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Tinker to Evers to Chance ... ... to Me
Tim Layden
December 03, 2012
After years of boasting that he was related to Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers, the author set out to explore—for better and worse—the century-old myth of the double-play artist
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December 03, 2012

Tinker To Evers To Chance ... ... To Me

After years of boasting that he was related to Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers, the author set out to explore—for better and worse—the century-old myth of the double-play artist

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Evers was at the pinnacle of his baseball career. He had batted .300 for the season (fifth in the NL), and his OPS was .777 (third). He again hit .350 in the World Series, and when it was over he went home to Troy and, in January 1909, married Helen Fitzgibbons, described by The Sporting News as "one of Troy's prettiest and most charming girls." Their son, John Jr., was born before the end of the year. Johnny was 27, and he must have been very happy. He was nervous and driven, but at that age and in that place, he couldn't have anticipated the troubles that lay ahead.

The 1910 season was 26 games old on May 20 when the Cubs' game against the Brooklyn Dodgers was rained out at Chicago's West Side Grounds. Johnny Evers left the ballpark in his new car along with his 18-year-old brother, Joe, my grandfather, who was living with Johnny in Chicago after the death of their mother. Also in the car was George A. Macdonald, 31, a writer for the Chicago Journal and a friend of Johnny's. A fourth passenger was described by the Chicago Daily Tribune as "a negro boy, who usually acts a mechanician," helping to drive the vehicle whenever Johnny, who was new to driving, needed assistance.

Moments after leaving the field, the automobile was struck by a trolley car and tossed onto its side. The Everses and the young mechanic were not hurt, but Macdonald was thrown partially out of the vehicle, and his head was wedged between the front fender and the body of the car, crushing his skull. He died that night in a hospital.

Evers was overwhelmed with grief. A wire-service story published three days after the crash was headlined JOHNNY EVERS IS NERVOUS WRECK and said Evers might miss the rest of the season. In 1913, in a reflective story in Baseball Magazine, Evers told author F.C. Lane, "The shock of sudden death was more than I could stand. I had my first touch of nervous prostration and was laid up for five weeks.... I felt a good deal, I imagine, the way a murderer feels."

Years later, when Evers was retired and living in Albany, N.Y., across the river from Troy, he would tell people that he could never shake the image of Macdonald's death. "That man's head," he would say, "it was just hanging out of the car."

He returned for 125 games in 1910 but broke his leg in a late-season game against Cincinnati and didn't play in the Cubs' five-game World Series loss to the Philadelphia Athletics. That December came another blow. Evers had bought the Emerson Shoe Company, on River Street in Troy, after the '03 season and given his brothers part of the business. He had begun the process of opening a second store in Chicago when he received news—by telegram—that his original partner in Troy had run that business into the ground. Evers told Lane, "I figured that I had lost about $25,000, all that I had in the world. Furthermore, I was suffering from complete nervous breakdown." Johnny was earning only $4,000 a year; it was like Peyton Manning losing $150 million. He filed for bankruptcy. (Remarkably, in the midst of all this turmoil Evers published a book with Fullerton called Touching Second: The Science of Baseball, a densely detailed work that is part handbook and part memoir and reveals Johnny's sharp baseball intellect.)

Evers played only 46 games in 1911. Lane met him at the Copley Square Hotel in Boston that summer and wrote of his "haggard face, his trembling hand and air of nervous tension.... He was but a wasted shadow of the grand second baseman whose work had been the marvel of the generation." Evers later told Lane that before the summer of '11 ended, Chance sent him home to Troy, where a car was waiting to drive him 175 miles to a remote hunting camp at the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. There Johnny slept outdoors for days and cut his cigar intake from "many" per day to just one. This was therapy in '11.

And it turns out that Evers had one more baseball life in him. He returned to the Cubs in 1912 and hit a career-best .341 with a career-high OPS of .873. In '13 he took over from Chance as manager of the team but was fired after the season. He leveraged a contract offer from the upstart Federal League into a $25,000 deal with the Boston Braves, which made him one of the highest-paid players in baseball history to date. In Boston, at 32, he teamed with Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville to form the backbone of the 1914 Miracle Braves, a team that roared from last place on July 4 to win the pennant and defeat the favored Athletics in the World Series. Evers batted .438 in the Series and was named NL MVP for the season.

It had been a remarkable career: In a dozen years Evers had played on the winningest team in history, engineered one of the game's most controversial plays, used a nascent form of free agency and led a legendary comeback.

But tragedy followed him relentlessly, and it would eventually crush him. During that triumphant 1914 season, Johnny and Helen's five-year-old son, John Jr. (called Jack), became ill with scarlet fever and was quarantined at home in Troy. My cousin John T. Evers interviewed numerous family members in the 1990s, and they told this story: A doctor granted Helen, who was known as Nellie, permission to allow the couple's three-year-old daughter, Helen, to visit her ailing brother. Jack would get better, but little Helen became ill and died in less than two weeks. She is buried with her parents on the rectangular plot in Troy. Johnny's and Helen's marriage had been uncertain because he lived in Chicago and she in Troy; their daughter's death ended it. They separated, and many in the family assumed mistakenly that the couple had quietly divorced, something that was rare among Irish Catholics at the time.

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