(Published in Superior Telegram Jan. 28, 2021)
Fifty years ago on Jan. 31, a retired man and his longtime wife ate chicken dinner on a Sunday at their modest Tower Avenue home in Superior when the phone rang.
Dave Bancroft, 80, listened to the caller and heard the stunning good news.
“Oh, my God,” Bancroft responded. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
A Milwaukee sportswriter had read to Bancroft from a wire service news story:
Bancroft was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
It hardly seemed possible that Bancroft’s 16-year major league playing career, long forgotten to many except baseball historians, would bring him the sport’s immortality. But Bancroft – who began playing professionally for minor league teams in Duluth and Superior before World War I – became the 119th selection to receive baseball’s highest honor.
And to this day, his plaque hangs alongside icons from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter.
Bancroft died of longtime heart trouble in October 1972, less than 14 months after his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Illness kept him from attending.
As a Hall of Famer, Bancroft leapt from baseball footnote to an unlikely legend. To this day, his autograph on a postcard of his Hall of Fame plaque sells for $3,000; cancelled checks from him in 1970 to Superior Clinic and the city’s Pilgrim Lutheran Church, where he worshipped, fetched $800 each. A bat used by Bancroft in the 1920s sold for nearly $5,000 in 2009.
But Bancroft’s pro baseball career – beginning in 1909 at age 17 with the minor league Duluth White Sox and ending in 1950 as manager of the South Bend Blue Sox in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – features countless colorful, triumphant, quirky and painful moments.
A Sioux City, Iowa, native, Bancroft married Superior resident Edna Gisin in November 1910 and they lived in the city until his death. He played in four World Series and won two championships; became a player-manager at age 33; and still holds the record for most chances by a shortstop in one season.
He hit over .300 five times; played with big league teams in Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn and Boston; and is one of only 18 batters to hit six singles in a nine-inning game.
And his nickname was Beauty.
He earned the moniker for saying the word in appreciation after a pitcher threw a fine strike while he batted or stood at shortstop. As a result, underneath his full name on his plaque is the Hall of Fame’s most puzzling nickname.
More baffling questions, however, to Hall of Fame visitors are: Who’s Dave Bancroft? And, ahem, what is he doing here?
Bancroft learned the game from his baseball-loving father, a farmer and newspaper vendor. By his mid-teens, he played for an adult semi-pro team the club received approval from his father due to the shortstop’s youth.
That experience led Bancroft, then 17, to seek a spot in the inaugural season of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League, the first of many steps from the majors. During the summer after his junior year of high school in 1909, Bancroft – 5-foot-9 and barely 145 pounds – worked out for the Winona Pirates. He eventually signed with Duluth then lasted only two road series with them before joining the Superior Drillers, where he played 111 games but hit a paltry .210.
Bancroft stuck with Superior, which changed its name to the Red Sox, and, in 1911, he led the team to a league title while developing into a deft shortstop and a solid switch hitter. Portland of the Pacific Coast League brought him West and Bancroft spent three seasons there. In 1915, the struggling but talented major league Philadelphia Phillies, desperate for an infield sparkplug, bought the rights to Bancroft. After he left, Portland’s manager scoffed that Bancroft wouldn’t last in the big leagues.
Instead, he played until 1930, including four seasons as the Boston Braves’ player-manager, collecting more than 2,000 hits in 1,913 games and earning acclaim as one of his era’s best fielding shortstops.
In his rookie season while batting leadoff, Bancroft and the Phillies advanced to the World Series. Bancroft’s defense helped the team’s young phenom, pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, win 32 games, including Philadelphia’s only victory of the World Series.
The Phillies never returned to such heights. Bancroft’s defense continued to shine while his batting average annually edged closer to .300. But Bancroft asked for a trade after the Phillies’ owner decreased Bancroft’s salary. Two months into the 1920 season, after the renowned New York Giants failed to land two other star infielders, the Giants set their sights on Bancroft and gave up their veteran captain, another player and a whopping $100,000 cash for him.
A New York Times article about the trade bubbled with enthusiasm, calling him the “peppery, little” Bancroft, who was “definitely one of the best shortstops … and will strengthen the Giants.”
Bancroft delivered. The resilient switch hitter played all 322 Giants’ games in 1921 and 1922, hitting a career high .321 in the latter. Both seasons ended with World Series titles against the New York Yankees and its superstar Babe Ruth.
In the 1921 World Series at the historic Polo Grounds, Bancroft scored the only run in the final game. He returned to Superior as a hero. Residents held a “testimonial banquet” honoring Bancroft in the Superior Central High School gym on Nov. 3, 1921.
The event’s program, which appeared on eBay last fall for $200, listed speeches and songs touting Bancroft’s feats. Even the menu provided over-the-top accolades: dessert, for instance, was banana cream pie served “sweet like Bancroft spiking a hot one at short.”
After the Giants lost the 1923 World Series to the Ruth-led Yankees, Bancroft was traded to the Boston Braves, which made him the team’s player-manager. Bancroft, despite playing well, couldn’t lift the Braves above a fifth-place finish. After the 1927 season, he resigned as manager and joined the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers).
In 1930, he returned to the New York Giants as an assistant coach while also playing in his final 10 major league games. During the bumpy season, the feisty Bancroft argued an ump’s game-ending pitch call so relentlessly that he received a three-game suspension.
His determination and passion for baseball came through during a December 26, 1928 interview with his Iowa hometown paper during a visit to his parents’ home.
“The players aren’t what they used to be,” he said. “I can remember when they used to talk baseball morning, noon and night. Now? Well, as soon as a game is over, the topic of conversation ranges all the way from golf to hunting dogs. I guess it’s too much of a business now.”
Bancroft could never pull himself from baseball. He coached an all-star team during a post-season series in Havana, Cuba, in 1930. Four years prior, he attended several appearances at Duluth’s Lyric Theatre, where his friend Babe Ruth headlined eight vaudeville “shows” over two days.
After leaving the Giants in 1932 as assistant coach, he managed several minor league teams, including ones in Minneapolis and St. Cloud. He also managed a traveling women’s baseball team, which took him across America as well as South America and back to Cuba. He spent 1948 to 1950 managing women’s pro teams in Chicago and South Bend.
Through it all, Bancroft returned to his Superior home. Some former players joined him on nearby fishing trips. He worked at Lakehead Pipeline Company in Superior for several years before retiring in 1956.
Bancroft’s story doesn’t end there. His career statistics, especially his fielding prowess, compare relatively favorably with a few fringe Hall of Famers, including Phil Rizzuto and Bill Mazeroski. But the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which selects Hall of Famers, gave Bancroft only passive support for 10 years until he was dropped from the ballot in the late 1950s.
All that changed in 1971 when the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, formed in 1953 to pick overlooked players for Cooperstown induction, met privately and voted in person. The committee leader, at that time, was Bancroft’s friend Frankie Frisch, who played alongside him on the New York Giants’ pennant-winning teams in the early 1920s.
Frisch – along with another Bancroft teammate, Bill Terry, and two sportswriters who crossed paths with Bancroft – voted him into the Hall of Fame with five other players, most of whom were considered Hall of Fame longshots. For five decades, Bancroft’s spot in the Hall of Fame has received tepid criticism. (Other Frisch “pals” inducted into the Hall of Fame faced far more venom from historians than Bancroft.)
Although suffering heart trouble, Bancroft savored his Hall of Fame induction, calling it “the best thrill ever.”
Bancroft is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Superior. His grave marker is tiny, flat and hard to find. Aside from his name and birth and death dates, his tombstone only says, “Husband.” His wife, Edna, died in 1984 and is buried alongside him. The couple had one child, Mary Jane, who lived only 16 days after her 1920 birth. She is buried in Philadelphia, where Bancroft played at the time.
Curious and avid baseball fans occasionally stop at the Greenwood Cemetery to see the gravesite of the obscure Hall of Famer. The Douglas County Historical Society’s Living History Walk at the cemetery also recognizes Bancroft’s history. And an online site, highlighting cemetery locations, includes two photos from his playing days and a detailed career summary. Dozens of baseball fans have left messages on Bancroft’s cemetery information page.
One tribute features a Hall of Fame patch and a lone, suitable word.
It reads: “Respect.”
David James “Beauty” Bancroft
Born: April 20, 1891, Sioux Falls, Iowa
Died: Oct. 9, 1972, Superior
World Series games played: 24 (1915, 1921, 1922, 1923)
World Series titles: 2 (1921, 1922)
Share of money for 1921 World Series title: $5,265
Career at bats: 7,182
Games played: 1,913
Career hits: 2,004
Career runs: 1,048
Highest season batting average: .321 (1922)
Highest finish in Most Valuable Player voting: sixth in 1925 while player-manager with the Boston Braves
Major league debut: April 14, 1915
Last major league appearance as a player: May 31, 1930
Married to: Edna Gisin, Nov. 22, 1910, in Duluth, Minn., but they lived in Superior, Wisc.
Uniform number: He never had one. Major league players didn’t wear numbers until the mid-1930s.
Most notable member of Bancroft’s Hall of Fame induction class in 1971: Satchel Paige