Wednesday, July 6, 2016

219. Jack Bentley: The "Second Coming of Babe Ruth"

Finding a ball player like Babe Ruth would seem like a once in a lifetime chance, but for Jack Dunn, it happened twice. 

Back in 1914, Jack Dunn, Baltimore Orioles owner and manager, had discovered a 19 year-old man-boy by the name of George Ruth. By the time spring training had ended the kid, nicknamed "Dunn's Baby" which was then shortened to just "Babe", became the core of what Dunn hoped would be a baseball dynasty. But it was not to be.

That year the Federal League came to Baltimore and set up a team right across the street from the Orioles ballpark. Since the Federal League was billed as the "Third Major League" Baltimore fans abandoned the minor league Orioles. Jack Dunn had to sell off all his stars just to stay afloat. Even after jettisoning Ruth, Ernie Shore and Ben Egan, the Orioles still had to leave town. After a season in Richmond, the Federal League collapsed and Dunn moved his team back to Baltimore and began rebuilding. One of his many trades yielded a mediocre pitcher named Jack Bentley.

Raised in an affluent Quaker farming family, Bentley went against his parent’s wishes and signed with the Washington Senators. Four years and an unremarkable 6-9 record later, Bentley was part of a three player package deal that sent him to Baltimore. No sooner had he arrived then Jack Bentley was off to France with the U.S. Army.

The former Major Leaguer spent 1918 fighting on the Western Front where his coolness under fire earned him two citations for bravery and a battlefield commission. By the time it was over he found that after the horrors of the Argonne Forrest, nothing on a baseball field could ever be as serious as combat. His new perspective paid dividends when he got back home in 1919.

Jack Dunn was putting the finishing touches on a team that would win an astounding seven consecutive pennants. With a solid pitching staff in place, something made Dunn stick Bentley at first base. It was the right move, because out of nowhere Bentley turned into a hitting machine.

From 1920 to 1922 his batting statistics were staggering. In 1921 Bentley put on the most impressive offensive performance in the history of the International League. His .412 average and his 246 hits are both still the single season league record, and his 24 home runs earned him the Triple Crown. But what is most remarkable about Jack Bentley’s Baltimore sojourn is that at the same time he was the International League’s leading hitter, he was also the league’s best pitcher!

That’s right, when Bentley wasn’t playing first he was the team’s spot starter and most effective reliever. During those same three summers he was tearing up the International League pitching, his own mound record was an unbelievable 41-6 - a winning percentage of .872! By the time he wrapped up the 1922 season Bentley was hailed as the “Second Coming of Babe Ruth” and it was obvious he belonged back in the majors. But Jack Dunn never got over having to let the first Babe Ruth go for a song back in 1914 and there was no way in hell he was going to let that happen again. He hung a price tag of $75,000 on his star and waited. Meanwhile, Bentley was stuck watching his window of opportunity get smaller as his 27th birthday came and went. Everything came to a head in the 1922 Little World Series. When was knocked out of the box in the third game Bentley turned prima donna and refused to stay in the game as first baseman. The next day the loyal O’s fans booed their star and Jack Dunn knew the time had come to let him go.

The New York Giants paid $72,500 for the “Second Babe Ruth”, then turned around and used him as a starting pitcher. Bentley was the first to admit he was more useful as an everyday bat, but John McGraw was convinced his left arm was the key to the pennant. Indeed Bentley went 29-13  as the Giants went to the World Series in ‘23 and ‘24. The high point of his big league career was his epic Game 7 battle with Walter Johnson in the 1924 Series. After 12 innings tied at 3-3, Bentley lost the game and Series on a misplayed grounder to the third baseman.

Unfortunately, within two years age caught up with “The Second Babe Ruth” and he retired to a life of a “gentleman farmer” on his family’s Maryland farm.