The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #27 Joe Tinker


Chicago Daily News negatives collection, SDN-053535. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society. (Check out the size of that bat!)

Baseball's Sad Lexicon
These are the saddest of possible words:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Turning a Giant hit into a double --
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

-- Franklin P. Adams, New York Evening Mail, July 10, 1910

With the exception of "Casey at the Bat", this is the most famous poem about baseball ever written. For the three players described, it has since been the definition of their reputations.

In 1946 the Baseball Hall of Fame, but a decade old, held the last of a series of omnibus elections designed, as historian Bill James put it, "to clear the generals off the shelf". These elections have been much maligned, as many of the inductees seem to fall far short of the standard of greatness, setting a precedent of inconsistency the Hall has never been able to remedy. Among the eleven chosen in `46 were Joe Tinker, John Evers, and Frank Chance.

It has been received wisdom for decades that Chance was the only worthy, and that the qualifcations for Tinker and Evers amounted to "two-thirds of a poem". Tinker is the first Hall of Famer so far in this "100 Greatest" list to have played virtually his entire career as a Cub. If not quite an ideal HOFer, he had one of the best careers of his time, and his high ranking in this list is by no means unworthy.

Joseph Bert Tinker was born July 27, 1880 in Muscotah, Kansas. He lived in Kansas City from the age of two. He played for school and local semipro teams until he turned pro for good with the Coffeyville, Kansas team in 1898. By 1901, he had moved up to the high minors, and was playing for Portland of the Pacific Northwest League when he was sold to the Orphans (Cubs) in time for spring training 1902.

New manager Frank Selee, needing a shortstop, went through a trial-and-error period before settling on Tinker as his regular. It was not an immediately obvious choice, as Tinker committed 140 errors his first two seasons. He did show steady improvement, and by 1906 he led the league in fielding percentage, the first of five such titles, a major-league record at the time. He would lead lead the league four times in chances, three times in assists, and twice in putouts. In his prime he was considered second only to Honus Wagner as a fielder.

By the end of 1902, the rebuilding of the Cub infield was complete: Tinker at short, Chance at first, moved from catcher, and Evers at second, acquired from the minors that September. The debut of the famous trio came September 13, 1902, with Tinker and Evers making a double play that day. The first Tinker-Evers-Chance double play occurred September 15.

Double plays were rare in that era, and T-E-C did not make an unusual number of them. Tinker led NL shortstops in double plays only once. But he and Evers were called the "Siamese Twins of baseball, they play the bag as if they were one man, not two". Bill James again: "Adams' poem was setting down something that was in the air, not creating a myth from whole cloth".

Tinker was considered spirited and agressive in the field, unassuming off it. By the time of the Cubs' championship years, his formerly small frame had filled to a solid 5'9", 175 lbs. Fielding and baserunning were always the strengths of his game; he batted .300 only once in the majors. His lifetime batting average of .263 is among the lowest for a Hall of Famer. Like so many ordinary hitters, he had one eccentric trait; he hit the New York Giants, the Cubs' principal rival of the period, with near impunity. Especially he hit the Giants' Christy Mathewson, the greatest NL pitcher of the time. Tinker's career average against Mathewson was .291, nearly thirty points over his major league mark.

Perhaps the greatest legend surrounding the Cubs teams of that era is the intense personal animosity betwen Tinker and Evers. Tinker was naturally reticent, but Evers was a difficult personality, antagonizing many teammates and opponents through the years. 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". The provocation has never been satisfactorily explained, there are differing stories. The state of their relationship became publicly clear on September 13, 1905, when the two came to blows on the field during an exhibition game in Indiana. The intensity lessened with time, but the two men were not fully reconciled for many years.

In the championship years of 1906 and `07, Tinker's batting averages were .233 and .271, and his World Series averages .107 and .154. But he was by then one of the stellar shortstops in the majors.

1908 was the year everything happened. Tinker played all 157 games, leading the team in hits, home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. In the Merkle game, his homer was the only Cubs run in the disputed 1-1 tie. In the makeup, pennant-deciding game two weeks later, he tripled off Mathewson in the four-run third inning, the key hit in the Cubs' 4-2 victory. It capped a season in which Tinker hit .421 off the Giants' ace. In the 1908 World Series, Tinker hit the first WS home run by a Cub, in the second game. It was the first Series homer by anyone since 1903.

The Cubs would enter a two-decade pennant drought after 1910, and though his famous teammates began a marked decline in performance, Tinker would put together some of his finest seasons, and perform some of his greatest feats. On July 28, 1910, he stole home twice in the same game. In 1911, he led the NL in every major fielding category except -- double plays. In 1912 he finished fourth in the Chalmers MVP balloting, after posting a season .282 average, with 80 runs and 75 RBI. When Evers was appointed Cubs manager at season's end, Tinker requested, and received, a trade to the Cincinnati Reds.

Tinker was player-manager for the Reds in 1913, and had his only .300 season (.317). His team finished seventh (64-89). Tinker and his ownership did not get along, and he refused to sign a contract for 1914. What followed was a half-comical series of events showing that even the owners sometimes chafed at the restraints of the reserve system. The Reds first attempted to sell Tinker to Brooklyn outright, for $25,000. The Dodgers, off the table, offered Tinker $10,000 of the sale price to ensure his cooperation. But the Reds then torpedoed the deal by demanding players in additional compensation. No one was happy, no one had room for movement under the system, and an upstart league saw an opportunity.

Tinker jumped to the Chicago Whales of the new Federal League, the first star player to make the move to the FL. Tinker was player-manager for the Whales during their two-year run at the brand-new ballpark at Clark and Addison. His team finished second in 1914, and won the FL pennant in 1915. When the league folded after that season, Whales owner Charles Weeghman bought controlling interest in the Cubs, moved them to his new park, and retained Tinker as player and manager for the 1916 campaign.

1916 was Tinker's only year as Cubs manager, and he played his final seven major league games on the field. The Cubs finished fifth (67-86), and he was not retained. He ended his playing career with 22 games for Columbus of the American Association in 1917, a team in which he had purchased partial ownership.

While manager of Columbus, in 1919, Tinker brought about a reform slightly ahead of its time. During a game in which his team struggled futilely against a spitball pitcher, Tinker instructed that the game ball's leather be roughened with a file in the dugout between innings, negating the trick pitch. The American Association banned the spitter after that season. The major leagues, acting on a somewhat different, and more tragic, set of circumstances (Ray Chapman's death), enacted a provisional ban two years later.

Tinker settled in Orlando, Florida, in 1920, partly in an effort to improve his wife's failing health (she would eventually take her own life). He developed real estate, and became a wealthy man. He bought the Orlando club of the Florida State League, and built a small park, Tinker Field, which served as a minor league park and spring training facility until 2000.

The Depression wiped out his fortune, and he took up various pursuits to earn money. In 1938, he was hired to do radio commentary during Cubs World Series broadcasts. Unbeknownst to either, John Evers was hired by another station to do the same, and the two met by surprise in the radio booth. According to all accounts, an emotional and cordial reunion was the result.

Tinker was serving part-time as a Cubs scout when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946. Diabetes and heart disease plagued his last years, and a leg was amputated early in 1948. Tinker died in Orlando on his 68th birthday, July 27, 1948, the last living member of the famous trio. Tinker and Gabby Hartnett are the only Hall of Famers to die on their birthdays.

Joe Tinker's career stats at baseball-reference.com

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