Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bill Bergen’s Awesome Record of Baseball Futility

                                                              National Baseball Hall of Fame
The Brooklyn Superbas playing the Chicago Cubs at
Washington Park in Brooklyn in 1912. Bill Bergen, a poor hitter,
was an excellent defensive catcher for Brooklyn from 1904 to 1911.
By Lynn Zinser, New York Times
August 3, 2011

Today’s lesson, gleaned from baseball history, is that if you are going to be bad at something, be spectacularly bad. And if you are spectacularly bad enough, people might be talking about you 100 years after you retire.

                  Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Craig Counsell has gone hitless
in his last 45 at-bats, threatening
Bill Bergen's major league
record for futility.
This lesson comes courtesy of Bill Bergen, a catcher for the Brooklyn Superbas in the early 1900s. The record books will tell you that Bergen is the worst hitter in Major League Baseball history, holding records for the lowest season batting average for a regular position player (.139, a mark making news as Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox threatens it) and lowest career batting average (.170), as well as the longest streak of at-bats without a hit (46, a mark making news because Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell is threatening it at 0 for 45).

Bergen’s career lasted 11 seasons, from 1901-11, although he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. He did not have one slump year surrounded by many productive ones (like Dunn) or one epic bad streak (like Counsell). He was consistently and dependably, well, subpar.

In 3,028 career at-bats, he hit two home runs. In only one season did his average top .200. His career .194 on-base percentage means he didn’t walk much. His career .201 slugging percentage means he rarely hit for extra bases. Perhaps his quirkiest statistic: he was never hit by a pitch.

“He is about as bad a hitter as you can possibly imagine,” said David Jones, a baseball historian who edited two books on baseball’s dead-ball era. “But if he’d been a little bit better hitter, no one would ever talk about him.”

Instead, his name crops up whenever a baseline of offensive futility is needed. He does not have a line named after him like Mario Mendoza, whose paltry batting average made him synonymous with hitting .200. But Bergen is firmly installed in the history of futility.

                              Library of Congress
Bill Bergen, a poor hitter, was an
excellent defensive catcher for
Brooklyn from 1904 to 1911.
Bergen’s secret was playing at a time — that dreaded dead-ball era — when good defensive catchers were worth their weight in Teddy Roosevelt autographs. Bergen was a great defensive catcher. By some statistical measures, he is considered among the top five defensive catchers in National League history.

“It was an era when catchers were even more important than they are today because bunting and stealing bases were the main way teams would score runs,” said Tom Simon, who along with Jones edited the books on the stars of the dead-ball era. “So teams would carry a guy hitting .139 if he could keep the other team from scoring.”

Bergen caught a relatively modest 941 games but ranks in the top 20 in career assists by a catcher with 1,444. He threw out 47.3 percent of runners attempting to steal. He once threw out six in one game, against St. Louis in 1909.

An article in The Sporting News in 1908 described Bergen: “He is one of the few backstops who can throw on a line to second while standing flat-footed and he gets a ball away from him so quickly and with so little apparent exertion that the runner on first, second or third does not dare to take liberties when Billie is on the job.”

An article in The Bridgeport Evening Post in 1904 read: “His long suit is his wonderful throwing. While playing in the interstate league with Fort Wayne, Ind., Bergen saved the game for his team one day when the bases were full and no one out by catching three men napping, one after the other, allowing his team to win.”

Bergen began his career on a rather ignominious note with the Cincinnati Reds in 1901. A year earlier, his older brother Marty, a talented catcher for the Boston Beaneaters from 1896-99, had murdered his wife and two children with an ax and killed himself with a razor blade. Marty Bergen was considered far more talented than Bill, but his mental instability had been apparent his entire career. He often walked out on his team, berated his teammates and described paranoid visions of plots to kill him.

“We don’t know enough about Bill Bergen’s life to know how he dealt with that,” Jones said. “But it must have been something.”

Bill Bergen, by all accounts, had none of his brother’s demons and was a pleasant teammate. His ignominy was strictly of the baseball variety.

Boston Public Library Print Department
Marty Bergen, who killed his
wife, children and himself.
He entered the league just as the American League became a major league, so teams were scrambling for players to fill rosters. Offensive numbers were down across the board. All of that worked to Bergen’s advantage.

After he played three seasons with the Reds, Bergen’s contract was sold to Brooklyn, one of the National League’s truly dreadful teams. Team nicknames back then were coined by sportswriters, who dubbed the team the Superbas because Manager Ned Hanlon shared a moniker with a popular circus troupe at the time, the Hanlon Superba. (They didn’t officially become the Dodgers until 1932.) Despite the high-flying name, the team never finished above fifth in the league during Bergen’s career. Perhaps that led to even decreased expectations for Bergen, who, as Bill James wrote in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” was the only catcher in history whose value came 100 percent on defense.

In that era, catcher was not considered an offensive position at all. The job was grueling, with little in the way of today’s protective equipment. According to Jones, catchers did not wear shin guards, and their mitts were small, requiring two hands to catch most pitches. They were injured often and installed deep in a team’s batting order. But they were called on to field a lot of bunts and to prevent stolen bases.

“With Bill Bergen, you had someone who could shut down the other team’s running game,” Jones said. “He had a cannon for an arm. The way to think of him was as a second pitcher.”

Simon wonders whether Bergen was ever put ninth in the batting order, “because pitchers were probably better hitters than him.”

Joe Dittmar, who was vice chairman of the records committee for the Society for American Baseball Research for 18 years, researched Bergen’s career in the 1990s and wrote an article for the society’s Web site. During that research, he stumbled on Bergen’s 46-at-bat hitless streak. Until then, Luis Aparicio and Tony Bernazard were considered to have the record at 44. Dittmar thoroughly scoured the dead-ball era records and determined that Bergen’s was the longest.

That streak came to an end in 1909 during the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs, when Bergen beat out an infield hit ahead of a throw by Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame.

Bergen’s career ended in 1911 when Brooklyn found its young catcher of the future in Otto Miller. Bergen was released. He died in 1943 of heart disease at age 65, according to his death certificate.

But Bergen’s career was just bad enough that, in a way, he lives forever.

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