Wednesday, September 28, 2011

91. Bullet Benson: A Cup of Coffee with the Senators

From the beginning, the best unplanned benefit I get out of this website is the new people I meet through it. Since the origins of this site stemmed from the sudden death of my Pop and my lack of having anyone to share those stories of obscure baseball players with anymore, the amount of baseball history fans I've met in the past year and a half has just been staggering. Through many of them, I've learned about players that I've never heard of before, which is always a welcome thing. About 2 weeks ago Mark Hornbaker emailed me about a pitcher for the old Washington Senators, Allen "Bullet Ben" Benson. Mark had researched and wrote an article about Bullet Ben and once he gave me a brief description of why this fella was interesting, I knew he had to have his own card and story. Fingers crossed, I invited Mark, a writer by trade, to be the newest guest author here at the The Infinite Baseball Card Set...

A few weeks ago I visited Gary Cieradkowski’s website for the first time. I was extremely impressed with Gary’s baseball stories and his custom baseball cards. I could tell right away Gary and I had something in common. We both like to share stories about ball players most people have forgotten.
I sent Gary an e-mail and told him about a story I just wrote for, titled Bullet Ben's cup of coffee with the Washington Senators. After Gary read the story he contacted me to tell me he really enjoyed the story. Gary also wanted to know if I would share Bullet Ben’s story with his readers and he would create a custom baseball card of Bullet Ben. It didn’t take me long to reply back to Gary and tell him yes, I would like to share the story with your readers.

Since April 2007, I've been writing stories mostly about Washington D.C. baseball history at Nationals Daily News. A lot of my stories are based off of a date in time in D.C. baseball history. Today's story is about a pitcher, Allen "Bullet Ben" Benson, who made his Washington Senators debut this week in 1934.

What makes this story so different than any of my other stories is the way I learned about Benson. It happened a little less than two years ago when I received an e-mail from a person who wrote the following message to me:

"Mark, I have spent the last 20 years of my life trying to find more information out about my grandfather's career. He played with the Senators in 1934; he got a call up in August of that year, and pitched in two games. His name is Allen "Bullet Ben" Benson. Do you have any info on this subject??"

The person who sent me the message did not give me their name, only an e-mail address. Name or not, I was happy Benson's grandson took the time to reach me. I like to put on my detective hat on whenever I get the chance. After reading his question, I wasted no time in researching Benson's baseball past.

First, I looked his name up at Even though there wasn't much more than the basic player profile there, I did see something that caught my eye. Allen Benson made his major league debut with the Washington Senators on August 19, 1934 and played in his last major league game one week later on August 26. Benson's grandson was right, his grandfather only played in only two games with the Senators. Not much of a story, if you are only interested in big names and big historical events.

For some reason, I kept on searching for more information about this player with the cool "Bullet Ben" nickname. I am glad I did because a half-hour later I found a Web site that listed major league players who were born in South Dakota. It was at this site I found a great deal of information about Benson's baseball career. Below is what was written about him:

"Allen Wilbert Benson was born in Hurley (Turner County), SD, on March 28, 1905 (prior to 2009, his birth date was listed incorrectly as July 12, 1908). He lived there his whole life.

"As a young man, Allen played amateur ball in and around Hurley. He also played with a Sioux City Stockyards team and professionally in the Texas League. In 1925 he was in one game for Waco and, in 1927, he pitched 5 games for Dallas (2-1, 2.74). It was also reported in "The Sporting News" that he appeared in games that year for Waterloo, IA.

"Benson's 1928 season was at Akron of the Central League where he appeared in 14 games with a 4-10 record and a 3.57 ERA. He started out with them again in 1929 (35 games, 12-7, 4.67) and then went to the Minneapolis Millers with whom he was in 3 games (16 innings) with a 0-1 record and an 8.44 ERA. In 1929 he returned to his preferred life on the ranch in South Dakota. "TSN" also reported that he had played in Charlerol, Des Moines, Wilkes-Barre and the House of David for three years.

"In a "TSN" article in August 1934, it was reported that he had to return to baseball because making a living on his land became very difficult under conditions during the Depression. In the summer of 1934 he was with The House of David team (beard and all) and was signed by Washington after the manager of Albany, Joe Cambria, saw him pitch an exhibition in Baltimore. [Benson told the team that he also had an 18-5 record for the amateur team - the Benton Harbor Tourists.] Cambria set up a try out for him where he pitched against the Senators' regular players. Washington management decided that he had sufficient speed, a good curve ball and change up to be inked to a contract.

"He first started a major league game on August 19, for the seventh place Joe Cronin led team and lasted until the 8th inning when he was removed with a blistered finger. When he arrived with the team, he continued to have facial hair. There were reports of his Senators' teammates being upset with his whiskers because they found 'the addition to their ranks of a sideshow curiosity as belittling their profession and take the view this pan should be operated on by a barber if he really is a pitcher and not merely a clown.' Senators' management said he could keep the whiskers, fans were sharply divided and Benson himself was said to be 'undecided ... but seemed inclined to favor retention...'

"Jaded members of the press charged that the signing of Allen was actually as a box office attraction similar to team owner Clark Griffith's employing characters such as Germany Schaefer, Nick Altrock, Al Schacht and Art Shires.

"In two starts that year, Benson pitched 9 2/3 innings and allowed 19 hits, 5 walks and struck out 4 for a 0-1 record with a 12.10 ERA. His son, Donald, wrote in 2004 that all he mentioned about his days with the Senators was 'I was in the major leagues just long enough to have a cup of coffee.' After his less then great pitching performance for the Senators, the beard was shaved.

"His nickname during his baseball years was "Bullet Ben" and in 1935 he made 2 stops to complete his pro career - at Albany of the International League (1-2) and Harrisburg of the New York-Penn league (8-9, 3.07).

After baseball, Allen returned to the Hurley area to farm and 'feed cattle' for more than 50 years. He died on Nov. 16, 1999."

I was very pleased with my findings, so I sent the information to Benson's very grateful grandson. Since that time, I read a very interesting ESPN story, "The Greatest Moments in Baseball Hair History" that was written by Paul Lukas in April 2008. In the story Lukas notes, "1934: Minor league journeyman Allen Benson gets a cup of coffee in the majors, appearing in two games with the Washington Senators. He sports a full beard, making him the first bearded big leaguer in 50 years - and the last one for nearly 40 more". I personally was pleased to find out Benson's cup of coffee with the Washington Senators was truly a little piece of baseball history.

Mark Hornbaker grew up in Darnestown, Maryland, where he was an avid Washington Senators fan. He currently resides in Poolesville, Maryland, with his wife Linda. Mark has been writing about the Nats and the history of baseball in Washington D.C. at Nationals Daily News since April, 2007. He also shares his views on baseball in D.C. at!/ezmark

Sunday, September 11, 2011

89. Fujio Nagasawa: Hats off to the Tokyo Giants

Please excuse the lack of updated for the past 2 weeks, I have been in the process of moving from California to Kentucky and the past weeks have been filled with packing, moving and storing capped off with a severely injured back due to a freak accident when I tried to stop a file cabinet from tipping over while standing one one foot. Live and learn I suppose. Also, if you are interested, on my Facebook page I just posted a card of a certain 1970's Red Sox relief pitcher named Sam "Mayday" Malone and I'm soliciting writers to come up with the story that will accompany it...

This week's card and story is about Fujio Nagasawa and the 1935 Tokyo Giants. You can get the back story on the tour in the story I did about the team's star outfielder Jimmy Horio.

Hailing from the island of Hokkaido in the northern-most part of Japan, first baseman Fujio Nagasawa was the star of his college team from Hakodate Commercial School. After graduating he continued to play ball for the Hakodate Oceania Baseball Club. His talent was such that at the “advanced” age of 30 was recruited to represent Japan against the Major League All-Stars in the winter of 1934.

Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the All-Stars wiped the floor with the Japanese team but the Americans came away with the impression that the Japanese players they faced were at a AA level. Nagasawa himself hit .226 in 11 games against major league pitching. With practice against good, professional competition, American sportswriters speculated they would improve quickly. Major Leaguer Lefty O'Doul was on that 1934 team and had previously played on tours that stopped in Japan earlier in the decade. Through his friendships with influential businessmen eager to start a Japanese league, O'Doul suggested sending the Dai-Nippon team to the United States in the spring to play against the American professional teams that held spring training on the west coast. O'Doul was newly named manager of the San Francisco Seals and offered to act as intermediary in arranging other ball clubs to play against the Japanese.

Besides acting as middle-man for the Japanese, the publicity-savvy O'Doul made a few suggestions to the Dai-Nippons - the first of which was to change their name: The Dai-Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Club was just too much of a mouthful for the American public to digest. O'Doul suggested the "Tokyo Giants" and the name has held to this day. Other suggestions by O'Doul was for the Japanese to capitalize on national customs that would be unique to their team when they toured America. Despite the fact that Japanese baseball teams all used English words and numbers on their uniforms, for the tour jerseys would sport the player's number in traditional Japanese kanji characters on their backs and the kanji characters for "Tokyo" would appear on their sleeve. O'Doul instructed them to continue the tradition of tipping their caps and bowing as a group to the crowd before and after a game. Each batter was told to also tip their cap and bow to the umpire before each at bat and even after being thrown out on the base paths runners were to do the same. Another unique aspect of a Tokyo Giants game was their football-like huddle before each inning. Newspaper scribes in America were kept busy debating just what was being discussed during these mysterious huddles. Curious little things like that really made a difference to the American public and the team was awarded with decent-sized crowds and much newspaper publicity.

Among the photographs that accompanied the Tokyo Giants press kit was a much-reproduced photo of Fujio Nagasawa tipping his cap to the home plate umpire. American sportswriters commented favorably on his fielding skills and he batted right around .300 on the 6 month tour. The success of the tour back in Japan led to the formation of the nation’s first professional league and Nagasawa was signed to be the Tokyo Giants first baseman. As the Giants lead off hitter, Nagasawa became the very first batter in the Japanese Baseball League when play began in 1936. Now in his early 30's, Fujio Nagasawa's playing days were coming to an end and the arrival of first baseman Tetsuji Kawakami, soon to be known as "The God of Batting" led to his retirement in 1943. Nagasawa then switched gears and became a successful reporter for the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, dying at the age of 80 in 1985.

This card and story stems from the large file of research I have been slowly accumulating on the 1935 Tokyo Giants. Often a footnote in other baseball history books, no volume of its own has ever been published in English. In Japan, baseball writer and historian Yoichi Nagata has written the definitive study of this tour - unfortunately it is in Japanese and no translation has been done of this interesting work. Through a speech he gave at a SABR convention a few years ago, Nagata related how his research uncovered Lefty O'Doul's part in helping the Tokyo Giants create a unique persona through the continued use of the "football huddle" and the bowing and tipping of their caps. I am planning to release the drawings I have done of the 1935 team along with the story of their tour in a future edition of "21".