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Two-way players: Jack Bentley

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Early 20th century minor league superstar Jack Bentley was a success as both a hitter and pitcher

With the Los Angeles Angels signing Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani, the baseball world has two-way players on the mind, yet the idea of the two-way player is far from a new one. Decades ago, it was not uncommon to find many a pitcher who handled the bat nearly as well as they performed on the mound. Few, however, truly excelled at both at the same time. One example from early in the 20th century was Jack Bentley.

John Needles Bentley was born on March 8th, 1885, in a Quaker farming community in Sandy Spring, Maryland, to an affluent family. His father, John, was president of a local bank, while his mother, Cornelia (nee Hallowell) came from an influential family, in her own right. “Jack”, as he was called, was the only son among six children. He learned the game at a very early age, progressing to the point that he was playing among adult teams by the age of ten, when he wasn't working the family farm. Interestingly enough, Bentley played every position at the time except for pitcher.

Living so close to the Washington Senators, Bentley was an ardent fan of the team. Indeed, the Senators would play an important role in his development as a professional. Soon after departing home for the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a Quaker day school, Bentley became an accomplished pitcher. He would leave the George School at age eighteen, already a major-league prospect. It is reported that Bentley threw “several” no-hitters while in high school.

Less than a year after becoming a student at the day school, Bentley was approached by Bert Conn, then manager of the Johnstown Johnnies in the Class B Tri-State League, a league which included teams in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Conn offered him a contract to play the outfield at $75 a month, equivalent to slightly less than $1900 in current value, but the teenager turned him down.

It was a pivotal time for Bentley. His father was enduring health problems that would eventually overcome him, and the farm had to be tended as well. This is where Julian Gartrell entered the picture.

Gartrell, a doctor in the DC area, took notice of Bentley and mentioned him to his friend, Senators manager Clark Griffith. Bentley was playing for a county team by the time Dr. Gartrell found him, and after a particularly well-pitched game, the doctor suggested to Bentley that he go to Griffith Stadium to try out for the Senators. Bentley took that chance, and Griffith liked what he saw, though Bentley had no expectation that anything good would come of the tryout.

Bentley was put on the mound by Griffith to pitch batting practice. Senators catcher John Henry, at the time, expected little to come of the eighteen year-old's performance. And yet, batter after batter looked baffled against the young lefty.

After twenty minutes or so, Griffith had seen enough. He would offer Bentley a season-long contract for $600 ($100 per month). Bentley wouldn't accept it without first discussing it with his parents, who felt baseball wasn't a worthwhile vocation. The general atmosphere among professional ballplayers, where drinking, gambling, philandering, and generalized chicanery were commonplace, caused further hesitation in the minds of the Quaker family. After he gave his word that he would abstain from such activities, his parents gave their blessing.

Bentley, amazingly, went straight to the majors, making his MLB debut on September 6th, 1913, against the New York Yankees. He entered the game in the ninth in relief of Joe Engel, with the score 9-1, Senators. He retired right fielder Frank Gilhooley on a fly ball to center fielder Clyde Milan, shortstop Rollie Zeider lined out to center as well, and catcher Ed Sweeney grounded out to second baseman Frank LaPorte. It was a low-pressure appearance for Bentley, but Griffith wanted to see what he could do without throwing him to the wolves just yet.

Clark Griffith, 1918

Griffith had at least a general idea as to the sort of pitcher he was signing; on August 6th, Bentley pitched for a local team in nearby Shenandoah, VA, easily defeating a team from Woodstock, 4-1. He allowed four hits while striking out thirteen. After signing with the Senators, Bentley would then face a team from Rockville, MD, while taking the mound for Brookeville, allowing only one hit and shutting Rockville over the six-inning exhibition. He struck out ten in this game, as well as going 3-5 at the plate with two singles and a double. He would appear again ten days later, again for Brookeville, this time allowing two hits and striking out an astounding seventeen Rockville batters in the 10-3 win.

With these tune-up games under his belt, as well as the lone relief appearance vs the Yankees, Bentley made his first MLB start on October 1st against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Again, he pitched brilliantly, allowing four hits in eight innings to get the shutout and his first win in the majors. Appearing in relief three days later vs. the Red Sox, Bentley tossed two shutout innings while allowing only one hit.

By the time that Spring 1914 rolled around, Senators veteran Nick Altrock had taken a personal interest in Bentley's future. Bentley would spend the first two months with the big-league club, but despite posting a 5-7 record with a 2.37 ERA over 125 1/3 innings, Griffith still felt Bentley needed to spend a bit of time in the minors, sending him to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association on June 12th. This was after he was given a new, $1800 contract for the 1915 season.

Much of Bentley's newly-developed difficulty on the mound had to do with the Senators attempting to change his delivery, making him pitch from the stretch exclusively. This caused him an unspecified arm injury, for which he sought treatment after his demotion to Minneapolis. Unfortunately, the man he saw to treat his arm was none other than “Bonesetter” Reese, who had gained a sort of notoriety for his (ahem) nuanced approach to the various ailments of the baseball player.

It was, perhaps, this series of events, as much as anything else, that set him on the path on which he found himself for much of the next four years. While Bentley would continue on the mound for Minneapolis in 1916, Baltimore Orioles owner Jack Dunn would acquire his services a little more than halfway into the season as part of a rebuilt roster that would become the best Orioles team since the 19th century.

Dunn was aware of the sort of offense that Bentley could provide; in 1915 with the Millers, Bentley was primarily a pitcher and still struggling with the aforementioned shoulder injury (7-4, 3.18), though he was a key member of the pitching staff. In 1916, Bentley's numbers on the mound were less than stellar (8-6, 4.15), but in 78 at-bats he batted .308 with six doubles and two triples.

Dunn acquired Bentley specifically for his bat, as his rotation was already set.

As 1917 began, the Orioles got off to a hot start in the International League, with Bentley splitting time between the outfield and first base, batting .343 over 93 games. He added 17 doubles, 11 triples and five homers, but this would be far from his best season. He would take a hiatus in 1918 to join the war effort in Europe, being assigned to Camp Meade and making sergeant seemingly overnight. Initially, Bentley was expected to remain at Camp Meade, where he would be a drill sergeant, but fate would have other plans.

By June in that same year, Bentley had earned his commission. Now a second lieutenant, he would be deployed with the 313th Infantry, eventually commanding Company L, and would see action in the Argonne. He would be transferred to the 125th on Armistice Day. It was an experience that would remain with him for the rest of his life. Bentley would be cited twice for bravery during his time in the European Theatre, earning the Distinguished Service Medal. By the time his tour was ending, he was being considered for a promotion to captain.

Bentley would say that after he returned from the battlefield, he no longer held such fascination for opposing players as he did before. He had talked about how it sometimes filled him with awe that he was playing with and against the very same players he used to idolize. Now, they all just seemed like Regular Joes, to him. After the experience of seeing hundreds of men in life-or-death situations, his perspective changed dramatically.

Whether or not that played a role in his transformation from successful pitcher to top-tier hitter is debatable. The numbers speak for themselves: in 1919, Bentley would bat .324 with 24 doubles, 10 triples and 11 homers in only 92 games. The following season was even better, as he would bat .371 with 39 doubles, 12 triples and 20 homers. Bentley posted 231 hits in 145 games, that year.

But as good as he was then, the next season was nearly legendary. Leading the International League with an astounding .412 average, he also led in homers, hits and doubles, as well as slugging percentage (.665) and total bases (397). What made these numbers all the more impressive was the face that he also made 18 appearances on the mound, going 12-1 with a 2.34 ERA.

After the 1922 season, when Bentley batted .351 in 153 games and dropped his ERA to 1.73 while going 13-2 in 16 appearances on the mound, Dunn decided to strike when the iron was red-hot.

By that time, Bentley was ready to retire if he couldn't get back to the majors; the International League could keep players virtually as long as they wished, as they were not part of organized farm systems at that time. New York Giants manager John McGraw was desperate for left-handed pitching at the time, and even though a 22-year-old Lefty Grove was a teammate of Bentley's, the $100,000 price tag for Grove was just a bit too steep for the Giants.

John McGraw, 1925

Dunn would sell Bentley's contract to the Giants for $72,500.

Had the Giants kept Bentley either in the outfield or at first base, it's possible that he could have been far more useful to the team. However, George Kelly had him blocked at first, and the corner outfield spots belonged to Ross Youngs and Irish Meusel, with Casey Stengel as the primary 4th outfielder, Bentley was signed specifically to pitch full-time.

By this point, he had missed a great deal of developmental time on the hill switching from pitcher to outfield/first base, as well as time lost to the war, and he had never played a full season in the majors in any capacity. Going 13-8 with a 4.48 ERA in 31 appearances, at least his bat carried over to the big leagues with him, as he batted .427 in 94 plate appearances with nine extra-base hits.

His pitching stats improved in 1924 as he finished 16-5 with a 3.78 ERA in 28 appearances. His hitting tailed off (.265, six XBH, six RBI in 102 PA), but it would pick back up in 1925 (.303, 10 XBH in 109 PA) as his pitching totals spiraled downward (11-9, 5.04 ERA). Aside from modest totals in 1926 (.258, 27 RBI, 17 XBH in 256 PA, all but four with the Phillies), Bentley would spend the remainder of his pro career with various minor-league teams, where he would alternate between the field and the mound, still batting very well. However, his time on the mound was a poor contribution by comparison.

For his career, all levels and leagues totaled, Jack Bentley recorded a 126-63 record on the mound, with a 3.74 ERA. He also tallied 1,721 hits with 314 doubles, 84 triples, 121 homers and a .346 batting average. His was not a common sort of career, but it was certainly not the only one in which a professional player found success on the mound and at the plate.