“My Favorite Umpire is a Dead One.” Remembering the Human Splinter
Meet John Evers, perhaps the most disagreeable player to ever take the field
Adapted from Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots.
John Evers had the metabolism of a hummingbird, the temperament of a wolverine, and a near-pathological need to win baseball games. His unrelenting drive nearly drove him to ruin.
Known as “The Crab” or “The Human Splinter” in his playing days, Johnny Evers wasn’t a very popular guy. At 5’ 9”, 125 lbs., he assiduously subscribed to the maxim of “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Because Evers fought — physically, verbally, and psychologically — every time he stepped onto the field. He fought for every hit, every stolen base, and every deftly turned double play. He fought with opponents, with teammates, and especially with umpires. A live wire of frayed nerves and inexhaustible energy, Evers was more than willing to instigate mayhem to gain an advantage on the field. He could start a bench-clearing brawl with a gesture, and these weren’t the choreographed slow dances that pass for on-field brawls today; these could be brutal scraps fought with intent. He was constantly ejected from games, and regularly suspended.
When he wasn’t fighting, he was whining and moaning and complaining and cajoling. It seemed like he argued every called strike, every play on the bases. “When things go wrong it’s my nature to kick,” he said. “I may be wrong nine cases out of ten. Perhaps I am. But I can’t stand it to see things going bad, and I have to say something about it. Personally, I try to be a human being. Perhaps I don’t always succeed, but I aim to.”
He didn’t always succeed when it came to his relationship with umpires, whom he viewed as a confederacy of arrogant dunces with a collective axe to grind (you could hardly blame the umps if they were out to get him; Evers once told the New York Herald that “My favorite umpire is a dead one”). He constantly jawed at opposing players and coaches. “Scrappy” and “dogged” and “pugnacious” were some of the euphemisms employed by the polite newspapermen of the day, but the more accurate description would fall somewhere between “infuriating” and an appellation unfit for print on this site.
When he wasn’t fighting or complaining or playing, Evers was studying and thinking. Studying the game, studying opponents, studying and refining and honing technique. When his teammates hit the town after a game, Evers retreated to his room to analyze the MLB rulebook (and to eat mountains of candy in an attempt to keep some weight on). Anything to gain the slightest advantage in the season-long war of attrition. His monastic (some night say maniacal) devotion to understanding his craft paid off when the stakes were at their highest: Evers’ quick wit and knowledge of the game changed the course of the 1908 pennant race when he noticed the Giants’ Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on what should have been a game-winning hit (the famous “Merkle’s Boner” game of September 23). Evers turned a hit into an out, a loss into a disputed tie. When the regular season ended two weeks later, the Giants and Cubs found themselves locked atop the National League, forcing a replay of their disputed September 23 game. The Cubs bested the Giants 4–2 to claim the NL pennant and went on to vanquish the Detroit Tigers in the world Series.[i]
In addition to fighting, complaining, and studying, Evers did something else: He won — or more accurately, his teams won. A lot. And Evers, while detested by many, was also respected as a player throughout the league. Said Cubs manager Frank Chance, himself one of the best and brainiest players in the league: “I doubt if any second baseman has had so great an influence on the work of a club as a whole or has been so important a factor in its success as Evers has been with the Chicago Nationals.”
Evers was never a truly great player (and his election by an inept “Old Timers Committee” to the Hall of Fame in 1946 is unwarranted). But he was a very good player who brought considerable value with his bat, his glove, and his mind. He was probably at his best in 1908 (.300/.402/.375, 144 OPS+, 5.6WAR) or 1912 (.341/.431/.441, 140 OPS+, 5.9 WAR). For his career — the entirety of which took place during the Dead Ball Era — Evers hit .270/.356/.334. He was a slightly above-average hitter, a strong baserunner (324 SB), and an excellent defender.
Evers was a troubled man, unable to quiet his mind or his body. The relentless pressure he put on himself resulted in what was diagnosed as a “nervous breakdown” during the 1911 season. He also broke down in 1915, missing most of the season with what was likely nervous exhaustion. We can’t say with any certainty that his approach helped his career, but we can say with some certainty that John Evers wrung every drop of success he could out of his skeletal frame. It brought him fame, some degree of fortune, three world championships, and the 1914 National League MVP (for the “Miracle Braves”).
We don’t know if it brought him any measure of happiness.
Jeremy Lehrman is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots. For more baseball, click here.
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[i] In the interest of space, we provided a desultory and incomplete account of the Merkle play. Please read up on it if you haven’t already — it was a symphony of chaos, and one of baseball’s great and enduring stories.