The Debut of Roger Bresnahan

This article was written by Cappy Gagnon

This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal


The Washington Post sports section for August 28, 1897 contained several familiar baseball names at unusual positions and with unusual teams. Honus Wagner was playing second base for the Louisville Colonels and hit a home run in a losing cause. Nap Lajoie was stationed at first base for the Phillies and, the Post reported, “was under the influence of liquor and played stupidly.” He was replaced at first by Ed Delahanty, who was brought in from left field.

However, the most prominent display of a name player at a strange position, at least from today’s perspective, was the listing of Roger Bresnahan as pitcher for the Washington Senators. It was the future catching great’s major league debut, and the 18-year-old gained headlines in the home town paper-KID PITCHER A WIZARD-by shutting out St. Louis 3-0 on six hits. It was a big lift for the Senators, who were mired in 11th place in the 12-team league.

Describing the work of the “Hibernian” or the “Buckeye Stripling,” the Post said control was “the first symptom of clever work displayed by the youngster . . and he also showed himself the possessor of a speedy shoot, an outcurve, an inshoot, and a drop ball.” The veteran Deacon McGuire was the catcher of this wide assortment of deliveries. He was impressed with Bresnahan’s pitching ability, his agility in the field (he had fielded two hard smashes back to the mound), and his bloodline, for McGuire was quoted as saying “He comes of the right stuff; good, old gamey Irish blood in that lad.”

Manager Tommy Brown used Bresnahan three more times in the last month of the 1897 season and the youngster was at least partly responsible for Washington ending the season in seventh place in the standings. Bresnahan had a 4-0 log for his rookie season and he apparently felt this indicated great promise as a pitcher. The burly Irishman held out for more money the next spring and Washington let him go.

Bresnahan drifted back to Toledo where he pitched briefly in 1898. He next pops up in a few box scores for Minneapolis in 1899, and gets in one box Score as a catcher with the Chicago NL team in 1900.

The Baltimore Orioles picked him up as a pitcher in 1901, but he was hit hard in his first two games. Manager John McGraw put him behind the bat One day when catchers Wilbert Robinson and Cliff Latimer were both banged up. Bresnahan performed so well that the transition from pitcher to regular player took place rather quickly. That doesn’t mean that he immediately became a first string catcher, but he did get to fill in at a number of positions. When McGraw jumped to the New York Giants in July 1902, he took Bresnahan and Joe McGinnity with him.

It was in New York where Bresnahan gained his greatest fame as McGraw’s sparkplug (and alter ego) and Christy Mathewson’s favorite catcher. He had great versatility, playing all nine positions on the diamond. He frequently batted leadoff, was a good base stealer, and played many games in centerfield.

The comments of his contemporaries give some idea of his strengths, particularly behind the plate. One sportswriter said,

“Watch him while he is catching. Watch him throw to bases. Absolute, unerring decision is his. Never a moment of hesitation, a second of doubt. He heaves the ball to second or to third, or to first as the lightning chance may demand, with a sort of cold, infallible ferocity. And he possesses that alacrity of taking a chance which differentiates soldiers of genius from the prudent plodder.”

With those plaudits it is probably fortunate that the inventor of shin guards did not continue as a hurler-in spite of his spectacular debut. He showed too much skill with a glove, too much versatility, too strong a bat, and too much field leadership to play only once every four days.

The box score of his debut on August 27, 1897 follows:

 

Washington

 

 

 

St. Louis

 

 

 

 

AB

R

lB

 

AB

R

lB

               

SELBACH LF

4

0

0

DOUGLAS lB

4

0

2

GETTMAN RF

4

0

0

M. CROSS SS

4

0

0

DEMONTREVILLE 2B

4

0

1

HARTMAN 3B

3

0

1

MCGUIRE C

3

1

1

TURNER RF

4

0

0

T.BROWN CF

2

1

0

LALLY LF

4

0

2

TUCKER lB

3

1

1

MURPHY C

2

0

1

REILLY 3B

3

0

1

HARLEY CF

3

0

0

WRIGLEY SS

3

0

1

HALLMAN 2B

3

0

0

BRESNAHAN P

2

0

0

SUDHOFF P

3

0

0

 

28

3

5

 

30

0

6

WASHINGTON 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 x – 3
ST. LOUIS   0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 – 0

Bases on balls off Bresnahan 1 (Hartman); off Sudhoff 2 (Brown and Reilly). Struck out by Bresnahan 1 (Hartman); Sudhoff 2 (Demontrevile and Reilly). Two-base hits-Demontreville, Wrigley and Lally. Sacrifice hits-Murphy. Stolen bases-Tucker and Hartman. Double plays-Reilly to Tucker, Cross to Hallman. Passed ball-McGuire. Umpire-Mr. Kelly. Time of game-2 hours.

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