August 16 – Happy Birthday Tiny Bonham

tiny.bonhamIf I had been around back then, I would have been a fan of Tiny Bonham. “Back then” was the WWII era and Bohnam was this big six-feet-two-inch lug of a Yankee right-hander who was born in northern California in 1913. He was the grandson of a 49er, not the football 49ers mind you but the prospectors who invaded the state when gold was discovered in the hills near Sacramento way back in 1849. Grandpa didn’t strike it rich but he did settle the Bonham’s in northern California. Tiny grew up there, developing his bulk and muscle early on in his teen years by working on his dad’s farm, a lumber camp and the shipping docks of Oakland. He had huge powerful hands with long fingers, two essential characteristics for developing a good fork ball and Bonham had one of the best ever.

The Yankees signed him to a contract in 1935 and he spent the next five years putting up good numbers at each level of New York’s farm system. His call-up to the Bronx came in August of the 1940 season. Joe McCarthy’s Yankee team was the four-time defending World Champions that year but they were floundering badly. Bonham proved to be just the medicine the ailing team needed. McCarthy started him 12 times and he went 9-3 while posting a sparkling 1.90 ERA and throwing three shutouts. The Yanks had been one-game over .500 when Tiny joined the team and finished the season twenty-two games over the break-even mark. Though only good enough for third place, Marse Joe told sportswriters if he had had Bonham at the beginning of the year, the Yanks would have won the pennant. The Hall-of-Fame skipper then proved his point by using Bonham to help him do exactly that during the next three seasons.

In 1941, a back injury Bonham had sustained as a youngster working in the lumber camp flared up and limited his action that season. McCarthy used him wisely out of the bullpen and as a spot starter. He won nine of his fifteen decisions that year, picked up two saves and that fall, won the fifth and deciding game against Brooklyn in a one-run, four-hit, complete game effort to win his first World Series ring. In 1942 his back felt better and he became one of the premier pitchers in all of baseball. He put together a 21-win season that included a league-leading six shutouts and an ERA of just 2.27. Always blessed with outstanding control, Tiny walked just 24 batters that year in 226 innings of pitching and surrendered the fewest walks-plus-hits per inning pitched (WHIP) of any hurler in the majors. He lost his only start against the Cardinals in the 1942 World Series, which the Yanks lost in five games

The condition of his back was bad enough to keep him out of military service during the war but not bad enough to prevent him from continuing to pitch for the Yankees. He won fifteen games in 1943 and though he again lost to St Louis in that year’s Fall Classic he did earn his second ring when the Yankees avenged their loss to the Cards from the previous year. Bonham’s back problems became more severe during the 1944 and ’45 seasons causing him to suffer through his only two losing seasons in pinstripes. In 1946, he got swept-up in the “clean-house” campaign of new Yankee co-owner Lee MacPhail Sr. and was traded to the Pirates for somebody named Cookie Cuccurullo.

Though his back ached, Boham still had enough talent and grit to go 11-8 for a very bad Pittsburgh team that finished 30 games below five hundred. Even more impressive were the three shutouts Tiny threw that year. He would not be able to keep up that pace during his final two seasons with the Pirates and he was planning to retire and return home to California, when he decided to check into a Pittsburgh hospital during the final month of the 1949 season to find the cause of the severe stomach pains he was experiencing. His doctors decided to perform an appendectomy on the 36-year-old pitcher. During the operation intestinal cancer was discovered and a week later Ernie “Tiny” Bonham was dead.

By all accounts, everyone loved Tiny. He had a great sense of humor, was easy-going and considered a great teammate. Upon his untimely death, his widow and child were supposed to become the first beneficiaries of a pension plan league owners had agreed to establish for the players and their families. Mrs. Bonham was due to receive $90 per month. The problem was that the owners had not funded the plan. Learning this enraged the players and in order to avert a full scale labor rebellion, then MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler went out and sold radio and television broadcast rights to the Gillette Razor Blade Company for the next six years for one million dollars per year and used the proceeds to get funds into the plan quickly. In his haste, it seems Chandler left some money on the table. Gillette broadcasting rights were later sold to NBC for four million dollars annually.

Bonham shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder and this current Yankee third base coach.

1940 NYY 9 3 .750 1.90 12 12 0 10 3 0 99.1 83 24 21 4 13 37 0.966
1941 NYY 9 6 .600 2.98 23 14 5 7 1 2 126.2 118 44 42 12 31 43 1.176
1942 NYY 21 5 .808 2.27 28 27 1 22 6 0 226.0 199 65 57 11 24 71 0.987
1943 NYY 15 8 .652 2.27 28 26 1 17 4 1 225.2 197 63 57 13 52 71 1.103
1944 NYY 12 9 .571 2.99 26 25 0 17 1 0 213.2 228 84 71 14 41 54 1.259
1945 NYY 8 11 .421 3.29 23 23 0 12 0 0 180.2 186 72 66 11 22 42 1.151
1946 NYY 5 8 .385 3.70 18 14 4 6 2 3 104.2 97 47 43 6 23 30 1.146
10 Yrs 103 72 .589 3.06 231 193 27 110 21 9 1551.0 1501 580 528 117 287 478 1.153
NYY (7 yrs) 79 50 .612 2.73 158 141 11 91 17 6 1176.2 1108 399 357 71 206 348 1.117
PIT (3 yrs) 24 22 .522 4.11 73 52 16 19 4 3 374.1 393 181 171 46 81 130 1.266
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/15/2013.

One comment

  1. Tommy Baker

    Ernie Bonham was my grandmother’s cousin. We have been trying to find items from his playing days, but haven’t had any luck.

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