A Flash from Baseball’s Past: Bob Bescher

NEW YORK, June 17, 1914. The seventh-inning drone of the Polo Grounds’ crowd roiled into a buzz as the leadoff man strode to the plate. Bob Bescher dug in to face the fireballing George McQuillan with a battle plan no different than his first two at bats. In fact, Bescher attacked every pitcher with the same plan, played every inning using an identical blueprint. It would be decades before a phrase would be coined that adequately described the way “The Speeder” played ball, although on this day McQuillan probably muttered a few choice descriptions of his own.

Let me explain. Bob Bescher didn’t just play ball. Not exactly. He disrupted. He wreaked havoc. Bob Bescher “pushed the envelope.” Hard.

McQuillan leaned in for the sign, but what he was really looking for was an answer to Bescher. He hadn’t had it in the first, when Bescher had legged his way into a double, stolen third and scored. He hadn’t had it in the sixth when Bescher had coaxed a walk and scored only a few batters later. The game was still close. He just had to be careful to keep “The Speeder” in the dugout and off the bases.

But he was too careful, walking Bescher for the second time. Bescher took a long lead and studied McQuillan as he came set. Moments later he stole second, advancing to third when catcher Gibson’s throw went awry. One batter later, Bescher timed McQuillan’s motion and broke for home. The pitch was only slightly outside, but it made no difference. “The Speeder” slid across the plate in a cloud of dust, stealing home before Gibson could lunge back to make the tag. Essentially, he had just stolen the game.

There is great irony in the fact that the memory of Bob Bescher has been more or less stolen away from baseball’s collective consciousness-because Bob stole things. Bases. Games. Hearts. He was an exciting and popular player whose star burned bright if briefly during the second half of the dead ball era. His achievements and his name are mostly forgotten…and that’s too bad. Because Bob Bescher was one player you and I would have gladly paid to see.

He was a big man in a small ball era, a 6’1″, 210 lb. blur of flesh and bone and grit and guile. Playing with mostly uninspiring Reds teams from 1908-1913, the switch-hitting outfielder managed to become the premier base stealer in the National League, leading the league for four consecutive years, from 1909-1912. In 1911, he set the NL single-season stolen base mark with 81, a record that would stand for over 50 years (Maury Wills broke it in 1962.). A century later, Bescher still holds the Reds single-season stolen base mark (81), despite the best efforts of Reds’ speedsters such as Joe Morgan, Dave Collins, Eric Davis and Deion Sanders. Ty Cobb, Bescher’s American League rival, was one of the few considered his equal on the bases during this period.

But while Cobb, at 6’1″, 175 lbs., looked the speedster (think Curtis Granderson minus 10 pounds), Bescher did not. In fact, his long stride and upright sprinter’s technique made his speed appear deceiving. His size (think Chase Utley plus 20 pounds) made him an intimidating figure bearing down on an infielder awaiting the throw. But unlike Cobb, the “London Flash” didn’t “slide high,” using his spikes as a weapon. Instead, Bescher judged the location of the catcher’s delivery by the reaction of the infielder and then employed his well-honed hook slide, fading towards the outfield if the throw appeared low, toward the infield if the throw looked high.

Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander called Bescher a “base-running marvel” who studied pitchers and took leads twice those of most everyone in the league. F.C. Lane, the editor of Baseball Magazine, crowned him the “King of Base Stealers.” In 1911, when Bescher set the NL record with 81, he just may have been. MLB statistics of the era included “stolen base” but not “caught stealing” data. Peter King, then a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, scoured the game accounts of the 1911 Reds and not only discovered a stolen base not credited to Bob (raising his total to 81), but uncovered an even more startling fact.

Bescher had been gunned down only three times in eighty-four stolen base attempts! (96.4% success rate) Let’s put that into some historical perspective. When Wills broke Bescher’s NL record in 1962, he stole 104 bases, getting caught 13 times (88.9%). When Lou Brock broke Wills’ ML record in 1974, he grabbed 118 while getting nabbed 33 times (78.1%). Finally, when Rickey Henderson set the current ML mark with 130 in 1982, he was caught 42 times (75.6%). By any measure, Bescher’s 1911 season has to stand as one of the most dominant base stealing displays in Major League history.

In an era when runs were hard to come by, Bescher manufactured them with his speed, daring the other team to stop him. In one 1911 contest against the Phillies, with two out in the ninth, “The Speeder” stole second and third on consecutive pitches, scoring when the catcher’s relay to third was off the mark. In another, Bescher not only stole home early in the contest, he later scored from first on a sacrifice bunt! Second baseman Otto Knabe had covered first on the sacrifice, and in the process of handling a low throw, momentarily lost track of Bescher. Bob kept running, scoring an improbable run by beating Knabe’s throw to the plate.

But there were times Bescher did not run. An early season meeting against the Cards in 1911 had to be called at 1-1 in the tenth because of darkness. The game had been a heated contest, with tempers flaring and coarse language flying. Cards catcher and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Bresnahan was one of the worst offenders that afternoon, working his “well-developed word machine” overtime. As he passed Bescher on his way off the field, Bresnahan let a few more words slip out of his mouth. Bescher replaced those words with his fist, starting a short but violent scrap that only ended when teammates pulled the two men apart. Bresnahan received the worst of the exchange, needing a well-publicized trip to the dentist.

When the Reds later played the Cards in St. Louis, Cardinal management feared for Bescher’s safety, supplying 100 policemen to provide security from potentially angry fans. Cincinnati Enquirer sportswriter Jack Ryder was unconcerned about Bescher. “So long as they don’t come after him five or six at a time, he is perfectly able to take care of himself.” Ryder’s statement was mostly bluster, but it was probably true.

In 1914, Giants ownership traded for Bescher, believing they had procured the last piece to their pennant puzzle. They hadn’t bothered to confer with manager John McGraw before they made the trade, however, severely angering McGraw. Bescher had a solid year with the Giants, but a stormy one with McGraw. By 1915, “The Speeder” played in St. Louis.

But miles of base paths and the rigors of “pushing the envelope” were beginning to take their toll on Bob’s greatest asset, his speed. He was no longer the player he had once been, his numbers declining each of his three years with the Redbirds. When Bescher signed to play with the Indians in 1918, it was merely wishful thinking.

Bob played and coached in the minors until the mid-twenties, then returned to his hometown of London, Ohio. There, the man who had seen a decade of Major League cities lived with his mom. Though he remained unmarried, he never lacked attractive female companionship. He worked as an oil inspector, and socialized at the Eagles Club. He made hunting trips to Canada. Life was good.

It ended one brisk November evening in 1942. Bescher and his companion Delphine Morcher were killed when a passenger train collided with their vehicle at a crossing two miles west of London, Ohio. Ironically, the train had done what a decade of Major League catchers had rarely managed. “The Speeder” had been caught for the last time.

References

Baseball Biography Project, “Bob Bescher,” by Peter Constantelos

Baseball Magazine, Jan. 1915 “A Few Facts About my Life” by Honus Wagner

Baseball Magazine, Sept. 1914, “Max Carey, the Minister-Ball-Player”

The Cincinnati Enquirer, 1911

The Independent, St. Petersburg, FL, 1927

The Madison Press, London, OH, 1942

The New York Giants, by Frank Graham and Ray Robinson, 2002

The New York Times, 1914

Stolen: A History of Base Stealing, by Russell Roberts, 1999

Susie Taylor-London, OH resident. 18 yrs. old in 1942.