Walt Bernhardt (Baseball-Reference.com)

Walter Bernhardt

This article was written by Jim Leeke

Walt Bernhardt (Baseball-Reference.com)An unlikely big leaguer who reached New York from the bushes by way of the Ivy League, Walt Bernhardt appeared oh-so-briefly for the war-depleted Yankees before entering the U.S. Army in 1918. He afterward built a life outside of baseball, tending to dental patients and Holstein cattle.

Walter Jacob Bernhardt was born on May 20, 1893, in Sartwell, in Pennsylvania timber country near the New York state line. He was the second son of Elmer and Edith Bernhardt. His father was a lumberman who later turned to farming. His mother, 16 when she wedded Elmer, later worked as a dressmaker.

His parents’ marriage failed. Elmer later remarried, but Edith remained a single mother. She reared Walter and his older brother, Earl, in Wayland, New York, a village 45 miles south of Rochester. Elmer and his second family lived nearby.

Young Bernhardt attended tiny Wayland High School, which fielded a baseball nine that met little success. He once pitched in relief during a 26-4 drubbing, a local newspaper noting that “if the support had been better the result would not have been so very, very awful. Not a ball was caught in the out field and all the fielders had from one to three chances.”1

Bernhardt was one of only three seniors who graduated in 1911. His mother died two months later after a long battle with cancer. Little is known of his life during the next few years except that he pitched for Wayland town teams. In September 1915 he left to study dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, where, as a six-foot-two, 175-pound righthander he surprisingly made the freshman ball club the next spring.

“Bernhardt came to Penn unheralded and unsung,” the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin recalled.2 He starred for the Red and Blue during the following two seasons while pursuing an accelerated academic schedule. He received the nickname “Sarah,” after the famous French stage actress.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Charles Bender helped to sharpen Penn’s pitching staff in 1917. “The coming of Bernhardt into form shows that Chief Bender is getting results from his instructions to the Quaker moundsmen,” the Philadelphia Evening Ledger said. “With [John] Titzel and Bernhardt, Coach Roy Thomas has two of the best twirlers in the college ranks.”3

Bernhardt looked even better in 1918 as the Great War depleted both college and professional ranks. He beat Swarthmore 1-0 in 14 innings during the season opener. “He has a good fast ball and a baffling and sharp breaking curve, but best of all he has control,” the Bulletin said. “Two bases on balls in fourteen innings is a record that even [Pete] Alexander wouldn’t be ashamed of.”4

The Penn squad was “unusually good” that season, the school’s Pennsylvania Gazette asserted. “Due largely to the pitching of Bernhardt, but also to the splendid work of the entire team, it lost but three college games.”5

Because of reduced schedules and wartime travel restrictions, the Penn team sometimes played nearby military nines. During one service game Bernhardt lost, 2-1, to New York Yankee pitcher Bob Shawkey, then a yeoman throwing for a naval reserve squad. “At that, the pitching honors ran about even, as Walter Bernhardt, the Quaker pitching ace, staged a grand exhibition,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said. “He struck out eight men to Shawkey’s seven and held his opponents to five hits—the same number Shawkey allowed.”6

Bernhardt received his dental degree in June 1918. Perhaps inspired by Philadelphia dentist Captain Ed Lafitte, a former Detroit Tiger and Brooklyn Tip-Top hurler then in the army, he’d already enlisted in the Dental Corps but hadn’t yet been called. The New York Yankees signed him at the end of the month, desperate for pitching after losing players to military service and wartime jobs.

“Big Bernie was a sensation at Penn the last season, winning the majority of the games in which he worked,” the Buffalo News told readers who likely had little idea who he was.7 The rookie roomed with Yankee Frank “Home Run” Baker, a farmer during the offseason. The two country boys quickly found common ground.

“He was a real dirt farmer,” Bernhardt recalled of Baker. “He knew all about animal husbandry. Neither of us smoked nor drank nor roistered around. Baker just played ball, and thought about his farm.”8 Bernhardt also marveled at the slugger’s power. “When Baker got hold of a fast pitch,” he remembered, “when he really leaned into it, he’d actually flatten the ball, and the ump would have to take it out of the game.”9

Bernhardt also liked and respected Yankees manager Miller Huggins, who used him to throw batting practice until July 16, when he sent him to the mound at the Polo Grounds during a doubleheader loss to the Tigers.

“The bright side is that Bernhardt, the young University of Pennsylvania pitcher, who has been on the Yank roll for a couple of weeks, made a nice showing at the close of the first game,” Hugh Fullerton wrote, “and looked and acted as if he may be the Moses to come to the rescue of the Yanks.”10

Bernhardt entered the game, relieving battered future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance in the top of the ninth with 15,000 fans in the stands and the score 12-1. He was so unprepared to pitch that he had to arrange impromptu signals with Yankee catcher James “Truck” Hannah. With a runner on third and one man out, Bernhardt set down Detroit backstop Oscar Stanage on a curveball and two fastballs. Then he got Tiger pitcher George “Hooks” Dauss to pop out on a slow curve to end the frame.

Those four pitches constituted Bernhardt’s entire major-league career. He stayed with the Yanks for several weeks before returning to Pennsylvania, where he went to work for Parkesburg Iron and pitched for the company ball club. He faced the Tigers again during an August 20 exhibition game.

“Walter Bernhardt, the old Penn star, pitched a good ball game against the big leaguers, his only fault being a tendency to wildness, but he usually steadied up in the pinches and held the score down,” wrote sportswriter Edgar Forrest Wolfe (aka Jim Nasium).11 The hurler struck out four Tigers during a 4–0, complete game loss.

Bernhardt donned khaki in September, reporting for medical officer training at Camp Greenleaf, Georgia. He disliked his time in Dental Company No. 1. “They had to wait to have barracks built,” an article said during the next World War. “They even waited for straw for bedding. They waited and waited for many other things.”12 They even waited for decent food, the mess sergeant being jailed for theft.

Still a private first class, Bernhardt received his discharge in late December following the armistice and was a civilian again after three months’ service. Many other ballplayers were returning, too. Learning that the Yankees intended to send him to the St. Paul (Minnesota) Saints in the American Association, Bernhardt asked to go instead to the Rochester Hustlers in the International League, which was near his home. Manager Huggins obliged.

“Walter Bernhardt may or may not be a fine major league prospect. … As yet he is an untried quantity in professional baseball,” a Rochester newspaper said in February 1919. “Whatever latent ability he may possess should be developed by Arthur Irwin, the Rochester manager, whose specialty is the development of battery men.”13 Fans and scribes fans called their club the Colts and gave their new hurler-dentist the traditional baseball name “Doc.”

Bernhardt got a chance to show his stuff to the Yankees during an April exhibition game at Rochester’s spring training camp in Wilmington, Delaware. The ex-Penn star “made the Yankees look like anything but sluggers this afternoon,” the New York Sun said. “He occupied the mound for the first six innings and when he retired the New York hit column showed only three marks.”14 (One was a solo homer by infielder Aaron Ward, also back from Stateside army duty.) But errors were costly, and the Colts lost, 6-0.

As the 1919 regular season began, a Rochester daily paper said Bernhardt had “everything that a pitcher needs, but he has not seemed overambitious thus far.”15 A Wayland weekly disagreed. “Judging from the initial performance,” it said, “he should have no trouble in making good.”16

Bernhardt lost his first start for the Colts, 2-0, in a pitching duel with the Reading (Pennsylvania) Coal Barons. He lost again the following week, 3-2, versus future Clown Prince of Baseball Al Schacht and the Jersey City Skeeters. Bernhardt appeared twice in relief, once during Rochester’s home opener with the Baltimore Orioles and again a week later versus Jersey City. The Toronto Maple Leafs hit him hard during his third and final start, a 12-4 loss.

The Colts released Bernhardt on May 31 to the Waterbury (Connecticut) Nattatucks in the Eastern League. The hurler had an 0-3 record during five appearances and a batting average of .176. He didn’t report to Waterbury and later suspected he’d erred by not going to St. Paul, where the Saints won their pennant while the losing Colts finished in the second division.

Bernhardt “decided to abandon baseball for the practice of dentistry, and opened an office in this city,” a Rochester paper said in 1947. “He has been here ever since.”17

But the big righthander abandoned only pro ball, soon signing with a Rochester semipro outfit called the Parfays. He struck out 15 men during his debut, a 6-3 win in late July. The Parfays later won the city title versus a team called the Moose.

“Old ‘Doc’ Bernhardt, who was thought to be a warm-weather worker, surprised the Moose by the amount of ‘stuff’ he put on the ball in the pinches,” a sports page said.18 The 4-1 victory secured the flag and a $500 purse for the Parfays.

The dentist played semipro ball one more season before hanging up his glove. He became a strong but erratic linkster, remembered at the Oak Hill Country Club for smashing one of the era’s lifeless golf balls 325 yards with a two-wood (then called a brassie). Meanwhile, he built up his dental practice downtown in the Temple Building.

Bernhardt married Anne Laurie Babcock in 1927. They reared two sons, Donald, an Air Force officer, and Robert, plus a foster son, Gerald Hasman. Bernhardt lived on a farm outside Rochester at Webster, New York, where he raised highly prized Holstein cattle. He died of a heart attack on July 26, 1958, in Watertown, New York, while vacationing and playing golf at the Ives Hill Country Club. The former ballplayer was 65 years old.

His obituary prominently cited Bernhardt’s 39 years as a Rochester dentist. It mentioned his pitching for Penn and the Parfays (but not the Colts), noting almost in passing, “He also played for the New York Yankee organization for a brief period after college.”19



This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Jan Finkel and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.



1 “Registerings,” Wayland (New York) Register, May 13, 1910.

2 “Local News Happenings,” Wayland Register, April 18, 1918, reprinted from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, date unknown.

3 “Chief Bender’s Instructions Producing Results at Penn,” Philadelphia Evening Ledger, April 20, 1917.

4 “Local News Happenings.”

5 William McClellan, “A Year of War-Time Athletics,” Pennsylvania Gazette, October 4, 1918.

6 “Penn Humbled by Shawkey’s Shoots,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 1918.

7 “Yanks Land Bernhardt,” Buffalo (New York) News, June 26, 1918.

8 Henry W. Clune, “Seen and Heard,” Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, October 4, 1947.

9 Henry W. Clune, “Seen and Heard,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 3, 1950.

10 Hugh S. Fullerton, “Yankees Lacked Punch, So Tigers Won Twice,” New York Evening World, July 17, 1918.

11 Jim Nasium (Edgar Forrest Wolfe), “Macks and Tigers Win at Parkesburg,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 1918: 10.

12 “Prominent Webster Man Was Baseball Pitcher on Yankee Team,” Webster (New York) Herald, March 6, 1942.

13 “Rochester Club Gets College Hurler from New York Yankees,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 4, 1919.

14 “Yankees Complete Trip with Victory,” New York Sun, April 20, 1919.

15 “Cold Weather Prevents Contest at Wilmington,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 27, 1919.

16 “Local News Happenings,” Wayland Register, May 8, 1919.

17 Clune, “Seen and Heard,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 4, 1947.

18 “City Title Goes to Parfay Club,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 13, 1919.

19 “Dr. Bernhardt Dies; Dentist Here 39 Years,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 28, 1958.

Full Name

Walter Jacob Bernhardt


May 20, 1893 at Pleasant Village, PA (USA)


July 26, 1958 at Watertown, NY (USA)

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