This article was written by Bill Johnson
On a mid-September afternoon in Brooklyn in 1924, Cardinals third–year first baseman Jim Bottomley came to bat six times and delivered six hits, including two home runs, a double, and three singles off the Robins’ pitchers. Bottomley drove in 12 runs that day, and set a major league record for most Runs Batted In (RBIs) in a single game that still stands (shared with the Cardinals’ Mark Whiten in 1993). The previous record of 11 had stood since 1892 and, ironically, had belonged to Brooklyn’s manager, Wilbert Robinson. Uncle Robbie’s record stood for 32 years. Bottomley’s record stands to this day, and his performance was a milestone on his road to Cooperstown.
James Leroy Bottomley was born on April 23, 1900, to John and Elizabeth (Carter) Bottomley in Oglesby, Illinois, into a coal mining and farming family that lived in several mid-western towns. He grew up quickly, quitting Nokomis High School at age 16 in order to help the family. Over the next few years, he worked as a truck driver, grocery clerk, railroad clerk, and above-ground coal miner. He lost his younger brother, Ralph, to a mining accident around 1920; such was the hardscrabble life of miners. But by that time Bottomley had found a way out or, perhaps more accurately, a way out found him.
Bottomley played for several local semipro baseball teams in order to make extra money. He caught the eye of a local policeman who had the ear of St. Louis Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey. He convinced the GM that the 19-year-old slugger merited further investigation. Rickey dispatched scout Charley Barrett to take a closer look. Barrett invited Bottomley to a Cardinal tryout camp. After a tryout at Cardinal Field in late 1919, Jim immediately signed his first contract, earning $150-a-month.
In 1920, he split time between the Class D Mitchell Kernels of the South Dakota league, where he batted.312 in 97 games and the Sioux City Packers of the Class A Western League. The latter stint was only for six games, and he managed one hit in 14 at-bats. He remained in ‘A’ ball for the 1921 season, where he batted only .227 in 130 games with the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League.
Despite his difficult year in Houston, Bottomley moved to AA the following year and enjoyed a breakout campaign. In 119 games with the Syracuse Chiefs, of the International League, he batted .348, slugged .567, and added 14 home runs and 15 triples against competition that included players ranging from an ascending Lefty Grove to a declining Fred Merkle. His performance forced Branch Rickey to make a fundamental change to the existing relationship between St Louis and their minor league affiliates.
By the time Bottomley joined Syracuse, the Cardinals owned half the team, the other portion owned by Earnest Landgraf. After Bottomley’s stellar 1922 season, Landgraf advised Rickey that he was considering auctioning Bottomley to the highest bidder. . Had the tactic worked, the viability of the major/minor league team relationship, vital to Rickey’s organizational vision, might have foundered. Rickey bought Bottomley’s contract from Landgraf for $15,000, a large sum, since Bottomley was technically Cardinals’ property. St Louis owner Sam Breadon followed up by buying out Landgraf entirely.
Bottomley did not waste the opportunity. He made his major league debut on August 18, 1922, and played at first base for the rest of the season, replacing veteran Jack Fournier. In 37 games, he batted .325.
His arrival in St. Louis was memorable in more ways than one. In 1928, Murray Tynan of the New York Times related a story told by Branch Rickey about Jim’s arrival in the majors:
He came out to the park, said Rickey, in a taxi because he didn’t dare attempt to find his way around St. Louis. He was astonished…when the driver charged him more than $4.00 fare. He had on the biggest pair of shoes I ever saw. They must have been size twenty…I did notice one thing, though. The boy could scoop up grounders with remarkable grace….
The Cardinals named Bottomley the starting first baseman in 1923, and the rookie did not disappoint. He managed only eight home runs, but batted .371 to finish second in the National League batting race, 13 points behind teammate Rogers Hornsby’s 384 mark. The next season, Jim’s average fell to .316, but he established his record on September 16, in Brooklyn.
Against the Robins that afternoon, Bottomley came to bat in the top of the first inning with the bases loaded and drove in two runs with a single off pitcher Rube Ehrhardt. The next inning he doubled to drive in teammate Willie Sherdel. In the fourth, Bottomley delivered a grand slam, and followed that in the sixth with a two-run homer. In the seventh, he smacked another single to drive in his tenth and eleventh runs on the day, and capped his afternoon by driving in Hornsby with a base hit in the ninth.
At some point during his minor league time, the press had dubbed Bottomley “Sunny Jim,” in part because of his irrepressible good nature and cheerful disposition. He was widely considered a nice man. He was perhaps a bit quirky, given his fascination with astrology, but he also had a sense of fun, wearing a constant smile that earned him his sobriquet. His 1959 obituary in the New York Times later described the player: “He wore his baseball cap at a jaunty angle and his mannerisms on the playing field made him a Ladies’ Day favorite. But he was equally the favorite of the male fans for his slugging prowess.” ”Sunny” or not, Bottomley wreaked havoc with opposing pitchers in 1925, leading the league in hits as his average climbed back to .367.
Both Bottomley and the Cardinals tasted World Series play for the first time in 1926. He hit .345 in the Series to help the Cardinals defeat the Yankees in a seven-game classic that featured the Grover Cleveland Alexander’s legendary relief work in Game Seven, and ended with Babe Ruth being thrown out attempting to steal second. Bottomley earned a $5,584 winner’s share that would, later become the seed money for his retirement. Jim returned to the World Series in 1928, when those same Yankees swept St. Louis in four straight, and in 1930, when Connie Mack’s Athletics dynasty beat the Cards four games to two.
That 1928 season was Bottomley’s career best, as he hit 42 doubles, 20 triples, 31 homers, and led the league in RBIs with 136. The numbers, along with the Cardinals’ team success, convinced voters to select “Sunny Jim” over Freddie Lindstrom as the National League Most Valuable Player. Bottomley became the first MVP developed in his team’s own farm system to win the award.
Jim kept his average over .300 into the 1930s. In 1931, though limited by injuries to only 108 games, Bottomley finished third in the closest batting race in National League history. His average of .3482 trailed runner-up Bill Terry’s .3486 and champion Chick Hafey’s .3489 A seven-game triumph in the Cardinals’ World Series rematch with Philadelphia softened the blow of not wining the batting title. It was Jim’s second championship and fourth series. It was also, as it turned out, his last. Over the course of four series, Jim earned an additional $17,770, which became seed money for his post-baseball career.
Bottomley managed to play in only 91 games in 1932, and although he batted a credible .296, the Cardinals traded him to the Cincinnati Reds on December 17, for slugger Ownie Carroll and Estel Crabtree. Two months later, on February 4, 1933, Bottomley wed Elizabeth “Betty” Browner, and although there were no children from the marriage, the couple remained together happily for the remaining years of his life.
Father Time eventually caught up with ‘Sunny Jim’s’ bat. Over the next three seasons with the Reds, he never hit higher than .284, and did not drive in more than 83 runs in any season. On March 21, 1936, the Reds traded the infielder to the St. Louis Browns, where Bottomley’s former Cardinal teammate Rogers Hornsby was managing, in exchange for Johnny Burnett. That year Bottomley’s average climbed to .298, but the next year it fell to .239 in only 65 games.
Early in 1937, the Browns fired Hornsby after a 25-52 start and named Bottomley as the interim replacement. ‘Sunny Jim’ was able to manage only 21 more wins out of the hapless Browns, en route to a 46-108 record, 9 ½ games behind the seventh place A’s, and a whopping 56 games out of first. On September 16 of that year, one day shy of the thirteenth anniversary of his 12-RBI classic, Jim Bottomley went 1-for-4 in what proved to be his final major league game, a 4-3 Browns loss to the Athletics in Philadelphia. He never again took the field as a player.
Thus an outstanding career came to an end. In addition to his career .310 batting average and his National League MVP award in 1928, he led the league twice in total bases, doubles, and RBIs, once each in hits, triples and home runs. He also drove in over 100 runs six times and has one of baseball’s longest-enduring records.
The Browns did not rehire Bottomley in 1938, but he did catch on as player-manager with Syracuse in the International League. After a rough start, he was replaced early in the year by Dick Porter. Jim and Betty retired to raise Hereford cattle on a farm near Bourbon, Missouri, about fifty miles southwest of St. Louis, that they bought largely out of savings and prudent stewardship of his four World Series checks,. When asked what he’d like as an appreciation gift from the St. Louis fans the year before, Bottomley had replied, “A cow.” Whether he was serious or not, that was exactly what he got. The team led a cow named “Fielder’s Choice” onto the field before a mid-August game against the Indians, and Jim happily led it back off before taking his position at first base.
Bottomley stayed out of Organized Baseball until 1955, when he accepted a scouting position with the Chicago Cubs. In 1957, he accepted an offer to manage the Pulaski Cubs of the Class D Appalachian League.
On June 27, 1957, as his Cub team tied the Bluefield Dodgers 8-8 in the season-opening game on the road in West Virginia, Bottomley suffered a heart attack that drove him from the game for good. Jim returned to Missouri, but moved a few miles up the road, into the town of Sullivan, where he lived for the next two years. On December 11, 1959, just two weeks before Christmas, the Bottomleys drove into St. Louis to do some holiday shopping. Betty returned to their car in a downtown parking lot to find her husband slumped over the steering wheel, finally claimed by another heart attack.
Jim Bottomley was buried in the International Order of Foresters (I.O.O.F) Cemetery in Sullivan, Missouri. Fifteen years later, in 1974, the Veterans Committee elected him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Bottomley’s name still lives. A city park is named for him in Sullivan, and in his hometown of Nokomis, Illinois, the B-R-S Baseball Museum was built to commemorate the careers and contributions of Bottomley, and fellow native sons Ray Schalk and Red Ruffing. The museum was established in 1981 in the front window of a small restaurant in Nokomis, and moved three times over the years until finally settling into the current facility on Illinois’ Route 16.
Upon being interviewed years after his retirement as a player, Bottomley expressed his personal philosophy perfectly: “I don’t have a regret in the world. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve loved every minute of it.” Why was he nicknamed “Sunny Jim”? Bottomley’s own words said it all.
Mike Eisenbath, ed. The Cardinals Encyclopedia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
The New York Times – various issues
Emil Rothe. “When Jim Bottomley Drove in 12 Runs in One Game.” Baseball Digest, May 1972
The Sporting News – various issues