What’s worse than a good ballplayer being forgotten with the passage of time? Being a good ballplayer who is remembered in Detroit by the handful who remember at all – for only one play that cost the Tigers a World Series title.
That’s the unfortunate legacy of a shortstop known to his teammates as “Rowdy.”
It’s probably fair to say that few Tiger fans are still around today who can tell you much about Dick Bartell, who played one full season in the Old English D. But that season was a memorable one, as the Tigers battled for a pennant.
Before coming to Detroit, Bartell was a scrappy shortstop who spent 13 seasons in the National League with the Pirates, Phillies, Giants, and Cubs. For that era, Bartell was the prototypical shortstop – 5 feet, 9 inches tall, 155 pounds with skinny legs and a modest frame. He didn’t scare anyone with the bat, but he could hit – topping the .300 mark six times and earning two All-Star Game selections. But mostly, Bartell was a leader in the clubhouse and on the field.
Baseball ran through Bartell’s veins. Bartell was the consummate thinking man’s athlete in the middle of the diamond and he seemed to always be in the middle of things, even if they weren’t pleasant. His best seasons came with New York, where he helped the G-Men reach the world Series in 1936 and 1937, and where he cemented his reputation as one of the toughest players in the league.
“Belligerent Bartell is probably the most hated Giant in the National League,” wrote Stanley Frank of the New York Post, “Boys don’t like his flip tongue, his overweening arrogance, or the manner in which he throws his spikes into people’s faces while sliding into bases or charging across second on double plays…”
But Bartell’s aggressive style of play and gravely attitude (which helped earn him the nickname Rowdy Richard) were appreciated by members of his own team, which is one of the reasons he was coveted by many clubs. After a down year with the Cubs in 1939, the Tigers acquired him in a one-for-one trade, sending Billy Rogell to the Windy City. A shortstop, Rogell was three years older than Bartell and coming off a miserable season, so the trade made sense for Detroit.
Playing alongside Charlie Gehringer who manned second base, Bartell infused the Tigers with some much needed pep. The best players on the team at that time (Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Rudy York) were not natural leaders in the rah-rah sort of sense. Manager Del Baker welcomed Bartell’s fiery personality. In a spring training game, after Bartell got into a shouting match with member sof the New York Yankees, Baker admitted, “I like that Dick doesn’t back down – from anyone, anywhere.”
Late in August, the Tigers found themselves looking up at the Cleveland Indians, but Detroit won 18 of 23 in September to pass the Tribe and win their first pennant since ’35. With a team of veterans, Del Baker’s crew were favored to win the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. But fate would intervene and Bartell would be tagged with the scapegoat label in the Fall Classic.
The Tigers won the opener of the Series, but then the two teams proceeded to trade wins until a Game Seven was necessary. The climactic contest would be played at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Bobo Newsom, whose father had died during the Series, took the mound for the Tigs, having already beaten the Reds twice. Once again, Newsom twirled a gem, and entering the bottom of the 7th inning, he protected a 1-0 Detroit lead.
Gehringer recalls what happened next:
“We were leading 1-0 late in the game when [Cincinnati first baseman] Frank McCormick led off with a double. The next guy up [Jimmy Ripple] hit a ball over Bruce Campbell’s head in right field. Campbell picked it up right away and threw it in to Bartell. Bartell thought, ‘Gee, with that double McCormick must’ve scored,’ but McCormick had waited to see whether it was going to be caught. So, McCormick – who was no speed demon – was just rounding third when Bartell got the ball. I kept yelling, ‘Home, home, home!’ Gee whiz, with Bartell’s arm, he’s a dead pigeon. But he never did throw the ball. Even after he looked and still had a chance, he didn’t throw. And to this day, I don’t know why.”
No one knew why Bartell had held the ball. As Gehringer noted, the weirdest part of the play was that the Tiger shortstop saw the runner at third and still held the ball and watched McCormick scamper home with the tying run.
Sadly, the two doubles to lead off that 7th frame were the only balls hit hard off Newsom all day. The Reds manufactured a run, however, when they bunted Ripple to third and got a sacrifice fly to take the lead, 2-1. The Tigers never threatened in the 8th and 9th innings and lost a heartbreaking Game Seven. After being so close to winning the title, the Tigers were forced to watch another team celebrate. It was a sickening sight.
“[We] felt we should have been World Series champions,” Greenberg wrote years later, “but for one fluke inning, we would have been.”
After the game, Bartell was surrounded by reporters who all wanted to know one thing: “What happened?”
To his credit, Bartell fielded every query. He explained that when he saw the ball hit over Campbell’s head in right and go to the wall, he assumed McCormick had cruised home. When he finally got the ball, he could not hear Gehringer’s screams over the cheering crowd, and he froze when he turned toward home plate.
Would McCormick had been out at home if Bartell had tossed the ball to catcher Billy Sullivan? No video exists of the play, and few witnesses are still alive to talk about it, but based on the comments from Gehringer and Greenberg (who had bird’s eye views from their vantage points on the diamond), it’s safe to say that yes, Bartell could have throw out the runner at home. Had he done so, there would have been one out and a man on second. Who knows what would have happened after that, but the way Newsom was pitching (he allowed just 18 hits and four earned runs in three complete games that series), Detroit’s chances were good.
Bartell came back with the Tigers in 1941, but after a mediocre spring and five games in the regular season, the 33-year old was released. He played three more seasons with the Giants, was drafted into the Army during World War II and missed two seasons, then returned and played five games with the Giants at the age of 38 in 1946 before retiring. A fine player, Bartell had amassed more than 2,100 hits, 440 doubles, and a .284 batting average.
But despite his solid 18-year career, in Detroit, Bartell will remain the biggest goat in franchise history for his “freeze” that cost the Tigers a good chance at winning Game Seven of the ’40 World Series.