Quietly dependable though seldom spectacular for most of his five full major-league seasons as an infielder, Steve Yerkes grasped immortality when he played a central role in one of baseball’s legendary episodes. In the bottom of the 10th inning of the deciding game of the epic 1912 World Series, Yerkes raced home with the winning run on a sacrifice fly to cap the Boston Red Sox’ dramatic comeback over the New York Giants. Yerkes’ sprint to glory came moments after he drew a walk from control artist Christy Mathewson. Tucked amid a sequence of shocking plays—and misplays—in the inning, Yerkes’ base on balls and subsequent championship tally punctuated an outstanding Series for the 24-year-old second baseman. His key hits in Games One and Five led to Red Sox victories, and he was nearly perfect in the field against the Giants. Yerkes’ heroics catapulted him to temporary celebrity and a permanent place in World Series lore.
The rest of Yerkes’ career failed to approach the soaring heights of his October 1912 performance. He was hailed by the Red Sox brass as baseball’s next great second baseman, but Yerkes’ syrupy footwork caused him to swiftly fall out of favor on a Boston team christened the Speed Boys. He joined Pittsburgh in the Federal League in 1914 and thrived in the upstart circuit. When the league collapsed, he logged part of one season with the Chicago Cubs, gaining service in all three major leagues. Charismatic and intelligent, Yerkes spent his post-playing days as a successful manager in the minors, despite suffering personal tragedy.
Born on May 15, 1888, in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a town about 15 miles north of Philadelphia, Stephen Douglas Yerkes seemed destined for a career on the diamond. (Yerkes himself cited nearby Willow Grove as his birthplace on both his World War I and World War II draft registration cards.) The youngest of eight surviving children of Joseph Ball and Rebecca Valentine (maiden name Yerkes) Yerkes, Steve became one of four brothers—Harman, Claude, and William were the others—to play professional baseball. Steve’s father was an accomplished man, who did not dissuade his sons’ ballfield aspirations. A farm owner, Joseph held jobs as a school director and teacher and a justice of the peace, and served three years in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
When Steve was a toddler, a terrible accident marked him for the rest of his life. He tumbled onto a scorching coal-and-wood-burning stove in the kitchen of the family home, searing both sides of his face and the area around his mouth. The accident left him badly scarred and self-conscious about his appearance. But it did not impair his maturation. As an adolescent, Steve manned the infield for teams in Hatboro and nearby Jenkintown. A voracious reader growing up, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1905 and secured the starting shortstop spot on the varsity team the following spring.
That summer, Yerkes tested his ability in the small professional ranks at Millville, New Jersey, the hometown of his future wife, Mary Menz. He teamed with brother William, a pitcher, to help capture the South Jersey League championship. He then caught on with Altoona of the Tri-State League and assumed the name Williamson to protect his college eligibility. Fearing exposure, he abruptly quit the team. But pro baseball proved to be a greater pull than the academic life. Steve left Penn after only two years, and embarked on a vagabond existence during the summers of 1907 and 1908. Swinging a potent right-handed bat and possessing an abundance of on-field savvy, he made stops at Stroudsburg, Chester, and Altoona, Pennsylvania; Millville; and New Bern, North Carolina.
Yerkes launched his initial ascent to the major leagues in 1909. After beginning the year at Altoona, he landed with Wilson (North Carolina) of the Eastern Carolina League. He stayed long enough to encounter Jim Thorpe of Rocky Mount, during the world-class athlete’s foray into minor-league baseball that ultimately cost him his amateur status and 1912 Olympic awards (“Steve Yerkes is one of the men who has admitted that he played against Jim Thorpe,” the Miami Herald Record wrote in 1913, shortly after the news of Thorpe’s professionalism broke. “He didn’t put up any shout, however.”)
Before Yerkes got accustomed to life on Tobacco Road, the Red Sox purchased him for $1,000 and transferred him to Worcester of the New England League. Starting at shortstop, Steve helped the Busters take the league title. Still challenging for the American League pennant, the Red Sox reclaimed Yerkes near the end of the season and inserted the 21-year-old against the Chicago White Sox on September 16. Playing short and batting cleanup at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds, he struck out on Doc White’s sneaky slowball in his first big-league at-bat, then singled and scored a run off the colorful left-hander. Steve went 1-for-4 in the game and handled three chances cleanly. Unable to make the big-league grade in five games with the Red Sox, Yerkes spent all of 1910 with Chattanooga of the Southern Association. There, the Pennsylvanian flourished. In 141 games with the Lookouts, he batted .279—second-best on the team and 12th overall in the league behind batting champion Joe Jackson of New Orleans—and won a place on sportswriter Grantland Rice’s All-Southern Association team.
The effort earned Yerkes a spring-training trip to California with the Red Sox in 1911. This time, he stuck. Projected as a backup infielder, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound rookie quickly undertook a prominent role for Boston. While shortstop Heinie Wagner recovered from a sore shoulder early in the season, Yerkes replaced him and hit and fielded so superbly that he remained in the lineup on a regular basis. “These members of (manager) Patsy Donovan’s tribe can’t figure out how it is possible to keep Yerkes out of the game when Capt. Wagner gets back in harness at short,” one observer wrote. “They say the kid has played the position just as well as Wagner could have done. What’s more he has been delivering hits when they were needed.” Upon Wagner’s return, Donovan worked his rookie around the infield, with satisfactory results. Steve finally settled in at shortstop (Wagner was shifted to second) and completed an impressive first full season for the fourth-place Red Sox. In 502 at-bats, Yerkes became one of the American League’s strongest-hitting middle infielders, batting .279, driving in 57 runs, and finishing third in the league with 31 sacrifice hits.
In 1912, Yerkes experienced one of the most extraordinary years of his life. Under Boston’s new manager, Jake Stahl, he found his niche in both the Red Sox infield and batting order. Recognizing the sturdy 23-year-old’s limitations in range, Stahl placed him at second base. Exuding irrepressible spirit, Steve roused his teammates with shouts of “All together, boys, work hard!” and mastered the Deadball Era art of blocking baserunners en route to second. In the batting order, the Boston leader slotted Yerkes second between future Hall of Fame outfielders Harry Hooper and Tris Speaker, maximizing his ability to sacrifice and pull off the hit and run. Although Yerkes’ offensive numbers slipped, the Speed Boys enjoyed their greatest run production in team history.
Throughout the year, Yerkes performed his biggest feats when the glare was the brightest. At the grand opening of the sparkling new home of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, on April 20, he starred in Boston’s 7-6 victory over the New York Highlanders (Yankees). Before 24,000 festive fans on a sun-splashed afternoon, Steve was the first Red Sox player to get a base hit and score a run at Fenway, when he doubled to left field and crossed the plate on Speaker’s two-bagger in the bottom of the first inning. Yerkes rapped five hits in the game and scored the winning run in the 11th.
He soon developed a reputation for his uncanny poise in pressure situations. The Sporting News correspondent and Boston Globe baseball writer Tim Murnane deemed Yerkes “[as] cool as an iceberg.” The Boston Post concurred: “His coolness and courage are the things which have endeared him most strongly to his teammates, and at the bat, whether he faces Big Ed Walsh or the merest rookie, he swings his war club with that same old confident air that has allowed him to bat many a winning run across for the Red Sox.”
Yerkes became a favorite among his teammates off the field, too, thanks to his easygoing manner. “Steve is known as the ‘Crab’ on the Red Sox roster,” remarked the Post, “but in reality he is the most good-natured man on the team. In fact, his good nature makes him the victim of many practical jokes, and when his teammates tire of poker or other diversions, they turn upon Steve and torment him unmercifully. Yet there is no player on the team to whose defense they would more quickly rally.”
Behind the superior outfield play of Hooper, Speaker, and Duffy Lewis, and the sensational pitching of Smoky Joe Wood, the Red Sox breezed to the American League championship. In the World Series, they met John McGraw’s perennial powerhouse, the New York Giants. The nine-day October battle for the world title would briefly transform Yerkes’ life.
Analysts pegged the second baseman as a weakness in the Boston attack. Undeterred, Yerkes made an immediate impact. In the opener at the Polo Grounds, he blasted a two-out, two-run single to left field in the seventh inning off spitballer Jeff Tesreau, breaking a 2-2 tie. It turned out to be the decisive blow in a 4-3 Red Sox victory. The game-winning hit shocked the 35,730 in attendance and inspired a prescient forecast from the Washington Post’s Joe S. Jackson. “It will occasion no surprise…if Steve Yerkes, ordinary fielder, fair hitter, and poor runner, should shine with some brilliancy,” he wrote. “Already he has produced the hit that won a game. He is likely to butt in at any time with a blow that helps to tell the story. And he acts like a young man who is not impressed with the seriousness of the situation, and who will play a world series just as he would a championship [regular season] game.”
In Game Five at Boston, another colossal smash by Yerkes threw 34,683 fans—the largest baseball crowd in the city’s history— into near hysteria and placed his club on the brink of a world title. He followed Hooper’s third-inning triple off Christy Mathewson with one of his own to deep left-center and tallied on Speaker’s error-inducing smash to second. Mathewson didn’t allow another baserunner the rest of the afternoon, and the Red Sox won, 2-1, giving them a three-games-to-one advantage (Game Two had ended in a tie).
A pair of easy Giants victories drew the Series even and set the stage for Game Eight at Fenway Park and the thrilling conclusion to the 1912 World Series. In the top of the 10th, with Wood and Mathewson locked in a 1-1 struggle, the Giants scored a run to take the lead. The Red Sox came to bat. At the home of Steve Yerkes’ parents, outside Philadelphia, the second baseman’s wife, Mary, who received inning-by-inning updates throughout the game, instructed her 2-year-old son, Steve Jr., to kneel and pray for a Boston triumph. After Giants center fielder Fred Snodgrass’s seismic two-base muff of Clyde Engle’s fly ball and circus catch of Hooper’s drive, Yerkes stepped in to face the masterful Matty. “What the pressure on Yerkes must have been, with $1300 [the approximate difference between the shares of the winner--$4,024.69—and loser—$2,566.47; it was actually more than $1,450, not $1,300] for himself and for each of his team mates hanging on the end of his bat, is hard to imagine,” wrote the Globe’s Frank P. Sibley. “How he managed to wait it out nobody can guess. But he did and Mathewson passed him.” Yerkes’ base on balls occurred after he got ahead in the count, 3-1, and ignored his manager’s edict to swing away. “I looked over at the bench and saw Manager Stahl nodding to go after the next ball,” he later told Murnane. “Stahl had a lot of confidence in my hitting, and all summer I had taken his tips, but now I was up against a serious proposition and determined to do my own figuring....I decided to take a chance and wait. I called the turn, as the ball was a poor one, and I drew a pass. That was the only time that I disobeyed orders last year, but Jake rather enjoyed the idea of my having the spunk to assume the responsibility with so much depending on the move.”
The walk proved vital. After the Giants famously flubbed Speaker’s pop foul, the Red Sox great singled home Engle, and Yerkes hurried to third. Mathewson intentionally walked Lewis. And when Larry Gardner’s fly ball fell into the glove of right fielder Josh Devore, Steve tagged up and hustled home with the Series-winning—and -ending—run, triggering a wild celebration at Fenway.
Steve’s outstanding World Series—he hit safely in all but one game and committed just one error in 38 chances—and his heroics in the clutch earned him instant fame. Yerkes pocketed his winner’s share, which dwarfed his $2,400 salary, and returned to his adopted home of Millville—where his big-league windfall spurred the construction of a spacious new house—to receive a conquering hero’s welcome. Greeting him at the railroad station, brass bands and automobiles escorted Yerkes through the streets of the city and deposited him at a local hotel. Hundreds swarmed the lobby to rub shoulders with the World Series star who, in proper fashion, mounted the street balcony and regally addressed the throng below. A week later, the residents of his native Hatboro and Jenkintown tossed him another celebration, attended by Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. Yerkes spent the offseason indulging his love of hunting and prepared for the 1913 campaign by hiking the terrain around Millville, sometimes more than 20 miles a day.
For his accomplishments, the Red Sox front office rewarded Yerkes with a $600 bonus and boosted his salary to $3,500 for 1913. Huge—and perhaps unrealistic—
expectations accompanied the raise. “At second I have a coming star—a youngster yet, with only one full season’s experience, but if I know ball players, Steve Yerkes will soon be rated in the [Larry] Doyle-[Eddie] Collins-[Johnny] Evers class,” effused Boston team president James McAleer. “He has enough speed and more than enough courage. He will be better in 1913 than he was in 1912, for Steve is the type that improves—the type that waits to learn and watches with open eyes—and holds what he gains.”
But Yerkes lacked the quickness of those elite second basemen and his pedestrian baserunning was soon judged a liability. In 1913, Steve got off to a wobbly start both in the field and at bat, and while he recuperated from an injury, Neal Ball replaced him. Gone were the halcyon days of 1912. Floundering beneath the .500 mark and 18½ games out of first place in mid-July, Boston fired Stahl and promoted catcher Bill Carrigan to the helm. Shortly after, the Red Sox put Yerkes on waivers. When Connie Mack of the eventual world champion Athletics claimed the one-time Philadelphia-area prospect for the stretch drive, Boston snatched him back, a scenario that repeated itself later that season. Despite the turmoil, Steve finished the year solidly at the plate for the Red Sox, pumping his average up to .267.
But his days in Boston were numbered. While hunting in North Carolina in the offseason, Yerkes became the last member of the Red Sox to sign a contract for 1914 (in 1913, he had been the first). Trade rumors flew in early February, and one erroneous report had him heading to New York to play for Frank Chance’s Yankees. Perhaps disenchanted with the club and uncertain about his future, Yerkes listened to a Federal League representative at the Red Sox training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and later agreed to play in the league in 1915. Back at second base for Boston and batting sixth at the beginning of 1914, Steve’s production lagged, and his average plummeted to .182 in late May. When Red Sox president Joseph Lannin got wind of Yerkes’ Federal League contract, he released him on August 21.
Steve instantly surfaced with the Pittsburgh Federal League club at shortstop and hammered the circuit’s milquetoast pitching, batting .338, slugging .493, and driving in 25 runs in 142 at-bats. One of the better players in the short history of the league, Yerkes shifted to his familiar second-base spot for 1915 and teamed with former National League infielders Ed Konetchy, Mike Mowrey, and Marty Berghammer to lead the Rebels—so-named for star player-manager Rebel Oakes—within a half-game of the pennant. For the year, the 27-year-old hit .288, 33 points higher than the league average.
After the Federal League dissolved, Yerkes, his big-league reputation rehabilitated, became a desirable commodity. In the winter of 1916, new Chicago Cubs manager Joe Tinker, who had regularly faced Yerkes as skipper of the Chicago Federals, targeted him to fill his vacancy at second base and urged Cubs owner Charles Weeghman to obtain him, which he did, forking over $6,500 for his rights to E.W. Gwinner, who owned the now-defunct Pittsburgh team.
“Yerkes is a much better ball player than the general public knows,” said a pleased Tinker. “There isn’t any department of the game he hasn’t mastered. He is a sure and active fielder, a great hitter, especially for hit-and-run plays, can run the bases in fine style, and has a great head on him. With him to fill up that gap at second base, we will have a stone wall infield.”
Earning the $5,000 annual salary stipulated in his Pittsburgh contact, Yerkes debuted for the Cubs at Cincinnati on April 12 and chalked up service in his third major league. Steve supplied “the brains of the outfit” for Chicago on defense, according to the Chicago Tribune’s James Crusinberry, and furnished his typical pop at the plate; however, he struggled to stay in shape and his nagging deficiency in speed once again spelled his undoing. Tinker benched Yerkes a month into the season, then, in early June, shipped him to Atlanta of the Southern Association, apparently ending his major-league run. Syndicated sports columnist Grantland Rice, recalling the infielder he had covered at Chattanooga in 1910 and the World Series of 1912, penned a lengthy poetic tribute titled, simply, “Steve Yerkes.”
If he felt despondent by the demotion, Yerkes didn’t show it. Once again he prospered against lesser competition. As a member of the Crackers, he hit .329 (fourth-best in the league) and captured national press coverage for an impressive fielding streak of 127 errorless chances in 24 games. The Sporting News trumpeted his contributions on its cover. “Steve Yerkes has not only bolstered the team’s offense,” commented correspondent Al Weinfeld, “but his work around second has been sensational and, best of all, he has gingered up the entire team with his pep.” Atlanta nixed a possible return to Boston for Yerkes, rebuffing the Braves’ overtures for him in early September, and the Cubs got him back near the end of the campaign and thrust him into the annual postseason Chicago City Series.
Only 28, Yerkes had played his last major-league baseball. The Cubs trundled Steve to spring training in 1917, but jettisoned him after the club’s projected second baseman, former New York Giant Larry Doyle, healed from an injury. Yerkes shuttled to Indianapolis of the American Association, where he did his usual thing: He paced the pennant-winners’ regulars in hitting (.282) and outclassed the league’s second basemen with a .979 fielding percentage. After rejecting an offer from Branch Rickey to suit up for the Cardinals in the war-torn year of 1918, he stuck close to his current home of Reading and played with Steelton of the Bethlehem Steel League, a haven for draft-spooked ballplayers. Yerkes reappeared with Indianapolis in 1919. Indians owner Jimmy McGill considered Steve for the team’s managerial opening, but opted to recycle former pilot Jack Hendricks. Nonetheless, Yerkes captained the squad and enjoyed another superb season at second base. In 483 at-bats, he hammered 30 doubles and 11 triples, and registered a .321 batting average, good for eighth in the American Association.
Despite his success in the minors, Steve stayed in Pennsylvania for the next two years, emerged as a candidate to manage Reading of the International League—he missed out again—and played for the independent Franklin club. Back for one final stint with Indianapolis in the 1922 and ’23 campaigns, he concluded his 18-year professional playing career by seeing limited action.
Yerkes finally secured a managerial post in 1924, directing Harrisburg of the New York-Pennsylvania League. But just as his new career in baseball got under way, tragedy struck. That year, Steve’s teenage son died of spinal meningitis. Yerkes resigned at Harrisburg before the season ended and eventually concentrated his energies on owning and operating a bowling alley and billiards hall in Glenside, Pennsylvania, near his native Hatboro. Baseball never strayed far from his mind, though. His nephew Carroll Yerkes pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago Cubs in the late 1920s and early ’30s, and, in 1932 Steve resumed managing in the minors when he took the helm of Norristown/St. Clair (Pennsylvania) of the Class D Interstate League. For the last half of the 1930s, he guided clubs in the Class C Canadian-American League and won championships with Perth (Ontario) in 1936, and Cornwall (Ontario) in 1938. He then succeeded former Red Sox teammate Clyde Engle, who had died, as coach of the Yale freshman team in 1940 (Joe Wood coached the varsity).
Soon afterward, more trauma wracked Yerkes. His brother Harman, who had once pitched professionally and was Carroll’s father, killed himself with a shotgun.
Heavy-hearted, Steve pressed on. He later scouted for the Philadelphia Blue Jays (Phillies) of the National League, then, at the age of 58, gave managing one final try, leading Ogdensburg, New York, of the Border League to a runner-up finish in 1947.
In the meantime, Yerkes maintained a vibrant personal life in the area where he grew up. “Uncle Steve had a wonderful sense of family and enjoyed being among his brothers, nephews, and nieces—he displayed his pleasure by a gentle laugh,” said his great-grandnephew Wayne D. Mears of Hatboro. “Although he was a modest and humble person, he was also gregarious. It was good to be in his company. All of us adored him and we respected his privacy by not insisting he talk about his baseball career.”
As he entered the waning years of his life, Yerkes saw the 1912 World Series grow in legend. Accounts of the climactic Game Eight and its incredible final inning sprang up in books, magazines, and newspapers. On April 21, 1962, Steve and eight of his Red Sox teammates returned to Fenway Park for a pregame ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ballpark’s opening, reacquainting fans with the 1912 world champions. In 1966, Lawrence Ritter’s classic book The Glory of Their Times, a collection of player reminiscences of early 20th-century baseball, brought the 10th inning of Game Eight vividly to life through the words of Harry Hooper, Fred Snodgrass, and Giants catcher Chief Meyers. Once more, the unflappable young Boston infielder worked Christy Mathewson for a critical walk and made his historic run home to win the World Series.
Steve Yerkes died in Landsdale, Pennsylvania, on January 31, 1971, at the age of 82. He rests beside his wife, Mary, and son Stephen Jr. in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
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Joseph Yerkes (grandnephew of Steve Yerkes). Letter to author, December 22, 2009.