1921 Orioles: Ben Egan
Every successful team needs a respected veteran to help guide the younger players and inspire with their experience. The 1921 Orioles were luck as they had two of these valuable assets – third baseman Fritz Maisel and catcher Ben Egan.
Tall and gangly, Ben Egan was a baseball lifer. The Upstate New Yorker began his career playing on various town ball teams in central New York. He signed his first professional contract in 1905 at the age of 21 and slowly rose through the ranks of the minor leagues. In 1910 he was signed by Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles, the team he would be most associated with for the rest of his career.
Egan was a light.hitter, barely ever scratching the north side of .250 – but it was behind the plate where his talent lay. Egan was a jovial character, ready with a joke or encouragement, something the young Oriole pitchers responded to. By 1914 the tall catcher was Jack Dunn’s trusted confidant and field captain. Egan was trusted with opening the Orioles spring training camp each year, bringing along the rookies to acclimate them to the ways of pro baseball before Dunn and the veteran players arrived.
Among the many young players Ben Egan mentored was Babe Ruth. The Babe was a 19 year-old rookie in the spring of 1914, and the two men quickly formed a bond that would last for the remained of Ruth’s life.
When Jack Dunn was forced to sell off his good players in 1914 to stave off bankruptcy, he sold Ruth, Egan and pitcher Ernie Shore to the Red Sox. Interestingly, Egan brought $3,500 to Ruth’s $2,900. Egan never appeared for the Sox as he was quickly traded to Cleveland. His light hitting got him sent back to the minors in 1916, and two years later Jack Dunn reacquired his old catcher.
Dunn was just putting the finishing touches on what would be a team that would win seven consecutive International League pennants. The final part needed was a veteran backstop, a guy that could be a stable influence on the Orioles combination of green rookies and eccentric journeymen. Ben Egan was the right man.
Under Egan’s watchful eye, Lefty Grove, Jack Ogden and Tommy Thomas matured into brilliant pitchers, all of whom would record 30-win seasons with the Orioles and go on to major league success. And it was under Egan’s wise management that the great wild eccentric of the minor leagues, Rube Parnham, would be tamed enough to turn in tremendous seasons of 22 and 28 wins.
Egan had his best year in professional baseball in 1920, batting a career high .330 with 8 home runs. He ran a piching staff that had 25 and 27 game winners Harry Frank and Jack Ogden along with a skinny rookie from the hills of Western Maryland named Lefty Grove, who would go 12-2 for the pennant winners. By 1921 two decades of catching had begun to take its toll on Egan’s body. He would be in and out of the lineup all season, sending Jack Dunn scrambling to find an able replacement. Ducky Davis and Wade Lefler would both fill in behind the plate, but neither could compare with the stable leadership that Egan brought to the position.
Ben Egan convinced Jack Dunn to release him in 1922 so he could transition to a manager position. He was immediately signed by Jersey City for the 1922 and 1923 seasons, followed by coaching stints with the Senators, Dodgers and White Sox. In the 1930s he returned to Upstate New York where he coached semi-pro teams.
Though he never had a successful big league career, and may not be remembered all that well today, Ben Egan’s influence cast a long shadow over the history of the game in the shape of all the young players he helped develop.
On Monday we move to the outfield, starting with speedy left fielder, Rabbit Lawry.
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