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TINKER TO EVERS TO CHANCE 100 YEARS AGO

Poetry in Motion

Double-play artistry was the reason for the rhyme that made trio famous

September 16, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if they had pitched or played in the outfield?

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

What if their team, the Chicago Cubs, had traded one of them away?

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

What if, heaven forbid, they had been born Gottfried or Williamson or Deponty?

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

Any small glitch in the celestial apparatus could have mucked it all up. But the planets were aligned, the fates in order, and a century later we remember these three men as a double-play combination for the ages.

Tinker to Evers to Chance.

It is doubtful that shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance played spectacularly enough over the course of their careers to occupy such a place in baseball lore. Though they helped the Cubs to the World Series four times in the early 1900s, they never led the league in double plays or showed much power at the plate. Only Chance came close to hitting .300 lifetime.

What made them renowned was the fateful juxtaposition, the words that skip slickly off the tongue in columnist Franklin P. Adams' 1910 poem, "Baseball's Sad Lexicon."

These are the saddest of possible words:

"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Trio of bear cubs and fleeter than birds,

Tinker and Evers and Chance.

Thoughtlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double--

Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble:

"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

The poem, almost as familiar as "Casey at the Bat," set them on hallowed ground.

"Let's just say Mr. Adams had a lot to do with where they are," said Ed Hartig, a historian of the Cubs and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. "If you go back and look at the numbers, you'll see."

The trio's debut in print was 100 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1902, when the Chicago Tribune recorded their first double play in the box score for a game against Cincinnati.

Chance was a veteran on the team, a strapping man known as "Husk." Tinker had recently arrived along with Evers, a skinny kid called "the Crab" because of the way he scrambled for grounders.

They were joined by third baseman Harry Steinfeldt, talented but doomed to be a trivia answer--Who completed the storied infield?--if only because of his discordant last name.

For a decade they played on the best teams in Cub history, forming a solid defense behind pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, joined at the hip by that peculiar collaboration known as the double play.

Funny thing is, they got along horribly.

Chance was a tough guy who, legend has it, brawled with heavyweight boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in a Broadway cafe. As a player-manager, he rode teammates mercilessly. Tinker and Evers were smaller but no less feisty.

"Every time something went wrong on the field, we would be at each other and there would be a fight in the clubhouse after the game," Evers told Sport magazine in an article published in 1949. "[Tinker] would rush at me and get me by the throat and I'd punch him in the belly and try to cut him with my spikes."

Even Steinfeldt got into the act, going after Tinker with a pair of trainer's shears in the clubhouse. By 1908, Tinker and Evers had stopped talking to each other.

"But on the field, they always knew where the other guy would be," Hartig said. "That's what made them good."

And if their statistics were less than dazzling, they had a knack for coming up big against their rivals, the New York Giants.

Late in the 1908 season, the Giants led in the standings and appeared to have won a crucial game against the Cubs with a single to center field in the bottom of the ninth. Amid the celebration, fans charging onto the field, Evers screamed for his outfielder to throw him the ball.

According to one version of the story, Joe McGinnity of the Giants got hold of the ball and tossed it into the bleachers. Evers came up with a ball from somewhere else and stepped on second base, arguing that a Giant baserunner, Fred Merkle, had failed to touch the bag. He had tried a similar protest, with no success, two weeks earlier against Pittsburgh.

"Evers actually used to sleep with the rule book under his pillow," Hartig said. "He knew it cover to cover."

This time the protest worked. The umpire called Merkle out and the game was declared a 1-1 tie.

By season's end, the Cubs caught their rivals and won a one-game playoff, thanks in large part to Tinker's triple.

Thus the poem's reference to the Giants and "pricking our gonfalon bubble." Adams, also known as "F.P.A.", used the word gonfalon, meaning flag or banner, to signify the pennant.

Many assumed the writer, who worked for several New York papers and was a panelist on the radio show "Information Please," was sympathizing with his favorite team. In fact, he was a native Chicagoan.

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