The 1940 Detroit Tigers were heartbreakers. That club was beloved in Michigan, but when the Cincinnati Reds defeated them in a tense Game Seven of the World Series in October, it was a crushing blow.
An unfortunate play, often misunderstood, led to Tigers’ shortstop Dick Bartell being labeled a goat of that series. But, the man they called “Rowdy Richard” was far more than one play in Game Seven.
Bartell was one of the most-hated players in the National League
Back in the days when each league had only eight teams and there were two in Boston, two in St. Louis, two in Chicago, and three in New York, fans became very familiar with the players around the league. Teams played each other 22 times. In that era of familiarity, the intense and competitive Dick Bartell grew to be hated in several cities. The two places he was most reviled were Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh
First, let’s address Pittsburgh, a franchise that went from success to misery rather quickly in the early 1930s thanks to the demise of the Dreyfuss family. The Pirates had been a formidable team in the National League since the early days of the agreement between the two rival leagues in 1903. They won pennants in 1901, 1902 and in 1903, then again in 1909 behind their superstar Honus Wagner, who like team owner Barney Dreyfuss, was a German. The Bucs won pennants again in 1925 and 1927 when they fielded one of the most exciting offensive teams of that era. But as Dreyfuss grew long in the mustache, he started to slip, and controversy hounded the team. Managers fought with players, and teammates fought with teammates.
It was in this atmosphere that young Bartell signed with the Pirates after distinguishing himself on the ballfields of his native southern California.
Bartell was high-strung, the sort of guy who needed to be wound very tight in order to do his best on the field. He rubbed veterans on the team the wrong way and bristled as management reigned him in. Dreyfuss had an office at Forbes Field that looked down on the field, and he had this habit of sending an errand boy down to the diamond to retrieve one of his players with a note. “See the boss” would be written on the note, and when the player stood on the carpet, still sweating in his wool uniform, Dreyfuss would berate them about some lapse in judgment in the previous day’s game. That sort of negativity wore on the players, and Bartell couldn’t wait to get out from under the thumb of the aging boss.
At the winter meetings in 1930, Dreyfuss traded his disgruntled shortstop to the Phillies, which was like being sent to Siberia after getting frostbite. It was the first of four times that Bartell was traded at the winter meetings.
In those days when a ballplayer had troubles with the front office, the newspapers always sided with the owners. As a result, Bartell was booed the rest of his career in Pittsburgh. He played another 13 years in the National League, so that was a lot of raspberries.
Booed in Flatbush
Bartell earned his villainous reputation at Ebbets Field through his play on the diamond. Whether he was in a Pittsburgh uniform, or wearing the wools of the Phillies, or later as a member of the Cubs and the Giants, Dick Bartell was a favorite target of insults in Flatbush.
One year, Bartell spiked Tony Cuccinello, the popular Dodgers second baseman. Another time he ran over third baseman Joe Stripp, setting off a brouhaha that saw the fans hurl bottles and fruit onto the field. He spiked Joe Judge at first base, and Judge later claimed it was intentional. That resulted in Bartell fighting Brooklyn second sacker Lonny Frey in the middle of the diamond at Ebbets Field one afternoon. Over the years, Brooklyn pitchers plunked Bartell with pitches 19 times, the most of any team by far. Once, a Brooklyn hurler tried to hit Bartell with four consecutive pitches, but he missed each time as Dick spun his way out of harm.
Bartell had a long-running feud with Billy Jurges of the Cubs, who had a similar no-nonsense disposition. The two traded punches a few times, then at the 1938 winter meetings the Giants traded Bartell to the Cubs for Jurges. Bartell returned to the Giants in the 1940s following his stint with Detroit, and he was still booed in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh.
Bartell to the Tigers, 1940 Pennant
After the 1939 season, Bartell was sent packing again as the Cubs traded him to the Tigers in a one-for-one swap of veteran shortstops. The Cubs got Billy Rogell, a 35-year old rah-rah guy who had manned the position for a decade in Detroit but was starting to show signs of age.
Bartell was 32 years old and with his third team in three years. The Tigers inserted him in the leadoff spot in front of their big guns: Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Rudy York.
Detroit won the pennant in 1940, even though Bartell had a bad season. In the Fall Classic, Bobo Newsom pitched his heart out, following the sudden death of his father before Game Five.
The deciding contest of the 1940 Fall Classic was a tight affair at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Newsom was facing Paul Derringer, the speedball specialist. The Tigers led 1-0 in the seventh when Cincinnati’s leadoff batter, Frank McCormick, hit a double. The next batter, Jimmy Ripple, slashed a ball down the left field line that Bruce Campbell nearly caught, but instead the ball caromed off the wall and landed at his feet. The quick rebound helped Campbell get the ball back into Bartell, the relay man. McCormick, a slow runner, was barely around third base when Bartell received the ball. “I was yelling ‘Home! Home! Home!” second baseman Gehringer said, “but [Dick] never threw. To this day I don’t know why.”
Cincinnati won the game 2-1, and Bartell’s failed relay throw was the story of the series. His “freeze” at short was famous, until six years later when Johnny Pesky made a similar gaffe for the Red Sox in the 1946 Fall Classic. The Bartell play disappeared in the fog machine of baseball history, but it haunted Bartell and many fans in Detroit.
In his autobiography, Rowdy Richard, Bartell explained that he had assumed McCormick had scored easily on the play. But the Reds baserunner had paused, unsure of the Tigers left fielder would make the catch.
Bartell had seven hits, including two doubles, in the 1940 Series, so he wasn’t exactly a bum. But his misplay, following a poor season (Dick batted .233 and made 34 errors), sapped any confidence Detroit manager Del Baker had in him.
“I have worried about shortstop more than anything else,” Baker said early in 1941. Only a few weeks into the season, Detroit released the 33-year old Bartell. The team simply didn’t trust him.
Jettisoned from Detroit, Bartell signed with the Giants, returning to the National League, the scene of his best achievements. He drank from the fountain of youth, and in 1941, Bartell hit .303 in 104 games for New York. His days as a shortstop were over, however. The Giants moved Rowdy Richard to third. He played out his career as a role player, retiring in 1948.
While his hesitation in Game Seven of the 1940 World Series stained Bartell’s brief tenure in the Motor City, his career was noteworthy. In 2,016 games he had 2,165 hits, 442 doubles, batted .284, and played on three pennant-winners. He died in 1995, age 87. He was one of the last men alive who had played against Babe Ruth.