This article was written by David Shiner
An excellent bunter, accomplished base stealer, and pesky left-handed hitter who usually had the National League’s best walk-to-strikeout ratio after his first few seasons in the big leagues, Johnny Evers was considered one of the Deadball Era’s smartest and best all-around players. He was just as well known for his fiery disposition. The star second baseman’s nickname, “The Human Crab,” was originally bestowed on him due to his unorthodox manner of sidling over to ground balls before gobbling them up, but most baseball men considered it better suited to his temperament than his fielding. A 5’9″, 125-pound pepper-pot with a protruding jaw that came to be a symbol of the man – for he was always “jawing” about something – Evers developed a reputation as a troublemaker by squabbling regularly with teammates, opponents, and especially umpires. “They claim he is a crab, and perhaps they are right,” Cleveland Indians manager Joe Birmingham once observed. “But I would like to have 25 such crabs playing for me. If I did, I would have no doubts over the pennant. They would win hands down.”
The older brother of Joe Evers, who appeared as a pinch runner in one game for the New York Giants in 1913, John Joseph Evers was born on July 21, 1881, in Troy, New York. The proper pronunciation of the family’s surname has always been a source of confusion, but Johnny clarified the matter during a public appearance in Boston late in his career when he declared, according to a local sportswriter, that “either way was right: that while Ev-ers was the correct pronunciation, everyone in Troy, his home, called him E-vers and always had done so.” Johnny tipped the scales at just 100 pounds when he signed with his hometown club in the New York State League early in the 1902 season. When he appeared in a game at nearby Albany the fans reportedly assumed that he was some sort of comic act, but the 20-year-old shortstop proved otherwise when he fielded everything hit his way and won the game with a three-run double.
Later that summer the manager of the Chicago Nationals, Frank Selee, learned that a capable pitcher was toiling for the Troy nine. He arranged an exhibition game between his club and the Trojans, a common practice at the time. The pitching prospect, Alex Hardy, was impressive, so Selee offered the Troy ownership $1,000 for him. Hardy’s employers countered by requesting $1,500, claiming that another major-league club was willing to shell out that amount. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Selee responded. “If you throw in that kid who played short today, I’ll give you the $1,500.” The owners of the Troy team were quick to oblige. Evers was batting .285 and leading the New York State League with 10 home runs (only two less than he hit in his entire 18-year major-league career), but he was regarded as a nuisance because of his short temper and his insistence that the local ballpark be available for practice at all times of the day. He also committed plenty of errors at short, though he displayed great range in the field.
Making his major-league debut on September 1, 1902, Johnny played his customary position while Selee moved his regular shortstop, fellow rookie Joe Tinker, to third base. Three days later the Chicago skipper rearranged his infield, moving Evers to second and returning Tinker to short, the positions at which they remained for the next decade. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Evers’ 26-game trial during the final month of that season was unimpressive; he showed promise defensively but batted only .222 without a single extra-base hit, drawing just three walks and stealing a lone base. But regular second-baseman Bobby Lowe suffered a severe knee injury late in 1902. By spring training the following year it still hadn’t healed properly, so Evers won the starting job by default. This time he was ready, batting .293, pilfering 25 bases, and contributing solid defense all season long. At the beginning of 1904 Selee sold Lowe to the Pittsburgh Pirates, entrenching Johnny as the club’s everyday second sacker.
The scrappy Evers didn’t hit his first major-league home run until his 24th birthday, July 21, 1905, when he popped a pitch from future teammate Chick Fraser over the fence in the right-field corner at Boston’s South End Grounds. By that point he had already appeared in more than 350 big-league games. But Johnny made up for his lack of power with a mastery of “inside baseball” that became his trademark. In 1906 he stole a career-high 49 bases, and the next season he pilfered 46, both marks placing him in the top five in the National League in those years. Evers also generally increased his proclivity for drawing walks each season, peaking at 108 in 1910, only eight behind league-leader Miller Huggins. That marked his third straight year in the NL’s top five in that category. “I am convinced that in my own career I could usually have hit 30 points higher if I had made a specialty of hitting,” said the man with a lifetime batting average of .270. “Some lumbering bonehead who does make a specialty of hitting and nothing else may forge well across the .300 line and everybody says, ‘What a grand hitter.’ The fact is, the bonehead may have been playing rotten baseball when he got that average and someone else who didn’t look to be in his class might be the better hitter of the two. Of course there are plenty of times when there is nothing like the old bingle. But there are plenty of other times when the batter at the plate should focus his attention on trying to fool the pitcher. In my own case I have frequently faced the pitcher when I had no desire whatever to hit. I wanted to get a base on balls.” And he became a master of that skill.
The mutual antipathy between Evers and his keystone partner, Tinker, was legendary. There was little love lost between them during the Cubs’ heyday, and they didn’t speak to each other off the field for decades. Some commentators dated their animosity to a highly publicized on-field brawl in 1905, but years later Evers told a different story. “One day early in 1907, he threw me a hard ball; it wasn’t any farther than from here to there,” Evers claimed, pointing to a lamp about 10 feet from where he sat. “It was a real hard ball, like a catcher throwing to second.” The throw bent back one of the fingers on Evers’ right hand. “I yelled to him, you so-and-so. He laughed. That’s the last word we had for – well, I just don’t know how long.” Whatever the reason for their bitterness, Evers and Tinker were an impeccable defensive tandem on the diamond. “Tinker and myself hated each other,” Evers admitted, “but we loved the Cubs. We wouldn’t fight for each other, but we’d come close to killing people for our team. That was one of the answers to the Cubs’ success.”1
Evers batted an even .300 in 1908, the first of only two times in his career that he reached that exalted level. He also played a crucial role in that year’s pennant race, one of the closest and most exciting in baseball history. On September 4 the Cubs were locked in a scoreless duel in Pittsburgh when the Pirates loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. On what appeared to be a game-winning hit to center, the runner at first, Warren Gill, left the field without bothering to touch second base. Evers, standing on second, called for the ball and demanded that umpire Hank O’Day rule the play a forceout, which would nullify the run and send the game into extra innings. Gill’s maneuver was customary in those days, and O’Day refused to make the out call. “That night O’Day came to look me up, which was an unusual thing in itself,” Evers recalled many years later. “Sitting in a corner in the lobby, he told me that he wanted to discuss the play. O’Day then agreed that my play was legal and that under the circumstances, a runner coming down from first and not touching second on the final base hit was out.”2 Evers’ account may not be entirely trustworthy, especially given O’Day’s exceptionally reclusive nature and the lengthy period between the event and the retelling, but the incident undoubtedly had a pronounced effect on the umpire, as was demonstrated by subsequent events.
An almost identical situation arose on September 23, this time with the Cubs battling the Giants at the Polo Grounds. When New York’s Al Bridwell hit an apparent game-winning single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the runner on first, Fred Merkle, headed for the clubhouse without touching second. Evers called for the ball, eventually got one (though probably not the ball Bridwell hit), and held it aloft as he stepped on second base. “I can still see Johnny on second with his hand up in the air,” Giants infielder Buck Herzog told reporter Tom Meany some 20 years later. “He looked like the Statue of Liberty.”3
O’Day was again the umpire, and this time he called the runner out. Given the irregularity of the call, the critical nature of the game, the temperaments of the opposing managers, and the animosity between the Cubs and Giants, O’Day’s verdict sparked a firestorm of controversy. Eventually NL president Harry Pulliam ruled the game a tie, to be replayed if it had any impact on the pennant race. It did, as the two teams ended the regular season deadlocked for first place. The Cubs went back to New York for a one-game playoff, winning 4-2 to secure their third consecutive NL pennant. They went on to thrash the Detroit Tigers in the World Series for the second straight year, with Evers batting .350 and leading all players on both teams in runs scored. His headiness on the play that became known as “Merkle’s Boner” was given due credit for the Cubs’ triumph, cementing his reputation as one of the smartest players in baseball.
Evers was as high-strung as he was brainy. One reporter described him as a “keen little umpire-fighting bundle of nerves,” and sometimes those nerves got the better of him. In 1911 he played in just 46 games, being out of commission for most of the season by a nervous breakdown which he claimed was due to the loss of his entire accumulated capital in a failed business venture. He bounced back to enjoy the best season of his career in 1912, batting a career-high .341 and leading the NL with a .431 on-base percentage. At the end of that season Frank Chance resigned as manager (or was fired, depending on who you believe), and Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy presented the 31-year-old Evers with a five-year contract as player-manager.
The next season started in promising fashion. May 10, 1913 was Johnny Evers Day at the Polo Grounds, and a sizeable number of Troy residents journeyed to New York City to see their favorite son collect a single, a double, and a walk in four trips to the plate. Evers also scored the winning run as his Cubs (often called the “Trojans” in his honor in the newspapers that year) vanquished the Giants, 2-1.4 But the Cubs failed to improve on the previous year’s third-place finish, and after the season Murphy summarily dismissed his manager despite the long-term contract.
The fallout was acrimonious. Murphy initially claimed that Evers had resigned. Johnny angrily disputed that, and the other NL owners unanimously sided with him. Murphy then tried to trade his ex-manager to the Boston Braves for two players and cash. Evers said he wouldn’t report, and his refusal was made more piquant by the fact that the newly-minted Federal League was offering him $30,000 to forsake the NL altogether. Although Evers later claimed that he had no intention of jumping to the new league, that was far from clear at the time. Disgusted by Murphy’s tactics and afraid of losing one of their top stars to the upstart league, the NL owners nullified the trade and awarded Evers his release, permitting him to sell his own contract to the Braves for $25,000 plus bonuses and incentives of various sorts. His overall earnings for 1914 made him the highest-paid player in baseball.
The deal was risky for the Braves on several counts. Due to Evers’ age (32), slender frame (he spent off-days wolfing down candy bars so he could retain as much weight as possible), hypersensitivity, and proclivity for getting ejected from ballgames, he couldn’t be counted on for everyday play. Nevertheless the unorthodox deal benefited a number of people, none more than Evers himself. His new manager, the like-minded George Stallings, quickly appointed him the Braves team captain. Johnny took his duties seriously, running his teammates ragged in practice and taking it as a personal insult when anyone put forth an effort that he regarded as subpar. “He’d make you want to punch him,” teammate Rabbit Maranville later recalled, “but you knew Johnny was thinking only of the team.”5 After rocketing from last place to first over the last 10 weeks of the 1914 season, the “Miracle Braves” capped a dream season by sweeping the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series. Sensational down the stretch, Evers also was outstanding in the Series, batting .438 with several key hits. To cap off his spectacular season, he won the Chalmers Award as the NL’s MVP.
That was Evers’ last great year. Injuries and suspensions cost him almost half of the 1915 season. When healthy he performed at his usual impressive level, but his disputes with umpires, never far from the sports headlines even in the calmest of times, became weekly fare. Johnny’s nerves were clearly frayed even beyond their usual state. In early August, with the Braves trying to catch the Phillies in the pennant chase, he announced that he needed to leave the team immediately or risk a recurrence of the nervous breakdown he had suffered four years earlier. Evers managed to complete the 1915 campaign, playing in most of his team’s games during the Braves’ unsuccessful stretch run, but it was his last season as a regular. He had a poor year in 1916, and after batting a meager .193 over the first half of 1917 the Braves placed him on waivers. Evers spent the second half of that season with the Phillies, who played him sparingly and released him at season’s end. The following year he earned a spot on the Opening Day roster of the Boston Red Sox but was released before appearing in a single game.
Evers returned to the Cubs as manager in 1921 and skippered the White Sox three years later. He failed to complete either season, and both clubs performed less successfully under his direction than either before or after he took the reins. The White Sox assignment made him the first man to manage both Chicago major-league clubs, and the only one until Rich Renteria almost a century later.
During the 1930s Evers ran a sporting-goods store in Albany, New York, which remained in family hands until it closed its doors for good in the 1990s. In 1942 he suffered a stroke that debilitated him for the rest of his life. Johnny Evers died in Albany on March 28, 1947, one year after his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
A version of this biography originally appeared in “Deadball Stars of the National League” (Potomac Books, 2004), edited by Tom Simon. It is also included in “The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston’s Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions” (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.
1 Unnamed Troy (NY) newspaper, December 26, 1936. Unattributed quotations in this biography are from undated and unidentified newspaper clippings found in the Johnny Evers file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
2 Bill Corum, “Evers to Chance Again,” The Sporting News, April 9, 1947, 18.
3 Tom Meany, Baseball’s Greatest Teams (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1949), 109.
4 Troy Budget, May 11, 1913, pages unknown.
5 Tom Meany, 170.