Before a Baseball Hall-of-Fame Career, Joe Tinker Was a Gang Leader
Shortstop Joe Tinker was a star during a 15-year big-league career (1902–1916). He also tried his hand at managing and was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. He was a go getter and a leader. As it turns out, instead of spending his youth playing the game that made him famous, he instead served as the leader of a gang.
Tinker spent 12 of his 15 seasons as a player with the Chicago Cubs. One of the best defenders to ever play the position, he formed one-third of the team’s famed Tinker-to-(Johnny) Evers-to (Frank) Chance double-play trio. All three wound up in Cooperstown and were so revered that they were the subject of a popular poem, Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.
While he was a whiz with his glove, Tinker’s abilities with his bat were much more modest. He combined to hit .262 with 31 home runs, 785 RBIs and 336 stolen bases. He also starred on four World Series teams, including two squads that won it all. Playing in an era where middle infielders were expect to field their position and play small ball, his combined talents made him a big star.
Tinker also managed during the final four years of his playing career. His record was a ho-hum 304–308 but he did capture the 1915 Federal League pennant with the Chicago Whales.
One might expect that a man of Tinker’s talents honed his skills through many hours of practice and play on the baseball diamond as a youth. However, he was from a difficult background and actually led a gang of neighborhood kids in Kansas City before he found a more positive avenue for his time and abilities.
James A. Ford, who worked as political editor of the Spokane Sportsman-Review, grew up with Tinker in Kansas City. He knew the famous baseball player before he was known any further than the outskirts of the neighborhood. In an article that appeared in the December 17, 1912 Cincinnati Enquirer, he recalled just how far the shortstop had come:
“Twenty years ago, back in old Kansas City, Joe Tinker… was a ‘tough kid.’
“He lived in a neighborhood where there were a lot of ‘good boys.’ I was one of the ‘good boys.’ That’s why I know Joe was a ‘tough kid.’ I have positive knowledge that Joe was tough. There is nothing hearsay about it.”
Although Tinker grew up to be the hero of many children, Ford knew him at a time when the complete opposite was true:
“Being ‘tough,’ Joe of course was not good enough for us ‘good boys’ to play with. Most, probably all, of us received repeated and solemn warnings at home: ‘Don’t let me see you playing with that Joe Tinker.’
“It was good for some kind of home punishment to be found playing with ‘that Joe Tinker.’ So we weren’t found playing with him — that is, when we weren’t fighting. But we were careful not to let our parents know it.”
When Tinker was growing up in Kansas City, it was a rough and tumble place. Having been born in 1880, he was in a emerging city on the tail-end of the Wild West era where gun toting and lawlessness was best known. Ford explained:
“The Kansas City boys of 20 years ago know that Kansas City was a city of boy gangs. There were gangs in every part of the city, and they had real honest-to-goodness fights. Every gang had its secret signal, and when any member of the gang gave that signal all the rest of the gang had to come to his rescue.”
Ford and Tinker were like the other boys in Kansas City of the time. They also wanted to show how tough and unintimidated they were:
“On Ninth and Flora we boys organized a gang, and to be sure that it would be real tough and of the fighting kind we signed our names in blood — just like Tom Sawyer used to do, Joe Tinker was Captain of our gang, I don’t remember that we ever held an election to select Joe but it was a sort of general understanding that he was Captain. If he hadn’t made him Captain, he might have cleaned out the gang. So, we let Joe be Captain. We insisted on it.”
Tinker had such a reputation in Kansas City that clearly his peers never expected him to do much as he grew older. As it turned out, they didn’t even know he was so talented at baseball, according to Ford:
“Nothing ever surprised me more than when, after leaving Kansas City several years, I read of Joe Tinker playing third base for the Portland (Northwestern League) team. In my boyhood days in old K.C. I don’t remember of Joe ever playing ball.
“Some of us ‘good boys’ who were too good to play with ‘that Joe Tinker’ in the good old days, would feel mighty proud now to walk down the street with him.”
Instead of being a product or a casualty of his environment, Tinker persevered and went on to accomplish great things in his life. Being the leader of a gang may not have been one of his proudest achievements but he didn’t get enveloped by his poor choices as a younger person and went on to play professional baseball so well it became the subject of poetry.