Memories & Dreams: Plaque Check/Joe Tinker

By Marty Appel

“These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance’ – Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance’”

You didn’t have to follow baseball to know this poem. Franklin P. Adams published it in 1910 in the New York Evening Mail, and even though it was about the Chicago Cubs infield, it quickly took its place with Casey at the Bat, with Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and with “Hit ‘em where they ain’t” as part of the pop culture that seemed to draw everyone to baseball.

This being an infielder kind of year in Cooperstown (with the inductions of Ron Santo and Barry Larkin), it’s a good time to remember the first guy in the poem – Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker, who from 1902-1912 was a key figure in what was considered the best infield in the league. That’s why they got a poem written about them!

The Cubs won four pennants and two world championships with Tinker at short, Johnny Evers at second and Frank Chance at first, and the three of them went into the Hall of Fame together in 1946.

They were “linked” in the minds of baseball fans largely on the strength of the poem, called “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”, which was about double plays that broke the rallys of opposing teams.

While the legend grew from the poem, in reality research has shown that the most double plays the trio ever turned in one season was 58, and not all were started by Tinker. But like all good legends, it’s more about the impact on the public than the daily box score.

Tinker started his professional career as a 19-year old in 1900 and was in the Majors two years later, a regular at 21. His speed and his sure hands were the first things scouts noticed, and while he never hit much (.262 lifetime with 31 homers), he showed how slick infield play and a good head for the game could give one a long career in the big leagues.

In Joe’s fifth season the Cubs won the National League pennant, followed by World Championships in 1907 and 1908, the year of the “Merkle Boner” which gave the Cubs a second chance at the pennant. In the replay of the game, Tinker’s double to center off Christy Mathewson proved to be the pennant-winner, (although the moment was overshadowed by Chance getting assaulted by a crazed fan and suffering a broken neck cartilage.)

There was a backstage story to the Tinker-Evers-Chance infield, and that was that Tinkers and Evers didn’t speak to each other, except no doubt, for the occasional “I got it!” on popups. Some said it had to do with Evers taking a cab to a game and leaving his teammates behind in a hotel lobby, but was that worth a 33-year feud? Well, as many can attest, there is usually more to the story that we’ll never know. Suffice it to say, they worked professionally side-by-side on the infield and didn’t reconcile until they shared a radio booth at the 1938 World Series, in which the Cubs played the Yankees.

Tinker was traded to the Reds in 1913 where he was player/manager, and then repeated the duel function with the short-lived Federal League team in Chicago, before returning to the Cubs in 1916 for one last go-around. He retired to Orlando, Florida where Tinker Field, long time spring training site of the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins, bore his name.

Joe died in Orlando in 1948, the last of the threesome to pass away. The poem lives on.