This article was written by David W. Smith
This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
Over the years, baseball fans have often debated which record is the most “unbeatable.” At one time it seemed unimaginable that Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games played would ever be approached, let alone seriously challenged, but of course Cal Ripken topped that by some 500 games. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is still intact at this writing, as is Hack Wilson’s mark of 191 RBIs, officially revised a few years from the long-standing 190. Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904, the most since the cur rent pitching distance was set in 1893, and Cy Young’s career 511 wins have not been threatened. There are many other choices to consider, of course, but most of them deal with career accomplishments, or at least the efforts of a whole season. There is time for anticipation and fan interest to build as the player strives toward the new mark.
Single-game records are very different, since there is no way to predict a record-setting performance on any given day. The topic for the present discussion is the extraordinary achievement of a player on a single after noon, in a game which took one hour and 55 minutes in mid-September of a hot pennant race. The player is Jim Bottomley (always referred to as “Sunny”), and the record is 12 RBIs in a game. This mark was subsequently tied by Cardinal Mark Whiten in September of 1993.
In addition to his 12 RBIs, Jim was 6-for-6 that day, for the first of two times in his career (Jimmie Foxx and Doc Cramer are the only other players with two 6-for-6 games). Let’s recount the at-bats of the left-handed slugging first baseman.
It is obvious that Bottomley had a substantial amount of help from his friends that day. His teammates also had to hit well, and there were a total of 12 men on base for his six at-bats. He drove in 10 of those 12, in addition to driving himself in twice with home runs.
However, there is more to this story than first meets the eye. Closer analysis shows that Sunny Jim had other kinds of help as well, some of which is a bit strange. For example, Taylor Douthit stole second base in the seventh inning when the score was 9-1. If this were to happen in a game today, we would certainly hear that the runner was “showing up” the opposition. Later in the same inning, with the score now 13-1, Jimmy Cooney stole second.
Even harder to explain than these stolen bases are the bunt plays by the Cardinals. With the score 4-0 in the second inning, men on first and second and no one out, Douthit, the second place batter, fouled out on an attempted bunt, hardly a likely sacrifice situation by today’s standards. In the fourth inning, with the score now 5-1 Douthit successfully sacrificed with men on first and second and no outs. But the strangest events of all occur in the seventh inning. With the score now 13-1, Douthit bunted again, and was credited with a sacrifice when the pitcher was late with his throw to second. This was followed, astonishingly enough, by another successful sacrifice. This one was by Rogers Hornsby, and it set the stage for a two-RBI single for Bottomley, which would have only been a one-RBI single without the sacrifice.
Remember that this is the season in which Hornsby batted .424 to set the modern National League mark. It was also the fourth year of a five-year span during which he averaged .402, topping the .400 mark three times. As he stood at the plate in the seventh inning that Tuesday afternoon in September, preparing to sacrifice in a 13-1 game, he was batting .425. Imagine the uproar which would result today if a manager ordered bunts in all of the above situations! Can we come to any conclusions about why things may have happened the way they did?
To begin with, let’s consider that the manager of that Cardinal team was the famous Branch Rickey. He had a sub-.500 record for his 10 seasons at the helm of the Browns and Cardinals, stepping down from the manager’s position the following summer, when Hornsby took over the job. Branch’s questionable on-the-field strategy this day may help us understood why his main fame came in the front office.
Something else to remember is that the opposition that day was the Brooklyn Robins, who carried that name for several seasons in honor of their manager, Wilbert Robinson. The newspapers of the time often referred to “the flock” in their stories about the Brooklyn team. The significant point here is that when Bottomley got his 12 RBls, the record he broke was in fact held by Wilbert Robinson. Uncle Robbie went 7-for-7 with 11 RBIs on June 10, 1892, for the Baltimore Orioles against the St. Louis National League team, then known as the Browns (they didn’t get the name Cardinals until 1899).
Robinson was not a well-liked manager, even by his own players. This point is put forward strongly by Frank Graham in his book The Brooklyn Dodgers, published in 1945. On page 90, Graham tells a story of the game in 1923 when Brooklyn first baseman Jack Fournier went 6-for-6 against the Phillies (Graham has the date as June 19, but it was actually June 29). The story has Fournier coming to the plate for the seventh time with two outs and a runner on first in the ninth inning. Robinson, coaching first, told the runner on first to steal. The runner was thrown out to end the inning, denying Fournier the chance for a seventh hit which would have tied Robinson’s record.
Graham tells us that Fournier never forgave Robbie and that he (Fournier) suspected Robinson had maneuvered to deny Jack a chance at a record-tying seventh hit. Of course, this isn’t a very nice episode, but the simple truth is that it never happened. On June 29, 1923, the Robins beat the Phillies 14-5 and Fournier was indeed 6-for-6, with his last hit being a single in the ninth inning. In fact, Brooklyn had only 51 men get to the plate that day, and for Graham’s story to be true they would have needed at least 58 (6 times around the order plus 4 to get to Fournier, the cleanup hitter). Why would Graham blatantly misrepresent an incident which is refuted so easily (the details of the game are very clear in the New York Times of June 30, 1923)? Perhaps this is further indication of the low esteem in which Robinson was held, although it certainly does not reflect well on Graham.
Nonetheless, this story might help us understand why the Cardinals made the extra effort in the seventh inning as Bottomley was within reach of the record. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Rickey ordered Hornsby to bunt. Rogers was a tremendously headstrong person who could very well have made the decision to bunt on his own. As far as I know, neither Rickey nor Hornsby was ever quoted on the matter. This “conspiracy” theory also assumes that the players on the field knew that Bottomley was approaching the record. Today they would certainly be informed by records mavens as the game was in progress, but it is not at all certain that in 1924 they would have this information. Another point to consider is that, if Robinson really were as villainous as Graham portrays, then he could have ordered Bottomley walked in the ninth (first and second bases were open).
In its story of the game, the New York Times did mention that Robinson was the previous RBI record holder and it noted that Bottomley only batted six times and therefore did not have the opportunity to tie Robinson’s hit mark. But there is more to that aspect as well in that the Times left out something. After Sunny Jim’s last at bat of the game, when he singled for his 12th RBI, Rickey inserted a pinch-runner for Bottomley, a runner who was immediately picked off first. Is it possible that Rickey had not ordered all the bunts and that he was trying to spare Robinson’s feelings?
Although Rickey has a well-deserved reputation as a sensitive man, I find it hard to believe that he would insert the pinch runner just to protect a batting record set by the opposing manager 32 years earlier. It is also unlikely that the Cardinals were going to bat around that inning, which would be necessary for Bottomley to have a seventh chance.
However, it’s hard to understand why Rickey would use a pinch-runner in the ninth inning of a game that was 17-2 at the time. Bottomley was young, only in his second full year in the majors, so it’s unlikely that he was being given the bottom of the ninth off, as is still done with older stars. Bottomley also had a good reputation as a fielder, but that doesn’t seem to be a very important argument with a 15-run lead in the ninth inning. You probably can’t play first base badly enough to give away 15 runs in one inning.
One other possibly relevant point is that Rickey also used a pinch-runner for Hornsby in the ninth. Rogers led off the inning with a triple and Blades replaced him, scoring on Bottomley’s single. It’s possible to interpret this action in two ways also. Hornsby certainly was an established star, and al though he wasn’t old, it seems reasonable to give him an inning off in a game that was already decided. The other view is that the replacement runner was faster than Hornsby, and therefore more likely to score if Bottomley happened to hit a fly ball. This latter suggestion is highly speculative, and frankly I don’t think it is very likely.
Finally, let’s briefly consider the larger picture of the pennant race. In 1924 the Robins finished second to the Giants by one and a half games, the only season in the 1920s in which they finished in the first division (except for their pennant-winning season of 1920). As the game of September 16 began, the Giants had a lead of one game over Brooklyn, which was one and a half games in front of Pittsburgh. With only 13 days left in the season, this game mattered very much to the Robins. On the other hand, the Cardinals were in sixth place, 24 games under .500, 27-and-a-half games behind the Giants. In other words, they were going nowhere. Baseball history is full of instances in which the underdog rises up and knocks the favored team down a peg. In fact, these examples are often cited as evidence of baseball’s integrity and add meaning to the victory of the eventual pennant winner.
So, was this game just another one in a close pennant race where the apparently poorer team beat the better one? Were there some hidden motives which led Branch Rickey to make decisions which appear questionable? Did the Cardinal players, especially Hornsby, have reason to embarrass Wilbert Robinson? Or maybe it was simply one of those days when everything went right for a young first baseman, a future Hall of Famer who had the day of his life, setting a record that has not been surpassed in the 83 years since it was set.
DAVID W. SMITH received SABR’s highest honor, the Bob Davids Award, in 2005. He is founder and president of Retrosheet.