"SEND IN THE UNDERSTUDY!"
It's the plot of dozens of Hollywood B-movies about show business. The star is unable to go on stage, and the frantic director tells our humble heroine to take her place. The heroine is a success and she becomes the new star.
The story is common in baseball too. A big player is injured or holds out and a lesser-known player takes his place. The most famous example of this, of course, is Lou Gehrig, who stepped in for Wally Pipp on his day off. But Gehrig was already a pretty big prospect when he got his big break and besides, Gehrig never played for the Cubs. Nope, the little understudy who got the opportunity in this case is none other than Jimmy Archer. His big break in 1909 led to him being the Cub catcher for the next eight seasons.
Archer was born in Dublin, Ireland on May 13, 1883. As a small child, his family emigrated to Montréal, where he learned to play baseball. In his teen years, he moved, along with his family, to Toronto. Sometime while living in Toronto, he suffered a horrible accident. While working in a factory, a tub of hot tar spilled all over his right arm. As the arm healed, it shriveled slightly and never hung properly from his shoulder. But the shortened muscles in his arm became incredibly strong. Thus, like his future battery mate Three-Finger Brown, he was able to turn an terrible accident into a baseball positive.
Archer began his baseball career in Manitoba, which led to a job playing for Boone in the Iowa State League in 1902 or 1903. In Boone, Iowa, he met a local girl named Lillian Stark. Archer married Miss Stark in 1905 and would remain married to her until his death 53 years later.
Archer was a great defensive catcher. The Pittsburgh Pirates were impressed enough by Archer's defensive ability to purchase his contract from Boone in August of 1904. The 21 year old finished the 1904 season with Pittsburgh. But while Archer's defense was solid, he failed to hit, managing only three singles in twenty at-bats. That got him sold back to the minors until 1907, when Detroit was looking for a back-up catcher. Once again, he didn't hit on the major league level. But Archer's arm was so good that Tigers manager Hughie Jennings gave him the start in Game Five of the 1907 World Series against the Cubs, trying to slow down a Cub running game that was ruining the Tigers' World Series tale. Archer wasn't any more able to slow the Cubs down than the other Tiger catchers, as the Cubs stole three bases in four attempts. The Cubs won Game Five 2-0, and the series, four games to none, with one tie.
His managers loved Archer's defensive prowess, but even though catcher was even more a defense-oriented position then than it is today, a catcher still had to provide at least some offense. Detroit sold Archer to Albany in the Eastern League for the 1908 season.
The Cubs finished off their magical 1908 season with their second straight World Series victory over the Tigers. Everything looked great in Chicago for the Westsiders. But the Cubs' star catcher, Johnny Kling, had an interesting off-season hobby. He was a billiards player, and a very good one at that. Early in 1909, Johnny Kling won the World Pocket Billiards Championship. Defending his billiards title was potentially far more lucrative for Kling than returning to defend the Cubs' baseball title, so he retired from the game to become a professional billiards player.
That left the Cubs and manager Frank Chance scrambling for a replacement for their star catcher. Chance undoubtedly remembered Archer from the World Series a year earlier and something must have impressed him, because he had the team buy Archer from Albany to be the new Cub catcher.
Given his third chance in the majors, Archer managed to stick this time. Although he still wasn't much of an offensive threat in 1909, he did manage to hit enough this time to allow Chance to keep his arm behind the plate.
And what an arm it was. Years later, in The Glory of Their Times, both Al Bridwell and Chief Meyers raved about Archer's throwing ability. Bridwell said "Jimmy Archer was still catching for the Cubs in 1913, when I was there. Best arm of any catcher I ever saw. He'd zip it down to second like a flash. Perfect accuracy, and under a six-foot bar all the way down. " Fellow catcher Chief Meyers just raved, "The best throwing catcher of all was Jimmy Archer of the Cubs. He didn't have an arm. He had a rifle. And perfect accuracy."
Archer was also famous for throwing out of the crouch, Benito Santiago-style, in an era where almost no one did that. He would throw to any base at any time on pickoff moves. And in an era where every team almost always either tried to steal or bunted whenever there was a man on first base and less than two outs, an arm like Archer's was a valuable asset.
But while the Cubs won 104 games in 1909, five more than they had in their championship season the year before, the Cubs finished second to the Pirates that season. Many fans and reporters said that the drop off from Kling to Archer was the reason the Cubs didn't win their fourth straight pennant. (Somehow Kling would have kept the Pirates from winning 110 games that year, one supposes) So when Johnny Kling lost his billiards title in 1910, the Cubs brought him back to split duties with Archer. With Archer as both the backup catcher and first baseman, the Cubs won the pennant again in 1910.
But when Kling got off to a slow start in 1911, Chance dealt him to the Boston Braves and made Archer the starting catcher once again. For the next three seasons, Archer provided stellar defense and just enough hitting to be productive. From 1911 to 1914, he hit .267, which wasn't bad at all for a catcher of that era. He even finished 16th in MVP voting in 1911 and 13th in 1913. If you can imagine the season Henry Blanco had for the Cubs in 2006, with a bit more playing time and sustained over four to eight seasons, you'd have a pretty good idea what kind of a player Archer was.
But midway through the 1913 season, the Cub acquired catcher Roger Bresnahan, who was in a contract dispute with the Cardinals. Bresnahan had been one of the best (as well as one of the most foul-tempered and egotistical) players of the previous decade, and his arrival in Chicago meant a reduction in playing time for Archer. Archer continued catching about half the Cub games through 1916, when his bat started to slip again. The Cubs released him early in 1917 and he finished out the season back in the minors. He got trials with Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Cincinnati in 1918, but at age 35, both his fielding and hitting skills had declined to the point where he couldn't hold a job anymore. He played two more seasons in the minors before finally leaving baseball for good in 1920.
He apparently had a pretty good life after baseball and stayed married to Lillian until he died in 1958 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He briefly got back in the spotlight in 1931, when as a buyer working in the Chicago Stockyards, he saved the lives of two men who had collapsed from carbon monoxide fumes in the back of a truck by using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Jimmy Archer was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.
Jimmy Archer was never a big star like Johnny Kling had been. But like many ballplayers toiling in the minors, all he needed was one big break to make it on the big stage, which he got when Kling decided to take a season off from baseball. And while his performance may not land his name above the title in the movie of the Cubs, he certainly deserves consideration in the "Best Supporting Actor" category.