The Bizarre Career of Rube Benton

This article was written by Stephen D. Boren

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

John “Rube” Benton, a National League pitcher from 1910 to1925, was the center of two unusual controversies. The first involved his pitching with the wrong team, a dispute which contributed to the downfall of the National Commission that ruled baseball prior to 1921. The second involved his being declared ineligible and yet being allowed to pitch in the majors.

Rube Benton’s career was checkered if not mediocre. Born in North Carolina, he was a free wheeling southpaw pitcher who acquired the nickname “Rube” (as did several other lefthanders) because of a similarity to Rube Waddell. He started out with Macon in 1910 and late in the season advanced to Cincinnati where he was 1 and 1. After a longer trial in 1911 (he was 3-3), he led the National League with 50 games pitched in 1912. Unfortunately, he lost 20 of those games, while winning 18. Injured in 1913, he finished at 11-7, but had one of his better seasons the next year with 16 wins and 8 losses.

By this time he had gained a reputation for drinking and carousing and had to be disciplined several times by Cincinnati management. In early August 1915 his record had fallen to 9-13 for the second-division Reds, and the club was ready to dump him. The New York Giants verbally claimed him on waivers, with an expiration date of August 16. However, on Friday the 13th, Barney Dreyfuss, President and owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, telegraphed an offer of $4000 to Garry Herrmann, President of the Reds (and also Chairman of the three-man National Commission). Since John McGraw and the Giants had offered only $3000, Hermann accepted Dreyfuss’s offer. McGraw, upon learning this, protested to John Tener, the National League President.

Meanwhile, Benton reported to the Pirates and Manager Fred Clarke announced he would use him against the Cubs on August 17. When President Tener, who was in New York, heard of Clarke’s plans, he sent a telegram to Dreyfuss warning him that the game would be forfeited to the Cubs. Dreyfuss then phoned John Heydler, Secretary of the National League, and reminded him that only the National League’s Board of Directors, not the President, could declare a forfeit. (Rule 26 concerning forfeits in the 1915 Reach Baseball Guide did not give the umpire authority to forfeit a game based on an ineligible player.)

On August 17, 1915, Benton pitched a six-hitter as the Pirates beat the Cubs 3-2. The Cubs had announced before the game began that they were playing under protest. The League attempted to solve the problem the next day, but lacked a quorum. After repeated delays, the League Board of Directors met on August 24. The voting members consisted of Charles Ebbets (Brooklyn) and James E. Gaffney (Boston). Garry Herrmann (Cincinnati), Harry Hempstead (New York), and Barney Dreyfuss (Pittsburgh) attended but were disqualified from voting. They awarded Benton to the Giants, but ruled that the Pirates had acted in good faith. Thus, rather than forfeit the game, the game would be replayed September 3 or 4.

Oddly enough, after the 1914 season the National League had debated at the fall meeting rules concerning waivers. In December 1914 the league passed a rule forbiding withdrawal of waiver requests or claims. The rule had been passed 6-2 with only the Pirates and the Giants dissenting!

The decision against the Pirates further irritated Dreyfuss. Earlier that year, Herrmann’s vote in the National Commission had ruled against the Pirates in their claim to young George Sisler’s contract. Thus he was very determined to punish Herrmann and his actions later helped to destroy the National Commission.

The next day, August 25, Benton pitched for the Giants. Ironically his opponent was the Pirates. Perhaps the long lay-off affected him since he lost 9-7. He gave up 12 hits in 4 innings and hit two batters. He finished the season 4-5 for the eighth-place Giants.

On September 4, 1915, the Cubs and Pirates played a doubleheader instead of a single game as originally scheduled. The Cubs won the first game 5-2. The Pirates won the second game 2-1, which was the rematch of the disqualified game that Benton pitched. This game had a wild finish. With two outs in the 12th inning, pitcher Babe Adams singled home Honus Wagner. Adams saw Wagner score and ran to the dugout before touching first base (a la Fred Merkle). Neither Cy Williams the Cubs center fielder, who played the ball, nor Bubbles Hargrave, the Cubs catcher, recognized this. Fred Clarke rushed Adams to first base before the Cubs noticed.

    The voiding of the August 15 game statistics and the inclusion instead of the September 4 figures had no serious long-term consequence. None of the Pirates or Cubs was near to the leaders of any season offensive mark. However, the loss of Roger Bresnahan’s two hits meant he had a career average of .279. (.27946) rather than .280 (.27966). Honus Wagner lost one double and thus is sixth on The Sporting News all-time list rather than tied for fifth.

Zip Collins, a SABR member living in Arlington, Virginia, was the center fielder for Pittsburgh in the disqualified game (in which he collected one hit) as well as the make-up game (in which he garnered two hits). At age 91, he is the only survivor of those two games, but he does not recall specifics of either one. He does remember Benton as a hot and cold pitcher. He could be very effective in one outing, and easy to hit in the next.

Benton did pitch some excellent games. On June 11, 1915, a couple of months before the dispute about his ownership, he hurled a 15-inning 1-0 win over the Dodgers. On July 16, 1920, when he was with the Giants, he worked 17 shutout innings against the Pirates, finally winning by the strange score of 7-0, when the Giants broke it open in the final frame. Benton also pitched a shut-out against the White Sox in the 1917 World Series. However, he did incur some responsibility (along with the catcher and first baseman) for not covering home plate in the sixth and final game when Eddie Collins scored the winning run with Heinie Zimmerman in futile pursuit. He was the losing pitcher in that game, although he did not give up an earned run.

Benton was 16-8 with the Giants in 1916, 15-9 in 1917, 1-2 in 1918 (most of the year spent in the Army), 17-11 in 1919, and 9-16 in 1920. He was again the center of controversy after the 1920 season. He had charged Buck Herzog of the Giants of having attempted to bribe him to lose games. The charge was not substantiated by Benton and he was counter-charged by Herzog of having advance knowledge of the 1919 World Series rigging and having bet on the Redlegs. Two players, Norman Boeckel and Art Wilson, signed affadavits against Rube.

Benton had a 5-2 record and a 2.87 ERA when he was released by the Giants as an “undesirable” player during the 1921 season. He was signed by St. Paul of the American Association where he finished 6-7 with a 4.70 ERA. However, in 1922 he was 22-11. The Cincinnati Reds in 1922 finished second in the National League, seven games behind the Giants. Thus Garry Herrmann traded pitcher Cliff Markle and an undisclosed amount of cash for Benton. President Heydler voided the transaction and notified the Reds that Benton was ineligible and could not play in the National League because of “undesirability.”

Cincinnati argued that if he were an undesirable player for the major leagues, he also was undesirable for the minor leagues, where he had been permitted to play for 1½ years. After a thorough debate, the National League voted to sustain President Heydler’s stand and to leave a final decision to him. Heydler stated he would await Judge Landis’ decision as to the charges against Benton. If Landis decided against Benton, he would be permanently banned. However, if Landis vindicated Benton, the league, although respecting that decision, did not necessarily have to reinstate Benton. If Landis should make no decision and the final adjustment was left to Heydler, then Benton undoubtedly would be banned for life.

Landis shocked the baseball world by ruling for Benton and chastising the League for depriving him of the right to earn a living. This stance was contrary to what Landis had ruled in all other similar cases. Irate, Heydler publicly criticized Landis. However, after a closed meeting with the Commissioner, Heydler quietly reversed his position.

Benton was 14-10 for the second-place Reds in 1923 as they finished 4½ games behind the Giants. By 1924 they were a fourth-place team and Benton was 7-9. After going 9-10 in 1925, Benton returned to the American Association where he spent eight more seasons.

Rube closed out his major league career with 155 wins (not counting that one for Pittsburgh in 1915) and 140 losses. He had a 3.09 earned run average. One of his unpublicized distinctions was that he was very stingy in giving up home runs. He allowed only 53 fourbaggers in 25 17 innings, one of the best percentages of his era.

Benton’s controversial life ended suddenly on December 12, 1937, when he was killed in an eight-person automobile accident in Dothan, Alabama. He was 47.