Baseball Books Reviewed: Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life

Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life by Dennis Snelling. (McFarland, 236 pg., $29.95). PB, 2014.

The typical contemporary baseball fan looks at Johnny Evers’ lifetime batting average of .270 and concludes that Evers’ Hall of Fame credentials are fraudulent, that he rode into Cooperstown on the coat tails of some catchy baseball verse by Franklin P. Adams with the refrain “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” The poem did achieve a bit of fame and is still anthologized regularly, but Evers was not dependent on it for his own celebrity. Nor was his reputation made by the infamous Merkle incident, although the unorthodox brilliance of the play did boost Evers’ standing in the public eye. No, Johnny Evers in his day was simply considered a great baseball player, the heart and soul of the great Chicago Cubs teams of the period, who was entirely deserving of baseball’s highest accolades. In Dennis Snelling’s new biography of “The Crab,” this basic truth about the career of Johnny Evers comes through plainly and convincingly (even though Snelling doesn’t even bother trying to bolster the case for Evers as a Hall of Famer); and no one who reads Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life (McFarland) will ever hold the subject in low esteem again.

One important thing forgotten by most of Evers’ detractors is that Evers played in the dead ball era when pitching dominated batting. In 1908 when Evers hit .300, that figure was good for fifth best in the National League. By contrast, 2.03 was the highest ERA among the Cubs’ top four pitchers: Three-fingered Brown (29-9), Ed Reulbach (24-7), Jake Pfiester (12-10), and Orval Overall (15-11). Evers never put up any gaudy offensive numbers, but he was a nuisance at the plate; a fact indicated by his also finishing in the Top Five in the league in 1908 in runs, bases on balls, and stolen bases. His highest average came in 1912 when he batted .341, good for fourth in the NL.

As Snelling makes clear, Evers’ bat was the least significant part of his game. In an era when each and every run was scrounged for, defense was far more important than it is today; and Evers was not only the best fielder at his position, but also an innovator. Snelling credits Evers with popularizing sweep tags, catching throws one-handed, making side-armed snap throws, and moving out of the way of sliding runners and claims that these innovations added up to “nothing less than the birth of the modern style of playing second base.” As the narrative wends its way through the seasons of Evers’ career, Snelling also notes numerous instances when Evers saved a game with a fantastic catch or great defensive play.

Most important of all and the key to Evers’ career was his personality, a huge complex entity that dwarfed his small physical stature. Evers was driven to succeed and to win as few major leaguers have ever been, before or since. He was a feisty combative warrior in knickers who battled opponents, umpires, and even teammates, constantly. His desire to win was unquenchable, and he assembled a record of winning that may be unparalleled in baseball history. The Cubs won five pennants (in 1906, 07, 08, 10, and 13) with Evers manning the keystone sack, and the Boston Braves another in 1914. In his 15-year career, from 1903 through 1917, the teams Evers played for never finished worse than third place, a record that even Babe Ruth cannot match (with either the Red Sox or Yankees). Evers had trouble controlling this intensity and his temper, and after a while the book’s numerous accounts of his churlish behavior which often led to ejections and suspensions start to remind the reader of the antics of The Three Stooges, whom Snelling does in fact reference. Snelling never says so directly, but he paints a portrait of Evers as that prototypical player whom you hate when he is on the other team but love when he becomes a teammate. Well, in Evers’ case, his teammates loved him most of the time. The infamous rift between Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker and Evers did exist but has often been exaggerated and, according to Snelling, ended long before the two teammates entered their dotage.

Evers lived for baseball, and his complete devotion to the game took its toll in numerous ways: a failed marriage, bankrupt businesses, and a nervous breakdown. He came back from the nervous breakdown to lead the Braves, along with Rabbit Maranville, to one of the most unlikely pennants and World Series championships in baseball history; a triumph that settled once and for all his claim to greatness among his contemporaries. His knowledge of the game and his leadership were so valued that after he could no longer play his services as a coach, manager, scout, or adviser were always in demand. His election to the Hall of Fame a year before his death in 1947 was in no way controversial but seen as mere justice for a most deserving candidate. Snelling does not include Evers’ statistical record at the end of the book, as is so often the case with modern biographies of baseball players whose careers have ended. He must have felt that the numbers alone do not do his subject justice. He was correct, of course, and in penning this graceful sympathetic life he gives us the full measure of a player whom it is now possible to properly appreciate.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (May 25, 2014)