In 1902 Cleveland manager Bill Armour raved about his pitcher Bill Bernhard: “Critics may choose [Rube] Waddell or Cy Young and be welcome, but neither of these two men has anything on ‘Berny.’”1 From 1899 to 1907, Bernhard compiled an impressive 116-81 major league record. The fury of his fastball contrasted with his calm demeanor. Berny was a knowledgeable baseball man, well liked and respected. After his major league career ended, he became a successful minor league manager.
William Henry Bernhard was born on March 16, 1871, in Clarence, New York, near Buffalo. He was the eldest child of German immigrants, Peter Bernhard (1848-1926) and Mary Seyfang Bernhard (1849-1916).2 Peter was the proprietor of a hotel in Clarence.3
Bill Bernhard pitched for amateur teams in the Buffalo area, including a team in East Buffalo known as the Crandalls, and a team representing Akron, New York.4 At the rather late age of 26, he joined the professional ranks as a pitcher and first baseman on the Palmyra team in the Class C New York State League.5 In 34 games pitched for Palmyra in 1897, Bernhard allowed 1.67 earned runs per game and led the league with 148 strikeouts.6 On June 7, 1897, he threw a no-hitter against Batavia.7
“Big Bill” was a hard-throwing right-hander who stood 6-feet-1 and weighed 205 pounds. He looked like the next Amos Rusie and was nicknamed Rusie by players of the New York State League.8 The Philadelphia Phillies of the National League tried to sign Bernhard to a contract after the 1897 season but did not offer enough to entice him,9 so he played in 1898 for a team in Canajoharie, New York.10 Sporting Life said Bernhard “has great speed, fine control and is one of the most graceful men in the box,” and “is far superior” to some of the Phillies’ pitchers.11 The Phillies signed him for the 1899 season.
On April 24, 1899, Bernhard made his major league debut at the age of 28. He pitched six innings in relief and allowed five runs in Philadelphia’s 10-8 loss to the Brooklyn Superbas.12 On July 6, he was defeated by Brooklyn, 7-1, in his first major league start.13 Bernhard delivered a three-hitter against the New York Giants on August 22, and a shutout of the Cleveland Spiders on September 14.14 His 1899 record was 6-6 with a 2.65 ERA. Bernhard began the 1900 season with a sparkling 12-1 record but lost seven of his next eight games,15 as he struggled with his control. He finished the year with a 15-10 record and a 4.77 ERA. He married Lillian Secrist of Buffalo in 1900.16
Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics in the upstart American League, signed Bernhard and two other Phillies, Nap Lajoie and Chick Fraser, to contracts for the 1901 season. This prompted a fierce legal battle in which Colonel John I. Rogers, owner of the Phillies, sought to restrain the trio from playing for any team other than the Phillies. The centerpiece of Rogers’s case was the reserve clause in the standard National League contract, which bound players to their teams. In May 1901, Rogers lost the lawsuit he filed in Pennsylvania, but he won his appeal to the state’s supreme court in April 1902.17
After the supreme court ruling, if the trio played for any team other than the Phillies, they would be in contempt of court and could be arrested if they set foot in Pennsylvania. Fraser decided to return to the Phillies. Bernhard and Lajoie, who were the best of friends, refused to go back to the Phillies. A clever solution was found to keep Bernhard and Lajoie in the American League: Mack released them in April 1902, and they joined the AL’s Cleveland Bronchos. The pair played for the Ohio team in defiance of the ruling, staying out of Pennsylvania until the contempt charges were dropped in June 1903.18 Lajoie was so popular in Cleveland that the Bronchos became known as the Naps in 1903.
During the course of this legal wrangling, Bernhard developed into one of the best pitchers in the American League. His 17-10 record and 4.52 ERA in 1901 improved to an 18-5 mark and a 2.15 ERA in 1902. From August 27 to September 1, 1902, Bernhard hurled a three-hitter to defeat the Philadelphia Athletics (in Cleveland); a two-hit shutout of Washington; and a six-hit shutout of Boston.19
Bill and Lillian Bernhard celebrated the birth of their first child, daughter Marion, in May 1902.20 In the offseason after the 1902 season, Bill and his family traveled to California, where he pitched for a touring team of major league all-stars.21 He fell in love with the Golden State. He praised its climate and “how nice it was to go out and pick oranges from the trees.”22 It sure beat winter in Buffalo.
Bernhard continued to shine for Cleveland in 1903 and 1904; his combined record over those two seasons was 37-18 with a 2.13 ERA, including 23 wins in 1904. On August 11, 1904, he lost 2-1 in 13 innings to Rube Waddell and the Athletics.23 On September 29, 1904, he defeated Cy Young and the Boston Americans, 3-1.24 Lillian and Marion attended the home games in which Bill pitched; his “beautiful little daughter sits in the grand stand directly in front of him, and watches his work with the keenest delight.”25
Lajoie was named the manager of the 1905 Cleveland Naps. Cleveland first baseman Charlie Carr felt Bernhard was a better choice to manage the team. Carr said:
“When the Cleveland club management appointed Lajoie as manager in 1905, it made a serious mistake to my way of thinking. Not that Lajoie was not a competent man for the position, but because it did not result in the harmony necessary on a team to make it a pennant winner. … The man who could have had perfect harmony on the team was Bill Bernhard, for every man liked him and would have worked his head off for him.”26
Bernhard struggled in 1905 (7-13 record and 3.36 ERA) but rebounded in 1906 (16-15, 2.54). He was in top form from September 16 to 27, 1906, when he defeated St. Louis, Washington, Boston, and New York in succession, allowing a total of two runs and 19 hits in four complete games.27 Tragedy struck Bill and Lillian in February 1907 when Marion, their only child, died of pneumonia.28
The 36-year-old Bernhard pitched only 42 innings in 1907, his final major league season. He said: “There has been nothing wrong with me at any time this year, but the other pitchers were going so well that I was not used this year. Because of this idleness I am unable to do myself justice. I am as green as can be when I get on the rubber.”29 Cleveland released him in January 1908, and he became the manager of the Nashville Volunteers.30
The 1907 Volunteers had finished in last place in the eight-team Southern Association. Bernhard used his major league connections to acquire talent for the 1908 Vols; his acquisitions included his former Cleveland teammate, Harry Bay, and a promising Cleveland prospect, Jake Daubert.31 In addition to managing the team, Bernhard pitched and compiled a 7-6 record, including shutouts of New Orleans, Atlanta, and Montgomery.32 His club trailed the first-place New Orleans Pelicans by a half-game in September when the Pelicans arrived in Nashville for a season-ending three-game series. Bernhard pitched the first game of the series and lost, 5-1, but his team won the next two games to win the pennant by a slim half-game margin.33 Bernhard’s turnaround of the Volunteers, from last place in 1907 to first place in 1908, brought him national acclaim.
Bernhard displayed the same calm manner whether his team had won five games in a row or had lost five in a row. He was always encouraging his team, and he never called out a player in front of others.34 After Daubert committed his third error in one game, he came to the bench expecting to be chewed out. Instead Bernhard said, “Never mind about that, Jake. You’ll boot a lot more like that before the season is over. Take a fall out of another one if you feel like it, and you’ll get a bit more used to it.” Daubert broke into a foolish grin and later said, “I wouldn’t loaf on that fellow if it cost me a leg.”35
The Cleveland Plain Dealer described Bernhard’s managerial style:
“He is on the Connie Mack order rather than on the [Hughie] Jennings plan. There is nothing boisterous about Bernhard. He acts quietly, telling his men of their mistakes in the same tones that he praises them for some piece of brilliant work. Instead of whistling and tearing up the grass, he wig wags with his score card as the leader of the Athletics does. He served under Connie Mack at Philadelphia prior to coming to Cleveland and was always an admirer of the methods of the tall and lanky leader.”36
Bernhard’s success in Nashville made him a local celebrity. In May 1909, fans gave him a diamond-studded pin. “Some of the fans wanted to give him a ninety-horsepower automobile, but Bill intimated that this would not be acceptable until he won his second pennant, so the pin was decided upon.”37
According to Sporting Life, the 1909 Volunteers “are all chucked full of enthusiasm and confidence, and every game is fought out as if it was the deciding game of the season.”38 The team was in first place after winning its 13th consecutive game on July 25,39 but finished in second, 5½ games behind the Atlanta Crackers.
It was rumored that Bernhard would be managing Washington, Cleveland or New York in the American League in 1910,40 but he returned to lead the Volunteers. The Southern Association adopted a $3,000 salary limit for the 1910 season.41 Bernhard took an unprecedented step that made him even more popular with his players. He said:
“The boys have played faithfully for me. I have not the heart to ask them to play for less than they are capable of getting elsewhere. Therefore I told them that they could choose their futures if they could show me where they were able to draw more money than our reduced rates would permit. All will be sold or placed to suit themselves.”42
Bernhard sold several of his stars to teams in other leagues so that these players could earn more than $3,000.43 With a weakened lineup, the Volunteers played poorly to start the 1910 season. Bernhard said the team would settle down now that “the dangers attending the comet” have passed44 – many people were unnerved by Halley’s comet in April 1910. By July the team was “transformed” from “a bunch of dubs to the best fellows on earth, and if Bill Bernhard would consent to accept the nomination, he could easily be elected mayor” of Nashville.45 At age 39, Bernhard pitched in 29 games during the 1910 season, including a one-hit shutout of Mobile on August 31.46 The Volunteers finished in fifth place, 23 games behind the first-place New Orleans Pelicans.
The Nashville team owners chose not to renew Bernhard’s contract for the 1911 season.47 It seems they were spoiled by the team’s recent success.48 Sportswriter Grantland Rice said, “The directorate made a large, juicy mistake in turning loose a corking good manager.”49 Bernhard was instantly hired to manage the Memphis Turtles, a team that had finished in seventh place in the Southern Association in 1910. He led the Turtles to sixth-place, fourth-place, and sixth-place finishes in 1911, 1912, and 1913, respectively.
The following are quotes from Bernhard.
- On close games: “The man in the game does not get nervous in a close game. It is the man on the bench that does the worrying. When you are in there fighting for every point, you do not have time to worry, but when you are warming the bench you think you see ways of winning out and wonder why the fellows in there do not see and take advantage of them.”50
- On arm strength: “Many, many pitchers tell you that the old arm is as strong as ever. My arm feels good too, this spring, but it is not as strong as ever. If it was I wouldn’t be in the Southern League, and if the arms of those other pitchers were as strong as ever, they also would not be in the minor leagues.”51
- On where his team will finish: “If I am talking for private information, I think we’ll finish 1-2. If I am talking for publication, make it seventh place. It’s better to start in seventh place before the season starts and work up to fifth than it is to start in first place and drop to fourth.”52
- On luck: “If you have a horseshoe with you out on the mound, you are going to win your game. If the other fellow has the horseshoe, he is going to win. If you both have horseshoes, it’s going to be one ripper of a fight.”53
- On how much a ballplayer should be paid: “Anything he can get.”54
In 1914, at the age of 43, Bernhard pitched 92 innings for the Salt Lake City Skyscrapers of the Class D Union Association. He returned to the Southern Association and served as the pitching coach of the Chattanooga Lookouts in the spring of 1915, and as a league umpire from June 1915 to July 1916.55 In October 1916, Bernhard became the manager of the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League.56 In February 1917, he endured another family tragedy: His beloved wife Lillian died after an extended illness.57
Sportswriter Ed R. Hughes of the San Francisco Chronicle observed Bees manager Bernhard in a game against the San Francisco Seals in May 1917:
“Bill Bernhard, the Easy Boss, sits on the bench, entirely surrounded by left-handers, munching peanuts, and occasionally tossing a kernel to one of the southpaws. … Bill is not a fast eater, but he is a steady one, and there was a young mountain of peanut shells in front of the Salt Lake bench. … Bill Bernhard is demonstrating that a ball club can be piloted into first place without the manager fretting and stewing, though the visible supply of peanuts is rapidly diminishing.”58
The 46-year-old Bernhard was in good enough shape to pitch batting practice to the Bees.59 To his team’s great delight, he took to the mound in an August game; pitching in relief, he held the Los Angeles Angels down while Salt Lake City rallied to earn an 11-9 come-from-behind victory.60 The 1917 Bees finished in third place. Bernhard’s contract was not renewed for the 1918 season; the Salt Lake City team owners felt he was not aggressive enough.61 His career in professional baseball was over.
Bernhard moved to southern California, and in 1930 he married Lydamae Dills, a registered nurse.62 Bernhard was the information chief for the Santa Anita race track, and later, a shipping clerk for Stationer’s Corporation.63 On March 30, 1949, he died of leukemia at the age of 78, in San Diego.
The author thanks John A. Simpson for reviewing a draft of this article and providing helpful information.
1 Sporting Life, November 1, 1902.
3 1880 US Census and 1892 New York State Census.
4 Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 26, 1905.
5 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 8, 1906.
6 Sporting Life, December 11, 1897.
7 Batavia (New York) Daily News, June 8, 1897.
8 Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, August 21, 1897.
9 David L. Fleitz, Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013).
10 Sporting Life, August 27, 1898. Teams representing the New York towns of Canajoharie, Richfield Springs, and Cooperstown formed a league in 1898.
11 Sporting Life, June 18 and November 5, 1898.
12 Sporting Life, April 29, 1899.
13 Sporting Life, July 15, 1899.
14 Sporting Life, September 2, 1899; Philadelphia Times, September 15, 1899.
15 Sporting Life, June 23 and August 25, 1900.
16 Ancestry.com and 1910 US Census.
17 Fleitz, Napoleon Lajoie.
19 Sporting Life, September 6 and 13, 1902.
20 Sporting Life, June 14, 1902.
21 Sporting Life, November 29 and December 6, 1902.
22 Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 15, 1903.
23 Sporting Life, August 20, 1904.
24 Sporting Life, October 8, 1904.
25 Sporting Life, November 26, 1904.
26 Chicago Eagle, August 23, 1913.
27 Sporting Life, September 29 and October 6, 1906.
28 Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 13, 1907.
29 Washington Post, September 29, 1907.
30 Sporting Life, January 18, 1908.
31 Atlanta Constitution, August 17, 1908.
32 Sporting Life, August 8 and 22, 1908; Atlanta Constitution, August 7, 1908.
33 John A. Simpson, The Greatest Game Ever Played in Dixie: The Nashville Vols, Their 1908 Season, and the Championship Game (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007).
34 Atlanta Constitution, April 30, 1911.
35 Charlotte (North Carolina) Evening Chronicle, October 2, 1909.
36 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 20, 1909.
37 Sporting Life, May 22, 1909.
39 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 26, 1909.
40 Atlanta Constitution, August 15, 1909; Boston Daily Globe, August 19, 1909; San Francisco Call, January 1, 1910.
41 Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) Tribune, February 5, 1910.
42 Indianapolis Star, January 27, 1910.
44 Sporting Life, May 28, 1910.
45 Sporting Life, August 6, 1910.
46 Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, September 1, 1910.
47 Charlotte (North Carolina) News, September 24, 1910.
48 John A. Simpson, Hub Perdue: Clown Prince of the Mound (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2014).
49 The Nashville Tennessean, September 24, 1910.
50 Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 7, 1907.
51 Bemidji (Minnesota) Pioneer, June 3, 1911.
52 Washington Times, April 5, 1913.
53 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 17, 1909.
54 The Sporting News, January 30, 1941.
55 Sporting Life, January 30, 1915, and July 15, 1916; New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 13, 1915.
56 Oakland Tribune, October 10, 1916.
57 Sporting Life, March 3, 1917.
58 San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 1917.
59 San Francisco Chronicle, July 17, 1917.
60 San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 1917.
61 Scranton (Pennsylvania) Republican, January 2, 1918.
62 1930 US Census; San Bernardino County (California) Sun, July 25, 1930.
63 Simpson, The Greatest Game.