And so, New York Evening Globe and Mail columnist Frank Adams wrote his tribute – lodged his complaint – about the trio that had so vexed his NY Giants.
They are perhaps the most famous 50 words ever composed about the game:
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,
Making a Giant hit into a double –
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
--Franklin Pierce Adams, New York Evening Globe and Mail, July 12, 1910
- Joe Tinker, shortstop. If statistics are to be believed, Tinker was one of the greatest defensive players ever.[ii] He was recognized, along with Honus Wagner, as the best glove man of his day, and his defensive WAR totals are breathtaking (fifth in career defensive value, behind Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr.) He wasn’t much of a hitter.[iii]
- Johnny Evers, second base. Like Tinker, considered among the best defensive players of his time. Evers was famous for his quick temper, nervous energy, and unmatched baseball intelligence. He had the temperament of a wolverine, the metabolism of a humming bird and a pathological need to win. An excellent baserunner and bunter in an era when these were essential skills, Evers was considered among the game's brainiest tactitians (you'll find a detailed profile of Evers here).
- Frank Chance, first base and manager. Perhaps the most respected man in the game, Chance was known, without irony, as “The Peerless Leader,” helming baseball’s greatest ship: The 1906-1910 Chicago Cubs.[iv] Far-and-away the best hitter of the famed trio, Chance holds an obscure-but-fun record that will likely stand forever: His 67 stolen bases in 1903 is the single-season record for first basemen. He also holds the career SB mark for the position with 376 (403 total SB, some coming as a catcher and outfielder). His game wasn’t just speed: Chance owns a fine .394 OBP, and an adjusted OPS of 135.
A timeline of events:
- 1905: Frank Chance is named player-manager of the Cubs.
- 1906-1910: The Cubs, with Tinker, Evers and Chance (and superb pitching led by Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown), win four pennants and two World Series in five years, compiling the highest one-, two-, three-, four- and five-year winning percentages in baseball history (with the 1906 club famously going 116-36, for a .763 winning percentage). Frank Chance is among the most famous, respected, and revered personalities in professional sport.
- 1910: “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” is published.
- 1912: Chance, prostrate in a hospital bed recovering from emergency brain surgery (a result of multiple beanings), is fired by reviled team owner Charles W. Murphy (here's all one needs to know about Murphy: He was once reprimanded by the league for scalping tickets to the 1908 World Series – a series in which his team was playing).
- 1913: Murphy names stalwart Johnny Evers as Chance’s replacement, signing him to a five-year contract.
- 1913: Joe Tinker, refusing to play for Evers (the two had long despised each other – this may explain why) is traded to Cincinnati. He manages the team for one season before jumping to the new Federal League as player-manager for the Chicago Whales. Established as a third “major league” in 1914, the Federal League comprised eight franchises in established major league cities. Tinker is the biggest star to date to defect to the "Outlaw League." (More on the Federals below).
- 1913: Evers is fired by Murphy after one season as manager of the Cubs. Murphy, looking to avoid paying Evers the balance of his contract, claims Evers resigned from the team (an utter fabrication) and attempts to trade him to the Boston Braves. Evers is furious at the slander. At the same time, the upstart Federal League is actively poaching MLB players. Evers is rumored to be mulling an offer to join the league – and Joe Tinker is rumored to be part of the recruiting effort (this according to Evers; while the two men despised each other, money has a way of suturing wounds).
- 1914: Evers is well aware of his bargaining power: Signing with the Federals would help confer legitimacy on the upstart league while establishing a new salary structure that made the MLB oligarchy nauseous.[v] Hoping to appease Evers and keep him in MLB, the NL owners grant him his unconditional release from Murphy and the Cubs. Evers stays in the NL, joining the Braves of his own volition. He is named the league's Most Valuable Player after the perpetually forlorn Braves shock baseball by capturing a World Series championship.
- 1914: In the wake of the Evers fiasco, league officials pressure Murphy into selling his interest in the Cubs to Charles Taft for the enormous sum of $500,000. A defiant Murphy, who seemed to care little for baseball and less for his team, gloats about the sale.
- 1914: Meanwhile, recovered from his grevious injuries, Frank Chance is now in his second year managing a terrible Yankees team. He resigns with three weeks left in a joyless slog of a season (after team ownership overrules his disciplining of pitcher Ray Caldwell, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing ne'er-do-well who flouted Chance's authority). Chance, as beloved and respected a man to ever take the field, is savaged in the press by league President Ban Johnson, who seems set on destroying the Peerless Leader's reputation. "Frank Chance stands forth as the biggest individual failure in the history of the American League," said the bombastic Johnson. "I think any other man would have made a success of the venture. Surely, no one could have done any worse.”[vi] It would be nine years before Chance stepped on to a Major League field again.
- 1915: Tinker, as player-manager of the Chicago Whales, leads his team to the Fderal League pennant – but the glory is short-lived. The league folds after the 1915 season.
- 1915: Chicago Whales owner Charles Weegham buys the Chicago Cubs from Charles Taft.
- 1916: Weegham installs the Cubs in Wrigley Field, and installs Joe Tinker as Cubs manager. Tinker lasts one uneventful season before retiring.
- 1918: Evers retires as a player (save for a one-game comeback, at the age of 40, in 1922, and a one-game stunt return in 1929). After less-than-successful managing stints with the Cubs (again; 1921) and the white Sox (1923), he retires fully from the game.
- 1923: Chance retires from the game after a brief stint as manager for the Red Sox.
- 1924: Frank Chance dies at the age of 48.
- 1946: Tinker, Evers and Chance are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- 1947: John Evers dies at the age of 65.
- 1948: Joe Tinker dies at the age of 68.
Tinker, Evers and Chance are linked for eternity in verse, but their connection was more complicated and complex than Adams' poem could hope to capture. Had Joe Tinker succeeded in recruiting John Evers to the upstart Federal League (see below for more), the entire history of 20th-century baseball – from the breaking of the color line to labor relations to the very structure of the major leagues – might have been rewritten.
Established as a third “major league” in 1914, the Federal League comprised eight franchises in established major league cities. While the Federals successfully poached a few high-profile stars of the day, the quality of play was probably closer to “AAAA” than to the majors (Japan’s major leagues might suggest a comparison).
The Federal League lasted just two seasons, but its impact on the game was profound: In 1915, the Federals filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The suit threatened the viability of MLB (which for all intents and purposes operated as a monopoly), and the owners were terrified. Overseeing the proceedings was Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who had earlier made his name presiding over the Standard Oil anti-trust suit.
The Federals may have had a case, but they didn’t have money: The league was hemorrhaging cash. Thus, the lawsuit was dropped in exchange for a cash settlement after the 1915 season. Charles Weeghman, owner of the FL Chicago Whales, folded his franchise when he purchased the Chicago Cubs. Six other FL franchises accepted buyouts to fold their teams, with their best players sold to MLB.
The Baltimore Terrapins refused to settle, filing their own anti-trust lawsuit against baseball. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who granted baseball an exemption to federal anti-trust law – protecting their status as a “legal” monopoly.
The ruling ensured, among other things, that baseball’s infamous reserve clause would remain in place for decades. The reserve clause held that players were essentially the property of owners, bound to a team until the owner sold them, traded them, or released them. The owners – unabashed, vocal supporters of free market capitalism to this day – had successfully defended a closed market of their own creation, and they would keep it locked up for another 50 years.
Landis, who revealed himself a passionate fan of the game during the proceedings, went on to become the first commissioner of baseball in 1920 – on condition that he retained unchallenged and absolute authority on all matters related to the game.[vii] His first act was to purge the game of the "Black Sox"– eight players who allegedly conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series.
Landis ruled the sport with an iron fist and a withering glare for 25 years. His impact on the game is immense, his legacy mixed. Among his accomplishments, he is credited with restoring public trust in the institution by eliminating any vestige of gambling interests; he established the modern MVP award when he turned stewardship of the process over to the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1931; the first All-Star game was played under his steely glower in 1933; brought transparency to minor-league transactions, ending the corrupt practice of indiscriminate, “under-the-table” signings.[viii]
Landis also helped perpetuate baseball’s greatest shame by choosing not to exercise his authority to knock down – or at least push against – the color barrier. When asked about the subject, the bombastic, imperious commissioner parsed his words carefully, explaining that no formal rule existed prohibiting blacks from the game; owners were free to draft – and play – whomever they wanted. Given the entrenched, obvious, and institutionalized racism in the game, the statement, while accurate, is laughable. Many consider it no coincidence that Baseball's color line fell only after Landis' death.[ix]
[ii] Defensive statistics are not to be believed – certainly not if they’re 100 years old. The best information we have, unfortunately, is anecdotal – but by reputation, Joe Tinker was a great shortstop.
[iii] Yet Christy Mathewson, of all people, called Tinker “the most dangerous hitter in the league.” Mathewson had enormous respect for Tinker’s bat control and ability to spoil great pitches.
[iv] The 1906-1910 Cubs stand among baseball’s greatest teams. They averaged 106 wins per season, back when teams would play 150ish games a year.
[v] MLB owners perceived the Federals as an existential threat to their business model. The Federals didn’t adopt MLB’s onerous “reserve clause,” which essentially bound a player to one team for the entirety of his career. With no reserve clause in place, players in the Federal League were essentially free agents – this was about as appealing as a tax audit to MLB owners, who operated their clubs as serf farms. Legal and financial worries forced the Federals to cease operations after just two seasons.
[vi] And these were about the nicest words Johnson spoke of Chance.
[vii] The owners have scaled back the power of the office with each subsequent commissioner. Today, major league sports commissioners are by-and-large de facto CEOs, responsible for growing and protecting the business interests of their respective leagues. They serve at the discretion of team owners.
[viii] Landis failed, however, to restrict major league control over the minor leagues; he felt minor league baseball should operate independently of the big leagues. Branch Rickey, a bitter rival, took the opposite position: The minor leagues were talent pipelines for big league clubs, and should be managed accordingly. Rickey won this battle.
[ix] It's difficult to overstate Landis' impact on the game – he is in many respects the sport's central figure of the 20th century. David Pietrusza's Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis is regarded as the best the single-volume history of the man and his times.