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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #96 Tiny Bonham

Both in stature and performance on the mound, “Tiny” was anything but.

New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Full Name: Ernest Edward “Tiny” Bonham
Position: Pitcher
Yankees Years: 1940-46
Primary number: 20
Yankees statistics: 79-50, 2.73 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 158 G, 141 GS, 1,176.2 IP, 348 K, 91 CG, 17 SHO, 78 ERA-, 93 FIP-, 19.1 rWAR, 16.8 fWAR

Biography

If you went through all the different years of the Yankees’ championships, you would have no problem naming the stars from all those different teams. Thanks to the Yankees’ status in the sport, the Babe Ruths, Joe DiMaggios, Mickey Mantles, and Derek Jeters are not only big names in team history, but big names in the history of the sport. However, it takes plenty of good role players to win World Series titles and, in particular, the pitchers on some of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s teams tend to be overlooked somewhat. One big example of that is Tiny Bonham.

Farm Boy

Born on August 16, 1913, Ernest Bonham was the 13th of 14 children born to Andrew and Clara Bonham. Ernest was born and raised in small town Ione, California, which had been a town along a major road during the Gold Rush era. That’s how the Bonhams ended up in California in the first place, as his grandfather had gone there to be a 49er.

By the time Bonham came around, mining for gold wasn’t the family business, farming was. He grew up working on his family farm along with the rest of his big family. It was work there and other manual labor jobs that were credited with building up Bonham’s big frame, as “Tiny” was anything but.

Bonham’s first sporting love was football, and he grew up playing both that and baseball throughout his school years. However, his future would be in baseball thanks to some good fortune from one of those aforementioned manual labor jobs. While playing for the company team for the lumber business he worked for, Bonham was spotted by a firefighter named George Oeschger, who had a brother — Joe — who had been an MLB pitcher. Oeschger recommended him to a Yankees scout he knew — Joe Devine. Devine came away impressed and signed him in 1935.

Minor League Years and Breakthrough

Bonham spent all of the next couple seasons in the minor leagues, playing at various different levels with the Binghamton Triplets, Akron Yankees, Oakland Oaks, and Newark Bears. His stats were not terrible, and he did throw a seven-inning no-hitter while playing for Oakland in 1937, but Bonham wasn’t exactly knocking down the door of the big leagues during this time.

In 1938, he spent time with the Kansas City Blues where he linked up with manager and former major league catcher Billy Meyer. Bonham gained the trust of Meyer, and soon found himself a key man in Kansas City’s rotation. He spent parts of the 1938, ‘39, and ‘40 seasons in Kansas City and put up some nice numbers, recording ERAs of 3.42, 3.18, and 2.32. Despite that, he also started to deal with some back pain during these years, the cause of which Bonham claimed was related to the manual labor jobs he did before his baseball career. While there is plenty of success to come, the back injuries would later become a recurring issue for him.

As he was putting up that sterling 2.32 ERA in 1940, the Yankees were going through it up in New York. Despite winning the World Series in the previous four years, they went into August hovering just above .500 and way back of the Detroit Tigers in the American League. Beyond that, they were dealing with a slew of injuries in their rotation and were in need of help in that department. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy called Meyer in search of some help, and the Blues’ boss recommended his ace: Tiny Bonham.

Just a week or two prior to his 27th birthday, Bonham was given his major league debut on August 5, 1940 against the Red Sox. It was a little bit rough, as he allowed four runs on 10 hits in eight innings, as the Yankees lost 4-1. However, five days later he followed that with a complete game shutout victory over the Athletics, and Bonham was off to the races.

Bonham would throw two more complete game shutouts — and 10 complete games in total, and on September 11th of that year, he outdueled future Hall of Famer Bob Feller in a 3-1 Yankees win over Cleveland. He ended his debut season in 1940 by going 11 innings in a win over the Senators. In total in 1940, Bonham put up a 1.90 ERA and a 3.17 FIP in 99.1 innings. Bonham’s arrival gave the Yankees a spark, as they went 9-3 in games he appeared in. Though in the end the gap ended up being a little too big, as they finished in third in the AL, three games back of the pennant-winning Tigers.

Heading the Rotation

Despite that, the Yankees had found a new rotation piece for 1941 and beyond. Bonham started the next year in the rotation, going 10 innings in his first start of that season, beating the Senators 5-2. However, his back issues began to arise for the first time in the bigs in ‘41. Bonham missed a large chuck of time from late May to late June, while McCarthy also limited his usage. Bonham pitched in 23 games in 1941, but only 14 were starts, as McCarthy gave him some extra days off in between starts, and also brought him out of the bullpen on occasion.

That being said, Bonham was ready when called upon during the postseason. After cruising to the AL crown in 1941, the Yankees were matched up against the Dodgers in the World Series. After splitting the first two games in the Bronx, the Yankees took Games 3 and 4. With a chance to clinch the series, McCarthy gave the ball to Bonham for Game 5. In his World Series debut, Bonham rose to the occasion. He allowed just one run on four hits in a complete-game victory. He was on the mound as Jimmy Wasdell flew out to end a 3-1 win, giving the Yankees the World Series title.

Daily News Front Page
Bonham mobbed as the Yankees win in ‘41
Photo By: /NY Daily News via Getty Images

With many baseball players around the league getting drafted to serve in World War II in 1942, Bonham was not one of them, and rose to the top of the Yankees’ rotation. That year, he put in the best individual season of his career, going 21-5 with a 2.27 ERA (152 ERA+), leading the league in a couple different categories. Bonham was named an All-Star for the first time in his career and finished fifth in AL MVP voting. Had there been a Cy Young Award that year, he may well have won it. With Bonham leading the way, the Yankees repeated as AL champions. However, they ran into a 106-game winning Cardinals team in the World Series, who knocked them off in five games. Bonham was the losing pitcher in Game 2, and also appeared out of the bullpen in a loss in Game 4.

In 1943, Bonham was again excellent, making his second All-Star team. His 2.27 ERA (142 ERA+) in 225.2 innings went along perfectly with an MVP season from Spud Chandler at the top of the Yankees’ rotation. While the Yankees had lost the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto to military service, they had more than enough to again run away with the AL pennant. However once again, they ran into the Cardinals in the World Series. They flipped the script this time though and got revenge, taking the series in five games. Bonham would be the losing pitcher in the only defeat of the series, allowing four runs in eight innings in Game 2. Despite that, he was a champion for the second time in his career.

Decline Years

Ahead of the 1944 season, Bonham was examined by the draft board for military service, but was turned down due to his back issues. While he had managed to battle through the pain on the mound for years, it would soon start to affect him there as well.

In 1944, Bonham was still good, but not quite as good as he had been the previous couple seasons. His 2.99 ERA equated to a 117 ERA+, which didn’t quite match prior years, but was still among the best on a draft-depleted Yankees team. Which much of the lineup was away serving in the military, the Yankees fell to third in the AL, going just 83-71.

Bonham was again slightly above average in 1945, but his back really began to cause him trouble. For the first time in his career, he finished below .500 in win-loss record, going 8-11, as he threw under 200 innings for the first time since 1941. A still-makeshift Yankees roster fell back again, finishing in fourth place.

The 1946 season was where things truly began to fall apart for Bonham. After missing the first couple weeks of the season, he returned and looked close to his best in May. However, injuries then kept him out until the end of June. When he finally did get back, Bonham posted an ERA over four the rest of the way, as the Yankees had a tumultuous season in which McCarthy resigned part way through. While they were starting to get some of the key players back from war, they again finished in third place.

That offseason, looking to rejuvenate their roster, the Yankees traded Bonham to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Arthur “Cookie” Cuccurullo. While Cuccurullo would never actually appear in a game for the Yankees, they didn’t exactly miss out on much by letting Bonham go.

Post Yankees years and a tragic end

Bonham went on to play three more major league season with the Pirates, but he was still unable to match his peak years in New York. He was solid for Pittsburgh in 1947, but was below average both of the next two years. He was also stuck on a Pirates team that wasn’t going much of anywhere, never finishing above fourth in any of those three seasons.

In the last of those years in 1949, he told teammates that he planned to retire at the end of the season and return back to the farm life in California. Unfortunately, he never got that chance. After complaining of abdominal pain over the previous couple weeks, he checked himself in a Pittsburgh hospital on September 8th, for what was expected to be an appendectomy. While undergoing surgery, the doctors discovered that Bonham was suffering from intestinal cancer. Bonham went downhill quickly and just a week after entering the hospital, he passed away on September 15th at just 36 years old. He was survived by his wife, Ruth, and two young children.

Once, some writers tried to change Bonham’s nickname from the joking “Tiny” to a more appropriate “Jumbo.” That never stuck, and Bonham himself said:

“Call me Ernie, call me Tiny, call me Jumbo, call me anything, just as long as I can go on winning.”

Staff Rank: 98
Community Rank: N/A
Stats Rank: 75
2013 Rank: 73

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

SABR

BR Bullpen

Pinstripe Alley

George, Craig. “Ione’s Own ‘Tiny’ Bonham,” Ione Ledger Dispatch, 1 May 2022. (link)

Previously on the Top 100

97. Ray Fisher
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