Friday, January 29, 2010

Roger Bresnahan and the 1905 World Series

"It's great to be young and a Giant." Larry Doyle, played 1907 - 20

That was Roger Bresnahan in 1905.

Bresnahan had started as a pitcher for the Senators at the end of 1897. He bounced around in the minors after that; he wound up with the New York Giants 5 years later. In 1903, playing mainly center field, he hit a career high .350 with 34 stolen bases.

When the Giants lost their starting catcher at the end of 1904, Giants' manager John McGraw decided to try Bresnahan.

It was genius.

McGraw and Branch Rickey called Bresnahan the finest catcher they ever saw. The Giant's great pitcher Christy Mathewson (at left) went 31-9 in 1905, no longer having to worry about whether his breaking ball would find a catcher's mitt.

Bresnahan produced more than defense. He was the Giant's lead-off hitter. He hit .302, had speed, and knew how to work the count. His OBP that year was .411.

The Giants repeated as the National League champion and faced the Philadelphia Athletics in the first league-sanctioned World Series.

Bresnahan scored the winning run in the first 2 Giant victories. At the Polo Grounds in New York, his double in the bottom of the eighth in what would be the deciding fifth game set up an important insurance run in a 1-0 game.

The Giants won the series 4-1. Mathewson pitched 3 complete game shutouts. Iron Joe McGinnity pitched another. All with Bresnahan behind the plate. He led all hitters with a .313 average and a .500 OBP.

But the stars would never again align so favorably for him. Bresnahan played 3 more years for the Giants during which he introduced shin guards and padded masks for catchers. After the 1908 season, McGraw traded Bresnahan to the St. Louis Cardinals. He played 7 more years as a part time catcher and a sometime manager for the Cardinals and the Cubs.

His most valued baseball cards were released after his years with the Giants. At left is his 1911 Broadleaf Gold Borders Card. Below right is a portrait, from the 1909-11 T-206 set from my collection.

Bresnahan today is remembered less for his play than the spotlight he always found. He once told everyone he had been born in Tralee Ireland.

The press saw a good story and called him the Duke of Tralee.

It wasn't true. He was from Toledo.

He baited umpires mercilessly. Sometimes the police had to be called to remove him from games.

He died in 1944; the next year he was elected as the first catcher in the Hall of Fame. His election was as controversial as his temper. He had played as a regular for only 7 years - and had great numbers in only 2 seasons. But the ones who knew his play best - his peers – voted him in the Hall, not the baseball writers. When Walter Johnson was called on to pitch to Babe Ruth in an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds in 1943, it was Bresnahan who was called on to catch.

Perhaps the players saw in Bresnahan something that the passing years have obscured. Or something that those who never played the game cannot see.

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