This article was written by Chris Rainey
Twenty-five-year-old rookie Bert Brenner took the hill in the first game of a September 21, 1912, scheduled doubleheader (game 2 was rained out) in New York. The Cleveland Naps had purchased his contract from Racine and wanted to see what the youngster could do. Using mostly his fastball and working the corners, especially the inside of the plate, Bert kept the Highlanders off-guard. Supported by the hitting of fellow rookie Ray Chapman, Brenner emerged with a 5-4 victory in ten innings. 1 He was given another chance to show his stuff on the final day of the season, October 5, in St. Louis, when he was called upon to mop-up a 13-1 drubbing by the Browns. His major league career ended with an unblemished 1-0 record and a 2.77 ERA.
The Brenner family originally settled in Pennsylvania and headed west before the Civil War, well before Horace Greeley uttered his famous words, “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” 2 Bert’s father Adelbert was born in Illinois in 1859. The family then moved to Wisconsin and eventually to Minnesota. Adelbert married Anna M. Hendorf on December 29, 1880. Bert, born on July 18, 1887, was the fourth child of eight. Adelbert worked as a teamster during Bert’s childhood, and then in the early 1900s, he quit that trade and purchased a farm in Long Prairie, Minnesota. Bert attended school thru the sixth grade and then went to work. Brenner began his professional career in Burlington, Iowa in 1910. He was the fourth man on the Burlington Pathfinders staff in the Class D Central Association and received little mention in the pre-season newspaper reports. Nevertheless, he found himself on the mound the third game of the year, May 9, versus Hannibal. He pitched well, only allowing four hits and four walks. Seven errors behind him led to a 3-1 defeat. The Evening Gazette offered that “had there been accorded a ghost of backing there would have been nothing to” winning the game. 3 Brenner spent the month of May with Burlington, pitching in seven games with a 0-4 record and playing centerfield twice. He was released after three consecutive poor outings on the mound. In the days before the major league, teams had minor league organizations; would-be players were recommended by word-of-mouth or found teams through newspaper announcements. It is not certain how Bert found his next professional stint with the Rochester (Minnesota) Bears in the Class C Minnesota-Wisconsin League. The Duluth paper noted “Brenner, a new man with the locals, put up a great game, allowing four hits, fanning ten men, and walking none.” 4 He beat La Crosse 4-1. Bert made two more starts that season against La Crosse and Winona, spinning one-hitters each time, only to lose 3-1 and 3-2. 5
In 1912, Bert joined the Racine Belles in the Class C Wisconsin- Illinois League. He appeared in thirty-five games total, 32 of them as pitcher. He compiled an 18-13 record for the second place squad. Brenner impressed Cleveland scout George Huff with a thirteen inning, seven-strikeout performance and was offered a contract. Cleveland signed Bert in mid-August, but because the Belles were in a pennant chase, he did not report to the majors until the end of the season. 6
Brenner reported to the Naps and their new manager, Joe Birmingham, on September 17 along with Lefty James. Their arrival gave Birmingham an eleven man staff. Bert took the hill on September 21. He held New York scoreless until the fifth when two errors and two hits plated three runs. The Highlanders took the lead 4-3 in the tenth on a hit and two errors, but doubles by Chapman and Terry Turner scored a run. Turner came in to win the game on a passed ball. All the New York runs were unearned. The Naps ended the season with a series in St. Louis. With an off-day on Friday they traveled to Herrin, Illinois, the home of Ray Chapman, for an exhibition. On the return trip they were involved in a train wreck outside of Swanwick, Missouri that claimed the life of the engineer. The next day versus the Browns the “players were unnerved and made little effort.” 7 Brenner was called to the mound in the sixth and gave up seven hits and four runs in the loss. Bert returned to Minneapolis for the winter and probably worked as a carpenter or floor layer as he would for the rest of his life. He was quick to sign his contract for 1913 and looked forward to spring training. The Naps made other plans and in early January the papers announced he, Jack Kibble and Tim Hendryx were being sent to New Orleans. In Brenner’s case, it was noted, “he needs more seasoning.” 8
At first, this transaction was called a sale, but it eventually turned out that the three players were part of a deal that would bring Nick Cullop to Cleveland. Bert arrived early in New Orleans and entered the season with high hopes. In an early exhibition he tossed four innings of one hit ball against Cleveland, but his next few outings were lackluster, including a seven run pounding by the Naps on April 1. When the Southern Association season opened Bert tossed a twelve inning 2-2 tie with Mobile on April 12. Dependent upon pinpoint control, Bert struggled after that game and was sent to Jackson, Mississippi in the Class D Cotton States League to work out the kinks. Jackson was the class of the league, finishing the season at 71-24. 9 Bert only managed a 1-5 record. A pattern was developing, he was inconsistent and when he was “on” his teammates gave little support. He was recalled to New Orleans in early July and went to the mound versus Chattanooga on July 7. He was pounded for 18 hits and 18 runs. The Pelicans were usually a first division team, but in 1913 they finished last by a huge margin. The injury bug hit so viciously that Bert was forced to play outfield on occasion. 10 Baseball Reference credits Bert with a 0-11 record. The August 6 Times-Picyaune announced he was being sent to Omaha in the Class A Western Association. The Pelicans had recently received pitcher Luke Glavenich from Omaha and Brenner’s exit was viewed as a trade. 11
Bert’s rough luck followed him to Omaha. He lost some well-pitched games and fell victim to a nine-error display by his teammates on another occasion. Bert did toss a couple of shutouts, but his best effort was on September 25 versus league leaders Denver. Brenner tossed a marvelous game, holding the Bears to a single run through 15 innings. Sadly, he allowed three hits and made an error and a wild pitch in the 16th to lose 4-1. League statistics published in the Omaha World Herald listed him with a 6-5 record on September 28. He won 12-5 on October 1 versus Sioux City. 12
Over the winter, Brenner wrote a letter to the sports editor of the World Herald. He offered that “I was sick most of the time last year and did not work like myself.” He also mentioned that “I am feeling great”. 13 Bert was one of the first to arrive for spring training and pitched five innings in the first intra-squad scrimmage. Unfortunately, Bert was not in as good shape as he thought. He came up with a lame arm and turned in only a few relief appearances for the struggling Omaha staff. Brenner was released on June 23. In early August Bert caught on with a local semi-pro squad called the Storz. He toed the slab on August 2 against the Chicago Union Giants. Rusty from lack of work he issued a dozen walks, but emerged a 7-6 winner. 14
Brenner joined the Grand Forks Flickertails in the Class C Northern League for the 1915 season. He earned the right to pitch the season-opener and despite cold, blustery conditions that negated use of his curve he won 5-3. 15 The Flickertails chose to cease operations after a July 4 doubleheader. Official records are not available, but Brenner likely closed out the season 4-6. 16 The Cavalier, North Dakota semi-pro team snapped Bert up immediately and he played the rest of the summer in the Valley League. He performed so well that when the regular season ended the Grafton team picked him up for their championship series with Park Place. Despite a 12-strikeout performance, Bert dropped the finale 3-2.
To this point, Bert had returned to Minneapolis each winter. He chose to remain in Grand Forks and even got a job coaching grade school football. His Winship school team won the city title. Why the change? The October 10 Grand Forks Herald announced he would “sign a life contract” when they carried details of his upcoming nuptials. The bride-to-be was Lillian Gertrude Stearns and the wedding took place in her family home in Cavalier on November 25. The couple resided in Grand Forks until the early 1920’s where Bert worked as a carpenter and floor layer. He also umpired local baseball games. He and Lillian eventually moved to Minneapolis where they raised their family. Donald was born in 1916, Doris in 1919, Howard 1921, and James in 1923. Baseball-Reference lists Bert as manager of Columbia in the SALLY League in 1926. This is a mistake; the manager was actually first baseman Herbert Brenner. 17 After a 35-year marriage, the couple divorced and Lillian remarried. Bert passed away on April 11, 1971 and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Johnson and Wolff, ed. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham: Baseball America, Inc, 1993)
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1994)
Newspapers not cited include Sporting Life, The Sporting News, Racine Journal News.
Brenner’s questionnaire from the Baseball Hall of Fame files in Cooperstown.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer called the New York team the Yankees; Baseball Reference refers to them as the Highlanders.
1 Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 22, 1912, 7.
2 Attributed to Greeley from the July 13, 1865 issue of the New York Tribune.
3 The Evening Gazette, Burlington, IA, May 10, 1910, 3.
4 Duluth News-Tribune, August 27, 1911, 1 (of sporting section)
5 The Duluth paper carried line scores of these games on August 31 and September 3.
6 Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 4, 1912, 7. Stats for season were published by the league in the Racine newspaper.
7 Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 8, 1912, 7.
8 Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 5, 1913, 1c.
9 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, ed. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Baseball America, Durham, North Carolina. The 1993 page on Baseball-Reference.com does not have final standings for this season, but the total of the stats suggests a different won/loss total.
10 New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 16, 1913, 12.
11 New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 6, 1913, 10.
12 Omaha World Herald, September 28, 1913, 27. Box scores give him losses on 8-10, 8-14, 8-28, 8-31, 9-7 and 9-23. Baseball Reference does not show a W-L record with Omaha. It may very well be that his record in the 9-28 edition was 5-6, i.e. transposed. In that case, he possibly ended the season 6-6 in Omaha.
13 Omaha World Herald, February 25, 1914, 5.
14 The box score and story listed the team as the Chicago Union Giants or Black Union Giants. Cross-checking the players with Jim Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues suggests that this was a barnstorming group made up of players from a number of teams using a recognizable name.
15 Grand Forks Herald, May 9, 1915, 12.
16 Grand Forks Herald, July 6, 1915. Pg.8 League averages as of July 1 were published in this issue. He had no decision in the holiday double bill.
17 The Augusta Chronicle, February 28, 1928, 2 and Greensboro Daily News, March 14, 1926, 3.