at that time -- yes, even minor league teams had minor league teams back then.

Bentley spent three seasons as skipper and first baseman at York. He hit a cumulative .357 from 1929-31 for York, and led the league with 46 doubles in his first year, while also leading the league first basemen in fielding percentage.

As a manager, Bentley had no great success at York, finishing fourth, sixth and fifth in his three seasons.

In late August, 1931, Bentley resigned as York manager and was signed by Rochester for their pennant drive. In 17 games at first base for the Red Wings he hit .306 and Rochester did, indeed, win the International League pennant.

After nine seasons, Bentley found himself again facing St. Paul in the Little World Series, at the same time the parent St. Louis Cardinals were playing the A's for the major league championship.

When George Sisler was forced out of Game 1 with a recurrence of an old groin injury, Bentley took over the initial sack for the remainder of the series. He batted .310 in the series overall, and in Games 5-7 hit .500 with a home run, five RBIs and three runs. His fielding in the series was flawless. Rochester beat the Saints five games to three, but because of cold weather, the Depression or the on-going World Series, the purse amounted to a winner's share of only $600.

On the recommendation of Rochester president and future National League president Warren C. Giles, Bentley was offered a job for 1932 as a manager in the Cardinals' chain, returning to the N.Y.-Penn League with Elmira.

Bentley appears on a number of
1990s collectors card, such as this
1993 Conlon Collection issue.
Bentley was basically a bench manager with the Colonels, playing a few games at first base, doing some pinch-hitting and even making his first appearance on the mound in five years. He gave up three hits and a run, walked two and struck out three in three innings of work. With the bat, Bentley hit just .232.

Late in the 1932 season, when Specs Toporcer replaced Billy Southworth as Rochester manager, Bentley rejoined the Red Wings as a coach. The following season, with the Depression deepening, minor league coaches became a luxury that even the rich St. Louis farm system couldn't afford and Bentley was released, ending his professional career.

After his playing days Bentley worked as a salesman for a Washington, D.C., paint company. His late years were plagued with severe arthritic pain and Bentley was said to have become an avid reader of the classics and a student of Chinese philosophy.

On Oct. 24, 1969, Bentley died at Olney, Md., at the age of 74.

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