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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #73 Tiny Bonham

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A forefather of forkball artists, Bonham was terrific for the Yankees in the '40s before meeting a sad fate.

SABR

Name: Ernest "Tiny" Bonham
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: August 13, 1913 (Ione, CA)
Died: September 25, 1949 (Pittsburgh, PA)
Yankee Years: 1940-46
Primary number: 20
Yankee statistics: 79-50, 2.73 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 141 GS, 1,176 2/3 IP, 348 K, 91 CG, 17 SHO, 78 ERA-, 92 FIP-, 19.4 rWAR, 18.6 fWAR

Biography

A common theme throughout Yankees history is the unheralded pitching staff. The big bashers like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and company always seemed to grab the most headlines, but without competent pitchers, those great teams would have struggled to win pennants year after year. Although pitchers like Vic Raschi and Monte Pearson were unknown to many fans, their contributions were pivotal. Bonham fits in nicely with such men, as his success with the forkball helped the Yankees win three straight pennants in the early '40s and two World Series rings. He played 10 years in the majors until his life was sadly cut short, but his memory lives on through his championship legacy.

Bonham pitching

Not so "Tiny"

Born Ernest Edward Bonham to Andrew Bonham and the former Clara Wells in a huge Californian family 40 miles outside of Sacramento, Bonham demonstrated his impressive work ethic during his youth. His family owned a farm, and he and his several siblings were all expected to help out in some way. Bonham himself described it as "manual labor of the toughest kind," though he did credit his imposing frame (6'2", 215 pounds) to such rigorous work. The nickname "Tiny" was certainly ironic, but Bonham did not care in the slightest.

When he wasn't in lumber camps or on Oakland docks, Bonham went to school and played on the football and baseball teams. He continued working for lumber companies and pitching for semi-pro teams until late in 1935, when a fireman named Joe Oeschger spotted him. Oeschger encouraged his friend and Yankees scout Joe Devine to sign the 22-year-old righty, and Bonham's career officially began the next season. Bonham took the train out to Ohio, where he pitched for the Class C Akron Yankees. He was strong, recording a 3.61 ERA and walking just 46 men in 182 innings (29 starts).

It was enough to earn a late-season promotion to the Class A Binghamton Triplets, a move that preceded a return out west. Bonham got to pitch close to home in '37, as the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks were a Yankees affiliate and were managed by the respected Billy Meyer, a former major league catcher. Bonham won Meyer's trust with his dedication and talent, and he led the Oakland staff with 278 innings, during which time he notched a 3.66 ERA while again limited his walks. He even mixed a seven-inning no-hitter in with his performances. Bonham took the next step in '38, advancing to the doorstep of the majors by splitting the season with the Yankees' top minor clubs: the Kansas City Blues and the dominant Newark Bears.

Meyer had moved on to the Blues in '38, and over the next few years, he came to rely on Bonham even more. Bonham pitched for the Blues through the middle of the 1940 campaign, posting solid numbers each year, culminating in a 2.32 ERA over 16 starts during that last season. The Yankees' starting pitchers were dropping like flies, and the Tigers were nine games ahead in first place, threatening to end their streak of four straight World Series titles. Hall of Fame skipper Joe McCarthy called upon Meyer to send him his best pitcher. Even though Bonham had missed a little bit of time over the past couple seasons due to back pain, Meyer had ironclad faith in him, so off Bonham went to the major leagues.

Vaulting to the top

Although they were between championships and still quite successful in 1940, the Yankees were a team in transition. Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig's was tragically over due to the terminal disease that now bears his name. Former '30s stalwarts Lefty Gomez, Red Rolfe, and Frankie Crosetti were all in rapid declines. The rotation wasn't that impressive either, as Red Ruffing was still effective but not as dominant as he used to be and everyone else were younger question marks.

The opportunity to impress "Marse Joe" was there, and Bonham seized it. In 12 starts down the stretch, Bonham was red-hot, pitching to a 1.90 ERA and 3.01 FIP while allowing under a baserunner per inning. He completed all but two of his starts and twirled three shutouts as the Yankees roared back. After a five-hit shutout in Bonham's second career start, the Yankees went a remarkable 36-15 down the stretch, and they were only a game back of the Tigers as late as September 11th. Unfortunately, the mediocre start was too much to overcome and while they maintained a deficit of just a couple games, the Tigers indeed won the pennant to end the Yankees' run. Had they called Bonham up earlier, McCarthy claimed they would have ended on top.

As disappointing as the '40 campaign was, the Yankees entered '41 with a very capable team and more confidence in their pitching staff thanks to Bonham. The young pitcher dazzled opposing hitters with some impressive offerings, which were well-detailed by Warren Corbett in his SABR biography of Bonham:

Bonham threw a high, hard fastball, but he said his best pitch was the forkball: "It sinks and is a fine change of pace." The forkball, thrown by wedging the baseball between the index and middle fingers, took a sudden dive as it approached the plate. Few pitchers used it, perhaps because it requires a large hand and long fingers to throw it comfortably. Bonham said he learned it from a failed Yankee prospect, Frank Makosky, at Kansas City in 1938.

The forkball was a definite strength for Bonham and it added a measure of unpredictability to his delivery, as batters did not often see this unusual pitch. It seemed that the only thing that could prevent Bonham from taking the league by storm was that creaky back. He missed a few months of the '41 season due to the ailment, and it limited him to 13 starts and 23 games total. Nonetheless, he continued to put up fine performances when he did pitch, as he had a 76 ERA- and 1.176 WHIP in his 126 2/3 innings.

This time, the Yankees were storming their way to the pennant. Several games back in mid-May, Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak propelled them to a near-season long hot streak, and they ended up dominating the league with 101 victories, finishing an amazing 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox. For the first of many times, they played against the crosstown NL champion Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. It was a tense affair, highlighted by an unbelievable Yankees comeback at Ebbets Field in Game 4, when Tommy Henrich seemingly struck out to end the game and tie the series at 2-2, only to have the catcher miss it as well, allowing Henrich to reach and the Yankees to rally. With Brooklyn demoralized, McCarthy gave the ball to Bonham in Game 5, hoping that he would close it out without needing to return to Yankee Stadium. Bonham more than delivered, pitching a four-hitter as the Yankees went ahead early and won, 3-1. They became World Series champions for the ninth time.

The Yankees seemed well-position to repeat as champions in '42. They won over 100 games again to win another AL pennant by a wide margin, and MVP second baseman Joe Gordon delivered a tremendous season. On the pitching side however, the clear-cut ace was Bonham. It was a career year for the 28-year-old, who was named to the All-Star team and led the league in complete games (22), shutouts (6), FIP (2.75), WHIP (0.987), and walk rate (1.9 BB/9). In traditional stats, he captured the competition's attention with a 21-5 record, good for the top winning percentage in the league as well. Bonham finished fifth in AL MVP voting, and if the award had existed at the time, he would have been a top contender for the Cy Young Award, too. This time in the World Series, the Yankees played a spunky Cardinals team who surprised baseball by standing strong against the Bronx Bombers, taking them down in five games. Bonham allowed just six hits in a complete game in Game 2, but the Cardinals' Johnny Beazley outpitched him, 4-3.

Many of baseball's stars departed both during and after the '42 season, as they were drafted to serve in World War II. Bonham was not drafted though, and he remained with the team in '43. Although DiMaggio, Ruffing, Phil Rizzuto, and other stars were gone, the Yankees still had a formidable club. Although AL MVP Spud Chandler emerged as the ace, Bonham continued to be a force near the top of the rotation, coming an out shy of his '42 total with 225 2/3 innings while posting a 64 ERA- and an 81 FIP-. He was an All-Star for the second straight year, and for the third straight season, the Yankees ran roughshod over the competition to win the pennant. The World Series was a rematch of the Yankees & Cardinals, and Bonham lost his Game 2 start to Mort Cooper. Fortunately, that was the only game the Yankees dropped in the series, and they captured their 10th World Series title.

Back-induced decline

In the 1943-44 off-season, Bonham was drafted, but when the draft board doctors examined his back, they marked him "4-F," physically unfit for battle. So though he missed a few weeks, he rejoined the Yankees. It wasn't quite the same though. The team was further depleted by championship players departing for the military and they finished in third place behind the lowly St. Louis Browns of all teams. Bonham pitched to a 2.99 ERA but wasn't as formidable as he was in the past. He recorded over 200 innings, but his back problems made it more and more difficult for him to sustain his performance.

Bonham ended up pitching two more years in pinstripes, bridging the gap between the Yankees' wartime teams. In '46, the stars returned, but there were clear signs of rust and they again ended the year in third place. Over his last two seasons, continually plagued by his back, Bonham still pitched 285 1/3 total innings with a roughly league-average 3.44 ERA. He wasn't the force he was in '42 anymore, but he remained a competent pitcher. Now past his 33rd birthday though, management was unsure of his future, so shortly after the end of the '46 World Series, he was dealt to the Pirates for Cookie Cuccurullo.

Although it didn't really hurt the Yankees, the move did not work out at all, as the lefty Cuccurullo never actually pitched a game for them while Bonham stuck around for three more years. He averaged 125 innings per year with the Bucs, splitting time more often between the rotation and the bullpen. They weren't a good team, but Bonham was at least comforted in '48 by Pittsburgh hiring his old friend Meyer as their manager. They made for a nice team on the squad of young players like Ralph Kiner, and his teammates had great respect for him.

Toward the end of '49 season though, Bonham met a tragic fate. He had told teammates that '49 would likely be his last year as a pitcher, as his back pains were now almost unbearable and he wanted to return to his California farm. He also began to suffer from abdominal pain, and he checked himself into the hospital on September 9th for an appendectomy. The doctors were stunned when they learned he actually had intestinal cancer.

Before a month had even passed, Tiny Bonham was gone at the tender age of 36, leaving his wife Ruth heartbroken. When Meyer and the rest of his teammates were informed of Bonham's passing, they were crushed as well. The Yankees won the '49 World Series, and many of the players did so with Bonham's memory in mind. Bonham's back might have kept him from achieving true greatness, but the peaks he reached in such a short time led to championships and memories for his teammates which will never be forgotten.

Andrew's rank: 79
Tanya's rank: 73
Community rank: 74.29
WAR rank: 73

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
1940 26 NYY 9 3 1.90 3.01 12 12 10 3 99.1 83 24 21 4 13 37 0 0 45 74 3.2 2.8
1941 27 NYY 9 6 2.98 3.97 23 14 7 1 126.2 118 44 42 12 31 43 1 0 76 104 2.8 1.0
1942 28 NYY 21 5 2.27 2.75 28 27 22 6 226 199 65 57 11 24 71 1 1 64 81 4.2 5.3
1943 29 NYY 15 8 2.27 3.23 28 26 17 4 225.2 197 63 57 13 52 71 1 0 69 97 4.9 2.9
1944 30 NYY 12 9 2.99 3.46 26 25 17 1 213.2 228 84 71 14 41 54 0 1 87 101 2.4 2.6
1945 31 NYY 8 11 3.29 3.25 23 23 12 0 180.2 186 72 66 11 22 42 1 0 98 94 1.6 2.5
1946 32 NYY 5 8 3.70 3.22 18 14 6 2 104.2 97 47 43 6 23 30 0 1 105 93 0.2 1.6
NYY (7 yrs) 79 50 2.73 3.24 158 141 91 17 1176.2 1108 399 357 71 206 348 4 3 78 92 19.4 18.6

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Corbett, Warren. SABR Bio.

Deadball Era

"Pedigree Resource File," database, FamilySearch (accessed 2015-03-08), entry for Ernest /BONHAM/.

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