The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #32 Johnny Evers

Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-054418. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

I suppose you've been wondering when you'd see biographies of perhaps the most famous double-play combination in major league history...

"Tinker to Evers to Chance".

Well, here's the first -- second baseman Johnny Evers, whose name you've probably pronounced "EH-vers", but in reality, his family and he preferred "EE-vers".

Born in Troy, New York on July 21, 1881, he took a path to the major leagues fairly common in that era -- by playing for his hometown team. It wasn't long before the pros came calling, and by 1902, at age 21, he was playing for the Cubs; the following year he became their regular second baseman.

Evers was one of the smallest men ever to play baseball on a regular basis for so long, at least by weight. Listed at 125 pounds, he may have weighed as little as 100 pounds when he first came to the major leagues, despite his 5-foot-9 height, and that might have led to his attempts to show how "tough" he was. This "tough guy" attitude led to a 1905 on-field fight with his DP-mate Tinker; the two didn't speak to each other off the field for more than thirty years after that, but, according to Evers:

Tinker and myself hated each other, but we loved the Cubs. We wouldn't fight for each other, but we'd come close to killing people for our team. That was one of the answers to the Cubs' success.

If you look only at his statistical record, it doesn't look all that different from another top-100 Cubs second baseman -- Glenn Beckert. Evers was a slap hitter, never walked much and had little power (though that describes, admittedly, a great number of hitters of his day). Modern players who show up on his similarity score list include Phil Rizzuto, Jim Gantner and Mark McLemore, and Evers' play also fits the "scrappy" mold to which those players also aspired.

His official website says that he was nicknamed "The Crab" because of

the way he slid over the entire infield from his second base position

... but it might have been as much for his admittedly somewhat unpleasant personality. Evers and Joe Tinker formed the Cubs' 2B/SS combination for nine seasons, from 1903-1910 and again in 1912 (he missed much of the 1911 season with an injury), and the Cubs won 90 or more games in eight of them (missing that mark only in the first year, 1903). They were a key part of all four of the Cub pennant-winning teams in that era, and Evers himself played an important role in the famous September 23 "Merkle's Boner" game that helped win the Cubs the 1908 pennant. From the Evers website:

The Giants apparently beat the Cubs 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Fred Merkle, who was on first base, trotted off the field toward his dugout when Evers realized he never tagged second. Evers got the ball and touched second, Merkle was called out and the game was tied up. The Cubs would eventually end up winning that game. Evers was aware of the rule that stated a runner on first still must tag second even on the winning run for the play to be over. Merkle failed to do this and was called out.

The website doesn't do full justice to this play, or Evers. This single play shows all of Evers' competitiveness, abrasiveness, knowledge, and leadership, all produced at the most critical moment. There was, in fact, at the time, some dispute about whether the ball that Evers had used in the play was the actual ball, or was another one that had been thrown to him from the Cubs' dugout.

There had been another play exactly like it earlier that same month -- in the SABR BioProject biography of NL umpire Hank O'Day, it's explained:

In a [September 4] game involving the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, a Pirate runner [Warren Gill, who, oddly enough, never played again after the 1908 season] failed to touch second on a game-winning hit. When Evers tried to inform O'Day of the decision, O'Day said he did not see the play and could not do anything. However, the play remained in O'Day's mind.

It's further elaborated upon in the SABR BioProject biography of Evers:

Evers, standing on second, called for the ball and demanded that umpire Hank O'Day rule the play a forceout, which would nullify the run and send the game into extra innings. Gill's maneuver was customary in those days, and O'Day refused to make the call that Evers was seeking. "That night O'Day came to look me up, which was an unusual thing in itself," Evers recalled many years later. "Sitting in a corner in the lobby, he told me that he wanted to discuss the play. O'Day then agreed that my play was legal and that under the circumstances, a runner coming down from first and not touching second on the final base hit was out." Evers' account may not be trustworthy, especially given O'Day's exceptionally reclusive nature and the lengthy period between the event and the retelling, but the incident undoubtedly had a pronounced effect on the umpire, as was demonstrated by subsequent events.

O'Day thought he was mollifying Evers by saying if it happened again, he'd give it to him. Well, guess what, and guess who was the umpire. The play not only wound up helping the Cubs win the pennant and World Series in 1908 (since the September 23 game was ruled a tie, it had to be replayed at season's end, and the Cubs won the replay 4-2), but it resulted in an official rule change, requiring the umpire(s) to make certain that all players touch their required bases on game-ending plays. It is arguably the single most significant play in Cubs history.

A recent well-known example of a game-ending play where not all the runners touched their required bases, though it did not change the outcome of the game, was the famous Robin Ventura "Grand Slam Single" in the 1999 NLCS.

Despite having two of his better statistical years in 1912 and 1913, and finishing in the top 20 of the Chalmers Award (the MVP of its day) voting both seasons, the Cubs had fallen out of contention, and then as now, management felt a shakeup was necessary. Evers had been named manager of the team in 1913 following the departure of Frank Chance for health reasons, and taking the fall for the Cubs' third-place finish, he was traded to the Boston Braves for the forgettable Bill Sweeney, who played one year in Chicago and was done.

Evers, however, was revitalized at the age of 32. He was named NL MVP, and that was the year of the Miracle Braves, who came from last place on July 4 to win the NL pennant, then swept the favored Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.

He played two and a half more seasons in Boston, then briefly with the Phillies before returning to Chicago. Named Cub manager again in 1921, he led the club to a poor 64-89 record and was replaced. His record after that includes a single at-bat for the White Sox in 1922, a year managing that club in 1924 (where he was replaced 124 games into the season with the club 41-72 with one tie), and one of those "let's get the old guy in the game for old times' sake" appearances for the Braves on the final day of the season, October 6, 1929 at the age of 47. Evers appeared briefly in the field at second base and made an error in the Braves' 9-4 loss to the Giants.

After that he scouted for the Braves and was a longtime manager for the minor league Albany Senators, whose franchise was located near his hometown of Troy. In the 1930's he and Tinker eventually made peace, and Evers was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946; he died less than a year later in Troy, aged 65. He is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in Troy, but will live forever as one-third of perhaps the most famous baseball poem ever written, and as the man whose smarts and aggressiveness helped lead to a single play which may have won the Cubs a pennant.

Johnny Evers' career stats at baseball-reference.com

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