A well-intended prank involving a potato will go down as one of baseball’s strangest stories
Dave Bresnahan had a closer connection to professional baseball than most. His great uncle, Roger Bresnahan, was a Hall-of-Fame catcher during a 17-year big-league career. Dave was good enough to play in the minor leagues, but it was what he did with a potato, rather than a ball, that he will be remembered for during his time in the game, and what contributed to the end of his playing career.
Unlike Roger Bresnahan, who hit .279 and was a key cog of some of the earliest New York Giants teams led by legendary manager John McGraw, his descendant Dave had a more modest baseball resume. Selected in the 18th round of the 1984 draft by the Seattle Mariners, he never truly took off, joining the Cleveland Indians system in 1986 and falling into the role of a backup catcher — not the position a young player wants if they are trying to make it to the majors.
In 1987, Bresnahan was with the Williamsport Bills, the Indians’ Double-A affiliate, when he made a decision that would change his baseball legacy forever and also bring an end to his playing career. He decided to play a prank.
On August 31st, the Bills were well out of contention (finishing with a record of 60–79) and just playing out the string. Bresnahan had previously taken a potato, peeled it and carved it into the likeness of a baseball with the plan to switch it with a ball during a play — essentially an elaborate hidden-ball trick.
He wanted to use the tater in a very specific situation. He planned to pretend to pick off a runner at third by wildly throwing the potato he had concealed on purpose and then tag the befuddled opponent with the actual ball when he headed home. He knew he was going to play on the 31st because it was a scheduled double-header against the Reading Phillies, and the seldom-used backstop may not have seen much action otherwise.
It wasn’t a poorly thought out plan, as Bresnahan had even previously called up major league umpire Tim Tschida, who was an acquaintance, to run the hypothetical by him of what would happen if such a play were to happen. After being assured that the runner would simply be returned to third base, he felt confident in giving it a whirl.
In the fifth inning, he acted on his plan. With opposing runner Rick Lundblade on third base, he told umpire Scott Porter that he needed a new glove. He went back to the dugout and grabbed new leather and the spud. Once game action resumed, he took the potato out of concealment and threw it purposely over the head of his third baseman, Rob Swain, hoping the runner would bite. It worked as planned and when the runner came home, he was tagged by the Besnahan, who had the official game baseball in his possession .
Confusion ensued. After the umpire inspected the baseball and the spud, he awarded home to the runner. It was not a joke enjoyed by all, as Williamsport manager Orlando Gomez immediately pulled Bresnahan from the game and fined him $50. The very next day the Indians released him for his trickery. His playing career was over and he never played professionally again.
Although he was punished for the stunt, it was simultaneously regarded as pretty clever by many, even if they wouldn’t admit it. The next year, the Bills retired his number in front of a bulging sold-out stadium that boasted a $1 admission and a free potato. To be fair, the writing was on the wall for Bresnahan, who was approaching 26 at the time of the joke. He hit just .154 that season and had a lifetime batting average of .210. He was not headed to the majors or even a much longer minor league career. The potato just happened to be the crushing blow.
Bresnahan since went into a career in real estate. As he told milb.com, he rarely thinks about what made him baseball famous. “I don’t ever really think about it. It just kind of makes me chuckle because people still call me on it. People Google my name and they call me on it and want a response. I don’t put a thought to it, though, unless someone puts it to me.”
As it turned out, he wasn’t trying to cheat or make a mockery of anything with the potato. He was simply attempting to inject something different in what had turned into a long season and pull off one of the time-honors trick plays loved in baseball — just in a different way. “My teammates challenged me. They said why don’t you do it. It took me about two weeks to get the nerve, but I finally decided to do it. I’m not really a class clown type but I have a great sense of humor, and I was just trying to break the monotony of a poor season for me and the team.”