Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jack Bentley was first "Next Babe Ruth," Part 1

(This feature is updated from a version that was printed in Sports Collector's Digest in 1993.)
Jack Bentley went right from the sandlot
to the major leagues in 1913, when he was
pegged as a potential pitching and hitting star.
He's shown here with the Senators in 1915.

When Orel Hershiser was flirting with a .400 batting average going into the final month of the 1993 season, a few sportswriters and broadcasters brought up the name of Jack Bentley. Few of today's fans and collectors have heard of Bentley, but he was big news in the early 1920s when he was proclaimed "the next Babe Ruth."

Bentley was quite possibly the first ballplayer saddled with that onerous appellation which has, over the years, been an albatross around the neck of countless rookies.

 Similarities between the Babe and Bentley are numerous. Both were born in Maryland in 1895. Both made their major league debuts as southpaw pitchers in the American League while still in their teens, and both went on to greater fame as batting stars. There were differences, as well . . . Bentley was a Quaker, Ruth a libertine.

Bentley, in fact, preceded Ruth to the majors by a season, and if it had been with any other team than the second-place Washington Nationals of 1913, Babe Ruth might have been known as "the next Jack Bentley."

Late in the 1913 season, Clark Griffith plucked Bentley off the sandlots of Sandy Springs, Md., where he was playing left-handed shortstop, and put him on the major league roster with the intent to develop him into a star pitcher. The Griffmen had been vainly chasing Connie Mack's A's all season and would finish 6-1/2 games behind. Even in the last month of the season, Bentley didn't get off the bench often. He had plenty of company, however, as Griffith tried a total of 23 pitchers that season, including taking a turn on the mound himself at the age of 43. 

 Bentley made his debut for Washington in a relief role on Sept. 6, at the age of 18; he did not figure in the decision. He also got a no-decision in his second relief outing. On Oct. 1, with the pennant clinched by Philadelphia and the season in its final days, Bentley was given a start against the A's. He won 1-0, pitching an eight-inning shutout, presumably the game being called on account of darkness and lack of significance.

 In his month-long major league debut, Bentley had winning and fielding percentages of 1.000, an ERA of 0.00 and a batting average of .000.

Bentley's father died about that time, leaving him a 175-acre farm in Maryland, but Bentley wasn't yet ready to pick up the plow. He returned to the Washington staff for 1914 to share the lefty reliever's role with another 19-year-old, Harry Harper. Though he had a 5-8 record in 1914, Bentley tied for the league lead with four saves and was second on the team with a 2.37 ERA. In 40 at-bats, Bentley hit .275 for the third-place Nats.

Bentley opened the 1915 season at Washington with an 0-2 record, though his ERA was only 0.79. In mid-May he was released to Minneapolis in the American Association.

On May 23, in his first-ever minor league game, Bentley beat the Kansas City Blues 4-3 on a three-hitter. Two of the three hits he gave up were home runs to the same batter, and he walked seven and had a wild pitch. Bentley went 2-for-3 at the plate. Two months later Bentley cracked his elbow and was put out of action. He returned as the Millers won the A.A. championship. He contributed a 7-4 record and .239 batting average to the effort.

 He was summoned back to Washington to start the final game of the 1915 season, the second game of an Oct. 6 doubleheader; he lost 0-4 to the A's.

 Bentley's 1916 season began with a return to Minneapolis. After going 8-6 he was recalled by Washington briefly then traded to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. In 11 games with the old O's, Bentley was 7-3 with an ERA of 2.12. At the end of the season, Bentley was once again returned to the Washington roster, but before the 1917 campaign got underway, he was released back to Baltimore, his pitching arm having gone dead.

Jack Dunn, the man who had "discovered" Babe Ruth, decided to explore Bentley's potential as a hitter. Bentley played 21 games in the outfield prior to taking over first base for the rest of the season (65 games). His pitching that season was limited to one inning of relief. The extra at-bats paid off as Bentley hit .342, fifth-best in the league  with five home runs. Highlights of Bentley's 1917 season included a June 12 game with Richmond in which he had a single, a double and two triples in five at-bats, and a rare performance two weeks later in which he came in as a pinch-hitter against Montreal and hit two singles in that inning.

As the season wore on, and the major leagues began to lose players to military service in World War I, Dunn began to receive inquiries about Bentley's availability. He discouraged all offers by asking $7,500 and two or three players for his star.

When the draft period opened, however, the Boston Red Sox claimed Bentley for the draft price. The BoSox claim, however, was over-ridden by Uncle Sam, who drafted Bentley into the U.S. Army. Bentley saw a good deal of action in France and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the infantry. Twice he was cited for bravery, with appropriate medals being awarded.

While fighting overseas, Bentley was waived back to the Orioles. He returned from France in late May of 1919 and reclaimed his first base job. He batted .324 with 11 home runs to help Baltimore to a first-place finish. More significantly, while playing first base in 1919, Bentley felt his throwing arm come around and decided he could attempt a return to mound duty.
This 1995 Conlon Collection card details
Bentley's estimable combat record in WWI.

In 1920, Bentley once again began to split time between first base and pitching. He performed each role with outstanding success. On the mound he had a 16-3 record and led the International League with a 2.11 ERA. With the bat he hit .371 with 20 home runs and a league-leading 161 RBIs in 145 games. Those totals could have been higher, but in mid-August, stung by criticism from a sportswriter, Bentley deserted the team for several days. He would repeat that stunt several times in the coming years, earning a reputation as "temperamental."

For the season, Bentley's batting average was third in the league, as were his home runs. He was tied for second with 39 doubles and held the second rank undisputed in number of at-bats (622) and hits (231). He led the league with 354 total bases. One contemporary sportswriter figured that in games in which he pitched, Bentley batted .237; as a first baseman his batting average was .400. Bentley led the league's first basemen in errors that season, with 21.

The Orioles won the I.L. pennant again and entered into a post-season playoff series with St. Paul, champions of the American Association.

 Bentley was undeniably the star of the Oct. 5 opener at Baltimore. Besides throwing a complete game 5-3 win, he was 3-for-4 at the plate with a pair of home runs.

 In the next two games, Bentley held down first base, going 4-for-9 in a split with the Saints. He returned to the mound for the fourth contest, the last in Baltimore. He again had a complete-game win, 9-2.

 Bentley was again on the mound when the series moved to Minnesota. Despite giving up 11 hits he went the distance to rack up a 6-5 win.

 Game 6 proved to be the series finale as the O's won 1-0. Bentley, on first base, went hitless as Baltimore clinched the best-of-nine series, five games to one. That oh-fer lowered his post-season series average to .375.

 Splitting his time between the mound and first base worked so well for Bentley and the Orioles in 1920, that they repeated the assignment in 1921. If anything, it was more successful. On an ERA of 2.35, fourth-best in the league, Bentley compiled a 12-1 record. He was even more effective with the willow. He led the league's hitters with a .412 batting average and 246 hits. His 47 doubles and 24 home runs were also league-bests.

 The Orioles cruised to another I.L. pennant, 20 games ahead of Rochester. Their A.A. opponents in the "Little World Series" of 1921 were the Louisville Colonels, who beat the Orioles five games to three. Bentley pitched only two innings of relief in the post-season series, playing the rest of the time on first base. He hit .314 with a couple of doubles, a triple and a home run.

 Following such a tremendous season, it was natural that acquisition inquiries from the big league clubs would be received. Dunn let it be known that he was looking for $100,000 cash, plus at least two replacement players. There were no takers, though apparently the N.Y. Giants pursued the matter seriously before manager John McGraw announced that he wouldn't pay that kind of money for the whole Baltimore team.

 Not unexpectedly, Bentley's batting numbers fell off some in 1922, though he was still fourth among the International League in batting average (.351) and doubles (39), and was second on the list in total bases (334), home runs (22) and RBIs (128).

 As a pitcher, Bentley's stats improved in 1922. After losing his first start of the season, Bentley ran off eight straight wins. The last of those victories was an Aug. 3 two-hitter at Reading in which he struck out 13 batters, enabling Baltimore to win its only game of the four-game series. Following that game Bentley again took French leave, once again precipitated by negative comments in the press, attributed to Orioles manager Jack Dunn, to the effect that Dunn placed small value on his services (though Bentley was the team's highest-paid player) and could probably get along without him.

 Chick Foreman, Baltimore correspondent for The Sporting News, commented, "Bentley has been in baseball nearly ten years and has not yet learned to put small stress on newspaper criticism. (He) has been pampered and petted so in the last few years that he seems to imagine himself immune from criticism. With a losing club he could not get along, for the ragging of the fans would be too much for him and yet he, unable to stand the gaff, hopes to go to the majors next year."

 There were rumors that Bentley would be dealt to the Cincinnati Reds, but on Aug. 11 he returned to the O's. On Aug. 27 he won his 13th straight game.

 Though he didn't pitch in enough games to qualify as the statistical leader, his 13-2 record and 1.73 ERA were nominally tops in the league.

 The champion Orioles played two post-season series in 1922. While waiting for the American Association to sort out its pennant race, Baltimore engaged New Haven, champions of the Eastern League, in a three-game set. Surprisingly, New Haven spanked the O's. Bentley pitched a complete-game victory, 5-1, to open the series. He did not play in an 11-7 Baltimore loss in Game 2, and in the finale, at first base, went 1-for-3. New Haven won the series by coming back in the bottom of the ninth to score six runs and win the game, 6-5. Attending the New Haven-Baltimore series was John McGraw, who professed New York's disinterest in Bentley when he returned to New York.

 St. Paul was again the Orioles opponent in the Little World Series of 1922. Bentley was again tabbed as the opening game pitcher, and came through with a 9-4 win, going the distance before the hometown fans. In Game 3, Bentley notched another win, pitching five innings in a 13-10 victory. At first base in Games 2 and 4, Bentley hit .250 with a couple of runs plated, splitting those contests with the Saints.

When the series moved to St. Paul, Bentley played first base in the fifth and sixth games, again hitting .250 and again splitting with the home team. Bentley ended the series in Game 7 with a complete-game victory, 4-3. In the finale he was 3-for-5 at the plate with a double, giving him a .346 average for the series.

For their work in the post-season series, each Baltimore player received about $1,000.

 On Oct. 30, 1922, the N.Y. Giants announced the acquisition of Jack Bentley from the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. Despite having swept the Yankees in the 1922 World Series, John McGraw, always a proponent of left-handed pitching, decided he needed to supplement Art Nehf, the only port-sider to win a game for the Giants in 1922.

That Bentley was available at all was the result of a rebellion on the part of the rest of the International League owners against Jack Dunn's Orioles dynasty. Refusing to accept major league drafts of his players, Dunn had built a machine that had won four straight pennants. At a Sept. 22 meeting, the owners told Dunn he would have to break up his star-studded team and Bentley was one of the player put on the block.

McGraw entered into a bidding war with the Yankees and Reds for Bentley. The final price tag was $65,000 cash and three players to be named later. In the event the players didn't pan out for Baltimore, another $7,500 was to be paid. That was the third highest price ever paid for a major league player. The Giants had, the previous year, paid $75,000 for outfielder Jimmy O'Connell, while the penurious Charles Comiskey had laid out an even $100,000 for third baseman Willie Kamm.

McGraw had returned to Baltimore in mid-October to attend an old-timers function, and there renewed negotiations with Dunn. "I'm buying Bentley as a pitcher," he announced. "He is a mighty fine player in all respects, but he'll be the most good to us in the box. So far as I can see there will not be any room anywhere else." Though McGraw stated his intention of using Bentley as a pitcher exclusively, rumors began to fly that he would put Bentley on first base and convert future Hall of Famer George Kelly into a pitcher. Other rumors had McGraw trading Bentley to the Reds for Eddie Roush, whom McGraw had traded away in 1916 and coveted ever since.

Former Reds manager and Giants infielder Buck Herzog, who was writing a baseball column for the Baltimore Sun, predicted success for Bentley as a Giants pitcher.

According to Herzog, Bentley had approached him on the q.t. to apprise him of his pending sale to the Giants and ask Buck's advice about making good in the National League. In his role as Dutch uncle, Herzog told Bentley, "That in a great measure depends upon you. You must adjust yourself to two things: forget your temperament and remember that you are with a club that is managed by a man who is different from any manager in baseball. By assuming that you are a star and requesting that you be recognized as such in the beginning, your career with the Giants will be a short one."

Despite playing nine years in the major
leagues during the heart of the strip-
and caramel-card issuing period, Jack
Bentley appears appears on relatively
few career-contemporary cards.
This is a 1923 W515-2 strip card.

Herzog then provided this analysis of Bentley's pitching skills, "Bentley's style in the box is one that the Giant manager always admires. His wind-up and move to first is far more effective than any of the southpaws the Giants have had on their staff in years gone by. The Giants and their supporters will find in Bentley in this particular feature one even beyond their fondest expectations; an angle which will assert itself and prove to be a large factor. This combined with the ability he possesses as a pitcher leaves no doubt that he will make good with the Giants as a pitcher during the coming season."

Having title to Bentley's services turned out to be somewhat less than a guarantee that the Giants could induce him to play, however. By February he was being classified as a holdout. It was not the salary on his 1923 contract that was a problem, according to the pitcher, but rather that a great deal of money had changed hands for his services with no immediate fiscal benefit to himself. Before he would sign with the Giants, Bentley declared, he wanted a little somethingfor himself, say $5,000. 

McGraw reminded him that his club had already laid out plenty of money for a pitcher who had failed as a big league pitcher a decade earlier, and suggested he approach his old boss for the bonus. Dunn flatly refused, saying the deal was done and over.

(Continued Nov. 15)

1 comment:

  1. Jack Bentley is my great-uncle, married to my grandfathers sister, Aunt Helen.


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