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Two-way star: the journey of Rube Bressler

As Shohei Ohtani is finding out, being a two-way success is not easy.

Rube Bressler
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Whatever may happen for him in the majors, Shohei Ohtani was a stunningly successful two-way player in Japan. Back in December we looked at the career of Jack Bentley. In another notable example of two-way excellence, there was a young man who made his mark as a pitcher with the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, only to become a potent offensive presence years later in the National League: Rube Bressler.

Raymond Bloom Bressler, nicknamed “Rube” (like his older cousin), was a prominent figure on the mound seemingly from the beginning of his baseball years.

Growing up in Flemington, Pennsylvania, the lefty Bressler pitched as a 12-year-old with a local team called the Flemington Athletics, a team whose name presaged his destination in the major leagues. Attending Central State Normal School (Later called Lock Haven) in 1912, he pitched his way to a four-hit shutout against the Atlantic City Collegians.

Connie Mack’s son, Earle, managed the Collegians, at the time, and Rube was beginning to draw notice from the Macks. While Rube was making a name for himself in his own right, it was his cousin (called “Old Rube” in order to differentiate between the two), who helped Young Rube make his way into professional baseball.

As the 1913 season came around, Rube’s cousin, a local legend, himself, arranged a meeting with his friend George Cockill, who was managing the Class B Harrisburg Senators in the Tri-State League. Cockill came to Harrisburg as player-manager in 1912, guiding a roster from which eight players would eventually advance to play in the majors, and he beat out Saint Paul of the American Association for Bressler’s services. Bressler also wanted to play for a team close to home, which was Williamsport, at the time, and so Harrisburg fit the bill.

Bressler would make his professional debut on April 22nd, in a valiant effort versus Binghamton, pitching eleven innings but losing, 2-1. The teenage neophyte, who “weakened in the ninth and eleventh innings”, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph, otherwise had the home Binghamton bats flailing at air for much of the game. He walked two and struck out six in the losing effort, also going 1-4 at the plate.

Local papers immediately noted the difficulty that opposing batters had with Bressler’s pronounced “crossfire” delivery, in which his lead foot would often land slightly toward first base, while he would almost simultaneously deliver the pitch, closing off his front side quickly.

Bressler would get his second start (and first win as a professional), on May 3rd, beating visiting Allentown, 12-3. Rube gave up only one run on four hits through the first seven innings, four more hits and two runs in the eighth, then slamming the door in the ninth to end it. He struck out six in this effort, and again added a bit of offense to help his own cause, this time smacking a double and scoring a run.

He was just beginning. He went 3-5, scoring two runs and slugging a home run vs. Atlantic City on May 10th, striking out eleven in the 17-2 win. On the 22nd, Bressler would pick up the victory in a 3-2 win at home, once again vs. Atlantic City, and going 3-4 at the plate with two singles and a triple.

By late June, Bressler was batting .471 in 17 games, and it was around this time that he was sent to Philadelphia for tutelage at the side of Eddie Plank. This was part of an arrangement made between Cockill and Mr. Mack, as it was agreed that Bressler’s contract would be bought by the Athletics if he handled Class B competition well.

In his first game back with the Senators on June 26th after having worked with Plank in Philly, Bressler tallied another complete game victory vs. Atlantic City, striking out four and picking up another base hit in the 5-1 victory. On June 30th, Bressler would go eleven innings against Allentown, striking out ten in the process, as well as scoring the winning run on a sacrifice hit. July 8th would see another outstanding performance by the young lefty when Bressler silenced Atlantic City bats in the first game of a double-header, striking out six and winning 2-1.

However, Manager Cockill perhaps overreached when he started Bressler in the second game, as well. Rube would last only 2 1/3 innings before discretion demanded his removal. Bressler would hit another homer in the July 11th match vs. Allentown, striking out six more but tiring in the ninth, giving up three runs before the game ended in a 10-6 Harrisburg win. July 18th came and went with yet another Harrisburg victory, as Bressler sent six down on strikes and added another double and run scored in the 4-1 win over Atlantic City.

He tacked on another win on August 19th against Trenton, striking out eight, scoring a run, and even swiping a base in the 5-2 victory. He and the Senators edged York 2-1 on August 26th in a game that ended on a double steal (third and home) and nearly saw the home plate umpire caught up in an angry mob of fans.

An exhibition against the Reds on the 28th nearly ended in a Harrisburg win when Bressler lost by one run, 5-4. Finally, the Lock Haven Express reported on Bressler’s first appearance on the mound in his hometown, as he utterly dominated his alma mater in exhibition play, striking out thirteen in the 9-0 shutout.

Bressler would finish his first pro season with a 15-13 record and 3.71 ERA, pitching in 36 games (30 starts), but he would also bat .290 over 100 at-bats. His contract would finally be sold to Connie Mack and the Athletics in August for $2,000.

Having proven virtually all he could in the minor leagues, Bressler made his major league debut on April 24th, 1914, vs the New York Yankees in Philadelphia, pitching 6 2/3 while holding the Yanks to one run on two hits, walking two and striking out five for his first win in the big leagues (courtesy of an 11th-inning homer by “Home Run” Baker). He also picked up his first MLB hit, a single.

The Senators knocked him out of the box in the early going on April 29th, however, as he lasted only 2 2/3 innings. He gave up two runs on four hits, walking three, before he got the hook in what became his first loss. The Senators turned a triple play vs. the Athletics in the sixth inning with runners on second and third, killing the best and last chance the A’s had at taking the lead.

He relieved Bob Shawkey on May 19th vs the White Sox, pitching one-hit ball over three innings while striking out three, but doing so on a day when Chicago’s Eddie Cicotte went the distance in a one-hit shutout. It was another relief appearance for Bressler on the 21st, this time against the Tigers and again coming in behind Shawkey, who had relieved a faltering Eddie Plank (1 2/3 IP, 2 R, 4 H, 1 HRA). Bressler went 3 1/3, allowing one run on two hits while walking two and striking out two more.

Rube was finding MLB pitching a bit more difficult; he would go hitless for five games after his debut before going 2-2 with two runs scored at Chicago on June 14th in an 8-3 A’s win. He pitched six innings of shutout relief in this game, allowing only three hits. Indeed, he was now putting up excellent numbers, as a pitcher, but was struggling at the plate.

Bressler made his first MLB start on July 21st against the Cleveland Naps, picking up a complete-game victory despite Philadelphia’s five errors and six total runs allowed by Bressler (only three earned). For his part, he did give up eleven hits, but also struck out eight. He would face off vs. the St. Louis Browns’ Bill James on the 30th in a 4-1 win, picking up another CG win while striking out eight more.

On the 4th of August, Bressler went a strong seven innings in relief of the long-time A’s star, Chief Bender, allowing only one run off four hits in picking up his fifth major-league win.

Perhaps his most notable appearance came in a 2-1 loss to the Senators on August 14th, when Bressler gave up a home run to his opposing number Walter Johnson, who was in the midst of one of his weaker seasons, offensively; Johnson batted only .221, in 1914, but the year prior was a .261 hitter, with five doubles, six triples, two homers and 14 RBI. He struck out only 14 times in 134 at-bats, that year.

The Big Train slugged the solo homer over the right-center field wall in the third inning. It was Johnson’s 20th win of the year, Home Run Baker could not help Young Rube, today.

Bressler would end his first big league season with a .216 BA (11-51), but posted a 10-4 record primarily in relief (29 games, 10 starts, 8 complete games, 15 appearances as closer, 2 saves), with a 1.77 ERA over 147 2/3 innings. His ERA+ was an excellent 148 and he was praised as one of the top rookies in the league.

Sporting Life was calling him “the sure successor of Eddie Plank as the Athletic Club’s star southpaw”. Eddie Collins firmly believed that Bressler would be “as good as Rube Waddell”.

A heady prediction, to be sure, and in some ways Bressler would show flashes of that promise.

But 1915 would be a very different year, in many ways, and would contribute to Bressler’s eventual reemergence as an offensive presence.