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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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In the late 1940s, after Johnny was gone, Nellie was a patient at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany after breaking her hip. A young nursing student was on duty that night when one of her friends told her, "There's a patient downstairs named Evers." That nursing student was Kathryn Isabel Evers. Everyone called her Kay, and she is my mother. She was torn because of a longstanding family mandate to avoid the woman who had brought disgrace upon her famous uncle's marriage. But my mother chose to talk with Nellie, and found her very sweet. They didn't talk about Johnny. When Helen Fitzgibbons Evers died in 1974, the obituary listed her as the widow of baseball great Johnny Evers. They are buried as husband and wife.

After 1914, Johnny played parts of three more seasons in the major leagues, but never effectively. He lost his temper ever more frequently and was suspended on multiple occasions; newspaper stories increasingly portrayed him as less a gifted and tenacious player than a loose cannon. Johnny's byline appeared on a 1917 story in Baseball Magazine in which he said, "I have never felt wholly right since I had that severe nervous breakdown some years ago." He promised a comeback that never materialized. He had two more unsuccessful stints as a manager, and by 1924 he was gone from the game.

On another fall day, far from the cemetery, I sat looking at a yellowed and creased 8-by-10 photo of a young baseball player from a long time ago. Research can lead down long, strange alleys. Joe Evers, 10 years younger than his brother Johnny and unharmed in that automobile crash that killed George Macdonald in 1910, made it to the major leagues too. This was never mentioned in family conversation. Like Archibald (Moonlight) Graham in Field of Dreams, my grandfather played a single game in the major leagues, for the Giants on April 24, 1913. One of his teammates that day was Fred Merkle, and their manager was John J. McGraw, who had managed the Giants in 1908. In the New York Times account of a 7--1 victory over Philadelphia, the last paragraph reads: "Joe Evers, Johnny's young brother, got into the game for the first time in the third inning, when he ran for Chief Meyers and was tagged out at third base on an attempted double steal."

And that was it. McGraw released Joe in mid-May, and Joe spent the next 12 years—with a two-year break to serve in the Navy during World War I—playing for eight minor league teams, mostly in the Midwest. My grandmother Isabel Maxwell Evers was with him the entire time. I would know her as a kind elderly woman who served me poached eggs on toast and sweet milky tea for breakfast. Throughout her 20s she was a baseball wife. Even now, it's unimaginable to me.

In the photo, which I had never seen until a relative gave it to me, Joe Evers is wearing flannel pinstripes, and his hat is tipped to the left. He has the light skin and freckles that are prominent in our family, and he seems to be looking at something far off in the distance. He could be in Peoria, Ill., or Muskegon, Mich., or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, all places where he was employed. He could be full of dreams or beaten hopeless. There's no one to ask and no way to know, no matter how endlessly I stare.

By the mid-1920s Johnny Evers was permanently back home, living in Troy with his married older sister, Anna Evers Kennedy. He opened a sporting goods store with his brother Joe; it bore Johnny's name, but Joe did most of the work. Johnny settled into a Glory Days life, frequently re-creating the Merkle play for newspaper reporters, spinning tales at smokers and other gatherings, and ingratiating himself with the Democratic pols who ran Albany and for a time gave him a patronage job in the city's recreation department. When he would visit my mother's family in Troy, she would be told to wear a dress, as if preparing for Sunday Mass. Once Johnny brought her a stuffed replica of Popeye's pet dog, Jeep, and one summer day he took her to a local stadium to meet Connie Mack, who was passing through.

In 1936 Johnny declared bankruptcy again, with no assets and with liabilities of $10,499, yet the store remained in business. Pictures from this era show a man, once thin, puffed up to more than 180 pounds, his famous jaw scarcely prominent. He suffered his first stroke in 1940 at age 59 and had two more in '42 and '43. By this time he had moved to a first-floor apartment on State Street in Albany, where he was cared for by a longtime friend whom the family knew only as Mrs. Spoor. My mother and her siblings would visit, and Johnny would sit in a chair by the window, squeezing a rubber ball to recover some strength in his left side.

On April 23, 1946, Johnny was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame—along with Tinker and Chance—by the Old-Timers' Committee. Eleven men were elected that year, and it remains a uniquely controversial moment in the history of the Hall, having occurred during a period in which there was a wide gulf in admission standards between the Baseball Writers Association of America and the Old-Timers' Committee. (The year Uncle Johnny went in with Tinker and Chance, the BBWAA had still not voted in Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx.) "From that moment on," Bill James writes in his 1994 book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, "the argument that the Hall of Fame should be only for the greatest of the great was irretrievably lost." On Tinker, Evers and Chance, James writes, "They stand out as being among the least qualified players in the Hall of Fame." James compares Evers to pre-1900 second baseman Bid McPhee and concludes that McPhee, who was not yet in the Hall, was a better player. James does not say unequivocally that Evers does not belong, but that is the undertone of his argument. He spends more time on Tinker, who he says "was a fine player, and is not the worst player in the Hall of Fame." (In a long Baseball America feature in 1913, dozens of experts concluded that Evers was the best second baseman in the National League. Sabermetrician Jay Jaffe's JAWS system rates Evers the 16th best of the 19 second basemen in the Hall but behind four excluded second basemen, including Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich.)

But on that day in 1946, James was three years from being born, and the selections of Tinker, Evers and Chance were celebrated by many baseball enthusiasts, especially Cubs fans. Joe ran up State Street from the store to deliver the news, and my mother remembers a family celebration. A wire service photographer took an inappropriate picture of Johnny, bedridden and wearing wrinkled pajamas, his facial nerves ravaged by his multiple strokes, with old photos spread out on his lap. Less than a year later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 65. Thousands attended his funeral in Albany before he was interred at the base of that grassy hillside in his native Troy.

Johnny Evers Sporting Goods survived long after its founders passed away (Joe Evers died of diverticulitis at 57 in January 1949), flourishing in the energetic hands of Joe's son, my uncle Joe Jr., who was left in charge at age 25 and built it into one of the most successful independent stores in the region. As a teenage athlete I would revel in making the 90-minute pilgrimage with friends to Uncle Joe's store to buy the latest gear: Adidas sneakers, white football cleats, track spikes as light as air.

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