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Most of it was a lie. Not the genealogical part: John Joseph Evers was my maternal grandfather's brother. Not the baseball part, either: He was, indeed, the guy in the poem and the guy in the Hall of Fame. Those are the bold-line items I co-opted for the purpose of shutting down discussions and even impressing my own children with their heritage, slicing off a piece of another man's legacy and taking it for my own just because we share a little bit of DNA. But I knew far less about Uncle Johnny than I did about the many athletes I've interviewed and profiled. The last time I dropped his name was less than a year ago, at a party with a small group of sports journalists. I got the usual cred, but this time one of the guys followed up. "Did you ever think of writing a story about him?" asked my SPORTS ILLUSTRATED colleague Alex Wolff. And there it was, so obvious that I was embarrassed to have missed it all these years.
Of course I would write a story. I would go searching for Uncle Johnny, give myself a long-overdue history lesson and remind the world of the great man who had once borne my blood on big league diamonds. It would make us even, Uncle Johnny and me, make good on all those empty boasts I had delivered just for effect. And I can say now that it was a profound journey, one that left me staring for long hours into the eyes of men long dead, photographed when they were much younger than my 56 years; that left me sitting alongside my 81-year-old mother (one of the few people still alive who knew Johnny Evers and remembers him) talking about things that we had never talked about before; that left me holding in my hand one of the most famous baseballs in history, my fingers shaking because I knew where it had been and who had touched it.
But most of all, it was a journey that reminded me of what every reporter knows: Disturbing the dust of mythology almost always damages the myth.
Some truths: Johnny Evers was born in Troy on July 21, 1881, the fourth of six sons, nine children in all, to John Joseph Evers Sr. and Ellen Keating Evers. The family lived at 437 Third Street, three blocks from the Hudson in South Troy. My great-grandfather is described in city records as a "clerk," but he was also was the president of the school board, a position with political clout. His son Johnny, like all of the Evers boys, was educated in Catholic schools with other Irish kids. And like all of the Evers boys, he played sandlot baseball hour upon hour. Their uncle, Tom Evers, had been a pro ballplayer in the 1880s. Johnny graduated from St. Joseph's Christian Brothers School in 1898, just shy of 17 years old. And it is here that his story vanishes briefly in the fog.
Nearly four years would pass before Johnny became a professional baseball player. It has been written with some authority for more than a century that he spent much of those four years working in a Troy collar factory, earning $4 per week dispensed in an envelope in four $1 bills. It is a plausible story because the collar trade was a thriving sector of Troy's economy, but there is no hard evidence for it. Troy city directories from 1899 to 1901 list John J. Evers, like his father, as a "clerk," although the 1901 edition also lists him as the coproprietor, with his older brother Mike, of Evers Brothers Saloon, in the building next to the family's home on Third Street. Several other published sources suggest that Johnny spent time as a sign painter's apprentice. So at 19 he was a bar owner, a civil servant of some sort and perhaps a factory worker. Given the stubbornness and drive that would characterize his major league career, it's probable that he was also playing baseball endlessly. He had his own amateur team, the Cheerups, and probably played for others as well.
A few more truths: In 1902 Johnny was signed to play shortstop for the Troy team in the New York State League, a minor circuit from which players occasionally ascended straight to the majors. He made his debut on May 9 at Laureate Field in North Troy, a small stadium along the Hudson. He batted leadoff and went hitless in three at bats against Ilion. The Troy Times made note of him in the final paragraph of its game story: "Young Evers played shortstop for the local team and is said to show much promise."
At 20 Johnny Evers was a small man; he would grow to be only 5'9", and at the peak of his major league career he weighed 135 pounds. In photographs he swims in his baggy flannel uniform. His most distinguishing facial characteristic was a protruding jaw, which would come to represent the tenacity and combativeness he displayed as a professional. "The spidery little fellow with the pugnacious jaw and the flaming spirit," Arthur Daley of The New York Times described Evers after he died.
On Aug. 21, 1902, Johnny's father died at age 54. Just eight days later the following item appeared on the sports page of the Chicago Daily Tribune: "Troy's clever shortstop, Evers, have [sic] been sold to the Chicago National League club and will report to that club in Philadelphia." That team, which was called the Orphans and in 1903 would become the Cubs, had lost infielder Bobby (Link) Lowe to an injury. An article published in Baseball Magazine in 1953 under the byline of Hugh Fullerton Sr. told the story of Evers's elevation. Fullerton wrote that George Huff, a football and baseball coach at Illinois who scouted for the Cubs in the summer, was watching a series of games between Albany and Troy when he received word that Lowe was injured. Fullerton, a prolific reporter whose suspicions played a role in uncovering the 1919 Black Sox scandal, wrote, "Huff ... switched his attention to one of the second basemen in the game ... a wiry little bunch of nerves and muscle. The kid was only a few months out of school.... But he gave unmistakable signs of possessing a baseball 'brain' in his head."
There is a probably a little fact and a little fiction in this tale, but this much is true: One month past his 21st birthday, having lost his father only days earlier, Evers took a train ride from Troy to Philadelphia. The next afternoon he started for Chicago, and he never again played in the minor leagues except ceremonially at the end of his career. Joe Tinker, an infielder from Kansas, was a rookie with the Orphans; Frank Chance, a big first baseman from California, was in his fifth major league season. Evers started that game at shortstop, but he was soon moved to second base, between Tinker and Chance. They turned their first double play on Sept. 15, with 10 games remaining in the 143-game season.
Over the next seven years the trio developed into a notorious DP combination. It was on July 12, 1910, according to baseball historians Tim Wiles and Jack Bales, that Franklin Pierce Adams mythologized the Cubs infielders with his poem. Adams was not a sportswriter but rather a respected columnist (he later would be a founding member of the famed Algonquin Round Table) who occasionally watched Giants games at the Polo Grounds. On that afternoon his editor asked him for eight lines of copy to complete a column, and "Baseball's Sad Lexicon" was the result. Tinker, Evers and Chance had turned a double play against the Giants the previous day, though in fact they never led the National League in that category; Uncle Johnny would be part of only 270 double plays in the six years from 1905 to '10, less than one every three games. Yet this is misleading. The Cubs were a Dead Ball era dynasty with excellent pitching. Opponents had few base runners; hence there were few opportunities for double plays. That Tinker, Evers and Chance were excellent fielders was taken for granted and easy fodder for Adams's rhyme. (In 1949 the MGM musical Take Me Out to the Ballgame would feature a DP combination called O'Brien, Ryan and Goldberg, patterned after Tinker, Evers and Chance. Frank Sinatra played Ryan, the Uncle Johnny role.)