Evers to Cubs to Cooperstown
In baseball, nothing is sacred. No achievement ever goes unchallenged when two fans meet over a like number of beers, no player walks into history without finding an army of disputatious detractors in hot pursuit. So it really isn’t surprising that there is at least one modern baseball writer who thinks that Johnny Evers and his Chicago teammates Joe Tinker and Frank Chance were probably overrated, an early product of what we now think of as hype or spin.
Evers was a gangly kid from Troy who was plucked from a minor league field in that city by a desperate Chicago scout, rushed down to Philadelphia to join the visiting Cubs as a last-minute replacement for a bum-legged shortstop and rather loosely outfitted (the 19-year-old Evers weighed only 115 pounds) for his first big league action—a doubleheader—that same day, Labor Day, 1902.
If his new teammates laughed at the sight of the scrawny little Irish kid in his man-sized uniform—they did laugh and the beleaguered scout protested, “It was the best I could do on short notice”—they wouldn’t be laughing for long. Evers (pronounced with the first “e” long) was as determined a player as baseball had ever seen. The scrappy but unlikely athlete who came up on Collar City sandlots gritted his teeth and scrapped his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That first day, the story goes, his fellow Cubs were so sure that he wouldn’t make it in the majors that they wouldn’t let him ride on the team bus for the return trip to the hotel. (He climbed on top of the bus and rode there.) In short order, however, the double play combination of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, following Evers’s move to second base, became possibly the most formidable and certainly the most famous two-away combo in the history of baseball.
Glenn Dickey, author of The History of National League Baseball Since 1876, thought that the trio’s fame owes more to hype than hustle, though. In 1910, the famed sports writer Franklin Pierce Adams tagged his column in the New York Mail one day with eight lines of doggerel, before rushing out to the Polo Grounds to root for his native town’s Cubs in a contest with the—for Adams—loathsome New York Giants.
Adams’s bad verse became an instant and enduring classic in the literature of baseball; his poem is still remembered, quoted and disputed a century after he dashed it off. What the distinguished and proudly partisan sportswriter wrote is this:
These are the saddest of possible words—
“Tinker to Evers to Chance”
Trio of Bear Cubs and fleeter than birds—
“Tinker to Evers to Chance”
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble
“Tinker to Evers to Chance”That poem, or so Mr. Dickey was later to claim, did more to secure the fame of the three Chicago infielders than did any of their own accomplishments on the diamond. “They should have,” Dickey suggested, “taken Franklin P. Adams into the Hall of Fame with them.”
But Glenn Dickey may have been a bit too clever, and he may have relied a bit too much on the words of New York Giants manager John McGraw, one of the meanest, if most capable, men in the history of an often mean sport, to make his case. The records speak very well, indeed, of Joe Tinker, Frank Chance, and the Capital Region’s homegrown Johnny Evers (who followed his career by opening a sporting goods business bearing his name that generations of area residents grew up frequenting for their bats and balls). For a decade or so, the Chicago Cubs were formidable, ruthlessly pricking the gonfalon bubbles of just about all comers. During Evers’s first stint with the team, from 1902 to 1913, the Cubs had only one losing season, making it to the World Series in 1906, 1907 and 1908 and winning two of the three contests.
Evers would also go on to play in that classic a fourth time, as a member of the 1914 Boston Braves, in a season in which he batted .341 and captured the equivalent of the Most Valuable Player Award. While he had only one other .300 season—1908 when he hit that number squarely on the head—he often was near the top of the list in statistical categories such as walks, stolen bases, runs scored and on-base percentage, seldom striking out along the way. As a fielder, Evers played in 1,776 games, recording 3,806 putouts and 5,215 assists and taking part in 692 double plays, the stuff of his legend, while committing 447 errors.
Overall, Evers chalked up eighteen mostly glorious seasons in the majors, first as a player and then a manager, mostly with the team that had once laughed him off the bus.□