1921 Orioles: Jack Bentley
Of all the players on the 1921 Orioles, Jack Bentley was the undisputed favorite. All but forgotten today, back in the early 1920s Baltimore Bentley was a flapper-era rock star.
His story is one of those great baseball tales. The son of a humble, peaceful Quaker farming family, Bentley grew up playing baseball. Sometimes he would ride his bike the two hours from his hometown of Sandy Spring, Maryland to Washington, DC, to see the Senators and his idol, Walter Johnson. By the time Bentley was in high school he possessed a pitching talent that made him a much sought after prospect. A Senators scout spied him pitching for his town team in 1913, and a few days later he was in Griffith Stadium to show his stuff to the pros. Twenty minutes later he was offered a big league contract.
Though this was every American boy’s dream, playing pro ball posed a big problem for Bentley’s Quaker parents. Attracting public attention was something the Quakers adamantly opposed, but after some wrangling and a solemn promise to never gamble nor drink, his parents gave him their blessing.
The teenager got into three games for Washington before the 1913 ended, throwing a total of 11 innings and giving up five hits and no runs. The next spring veteran pitcher and now Washington coach Nick Altrock took an interest in the youngster, and with his help Bentley became a spot starter and reliever, going 5 and 7 with a 2.37 ERA for 1914. After pitching a few games of the 1915 season, the Senators sent Bentley down to Minneapolis. The problem was that he had apparently developed an arm injury. The reason, Bentley later said, stemmed from Senators owner-manager Clark Griffith’s attempts to get him to change his delivery.
See, Jack Bentley had what was later described as one of the most complicated windups in baseball. The lefty would swing his arm violently in several directions, bring it back across his chest, rear back while turning away from the batter, then with a mighty leg kick, release the ball towards home plate.
Hall of Famer Pete Alexander remarked after seeing Bentley pitch, “I should think he would tire himself all out winding up and have nothing on the ball.”
When attempts to force Bentley into a more orthodox delivery resulted in arm trouble, the Senators dumped the teen prospect into the minor leagues. He played 1915 with Minneapolis, and though his arm pain held him back from being any more than a mediocre pitcher, Bentley began to hit, and hit well. The following season he was batting .308 when he was traded to Baltimore.
Baltimore Orioles owner/manager Jack Dunn had a unique eye when it came to scouting players. Dunn was able to see promise where other managers saw mediocrity or failure. The O’s skipper had seen Bentley work while he scouted the American Association and was impressed – not with his pitching, but with his hitting. At mid-season he traded for the sore-armed pitcher and immediately installed him at first base. In 1917, his first full season in Charm City, Bentley hit .343, taking the mound just once during the season. Then war came.
As a Quaker, Bentley could have sought a draft exemption, but he declined. His number came up in July and eight months later he was in France. Bentley was one of the 3,600 members of the 313th Infantry Regiment that were thrown into the hell of the Argonne Forest. Four days later he was one of the 2,400 that walked out alive. Bentley earned himself a battlefield commission and a new outlook on baseball. As Nelson Greene quotes Bentley in his biography written for the Society of American Baseball Research, “the heroics of the battlefield topped anything anybody could do on a baseball field. When he returned from France “ballplayers became ordinary human beings,” Bentley said, and he “was able to compete more realistically.”
Bentley returned to Baltimore in 1919 just as Jack Dunn launch a ball club that would win the next seven consecutive International League pennants. As the team’s first baseman, Bentley would hit .324 the first year, then .371 in 1920. 1921 became his greatest season, winning the coveted Triple Crown while setting the new 20th century league record for batting average with a stratospheric .412. But the crazy thing about Jack Bentley at this time wasn’t his hitting – it was that he was also the Orioles best pitcher.
With Baltimore, Jack Bentley was almost unique in that when he was not playing first base, he was used as a starting pitcher. The sore arm he had suffered before the war had somehow healed, and Jack Dunn’s laid back style of management meant that Bentley was left alone to do any kind of nutty windup he desired, as long as he won ballgames. And that he did.
In 1920, the first season in his duel role, Bentley pitched 22 games, winning 16 and losing just 3 for a .842 winning percentage. The next year, 1921 – the season he hit .412 – Bentley pitched in 18 games, winning 12 and losing just 1 – that’s a winning percentage of .923! To show it wasn’t a fluke, the left-hander was 13-2 for 1922 while hitting .351.
By this time, Jack Bentley was a superstar in Baltimore. His salary was the highest on the already well-compensated Orioles, $4,500. To put this in perspective, Lou Gehrig was paid $3,700 by the Yankees in his first full season in 1925. Besides his O’s paycheck, Bentley parlayed his local fame into several lucrative endorsement deals such as selling Cole Aero Eight automobiles for the Neely-Ensor-Fox dealership.
Aiding Bentley in his rise to superstardom was his squeaky-clean personal habits of abstinence from gambling and booze, and his movie idol good looks. This later aspect of the Jack Bentley persona cause particular ire from opposing players and fans. Buffalo’s faithful was particularly offended by Baltimore’s first baseman’s well-groomed image, labeling him a “powder puff.” A very enlightening March 27, 1921 article in the Baltimore Sun has the O’s players writing about one of their teammates. Right fielder Bill Holden got to write about Bentley, and not content with mere sentences, composed a short poem about Jack and his good looks:
Here’s to our “powder puff kid,”
Given the name by a crew
Of Lannin’s famous Buffalo rooters,
About whom all of us know.
A real pitcher, a real hitter
About whom I declare
He’ll hit anybody’s pitching
Any time, anywhere.
Real asset to our team, and
So very many good things
I could say about the boy
Who hails from Sandy Springs.
Look, it ain’t one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but what do you expect from a right fielder?
At any rate, everyone who followed baseball in 1922 knew Jack Bentley had the goods to make it back to the majors. He was the first big star that Jack Dunn let go from his 1919-1925 dynasty, and he didn’t let him go cheap. The New York Giants paid $72,500 for Bentley’s services, quite a sum at the time.
Giants manager John McGraw, a very conventional baseball man, wanted his expensive new charge solely as a pitcher, much to Bentley’s chagrin. He was 28 years-old and considered himself a much better hitter than a left-handed pitcher. None the less, Bentley won 13 games for the pennant-bound Gants in 1923, then won 16 more in ’24. That season would prove to be his last great year as a ballplayer.
For the fourth consecutive season, the Giants again won the National League pennant, this time facing the Washington Senators in the World Series. In what had to be the culmination of a boyhood dream, Bentley would get to pitch against his idol, Walter Johnson. After splitting the first four games, Bentley and Johnson faced off in Game 5. In that game, Bentley was able to hold the Senators to a handful of hits, even clubbed a home run as he beat his hero, 6-2. Washington took Game 6, leading to a winner-take-all Game 7.
Curly Ogden, younger brother of Baltimore’s ace Jack Ogden, got the nod for Washington, but this appeared to be a ruse by Senator’s manager Bucky Harris to get John McGraw to play a right-handed lineup. After facing two batters, lefty George Mogridge took over. Despite the chess game played by Harris, New York led 3-1 going into the bottom of the 8th. Then the magic began for Washington as a bad hop to Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom allowed two Senators to score. Now with the game tied 3-3, Harris called on the one man who single-handedly dragged the Senators from a cellar-dwelling club to the edge of a World Championship. In what could be called Johnson’s greatest performance, the 36 year-old veteran pitched 4 scoreless innings. The Giants sent Jack Bentley in to face his hero again, but a dropped foul ball in the bottom of the 12th started a Senators rally as Muddy Ruel doubled. Johnson aided his own cause by reaching 1st on an error as Ruel moved to third. A second bad hop to Freddie Lindstrom let Ruel race home with the winning run as Johnson and The Senators won their first and only World Championship.
Bentley played one more year for the Giants, going 11-9, then was dealt to the Phillies. An 0-2 record got him sent back down to the International League, this time with Newark. Bentley managed a nice 11-3 1927 season, but he was 32 and ready to call it quits. He managed a bit in the low minors, got married and went home to the Bentley family farm in Sandy Spring. He sold cars and held public-relations positions with several companies before transitioning to a country gentleman, farming and raising hounds and hunting foxes.
When he passed away in 1969, few remembered what an incredible talent Jack Bentley had been in his prime. 1921 Baltimore was another time and place, long ago and far, far away, in a forgotten land in which a ballplayer could be both the best hitter and best pitcher in the league…
Saturday you’ll meet one of my favorite players, a guy so good, but so forgotten, that I couldn’t rest until I found out “Who the heck was Harry Frank?”
You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.
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