21 Gnomic Meditations of Questionable Value on the Life of Johnny Bassler

Johnny Bassler was good at getting on base, but his power was non-existent. (via Library of Congress)

1. Johnny Bassler was a major league catcher who spent the bulk of his career playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1921-1927. Ty Cobb was his teammate and manager. Cobb is well-remembered today, both famous and infamous. Bassler, if he is recalled at all, is most often mentioned as a Pacific Coast League great. Cobb was much louder in accomplishments, speech, and violence. Bassler had a subtler mien.

“Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Snow-Storm,” 1835.

2. Bassler was, however, also a major league great, albeit in an attenuated career. A left-handed singles hitter with great patience, Bassler posted a career .304 average with a remarkable .416 on-base percentage. His OBP remains the second-highest of any modern-era catcher to have at least 2,500 plate appearances, trailing only his contemporary Mickey Cochrane’s .419. Cochrane, of course, did it in over 3,000 more plate appearances.

Bassler was beaned in a PCL game in late September 1916. The Los Angeles Times had a lot of fun with that, claiming, “Because it was cloudy, Bassler was under the impression that he had been struck by lightning. He said that it felt like a bolt out of the blue, or one from the hardware store.” It was roughly four years before Bassler’s former teammate Ray Chapman was killed after being hit in the head, and nearly 21 years before Cochrane’s career was summarily ended when he was skulled by Yankees pitcher Bump Hadley. Today when someone is inappropriately jocular about something tragic, we make a further gag of it by saying, “Too soon.” We will never have a way of looking back at a discussion like this and saying, “Too soon” in recognition of events that had not yet occured, nor will we have the satisfaction of explaining to long-deceased correspondents that their ignorance of future events was no excuse for their failure to anticipate them.

3. Bassler’s ability to reach base didn’t necessarily mean he was an offensive force. He played in a high-scoring era, his natural patience no doubt exaggerated due to spending nearly all of his career batting eighth, in front of the pitcher, and he had almost no power to speak of. In 2,319 big-league at-bats he hit just one home run. In 4,215 PCL at-bats, he hit five. He also didn’t hit very many doubles or triples; his career slugging percentage was .361.

4. Bassler is one of only four players in the modern era to have at least 2,500 plate appearances and hit just one home run. The others were Floyd Baker, Emil Verban, and Duane Kuiper. Bassler was the only member of the group to be an offensive asset.

There are no modern players who strongly resemble Bressler. Baseball-Reference’s similarity score lists Mike Redmond and Mike LaValliere among his comps, but neither is a close relative. The best modern analogue is probably the first-base version of Joe Mauer. On the other hand, Bassler was 5-foot-9 and Mauer is 6-foot-5.

Oh, well; we can postulate that had Mauer been born in Bassler’s day, he would have had a lower-protein diet and grown no larger than the average fire hydrant.

5. That’s not to say Bassler didn’t have his moments swinging the bat. In 1924, he hit .346/.441/.422 with his lone career home run. He qualified for the batting title, finishing fifth overall behind Babe Ruth, who hit .378. He was also second to Ruth in OBP, not that anyone was thinking about that at the time. Bassler’s average is still the 10th-best single-season average by a catcher, exceeded only by a handful of mostly Hall of Fame players like Cochrane and Mike Piazza.

Unlike Piazza, Bassler did not have Ted Williams come to his house and tutor him in hitting when he was 15. First, Bassler’s dad, a streetcar motorman, didn’t have the kind of pull Vince Piazza did. Perhaps more importantly, Ted Williams had not yet been born when Bassler was 15. For Bassler to have had a parallel experience he would have had to be visited by Deacon White, Dan Brouthers, or someone else with a walrus mustache and a severe drinking habit.

As Williams did for Piazza, retired baseball greats should wander about the country certifying future baseball greats. There are a few examples, such as Home Run Baker signing Jimmie Foxx and eventually handing him off to Connie Mack, but there should be more. This would make for a fine TV series in the mold of the old “Fugitive” trope, in which the hero—whether unjustly accused murder Richard Kimble, unjustly accused coward Jason McCord, unjustly accused human blood bank Ben Richards, or unjustly accused monster David Bruce Banner—each week wandered into a new town, solved some problems for a guest star, and then departed.

In this version, an unjustly accused PED user would slink from hamlet to hamlet dispensing batting tips. This would also be a good way of accounting for George Davis’ mysterious lost years between the end of his playing career in 1910 and his death from tertiary syphilis in 1940 (you have to be careful in those hamlets), or Ed Delahanty’s as yet unaccounted-for afterlife. “A restless spirit, he wanders the darkened highways of midnight searching for the unaccountably Liberace-level jewelry array he was sporting when he drunkenly plunged off an open drawbridge.”

6. Bassler’s one major league home run came at Yankee Stadium on July 23, 1924. He hit it off of Sailor Bob Shawkey in the top of the third and it gave the Tigers a short-lived 1-0 lead. His big moment was lost, in part, because of the way the game ended—Babe Ruth slammed a walk-off shot in the bottom of the 11th. “Overtaut [sic] nerves gave way as Ruth circled the bases, and thousands of fans rushed like a flood onto the field,” the New York Times reported. “At third base Babe was so heavily surrounded that [reserve catcher] Fred Hofmann had to help him fight back the crowd.”

On the same day it reported Bassler’s homer and Ruth’s game-winner, the Times gave over its front page to President Calvin Coolidge’s lost cat, “Tige.” “The gray-striped wanderer of the White House has been gone this time more than a month. The President, it is said, is beginning to fear he will never return… Those who have engaged in a long and systematic search for Tige in the last month gave up hope some time ago. Were it not for the President’s fondness for the animal they would not care if he never returned.” There is a strange contradiction here in that the president’s sensitivity was out of character, but the lack of empathy with which it was greeted was not. You reap what you sow.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

That same day, the Tigers’ hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, printed the following baseball thoughts by syndicated South Carolina humorist Robert Quillen: “Rainy weather simply means the fans will get warmed-over peanuts next day.” (True.) “It is easy to pick the poorest hitter. He comes up when there are three on and two down.” (Not literally true, but emotionally true.) Dead since 1948, Quillen is, like Bassler, largely forgotten now. Some of his comments on race and gender are undoubtedly problematic when looked back on, but he had some good lines. “There is some cooperation between wild creatures; the stork and the wolf usually work the same neighborhood.” On different religious sects: “If I must be a slave, I can’t see it makes much difference where the boss lives.”

A good deal of his work, which originated in his small newspaper, the Fountain Inn Tribune, has been lost. In this he is much like Bassler and Ruth—almost all of their work was witnessed by a few people, long gone. Their games were mostly neither filmed nor photographed, often sparsely attended and hazily remembered, and for the most part simply vanished with the sunlight that illuminated them.

Quillen’s best baseball thought wasn’t intended to be one: “You can’t trust spring.” He spent a whole column expanding on that idea, but it wasn’t necessary. We know.

7. Bassler had gone 496 games from the start of his career to his first home run, but that isn’t all that impressive compared to pitcher-outfielder Johnny Cooney (1921-1944). Cooney didn’t become a regular position player in the big leagues until he was 35, but still managed to go 807 games from the start of his career before he hit his first home run. The first came on September 24, 1939; he hit his second the next day, and then never hit another.

Catfish Hunter often explained the vagaries of the game by remarking, “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day.” Fair enough, but how did he explain it shining for two straight days on an ass it had never shone on before and never would again?

8. Observers in 1924 had no way of knowing that Bassler would never hit another home run, but given his history and style of hitting—he would post a career isolated power of .058, in the bottom 40 for the lively-ball era (2,500 PAs and up division)—they must have had a sense of what wasn’t coming. Yet, no particular attention was paid. Another reason Bassler’s home run got lost was he was actually the goat of the game. The Free Press wrote, “Primarily, Johnny Bassler was responsible for the tying run scored by the Yankees in the ninth after two were out… Ruth can thank Johnny Bassler principally for the opportunity he got to break up the game.”

Yankees catcher Wally Schang pulled a ball to deep left field. As Tigers left fielder Heinie Manush fired the ball to the cutoff man, shortstop Topper Rigney, Schang passed third and lit out for home. Rigney’s throw to Bassler was in plenty of time to nail Schang; Bassler held the ball and waited for his opposite number to arrive. There was a collision of the kind now outlawed. Home plate umpire Ducky Holmes called Schang out… Until he spotted the ball rolling away from Bassler’s prone figure. Schang’s run was tallied, the game was tied.

In 1978, Reggie Jackson said that hitting is better than sex. The great many of us who have only done one or the other will have to take his word for that, but let’s stipulate that it’s true. That means that July 23, 1924 was equivalent to the only time in Bassler’s life that he would have really good sex—and the man lived to be 84 years old! If you had a friend, of any gender or sexual preference, who you knew was only going to achieve satisfaction once, wouldn’t you make an occasion of it? Even if not, unless you were of a particularly cruel disposition, you certainly wouldn’t emulate the Free Press and say, “Hey, John, I realize you just made love for the first time, at 29 years old no less, but I have to say, you did it wrong.”

In case you were worried that Bassler was seriously deprived in this way, it’s only an analogy: Bassler was married with four children. This information makes certain inferences possible.

9. As a teenager, Bassler had cups of coffee with the Cleveland Naps (the future “Indians,” alas) in 1913 and 1914. Teammates included the eponymous Nap Lajoie and two players of darker destiny, Chapman and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Bassler had all his fingers, but pictures that include his throwing hand still invoke memories of Miner Brown’s misshapen digits. Catching is a rough business.

According to his son, Bassler made it to the majors as an 18-year-old in part because when a major league team was barnstorming its way through Los Angeles (where his family was living at the time), it ran short of catchers due to injuries. Bassler volunteered that he was a catcher and the manager pressed him into service. You know the ancient baseball bit when a fan makes a good catch in the stands and someone on the field shouts, “Give that kid a contract?” Well, they gave that kid a contract.

10. Failing to stick with the Naps, Bassler went back to the minors and tried to play his way back up. It took six years, in part because service in the First World War intervened. Becoming an aviator, he missed all of 1918 and the early part of the 1919 season. In 1916, the Angels won the PCL pennant under manager Frank Chance. It was rumored that Chance would be going back to the big leagues to manage the Cubs. He intended to take Bassler with him. Alas, Chance never did get a second stint as Cubs skipper. It was perhaps for this reason that when the Pittsburgh Pirates offered to trade for Bressler that year, Chance failed to make a deal. Connie Mack also claimed him for the A’s that winter, but then backed off. Bassler suffered some sort of illness or injury that curtailed his numbers in 1917. These setbacks slowed Bressler’s return to the big leagues but served as the foundation of a long PCL career which would eventually total 1,525 games.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”—Lao Tzu
“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”—Ibid.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”—George Harrison.

11. On April 5, 1919, the Salt Lake Telegram published a small article noting that Charles “Corky” Bassler, “a brother of Johnny Bassler, the great little catcher of the Los Angeles club,” had been named the new golf pro at the country club. The population of Salt Lake City was only about 115,000 then and this was what passed for important local news. That November, the same paper published a very different notice about Corky. “LOCAL GOLF PROFESSIONAL ACCIDENTALLY KILLED WHILE ON HUNTING TRIP.” “He was accidentally killed by his brother… while hunting near Cedar City on Thursday… Bassler’s tragic death will be a sad blow to many local golfers and others who knew “Corky.” Well, sure, but how about Johnny? After all, he was the killer. “Johnny seems to have been a little point in the rear of his brother… when an automatic shotgun which he carried went off accidentally. The shot pieced Charles’s lungs, and, although he was rushed to a hospital immediately, he died about one hour after the accident.”

In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers as a last line: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” Bassler hit .319 in 1920. Just because you don’t see a poetical, emotionally motivated slump doesn’t mean it didn’t exist in some other form.

12. Despite the late start to his prime, Bassler was a respected player. Although the Tigers failed to win a pennant during his seven years in Detroit, he finished sixth in the MVP voting in 1922, seventh in 1923, and fifth in 1924. Though he was heading into only his age-30 season at that point, his status slipped very quickly. In 1925, he slumped to .279/.408/.352 in 121 games. Bassler’s high OBP salvaged his lack of achievement in the other categories, but no one was thinking of OBP then. They cared only about batting average and looked at high walk totals as something of a personal failing. This attitude was perfectly summarized by St. Louis Browns general manager (and later owner) Bill DeWitt. Recalling outfielder Roy Cullenbine, who took over 100 walks a year if he could get the playing time, DeWitt said, “Cullenbine wouldn’t swing the bat… Laziest human being you ever saw.”

13. The next season, Bassler fractured his left ankle while sliding back into first base during a game at Cleveland in late May. He missed more than two months. The club seems to have gotten used to his not being there. The 1926 campaign also proved to be Ty Cobb’s last as manager. It was Cobb who had finally brought Bassler back to the majors in 1921 (Cobb’s first season as manager; promoting Bassler was one of the first important decisions he made) and sustained him in the lineup. Cobb’s replacement, George Moriarty, seemed less enthusiastic and reduced Bassler’s playing time. In 1927, Bassler played in 81 games and hit only .286/.416/.320. No one was impressed: On December 13, the Detroit Free Press reported, “By means other than trading, Johnny Bassler will sever his connection with the Tigers before the next season starts. Nearly 34 years of age, the portly backstop has about outlived his usefulness in the majors and must make room for a more active and younger catcher.” He was actually only 32 and a half, but the fat-shaming added 1.5 years.

That month, the Tigers, Toronto Maple Leafs (of the International League), and Hollywood Stars made a three-way deal that ended with Bassler back in the Pacific Coast League. The Tigers acquired veteran catcher Pinky Hargrave from the Maple Leafs in the deal. He took Bassler’s job and hit well for a few seasons.

The newspapers of the time referred to Hargrave as “Red.” The passage of time has caused Hargrave to drop a shade. Alternatively, everything we know is wrong and all of history is just a series of agreed-upon myths. Both versions of the nickname referred to the color of Hargraves’ hair rather than, say, his Communist sympathies. Given the time frame, it’s not actually out of the realm of possibility—a great many American had them in the 1920s and ’30s.

14. Bassler began his second, longer sojourn in the PCL. He played for Hollywood from 1928 through 1935, when he was 40, then headed up to Seattle (called the Indians at that time) for a two-season stint that included managing the team in 1937. Overall, Bassler hit .321 in 15 PCL seasons. We don’t know what Bassler’s PCL OBP was because the league didn’t record walks. However, as Bill James wrote when he rated Bassler the 47th-best catcher of all time in the 2001 edition of his Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, “It would be a safe guess that he wasn’t walking any less often.”

It does happen, though, that players lose their patience. In 2018, Juan Soto had exciting patience for a teenager, walking in 16 percent of his plate appearances. It would be nice to think he will improve from here and take, oh, 120 walks a season at his peak. However, you might also have harbored similar hopes for Jason Heyward (91 walks as a 20-year-old in 2010) or Joc Pederson (92 walks as a 23-year-old in 2015). Neither has come close. Bassler’s situation is different because he was a veteran and it seems unlikely that some coach was shouting in his ear to be more aggressive so that he might up his yearly home run total from zero to two, but you never know—there have been some pretty misguided coaches out there.

15. Bassler and the Stars ceased to exist at nearly exactly the same moment. Bassler collapsed during a game in spring training, 1935. Though only 40, he had had a heart attack; perhaps there had been a point to the concern over his rotund build after all. After that season, the Stars moved to San Diego and became the Padres. The Stars were replaced by the former Mission (San Francisco) Reds, who also became the Stars, but not the same Stars, just as perhaps Bassler was not the same Bassler.

Then again, maybe he was. Playing for the Seattle Indians in 1936, he hit .354 in 260 at-bats. He even legged out a pair of triples. Cardiac health is overrated.

16. Bassler lost his job as Indians skipper due to a conflict with his owner over withholding a bonus to a player (it was the owner being stingy). Former Stars manager Ossie Vitt had taken the same position with the Cleveland Indians beginning in 1938 and he hired Bassler to coach for him. One of the great baseball questions of Bassler’s lifetime was, “Who threw harder, Walter Johnson or Bob Feller?” Bassler’s answer: “Bob Feller is not as fast as Walter Johnson, but has a better curve; I coached one and batted against the other.” Bassler could have been harder on Johnson as he had hit him rather well. Feller credited Bassler for helping him get established in the major leagues when the latter coached for the Indians from 1938-1940. “I’ve stuck pretty close to the rules laid down by Johnny Bassler,” Feller said in 1946.

17. Bassler lost the Cleveland job after the 1940 season. The team had collapsed when the Indians players rebelled against Vitt, who tended to see think of the verbs “communicate” and “insult” as synonymous terms. The players greatly preferred Bassler, but Roger Peckinpaugh got the job for 1941 and most of the old staff was swept out. The exception was former catcher Luke Sewell. Bassler moved over to St. Louis where he hired on as coach for manager Fred Haney’s Browns. This was the same Browns team on which Roy Cullenbine so annoyed Bill DeWitt. Haney was canned after 44 games and was replaced by Sewell. Bassler was let go as well; it’s easy to imagine that there was some animosity left over from when the Indians had split into factions.

18. In 1943, Bassler was one of the first inductees of the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame. The PCL Hall once had a physical presence at (the other) Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, but the park has long since been demolished. I am left to wonder if you can have an “Of Fame” without the hall? What is Valhalla without a hall? An open-air picnic for the inebriated dead? Similarly, I am struck by the notion that everyone has a special anniversary, occasion, or award, but no one is obligated to care about yours.

19. Bassler spent his post-baseball career doing a number of different things, including some light farming, tearing up movie sets at 20th Century Fox, and hooking his own rugs. He also built his own house piece by piece out of found materials. Bassler was not only arguably one of the most patient catchers of all time, but was also the most artistic catcher of all time.

20. Johnny Bassler was born in 1895 into a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania—that was where he had learned the rug business—and was one of 13 siblings. His mother’s name was “Fianna,” which is ancient Celtic meaning, “little or no home run power is present in these chromosomes.” He died on June 29, 1979. He is not to be confused with Bresler’s 33 Flavors, 1920s Cincinnati Reds outfielder Rube Bressler, longtime Angels swingman Andy Hassler, or Medal of Honor winner John Basilone.

21. I did not stay awake all night to write this piece, but I did stay up all day. One’s agony may be only a metaphor, but that makes it no less real.

References and Resources

  • John Hammond Moore, The Voice of Small-Town America: The Selected Writings of Robert Quillen, 1920-1948.
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Des Moines Tribune
  • Detroit Free Press
  • Los Angeles Times
  • New York Times
  • Retrosheet
  • Salt Lake Telegram
  • Smithsonian Archives of American Art: Oral History Interview with James Bassler

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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5 years ago

Steven, man, you left us hanging on President Coolidge’s cat. Did he ever come back? 🙂

Great article; love Johnny Bassler in sim leagues but never knew much about him.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Fascinating stuff. You could probably dissect many a journeyman’s career and unearth a very interesting life history. On another front, where has it ever been written that a Silent Cal was “insensitive”? And I have no clue if hitting a home run is up there with sexual nirvana but would love to have the necessary qualifications to make such a judgment.