This article was written by Peter Morris
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
One of baseball’s most exciting plays comes when a batter unexpectedly drops a bunt down the third base line. The third baseman charges in frantically and, with no margin for error, usually tries to barehand the ball. The batter is tearing down the first base line as fast as his legs will carry him, and the first baseman and first base umpire are bracing themselves for the expected bang-bang play. Meanwhile the crowd is shrieking with anticipation and all eyes are on the third baseman as he makes his do-or-die effort to pick up the ball cleanly and launches a desperate throw across the diamond.
Such plays are no longer everyday occurrences, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were much more common sights, which placed a great emphasis on a third baseman’s ability to execute this most challenging of plays. Jimmy Collins was considered preeminent at foiling bunts among turn-of-the-century third sackers, and his skill in making the play helped him earn a place in the Hall of Fame and led many of his contemporaries to pro claim him the greatest third baseman of all time.
When Collins began to lose a step, there was less of a clear consensus as to who succeeded him as the master of such plays. But many who saw Billy Hopke play believed that nobody was as good at thwarting bunts. Billy who? Billy Hopke spent most of the first two decades of the 20th century traversing minor league circuits without ever getting a shot at the “big show.” His story tells us much about the life of minor leaguers of that era and the changing nature of the position he played.
Hopke’s parents, Friedrich Hopke and the former Henriette Fedrau, arrived in America from Prussia on the ship Hermann on March 29, 1880, along with a six-year old son and two infant daughters. The family settled in Cleveland and grew to include four more children. William Friedrich was the first member of the family to be born on U.S. soil, entering the world on November 2, 1881.
After learning the game on the sandlots of Cleveland, in 1902 Billy accepted his first professional engagement as a shortstop with an unnamed team in the Carolina League. His stay there was brief, and he finished that sea son with Columbus. 1
Hopke joined Fort Wayne for the 1903 season and immediately made a very positive impression. The team’s home field was adjacent to the St. Mary’s River, and during one of the club’s practices, a young boy named Monroe Gordon toppled into the river and was swept away by the current. Hearing the desperate cries of the boy’s companion, Hopke rushed to the outfield fence, squeezed himself through, and plunged into the water.
By the time he reached Gordon, the child had just gone under for the second time. But Hopke, a strong swimmer, arrived in the nick of time and brought the boy back to shore. There, although black in the face, the lad soon revived, at which point Hopke “went at once to his room to change his clothing and to the congratulations of those who were attracted to the scene modestly said that the incidence was of no consequence and that he was only happy that he was providentially present to avert a casualty.”2
A few days later he showed that he also had the knack of being in the right place at the right time on the diamond. Playing shortstop in an exhibition game, he made a spectacular leaping catch to start a triple play.3 Hopke’s first introduction to the fans of Fort Wayne thus exhibited his modesty and his stellar fielding. This was appropriate, as those were the traits that would continue to be associated with him throughout his stay in Fort Wayne and his entire career.
Manager Bade Myers concluded that shortstop was not Hopke’s best position and installed him as the team’s everyday third baseman. He spent the next two-and-a-half seasons with Fort Wayne, proving a durable, reliable player and helping the team capture the 1903 and 1904 Central League pennants. In the middle of the 1905 season, the Fort Wayne franchise was transferred to Canton, where Hopke spent another season and a half.
After spending four full years in the Central League, a Class B circuit, Hopke must have been thrilled that off-season to learn that the manager of a Class A team was negotiating for his services. The interested party was William H. Watkins, whose Indianapolis team in the American Association was in need of a third baseman. As rumors spread that Hopke would be his choice, an Indianapolis sportswriter explained that the third baseman had proven to be “a fast man” in the Central League, but that it remained “a question whether he is good enough for the American Association.”4
The question being alluded to was not how Hopke would perform, as his strengths and weaknesses were well known by this point. Rather, the question was a referendum on the qualifications for playing third base.
Thirty-five years earlier, third base had been viewed as one of the most important defensive positions. The rules of the day specified that a ball was fair or foul based upon where it first touched the ground, enabling batters to master “fair-fouls”: balls which struck the turf just in side the third base line but then sped into foul territory. Because he was responsible for covering so much ground, “the third baseman was perhaps the most important man on the nine, as the position was regarded as the key of the infield.”5
That changed dramatically when the definition of a fair ball was changed in 1877 in order to eliminate the fair-foul. Gradually, defensive skills became a less prominent feature of the third baseman’s job description. But just when managers had been accustomed to regarding the position as a haven for good hitters, it was again revolutionized when the bunt suddenly gained prominence in the late 1880s.
The new tactic put a premium on a third baseman’s ability to charge in and field a bunt. At the same time, by forcing him to position himself closer to the batter, it placed a renewed emphasis on quick reflexes. Fittingly, it was at the same time that the bunt became a major part of baseball that third base became known first as the “difficult corner” and then as the “hot corner.”6
With third base again an important defensive position, managers had to decide whether to station a glove man or a heavy hitter at the “hot corner.” While it was easy to see that a defensively challenged third baseman cost a team many runs per season, sacrificing offense was not an easy decision to make. Catchers were already chosen primarily for their glove work, while middle infielders were typically such feeble hitters that one report remarked: “It is desired to get a fast infielder who can hit a .175 clip or better. This would strengthen our team very nicely.”7 Everyone knew that pitchers couldn’t hit, so if third base was also reserved for a skilled defender, how was a team suppose to score runs?
This presented a difficult dilemma for turn-of the century managers and front offices. Nobody’s fate was more directly affected than Billy Hopke’s.
Everyone agreed that Hopke was ideally suited to the demands of playing third base. During his stint in Fort Wayne, he had wowed the locals with his defensive prowess. One sportswriter described him as
one of the most graceful players in the game and the way that he can cut up in the infield is a fright. Bad bounders, line drives or bunts look alike to him and with that whip [throwing arm] few have been able to beat out infield taps in his direction. He is a whirlwind on his feet and one of the most pleasing features of his play was the pulling down of high fouls after a long chase to the fence nearest the third base line.8
He also brought other valuable assets to a ball club. A Fort Wayne newspaper claimed that he did not miss a single game between 1902 and 1908, and while this is probably inaccurate, he was unquestionably durable. 9 Hopke had also earned a reputation as “one of the most popular players that ever wore a Fort Wayne uniform,” and had been regarded with similar esteem during his stay in Canton.10
Yet not everyone was convinced that those qualities outweighed his one liability: his bat. At 5′ 9″, 145 pounds, Hopke didn’t have much power. That deficiency wasn’t unusual in the early years of the 20th century, but nor did Hopke hit the ball with authority or regularity and that was a problem.
The result was that every glowing description of his fielding skill ended with a disclaimer. The Fort Wayne sportswriter who waxed eloquent about Hopke’s fielding and popularity finished up by admitting, “but he never was much with the stick.” 11 After offering high praise for Hopke’s glove work, Otto Hess added sadly, “If that little fellow could hit he wouldn’t be in the minor league today, that’s a cinch. It’s tough when a great fielder like that can’t get his hits.” 12
Fortunately for Hopke, Indianapolis president Bill Watkins was a former third baseman himself and believed that the runs a standout fielder saved at the hot corner could make up for the ones cost by a weak bat. He traded for Hopke, and when player-manager Charley Carr made him his everyday third baseman, the two men got exactly what he expected over the next two years. The little third baseman’s defensive skills proved, if any thing, better than advertised, and he became “the third base sensation of the American Association.” 13
Teammates and opposing players who had spent time in the major leagues believed that Hopke’s glove work compared favorably to that of the game’s best third basemen. Del Drake avowed in 1911: “I have not seen a third baseman in the American League this season who has anything on Hopke as an infielder. When it comes to fielding bad bounders he is in a class by himself.”14
Otto Hess concurred:
This fellow Billy Hopke, the Indianapolis third sacker, is about as keen an infielder as I have ever seen. I don’t believe there is a third sacker in the majors who has anything on him as a fielder, unless it’s [Bill] Bradley. Bill may have a little on Hopke, but not much. 15
What especially impressed contemporary observers was that Hopke, like all great fielders, was able to make the most difficult plays look routine. “Hopke is probably the most graceful player in the local outfit,” wrote one of the sportswriters who watched him every day. “The apparent ease with which he tosses them to [first base man-manager Charley] Carr fools many people who think his chances are easy. As a matter of fact, he pulls off some wonderful plays.” 16
This characteristic was reflective of his modest, unassuming personality, which, as on previous stops, quickly made him a favorite. Sportswriter H. G. Copeland of the Indianapolis Star described Hopke as “one of the quietest, cleanest and most inobtrusive players” that ever wore an Indianapolis uniform. Local sportswriters dubbed him “Silent Bill,” a nickname that Hopke came to dislike.
Eventually, Hopke approached Copeland to complain. “Say, can’t you guys cut out this ‘silent’ stuff?,” asked the ballplayer. “It gets me in bad. Lots of people in Indianapolis think I’m a sure enough dummy and they try to talk to me on their fingers.” It was the longest speech that the sportswriter ever heard Hopke make. 17 Yet he continued to be plagued by the now-familiar weakness at the plate. After batting a respectable .253 in his first season with Indianapolis, he batted a paltry .201 with only 15 extra-base hits in 1908. As a result, a later summary of his career stated bluntly:
Hopke was as fast as any third baseman in the game when it came to running in and fielding bunts and bounders around third base. When that was said it was all said for Hopke. He couldn’t hit a lick and when he got on first base some one had to bat him around. 18
Hopke’s career reached a turning point after the 1908 season. Indianapolis had captured that year’s American Association flag behind a standout pitching staff led by Rube Marquard and a stellar defensive infield anchored by Hopke and promising young shortstop Donie Bush. But Marquard and Bush advanced to the major leagues after the season, and Indianapolis acquired Jimmy Burke to play third base over the winter and asked Hopke to move to shortstop.
In one sense the proposed conversion was a logical decision. Managers were growing increasingly reluctant to reserve the hot corner for a slick fielder, so it seemed reasonable to try Hopke at shortstop instead. And he certainly possessed the strong arm and dexterity to play the new position.
Yet there was a critical flaw in this reasoning. Hopke had played shortstop during his first professional season of 1902 but had been exclusively a third baseman since, and with good reason. He possessed lightning quickness-as one of the descriptions cited earlier put it, he was “a whirlwind on his feet.” But he did not have great speed, with Copeland describing him as a very slow base runner. 19
This made him ill-suited to making the switch to a position that placed a much greater emphasis on range. A shortstop also needed speed to be able to cover second base when needed-not to mention the ability to make a pivot. Meanwhile, the new position made far less use of Hopke’s most noted skill: his felicity for charging bunts.
“Silent Bill” typically made no public protest about the decision, but his feelings can be surmised from the fact that he held out that spring.20 He eventually reported but proved no more than adequate in his new position; the glowing descriptions of his defensive work that had been so common when he played third base became conspicuous by their absence. And at season’s end, the Star pronounced the experiment a failure: “Hopke has proved that he is one of the greatest :fielding third base men in the game, but is not a success at shortstop.”21
Worse, he continued to struggle at the plate as he adjusted to his new position, hitting a mere .207 as the Indians slid back into the middle of the pack.
The result was that the off-season following the 1909 season was even more tumultuous than the one before. Long a regular on the post-season barnstorming circuit, Hopke’s penchant for being in the right place at the right time enabled him to become part of a far more ambitious tour. The American League champion Detroit Tigers had just embarked on a post-season tour of Cuba when shortstop Donie Bush was called home to Indianapolis by his mother’s illness. So Bush asked Hopke to take his place, and Billy’s glove work earned rave reviews in his first game, playing “a sensational game, accepting 11 of 12 chances” in an 11-inning loss to Cuban power Almendares. 22
The tour of Cuba was a great professional opportunity for Hopke and a financial windfall. “They charged as high as two dollars a seat over there right along, and the fans paid it,” he explained when he returned to the states flush with cash.
It looked like a shame to do it, but they finally reduced the general admission to 50 cents. The management was surprised when it found there were less people on hand at the games with the smaller admission than when the higher tariff was in effect. It showed that the Cubans want to see good baseball no matter how much the charge.23
According to Hopke, his fielding was subpar during the tour, but that seems to be just his characteristic modesty. In fact, his defensive prowess had impressed the major leaguers enough that there were rumors that he would be traded to the Tigers.24 Had that happened, Hopke would have been ideally suited to the role of utility infielder for Detroit. But instead the deal did not come to pass, and it soon became clear that “Silent Bill” was more likely to be demoted than promoted.
Indianapolis had acquired Jack Coffey to play short stop in 1910, leaving Hopke to compete for the third base job with Burke and newcomer Simeon Murch. Murch was a giant of a man by the standards of the day at 6′ 2″, 220, and the fact that he was being considered for the hot corner said much about changes to the game that would eventually cause another dramatic transformation in the third baseman’s job description.
The 1909 season had seen the introduction of a livelier cork-centered baseball. It is hard to tell from the American Association’s final statistics, which showed that the league leader batted only .296. But what restrained hitting was the fact that balls were rarely replaced, which meant that the effect of the livelier ball was quickly neutralized.25
Over the next few years, however, a new emphasis was placed on replacing used balls, and this in turn caused batters to take fuller cuts. Offense began to soar and bunting started to make less sense as a strategy. Both trends were very bad news for Billy Hopke because they meant that managers were suddenly looking for hitters like Murch to play a position where defense had once been at a premium.
Burke was eventually released, leaving Hopke and Murch to battle it out for the job in spring training. The tussle offered a sneak preview of the future of the position when Murch was named the team’s starter. Hopke had given him a stiff fight, but this actually worked to his disadvantage. Other Class A clubs had expressed interest in Hopke earlier in the spring, but by the time the decision to go with Murch was made, they had filled their openings. So Hopke — only a few months after rumors had him finally getting a shot at the major leagues — had his contract loaned to Wilkes-Barre, PA, of the Class B New York State League.26
Hopke mostly played shortstop for Wilkes-Barre and contributed greatly to another pennant. In addition to his smooth glove work, as teammate Del Drake recalled, “Hopke surprised himself and everybody else by slugging the ball at .300 and better.”27
At season’s end, however, Billy made it clear that he didn’t intend to spend another season in Wilkes-Barre. Watkins had retained an option on the slick-fielding third sacker and reacquired him, but soon again decided he needed more offense at third base. So he sold Hopke’s contract outright to Topeka of the Western League in December.28
Hopke apparently wasn’t excited about the prospect of joining a team that had lost 125 games in 1910 and held out that spring before finally signing a Topeka contract.29 In July, with Topeka well on its way to another hundred-loss season, Charley Carr, now managing Utica of the New York State League, inquired into the avail ability of his old teammate.30 So Hopke finished the 1911 season in Utica. He returned to Utica in 1912 — though Carr had departed — and the season produced the fifth pennant of Billy Hopke’s career.
He barnstormed in Fort Wayne again after the 1912 season, but his whereabouts at the start of the 1913 season are not clear.31 In July, he resurfaced in a familiar city-but a new league. A new independent loop called the Federal League had been organized in the Midwest, and Indianapolis fans received the welcome news that “old favorite ‘Silent Bill’ Hopke is back in town.”32
It was a bittersweet return. Within days of his debut, word came that he would be sidelined indefinitely with an arm injury-the first serious injury that the durable Hopke had experienced.33 But by August his arm was well enough for him to man shortstop, and he led Indianapolis to the league title.34 It was the sixth and final pennant of his career.
After the season, the Federal League decided to declare itself a major league and compete with the two established leagues. It appeared that Hopke might finally get the long-awaited shot at the major leagues, but as so often before, his timing was ever so slightly off. The Federal League was looking for big name players to boost its prestige, and Hopke was not asked to return.
Billy Hopke turned 32 after the season and, between his age and the growing emphasis on third baseman being hard hitters, he must have known that another shot at the major leagues was unlikely to come. But still he soldiered on, although his doings attracted less and less attention and are still difficult to reconstruct.
He signed with York, Pennsylvania, of the Tri-State League for the 1914 season, a club that struggled badly and moved to Lancaster at midseason.35 After the year came news that Atlanta manager Billy Smith would sign Hopke to play third base in 1915, but later word had Smith planning to send him to Beaumont of the Texas League. 36 Then in 1916 he was reunited with another old friend when Bade Myers signed him to play third base for Muskegon of the Central League.37 It showed once again that men who had watched Billy Hopke play appreciated what he brought to a ball club.
Over the next few seasons, Hopke seemed to drop off the baseball map altogether and, with wartime restrictions sharply reducing the number of minor leagues, it surely seemed safe to assume that he had left baseball for good. But then, in the spring of 1920, a Fort Wayne newspaper carried the announcement of Billy Hopke’s retirement from baseball. Twenty years of baseball, he explained briefly, was enough for anyone.38
“Silent Bill” Hopke’s life after baseball was characteristically unostentatious. A bachelor for most of his career, he married a woman named Minerva around 1919 and found work as an auto mechanic. The couple had no children, and Billy died in Cleveland on April 18, 1959, survived by his wife, who lived until 1980.
Billy Hopke was virtually forgotten even before the end of his career and has languished in obscurity ever since. Yet he deserves to be remembered because his career tells us much about what it was like to be a minor league ballplayer during the first two decades of the 20th century.
The fact that he never played in the majors despite well over 2,000 minor league games was, as I have tried to suggest, a combination of bad luck and bad timing. Yet Billy Hopke’s timing was not always bad, a fact that many of his contemporaries could attest. One was a young Fort Wayne resident named Monroe Gordon who lived another 83 years after Hopke saved him from the St. Mary’s River. He would be joined by all of the fans who were thrilled by the six pennant flags he helped to raise. And the exquisiteness of Billy Hopke’s timing could also be vouchsafed by anyone who watched him charge in to pounce on a bunt.
PETER MORRIS is the author of “Baseball Fever” (2003), the two-volume “A Game of lnches” (2006), “Level Playing Fields” (2007) and the forthcoming “But Didn’t We Have Fun?”
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, February 17, 1903.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, April 17, 1903; also, Fort Wayne Journal- Gazette, April 18, 1903; Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, April 22, 1903.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 22, 1903.
- Indianapolis News, reprinted in Fort Wayne News, December 10, 1906.
- Sporting Life, December 12, 1883.
- Sporting Life, December 30, 1885; Sporting News, August 17, 1889.
- Newark (OH) Advocate, March 20, 1907.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 5, 1910.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 11, 1909.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 5, 1910.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 5, 1910.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, February 5, 1909.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 11, 1907.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 6, 1911.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, February 5, 1909.
- Indianapolis Star, quoted in Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, June 19, 1908.
- H. G. Copeland, Indianapolis Star, December 17, 1910.
- Indianapolis Star, March 17, 1912.
- G. Copeland, Indianapolis Star; December 17, 1910; lndianapolis Star; March 17, 1912. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette of March 5, 1910, contrarily claimed, “On the bases too [Hopke] is a star,” but Hopke’s very low stolen-base figures belie the assertion.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 6 and 14, 1909.
- Indianapolis Star, December 28, 1909.
- Indianapolis Star, November 19, 1909.
- Fort Wayne Daily News, December 11, 1909.
- Fort Wayne News, December 7, 1909; Fort Wayne Sentinel, January 13, 1910.
- The introduction of the cork-centered ball is usually placed a couple years later, but an advertisement in The Sporting News on March 2, 1911, makes clear that it was first used in 1909. See my A Game of Inches for a fuller discussion.
- Fort Wayne News, April 18, 1910.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, July 6, 1911.
- Fort Wayne Sentinel, August 30 and December 17, 1910; H.G. Copeland, Indianapolis Star, December 17, 1910; Joe S. Jackson, Washington Post, January 12, 1911.
- Coshocton Daily Tribune, March 3, 1911.
- Syracuse Herald, July l6, 1911.
- Sandusky Star Journal, October 19, 1912.
- Indianapolis Star, July 12, 1913.
- Indianapolis Star, July 16, 1913.
- Indianapolis Star, August 2, 1913.
- Syracuse Herald, April 29, 1914.
- Syracuse Herald, December 29, 1914 and February 26, 1915.
- Syracuse Herald, February 17, 1916.
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 29, 1920.