SABR

Benny Bengough

This article was written by Cort Vitty.

Baseball writers were intrigued by the unlikely story of a slightly built walk-on working his way up to play for the New York Yankees. As a result, Bernard Oliver Bengough was referred to as “the Peter Pan of baseball” during the early years of his professional career.1

The youngest child of James Bengough (1862-1930), a factory foreman, and Margaret Bengough (1863-1945), a homemaker, Benny was born on July 27, 1898, in Niagara Falls, New York; his parents originally resided in Canada and were of English and Irish heritage. Their oldest son, Walter, was born in 1890, while daughter Margaret followed in 1894.

As a teenager, Benny would travel from Niagara Falls to Buffalo and watch the great Hank Gowdy catch for the Bisons. “My eyes were always glued on Hank, and I’d dream of the day when I’d be there myself,” he recalled.2 He later attended Niagara University as a divinity student. Ten of his classmates at the Catholic college eventually went on to the priesthood.

Benny earned an impressive reputation playing for local semipro teams and Niagara University. In 1917 he showed up unannounced at the Bisons’ camp with his catching gear and was offered $5 a day to warm up pitchers and occasionally fill in on the field. His mother thought her son’s talent was grossly underutilized and minced no words in expressing that opinion to the Bisons’ manager, Patsy Donovan. She personally called the skipper to berate him for not playing her son and giving him more of a chance. Taken aback by the conversation, and somewhat at a loss for words, Donovan agreed to play Benny the next day. Finally presented with an opportunity to be in the lineup, Benny quickly demonstrated his fine defensive skills and accurate throwing arm.

Bengough, a right-handed batter, played in 65 games for the Bisons in 1918; then his .276 batting average in 103 games in 1919 attracted the attention of New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell. After being sidelined with an injury during the 1920 season, Bengough became the Bisons’ regular receiver in 1921, hitting .275. The Yankees had a working agreement with the Bisons and purchased his contract in 1922 for four players and $10,000.

Standing only 5-feet-7 and weighing a mere 145 pounds when he joined the Yankees in 1923, Bengough closely resembled a batboy rather than a major-league prospect; his playing weight would eventually hover around 170 pounds. He quickly demonstrated an accurate throwing arm and error-free glove work behind the plate. Early in spring training, Bengough’s aggressive leadership in taking charge and directing veteran pitchers impressed manager Miller Huggins as well as sportswriters. “Benny Bengough … proceeded to run the entire team in his first attempt to handle the Yankee pitchers in a game at New Orleans. In consequence, Ben has caught Huggins’ eye and will hang on with the Yanks this season.”3 Bengough comfortably settled in as the third-string catcher behind Wally Schang and Fred Hofmann. The 1923 Yankees won the American League pennant and then their first World Series, over the New York Giants. Bengough did not play in the Series.

The club fell to second place in 1924 and finished a disastrous seventh in 1925. Huggins decided rebuilding was in order and started housecleaning on a wholesale level. He believed that age, injuries, and possibly diminished eyesight had caught up with 36-year-old catcher Wally Schang. On the same day (June 2) that Lou Gehrig famously replaced Wally Pipp at first base, Benny Bengough took over as the Yankees’ starting catcher. He posted a respectable .258 batting average in 95 games; Schang finished the season serving as the backup, and was traded to the St. Louis Browns in the offseason.

As newcomers to the Yankees, Bengough and young Lou Gehrig were assigned to room together. The two ex-college men immediately hit it off and forged a strong, lasting friendship. Bengough also became a favorite of Babe Ruth. They started a pregame ritual of warming up together, a habit Ruth felt brought good luck. It was from this daily ritual that Bengough’s nickname was derived.

Ruth was notoriously bad at remembering names. In most cases he simply referred to males as Kid and females as Sister. In seeking out Benny for their pregame warmup, Ruth couldn’t come up with the name of his little buddy. The closest he could come to Benny was remembering Barney Google, a popular comic-strip character at the time. Ruth proceeded to start barking for “Googles.” Teammates roared, and knew what was up; from that day on, Benny was christened with the monikers of Barney or Googles.4 Ruth and Bengough remained close friends as teammates and beer-drinking partners. Benny was part of Babe’s inner circle of friends, accompanying the Bambino on offseason barnstorming tours and hunting trips.

Bengough claimed to have the most mispronounced last name in all of baseball history. “Almost everybody called me ‘Bengow,’ ” he said. Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert “called me ‘Benkopf.’ But the way my name was really pronounced was ‘Bengoff.’ "5

The rebuilt 1926 Yankees included talented rookies Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig. The team supplemented its receiving corps by purchasing Pat Collins from the Browns, to back up Bengough. The future looked bright during the spring of 1926, when Benny was glowingly labeled “the best fielding catcher in the American League.”6 In actuality, Bengough was affected by a sore throwing arm that soon limited his playing time and provided Collins with an opportunity to see most of the action.

The arm didn’t improve and Bengough decided to seek the services of John “Bonesetter” Reese, a trainer in Youngstown, Ohio, with no medical credentials but who was renowned for his ability to work players through “atrophied soup-bones” or bad-arm situations. While the Yankees were in Cleveland, Bengough asked roommate Lou Gehrig to accompany him on a trip to see Reese. Gehrig agreed to go along and handle the driving. The roommates rose at 5 A.M. and drove from Cleveland to Youngstown for Benny’s scheduled treatment, leaving enough time to arrive back in Cleveland for the game. Unfortunately the treatment was ineffective and Bengough’s arm woes persisted.7

Back in New York, Bengough heard of an alternative treatment promoted as a miracle cure and consisting of a mysterious concoction applied to the affected area. He described the visit as follows: “I laughed when I stepped into the office. He had a big bucket of smelly stuff on the table and a paintbrush in his hands. He told me to strip. ‘This is going to burn a little, but don’t let that alarm you.’ Well this fellow took a brush and painted me from the waist up. He was right about the stuff burning. But, strangely it helped. For two or three days, I could throw all over the park. Then it passed and that flame died out. The only way I could keep catching regularly would have been to have the guy with a paintbrush work on me between innings. There is nothing so dead as a dead arm.”8

Collins handled the bulk of the catching and overuse began taking its toll on Pat, who also developed arm trouble. Bengough’s somewhat improved right wing suffered a much more serious setback on September 18, 1926, when he was struck by a pitch from Cleveland right-hander George Uhle. Uhle had a trick pitch seldom seen in the 1920s but common today: the slider. The unorthodox offering resulted in a league-leading 13 hit batsmen in 1926. Bengough was struck on his throwing arm and described the incident to author Lawrence Ritter as follows: “I put my arm up to protect myself. (The baseball) hit my arm and poked the bone right through and hit my forehead.”9 Bengough, who was hitting a promising .381 in 36 games when he was struck, would never again be the same ballplayer.

The Yankees quickly acquired veteran Hank Severeid from the waiver list to share the catching duties with a still not 100 percent Pat Collins. The club sputtered toward the end of the season, but held on to win the pennant, then lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. After the season a desperate Huggins sought to fortify his catching staff and acquired dependable receiver John Grabowski in a trade with the White Sox.

Going into the 1927 season, even though the Yankees were defending American League champs, most scribes seriously doubted that the club had enough depth to repeat. Although the team would be led by six future Hall of Famers (Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, Hoyt, and Pennock), the Yankees weren’t considered shoo-in favorites. Early predictions had Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland vying for the flag. As Fred Glueckstein reported in The ’27 Yankees: “In a preseason poll of 42 baseball experts, only nine picked the Yankees to repeat as American League Champions."10

An important success factor was brought to light by author Harvey Frommer in his book Five O’Clock Lightning: “Some claimed one of the few weaknesses of the Yankees was the team’s lack of depth. A chess master, Huggins always found depth. With Bengough, who would’ve been the main catcher if he hadn’t been hindered by a sore arm, Huggins early on decided that he would have to catch Pat Collins one day and Grabowski the next, rotating them as much as possible throughout the season. Neither ever worked two days in a row except for illness or injury."11 Bengough started 25 games behind the plate and batted .247. The three catchers combined to hit a respectable .271, with 7 home runs and 71 runs batted in.

The 1927 Yankees won on Opening Day and never looked back, holding first place all season and finishing with a 110-44 record (.714), 19 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Athletics. The powerhouse of a ballclub swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. Using the same formula that proved successful during the season, Huggins opened the World Series with Collins, used Grabowski in the second game, switched to Bengough in the third, then had Collins catch the fourth and final game. Bengough was 0-for-4 at the plate, but drew an eighth-inning base on balls in Game Two and scored, his run the final one in the team's 6-1 win.

Pitching was a key element of the 1927 Yankees, and an integral part of the success was a warmup procedure developed by Bengough and utilized by both Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock. Benny described the system as follows: “There are five targets on a catcher. His right shoulder, his left shoulder, the right knee, the left knee, and right down the middle. … Pitchers warming up would throw ten pitches at each target. They were thinking of the spot they were pitching to all the time.”12

The 1928 Yankees fielded a lineup closely resembling the 1927 team. This time Huggins used all three of his three catchers a similar amount; Grabowski saw most of the playing time behind the plate (75 games), followed by Collins (70) and Bengough (58). For the rest of his career, Bengough’s chronically sore throwing arm would essentially render it useless until hot weather set in. The Yankees again captured the American League flag and swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Bengough caught all four games and set the tone in the opener by making a marvelous catch of a foul pop hit by Taylor Douthit in the third inning. The foul was headed toward the Cardinals dugout. As was the custom, the players’ bats were lined up in a row just outside the dugout. Bengough stepped between the bats just before making the catch. Several Cardinals reached out to protect him from falling into the dugout.13 He was 3-for-17 at the plate with both a run scored and an RBI in Game Two.

Despite winning on the field, nothing could prevent Bengough from encountering a different kind of loss: Apparently his hair was falling out. Almost overnight he started to notice clumps of brown hair appearing on his pillow. He said he awoke one morning to discover he was completely bald. A man with a long gray beard was hawking a slimy green cure for baldness in the hotel lobby. Bengough purchased a couple of bottles and even thought the stuff might be working. “Every time I use it, I get a headache. I think that means the hair is trying to break through,” he said.14

Possessing an innate comic sense, Bengough decided to play up the hair loss and simultaneously entertain fans. As recounted in his obituary, when a foul pop was playable, “off would fly his mask and cap, revealing his prematurely bald pate. After completing the play, Bengough would toss his head a couple of times like a man trying to shake the hair out of his eyes. It was always good for a laugh and a cheer and fit right into his philosophy of the game. ‘Ballplayers are entertainers,’ he said. ‘The main idea is to entertain the fans with a good ball game. But all games can’t be good. So when games are dull, you should offer them something else to keep them interested.’" 15

By 1929 Bengough was permanently relegated to the backup role as Bill Dickey assumed the starting catcher position. Bengough was released after the 1930 season and was acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. In mid-July of 1931 the St. Louis Browns purchased his contract after young starter Rick Ferrell broke his arm.

Possessing an extensive knowledge of hitters, Bengough utilized the art of distraction to rattle untested rookies, by woefully telling them how they were in a genuinely tough spot. Veteran hitters would hear chatter about farms, cars, or families. Bengough became a family man himself on October 28, 1932, when he married Hazel Nolan of St. Louis. The couple had two sons, James and John.

Bengough’s major-league career covered parts of 10 seasons. He finished up in 1932 with a career batting average of .255. He managed Yankee farm teams in the lower minors from 1933 through 1937, before stints as a major-league coach, starting in 1938. Big-league stops included the Browns, the Boston Braves, and the Washington Senators. (When Bengough left the Washington coaching staff in 1943 to work at a war plant in Indiana, George Uhle, the pitcher who broke his wrist 17 years earlier, replaced him.)

Bengough and former teammates from the 1927 Yankees sadly returned to Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, to honor old pal Lou Gehrig. It was the heart-wrenching day when the beloved “iron man” of baseball made his stirring “Luckiest Man” speech. A teary-eyed Bengough can be seen lined up with teammates in newsreel footage and photos of the event.

After World War II Bengough resumed his coaching career, joining the Philadelphia Phillies staff in 1946. He expressed his attitude toward coaching this way: “A coach must know all things without consciously thinking about them. They must hop into his mind like two-and-two-is-four. A successful coach knows as much or more about the men in his league than the managers.” Bengough, The Sporting News said, “was a positive influence on the coaching lines, helping the Phillies win a game … because he knew there was a soggy spot in left – halfway between third base and the outfield – that slowed up a groundball.”16

Reminiscing about his old pal Babe Ruth after the Babe died in August 1948, Bengough said, “The big guy had a heart of gold. When the Yanks played at the Polo Grounds, they used to give a pair of shoes to everyone who hit a homer. Well, we’d take the shoes and deliver them to orphanages. I also recall many visits we made together to hospitals to see crippled and ailing kids. We would get to a town and pretty soon the phone would ring in my room and the Babe would say, ‘Let’s go Barney, I have a call or two to make,’ so off we’d go with an autographed ball, a glove, a bat or some gift for a hospitalized kid.”17

Bengough was instrumental in helping Phillies general manager (and former teammate) Herb Pennock build the 1950 pennant-winning club. He used his experience and coaching skills to help guide young pitchers like Robin Roberts. He remained on the Phillies’ coaching lines until 1958, then joined the front-office staff as a popular after-dinner speaker. Of his success on the banquet circuit, Benny remarked, “Mainly, it’s lies. I tell them all kinds of lies about baseball, not lies about factual things, but about make-believe situations.”18

Bengough particularly enjoyed traveling to the hinterlands of Pennsylvania on behalf of the Phillies, so he could partake of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, which no doubt added to his girth; his weight had ballooned to over 200 pounds. Later Bengough hosted a Phillies postgame television show. His signature sign-off was: “And as I always say, to be a big leaguer, think big league.”

As a member of the Phillies public-relations staff, Bengough addressed a B’nai B’rith chapter in suburban Philadelphia on Sunday morning, December 22, 1968. After the presentation, he walked across the street and attended Mass at Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church. After Mass, Benny collapsed on the church steps and died of a heart attack. He was 70 years old.

 

Notes

1 John Mosedale, The Greatest of All: The 1927 New York Yankees (New York: Warner, 1975), 185.

2 Ibid.

3 Davis J. Walsh, Sandusky (Ohio) Register, March 29, 1923.

4 Ray Robinson, Iron Horse (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 79.

5 The Sporting News, January 1, 1969.

6 James Harrison, New York Times, March 22, 1926.

7 Peter Williams, ed., The Joe Williams Reader (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1989), 74.

8 Ibid.

9 Leo Trachtenberg, The Wonder Team (Bowling Green Ohio: Popular Press, 1995), 93.

10 Fred Gluckstein, The ’27 Yankees (Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corp, 2005), 73.

11 Harvey Frommer, Five O’Clock Lightning (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Books, 2007), 129.

12 Frank Yeutter, The Sporting News, September 7, 1949.

13 Washington Post. November 26, 1928.

14 Mosedale, The Greatest of All, 187.

15 New York Times, December 23, 1968.

16 J.G. Taylor Spink, “Looping The Loops,” The Sporting News, October 30, 1946.

17 A.M. Kelly, United Press, Corona (California) Daily Independent, August 16, 1957.

18 The Sporting News, January 4, 1969.

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