The Vagaries of a Career

We see it happen all the time. A can’t-miss prospect finally makes it up to the bigs, and we anticipate great things, only to see him disappoint.  Andy Marte, Brandon Wood, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero. All were supposed to be the salvation of the franchise that drafted or acquired them. None have lived up to the hype. It’s happened to the Giants, too, nowhere more famously than in the case of Jack Bentley.

When the New York Giants purchased Jack Bentley from the Baltimore Orioles following the 1922 season, they acquired one of the minor leagues’ most famous stars. Bentley, sometimes referred to as “the Babe Ruth of the International League,” appeared destined to become an outstanding player in the majors. Unfortunately, because of a combination of circumstances, he never achieved stardom in the big leagues and instead wound up being the victim of two of the most unusual plays in World Series history.

Bentley had spent parts of four seasons with the Washington Senators, where he had been used primarily as a relief pitcher. Jack Dunn of the International League’s Baltimore Orioles acquired Bentley in 1916 and made him a first baseman, the position for which Dunn, a renowned judge of talent, considered Bentley best suited. Bentley hit .343 with a .492 slugging percentage and seemed destined to return to the majors as a hitter.

World War I intervened, however. Although Bentley, a Quaker, could have claimed exemption from the draft, he entered the Army. Sent to France as a private in the infantry, he saw more than 60 days under fire in the trenches, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He served approximately 19 months, missing the 1918 and half of the 1919 seasons.

When Bentley rejoined the Orioles, he became the star of the team and the league. Dunn, who had developed many great major leaguers, considered Bentley the best. In 1921, Bentley tried to prove Dunn correct by hitting .412 to lead not only the International League but all the minors. He had 397 total bases with 24 homers. Pitching occasionally, he won twelve games with a 2.10 ERA. Although major league teams were eager to buy Bentley, Dunn would not sell him, amid speculation about how Bentley would do in the majors.

In 1922, Bentley was the greatest drawing card the International League had known in years. Playing in every Oriole game either as a pitcher or first baseman, he won 13 games with an ERA of 1.73. He hit .351 with 22 homers and 39 doubles. A tailor in Baltimore had advertised that he would give a free suit to every Oriole player who hit a home run. After Bentley had collected eight suits, he suggested to the tailor that he should only take one suit for every four home runs. The tailor happily accepted. Bentley explained, “I didn’t want to break the poor fellow.”

All the while, Bentley was becoming increasingly frustrated because Dunn, who wanted to retain his stars to bolster Baltimore attendance, declined to sell him to a major league team. Baseball rules at that time prohibited drafting players from the high minors, and Dunn kept telling his star that no major league team wanted to purchase his contract. Bentley decided to see whether Dunn was telling him the truth. After the International League season of 1922, he went to the Polo Grounds in New York to see John McGraw. The Giants’ manager told Bentley, “I’ve been trying to buy you for three years.”

McGraw gave Bentley a check for $35,000 to take back to Dunn to call his bluff. Negotiations then began to move, and Dunn finally agreed to sell Bentley to the Giants for $65,000 and three players. When McGraw couldn’t supply players to Dunn’s liking, he gave Dunn an additional $7,000. Thus Bentley was in the majors for $72,000, an unprecedented price. He was also 27 years old.

But then Bentley refused to report to the Giants’ San Antonio, Texas, spring training camp in 1923. He insisted that Dunn (or the Giants) give him $5,000 of the sale price. Dunn had set a precedent by giving some of his former stars a portion of the money he had received when selling them. Both Dunn and McGraw refused to yield, though, and Bentley remained at his home in Maryland. McGraw, desperate for left handed pitching (the only southpaw on the Giants’ staff was the superb Art Nehf), labeled Bentley’s demands outrageous and urged the player to report and work himself into shape pending settlement of the dispute with Dunn.

McGraw wired Bentley, “The sooner you get here, the better it will be for you. A place on the pitching staff is waiting for you, but you must be in condition by the opening of the season.”

Bentley wired back, “Tell that to Dunn.”

After he received part of the purchase price from Dunn, Bentley arrived at training camp twenty pounds over his playing weight. McGraw was furious and ordered the latecomer to run miles around the park every day wearing a rubber shirt and sweat shirt under a heavy flannel uniform. Although Bentley trained hard and was in shape by the time the team reached New York, McGraw would remember Bentley’s bold demands.

Bentley immediately impressed his teammates in camp, though. Broad shouldered, dark, good looking with a ready wit and a booming bass-baritone voice, he had the poise of a champion. The veteran Nehf said of Bentley, “I never saw anybody who looked more like a major league ballplayer — or acted like one is supposed to act.” Bentley’s unusual batting style and pitching delivery also drew attention. He stood at the plate with feet close together, and as the pitcher released the ball, he raised one leg and swung while standing on the other leg. (Mel Ott, a later great Giant, hit in a similar way.) Bentley’s pitching windup involved what one writer called “a set number of astonishing gyrations” that ended with his turning his back almost completely to the hitter just before he released the ball. (In this, he was the precursor to Luis Tiant.)

But circumstances again impinged on Bentley’s baseball career. George Kelly had the Giants’ first base job. Bentley thus could not play the position for which he felt he was best suited. Nor could McGraw make room for him in the outfield. He was used only as a pitcher and pinch-hitter in 1923. Nevertheless, he played an important role in the Giants’ winning of the 1923 pennant. More significant than his pitching, which was not impressive (13-8 with a 4.48 ERA and 86 ERA+), was his 1.019 OPS, with ten of his hits coming in 20 pinch-hitting appearances. Bentley singled in his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter in the World Series against the Yankees. Although he was hit hard and lost his only decision in the Series, he went three-for-five at the plate with a double.

In 1924, Bentley pitched almost at league average (ERA+ of 97), but his OPS fell to .624. However, in the World Series, against the Washington Senators, he walloped a two-run homer in the fifth game and beat Walter Johnson, 6-2. In that game, his only World Series victory, he pitched well for seven and one-third innings before he was relieved.

It was in the deciding seventh game that two unusual breaks, both in the twelfth inning, led to Bentley’s defeat and a world championship for Washington. Pitching magnificently in relief, Bentley had retired one man in the twelfth when Muddy Ruel, the Senators’ weak-hitting catcher, lifted an easy foul pop-up. Hank Gowdy, the Giants’ catcher, did not toss his mask far enough away and consequently stepped on it, stumbled, and failed to catch the ball. Given another chance, Ruel doubled. Shortstop Travis Jackson then fumbled Walter Johnson’s grounder, an error on what should have been the third out. Next, Earl McNeely‘s easy grounder struck a pebble and bounced over third baseman Fred Lindstrom’s head, allowing Ruel to score the winning run.

The next season, Bentley’s pitching declined (86 ERA+) while his hitting improved (.846 OPS), but McGraw had grown tired of him, disappointed that he had not been better. In December, the Giants traded him to the Phillies for pitcher Jimmy Ring. Philadelphia actually used Bentley as a first baseman in 56 games, but he only hit .258/.273/.358. Placed on waivers in September, he was claimed by the Giants. He appeared in eight games for the Giants in 1927, and was released.  Bentley returned to the minors, and managed there for a time, never having fulfilled his promise as a player.

Circumstances conspired against Bentley. Clark Griffith of the Senators didn’t recognize the value of Bentley’s bat. Jack Dunn did recognize it, but then the Great War robbed Bentley of playing time. The war over, Dunn kept the phenom in the minors for Dunns’ own benefit. By the time McGraw and the Giants got Bentley, he was 27, an old “rookie” arguably about to enter his decline phase as a professional. Who knows what he could have been had he made it to the majors earlier, or even been able to play for a team other than the Giants, one with an opening at first base. Maybe his career — glory in the minors, disappointment in the majors — was best summed up by Bentley himself. “I began too early at the top.”

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