Jack Bentley’s Sad Tale: Victim of Circumstances

This article was written by Ralph S. Graber

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

When the New York Giants purchased Jack Bentley from the Baltimore Orioles following the 1922 season, they acquired one of the minor leagues’ most famous stars of the period. Bentley, sometimes referred to as “the Babe Ruth of the International League,” appeared destined to become an outstanding player in the majors. Unfortunately, because of a combination of circumstances, he never achieved stardom in the big leagues and instead wound up being the victim of two of the most unusual plays in World Series history.

Although Bentley is best remembered as a minor league slugger, he actually broke into professional baseball as a pitcher – and in the major leagues, at that. As an 18-year-old in 1913, he appeared in three games with the Washington Senators. In his only start he pitched eight innings of three-hit ball and combined with Bert Gallia to shut out the champion Philadelphia Athletics, 1-0.

John Needles Bentley was born March 8, 1895 to a thriving Quaker family on a farm near Sandy Spring, Md., about 30 miles from Baltimore. In 1912, while attending the George School, a Quaker institution in Bucks County, Pa., with the intention of going to college, he was approached by Bert Conn, manager of the Johnstown team of the Class B Tri-State League, and offered a contract as an outfielder at $75 a month. However, the youngster declined the offer and returned home to help harvest the crops after the school term ended.

Had Bentley signed with Johnstown, his career might have taken a far different course. When he signed with the Senators the following spring, Clark Griffith decided to make him a pitcher, a position Jack had played only his last year in prep school. For most of his pro career he was shifted from pitcher to first base and even to the outfield.

In four seasons with Washington (1913-1916), he appeared in 39 games, winning six and losing ten. The Senators sent him to Minneapolis in 1916, and it was from that team that Jack Dunn of the Baltimore Orioles acquired him.

In 1917 Dunn decided to make Bentley a first baseman, the position for which he always considered Jack best suited. Bentley hit .345 that season and appeared on his way back to the major leagues. However, circumstances, in the form of military service, intervened.

Although Bentley as a Quaker could have claimed exemption from the draft, he entered the Army as a private despite the objections of some members of his faith. Sent to France, he was under fire for more than 60 days in the front-line trenches and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He served for approximately 19 months.

When Bentley rejoined the Orioles in 1920, he became the star of the team and the league. Dunn, who had developed many great major leaguers, considered Bentley the best. Bentley’s records, particularly in 1921, provide the evidence. He hit .412 that season to lead not only the International League but all of the minors. He made 246 hits for a total of 397 bases, scored 122 runs, and hit 24 homers. Pitching occasionally, he won 12 games and lost only one. Although major league teams were eager to buy him, Dunn would not sell him, and speculation increased about how the minor-league Paul Bunyan would do in the majors.

In 1922, Bentley continued to dazzle and was the greatest drawing card the International League had known in years. Playing in every game either as a pitcher or at first base, he won 13 games and lost only two with an ERA of 1.73. He hit .351 with 22 home runs and 39 doubles, drove in 128 runs and scored 109. A tailor in

Baltimore had advertised that he would give a free suit of clothes to every Oriole player who hit a home run. After Bentley had collected eight suits, he suggested a compromise to the tailor. He would take one suit for every four home runs – a suggestion the tailor happily accepted. Bentley explained, “I didn’t want to break the poor fellow.”

All the while Bentley was becoming increasingly frustrated because Dunn, who wanted to retain his stars to bolster Baltimore attendance, declined to sell him to a major league team. Baseball rules at that time prevented drafting players from the top minors, and Dunn kept telling his star that no major league team wanted to purchase his contract.

Jack decided to check Dunn’s veracity. After the International League season of 1922, he went to the Polo Grounds to see John McGraw. The Giants’ manager told Bentley, “I’ve been trying to buy you for three years.”

McGraw gave Bentley a check for $35,000 to take back to Dunn to call his bluff. Negotiations then began to move, and Dunn finally agreed to sell Bentley to the Giants for $65,000 and a couple of players. When McGraw couldn’t supply the players specified, he gave Dunn an additional $7,000. Thus Bentley was in the majors for $72,000, an unprecedented price.

Once Bentley had reached the majors, another problem arose, one which he himself helped to create. He refused to report to the Giants’ training camp in San Antonio, Tex., unless Dunn (or the Giants) gave him $5,000 of the sale price. Dunn had set a precedent by giving some of his former stars a portion of the money he had received when he had sold them. Bentley pointed out that he had been the home-run king as well as the best player in the International League. Both Dunn and McGraw refused to yield, and Bentley remained at his home in Maryland. McGraw, desperate for lefthanded pitching (the only southpaw on the Giants’ staff was the superb Art Nehf), labeled Bentley’s demands outrageous and urged the player to report and work himself into shape pending settlement of the dispute with Dunn.

McGraw wired Bentley, “The sooner you get here, the better it will be for you. A place on the pitching staff is waiting for you, but you must be in condition by the opening of the season.” Bentley wired back, “Tell that to Dunn.”

After he supposedly had received part of the purchase price, Bentley arrived at training camp 20 pounds over his playing weight of 200. McGraw was furious and ordered the latecomer to run miles around the park every day wearing a rubber shirt and sweatshirt under a heavy flannel uniform. Although Bentley trained hard and was in shape by the time the team reached New York, McGraw remembered Bentley’s bold demands.

Bentley’s delay in reporting provided McGraw the opportunity to play several practical jokes on the team’s traveling secretary, Jim Tierney. On one occasion the Giants’ manager registered Bentley at the team’s hotel and had a room assigned to him. Tierney called the room and searched the hotel, thinking the player had arrived. That night McGraw told Tierney to wait near the desk to meet Bentley, who supposedly was to arrive that night. Hours went by with Tierney keeping his vigil. At 2:30 a. m., a telephone call came for Tierney. The voice on the other end was McGraw’s, cleverly disguised, saying, “This is Jack Bentley.” The supposed Bentley went on to say that he was in jail in New Braunfels, Tex., and needed $500 for bail. When he had been stopped for speeding, the caller said, the officer had found several quarts of liquor in the car and had tried to take it, whereupon he (the supposed Bentley) had slugged him. The agitated Tierney promptly rushed to tell McGraw. The manager and several newsmen in his room had intended to go along with the gag, but they could not hold back their laughter at the sight of the flustered Tierney.

When Bentley actually arrived, he impressed his teammates. Broad shouldered, dark, good looking with a ready wit and a booming bass-baritone voice (exercised in amateur quartets back in Maryland), he had the poise of a champion. The veteran Nehf said of Bentley, “I never saw anybody who looked more like a major league ballplayer – or acted like one is supposed to act.”

Bentley’s unusual batting style and pitching delivery also drew attention. He stood at the plate with feet close together, and as the pitcher released the ball, he raised one leg and swung while standing on the other leg. Mel Ott, a later Giant great, hit in much the same way. Bentley’s pitching windup involved what one writer called “a set number of astonishing gyrations” that ended with his turning his back almost completely to the hitter just before he released the ball. One is reminded of the contortions of the much-traveled Luis Tiant.

But circumstances again impinged on Bentley’s career. Because George Kelly had the first base job cinched, Bentley could not play the position for which he felt he was best suited. Nor would McGraw play him in the outfield. He was used only as a pitcher and pinch-hitter. Nevertheless he played an important role in the Giants’ winning the 1923 pennant. More significant than his pitching (he won 13 and lost eight) was his .427 batting average, with ten of his hits coming in 20 pinch-hitting appearances.

In his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter in the World Series against the Yankees, Bentley singled. Although he was hit hard and lost his only decision in the Series, he had three hits in five at-bats, two of them as a pinch-hitter.

In 1924, Bentley’s pitching record improved to 16-5, but he hit only .265. However, in the World Series against the Washington Senators he walloped a two-run homer in the fifth game and beat Walter Johnson, 6-2. In that game, his only World Series victory, he pitched well for seåven and one-third innings before he was relieved.

It was in the deciding seventh game that circumstances in the form of two of the most unusual breaks in World Series history, both in the twelfth inning, led to Bentley’s defeat and a world championship for Washington. Pitching magnificently in relief, Bentley had retired one man in the twelfth and would have been out of the inning except for two unusual incidents. Muddy Ruel, the Senators’ weak-hitting catcher, lifted an easy foul pop-up. Hank Gowdy, the Giants’ catcher, did not toss his mask far enough away and consequently stepped on it, stumbled and failed to catch the ball. Given another chance, Ruel doubled. Shortstop Travis Jackson then fumbled Johnson’s grounder, an error on what should have been the third out. Next Earl McNeely’s easy grounder struck a pebble and bounced over third baseman Freddy Lindstrom’s head, allowing Ruel to score the winning run. Once again Bentley was the victim of circumstances. The following year Bentley’s pitching record was 11-9. However, he hit .303, including nine hits in 29 at-bats as a pinch-hitter.

In 1926 Bentley’s career went suddenly downhill. Early in the season the Giants sent him to Philadelphia. With the Phillies he received the chance to play first base in 56 games, but hit only .258 for the season. He pitched in only eight games, seven of them for the Phillies, with no wins and two losses and an ERA of 8.49.

Back with the Giants briefly in 1927, he appeared in eight games. One of his two hits was a home run. He then returned to the minors, never having fulfilled his promise. Perhaps he had played his best in Baltimore during the years that Dunn had refused to sell him to the majors.

After his retirement, Bentley had no financial problems. During his major league career he had prospered from selling automobiles and raising hunting dogs during the winter. At one time he had more than 100 in his pack and took pride in the championships they won. Later he became a sales representative for a national company. Nor did Bentley, who according to Lindstrom was something of a philosopher, have any worries or regrets.

In September of 1923 he told an interviewer, “One thing that I have learned to do is don’t worry. In France I never worried. When I was under fire, sleeping on the ground, listening to exploding shells, I used to say to myself, `Well, I might be in the hospital or cemetery!’ You have to take things as they come in baseball as elsewhere.”

On October 24, 1969, Bentley died at his home in Sandy Spring. The next day the New York Times printed a brief obituary along with a photograph. Perhaps, had circumstances been different, Bentley might have achieved the stardom for which he had appeared destined and the obituary would have been more than a few cursory paragraphs. But the player who once said, “I began too early at the top” and “I know I shall never be as good a player as I might have been” wouldn’t have been disturbed that his passing did not receive more attention. With his usual philosophic resignation and good nature, he’d have taken it as the major leaguer he was, both in baseball and in life.