Bancroft in Brooklyn, 1928-29

Bancroft found one of his biggest fans in Brooklyn Robins’ manager Wilbert Robinson, who led the team from 1914 to 1931 after a successful decade-long playing career. Robinson resembled the passionate Brooklyn fans, who liked a manager immersed in their New York borough. Sportswriters fondly called him “Uncle Robbie.” Bancroft responded to Brooklyn’s initial support – signing with them in November 1927 when Robinson passed on a fading Ty Cobb – by showing up a week early for Brooklyn’s 1928 spring training in Clearwater, Florida. Robinson named him team captain.

About to turn 37, Bancroft had whitening hair and cheerfully posed with his wife Edna as she sat on a swing. Bancroft quickly dismissed any future efforts at being a player-manager after handling that role for the four previous seasons with the Boston Braves.. “I realized that a ball player can’t do two things at once,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “This player-managing stuff is the bunk.”

Bancroft, though, couldn’t resist trying to boost Brooklyn’s lineup. He convinced Robinson to let Bancroft’s Midwestern friend – Roland Locke, the world’s fastest man in 1923 – to try out that spring. Locke’s considerable track and football skills didn’t translate to baseball and he was cut. 

What stuck in Brooklyn was “Beauty,” Bancroft’s nickname. It returned as soon as he became a common figure in New York sports pages again. A national column also noted in May 1928 that the nickname started during Bancroft’s previous stint with the New York Giants — when Bancroft liked a pitch thrown by one of the Giants.

As a captain and a veteran player, Bancroft felt no hesitation to offer advice to his new teammates. One Bancroft suggestion: Quit smoking. “I think that good wind is the toughest of all things to develop in the spring training season and you’re crazy if you don’t think smoking affects your wind.” An unnamed pitcher, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, brushed off Bancroft and insisted, “It helps me keep my weight down.”

Playing for Brooklyn allowed Bancroft to call another iconic park, Ebbets Field, his home. His career planted him at every infamous and fabulous ball field from Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl to New York’s Polo Grounds. 

In the 1928 season, Brooklyn burst out to a 9–4 first-place record. In late May, Bancroft deftly handled eight chances at shortstop to support Jess Petty’s shutout of the New York Giants. Petty, though, battled in the press with Robinson over a $200 fine for violating the team’s midnight curfew during a road series. (After Petty’s big league career ended, he pitched for three seasons with American Association’s Minneapolis Millers. It including an 18-win season in 1933 — with Bancroft at the team’s helm.)

The Robins’ fortunes never soared even while Bancroft enjoyed a hitting streak in July that put his average well above .300. In late August, the Robins couldn’t get a break. They lost to Cincinnati when a fan jumped from the stands along the right field line to grab the ball then darted for the exit – allowing the game-winning run to score before outfielder Max Carey could retrieve it for a play at the plate. Several hundred Reds’ fans surrounded the ump, Bob Hart, and celebrated, prompting Hart to call the game over.

Carey was another Brooklyn teammate that he would cross paths with again. Carey brought Bancroft into a managerial role with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1948-1951. Both men managed a historic American women’s team during its seven-week tour of Central and South American in early 1949.

With Brooklyn in 1928, Bancroft’s hitting dropped to .247, despite receiving praise from Babe Ruth for being one of the few hitters to wisely choke up on the bat. “Now everyone swings from their hips,” Ruth told reporters.

As usual, Bancroft’s fielding remained pivotal and unrivaled. In a column called “Robin Chirps,” Brooklyn’s Standard Union marveled about how Bancroft raced from shortstop to the left-field line and reached into the stands to catch a foul pop out. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called Bancroft “one of the season’s surprises.”

“Bancroft,” the paper added, “was supposed to cave in about the Fourth of July.”

Brooklyn ended the season 77–76, thanks to first baseman Del Bissonette, a 28-year-old rookie who hit .321 and 25 homers. The latter mark stayed a Dodgers’ record by a rookie, well into their move to Los Angeles, until Mike Piazza topped it in 1993. Brooklyn finished ahead of Bancroft’s former teams, the Boston Braves (50–103), and the Philadelphia Phillies (43–109). (Also of note in 1928: Al Lopez, then 19, made his debut with Brooklyn in three games, beginning a 40-plus year career as player and manager.)

After the 1928 season, Bancroft returned to northern Wisconsin, where he joined a hunting group with Burleigh Grimes, Paul Waner, Fred Lindstrom and Pie Traynor. All five would become Hall of Famers.

In December 1928, however, rumors that Robinson would retire as Brooklyn manager spread quickly. And Brooklyn papers were eager to anoint Bancroft as his replacement. On December 8, the Brooklyn Times Union announced in a headline: “Bancroft Slated To Hold Reins On Brooklyn Club In 1929.”

Three days later, Brooklyn officials decided to keep Robinson as manager — and then they offered Bancroft a contract with a salary cut from $19,000 to $13,000. They also traded disgruntled pitcher Jess Petty and another player for Pittsburgh’s star shortstop Glenn Wright.

Suddenly, Bancroft was bumped as a starter.

In spring 1929, Bancroft entered spring training as a utility player for the first time in his 15 major league seasons and served as Wright’s back up. Those plans, however, didn’t last long. Through a bizarre twist of events, Bancroft enjoyed an amazing “comeback” season at age 38.

In winter 1928-29, Bancroft, though, was an outspoken advocate for a plan that received little support — earning more laughs from owners than votes. National League president John Heydler proposed “ten-man baseball,” using a “permanent pinch hitter” for the pitcher. Heydler wanted what would become the designated hitter — and Bancroft loved the idea.

“Fans like hitting,” Bancroft said, “and this would provide another thrill. The pitcher, too, would be more effective if he concentrated on pitching and didn’t have to worry about batting. I really think that the pitcher’s increased effectiveness would offset any edge gained by having that extra hitter.”

In a nutshell, Bancroft made the soundest argument for the designated hitter. The American League added it 45 years later, and the National League still won’t commit to it.

Also, during the off season, Bancroft was ripped by the Brooklyn press. Sportswriters raved about having his replacement, Glenn Wright, at shortstop. “Bancroft won’t remain in our midst for long,” snipped Brooklyn’s Standard Eagle.

On the first day that Wright arrived at the 1929 spring training in Clearwater, Florida, manager Robinson named Wright the team’s new captain. During spring training, Bancroft and 28-year-old rookie Billy Rhiel settled in as utility infielders “to decorate the bench,” the Standard Union reported. Rhiel was another latecomer to baseball in the late 1920s, and his most notable athletic achievement to date was in football: He intercepted a late-game pass for Newberry College and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown — then he kicked the extra point to win the game 7–6.

It did not take long for Brooklyn management, though, to realize a major problem: Wright could not throw. After a few tosses at spring training, it was obvious that Wright suffered from serious arm trouble. Doctors said Wright had torn shoulder tendons. The injury, it appeared, occurred in the off season after Wright slammed his arm against a wall during a heated handball match.

Wright kept the injury quiet, although it occurred before the Robins traded for him. National League officials ruled that the Pirates didn’t know that Wright was damaged when they traded him to Brooklyn, so the Robins were stuck with him. The Braves pushed Wright as much as possible, moving him to second base for a shorter throw, but when the regular season started Wright could only underhand the ball to first base.

By May 9, Wright, age 28, was sent to his western Missouri hometown to recover. When he returned to Brooklyn a couple of months later, Wright had married his 18-year-old girlfriend, but his shoulder wasn’t healthy. He ended the season with five hits. Bancroft stepped in at shortstop and surprised everyone by hitting .336 through mid-July. “I was trying to be too darned scientific last season,” he said. “I’d scuffle around with my feet at the plate, try to run in to meet a curve ball before it broke. I’ve planted both feet firmly and take a full, free cut at the ball.”

The Robins’ season, though, had a cloud over it all season. The day before the team’s opening game in 1929, Edna Bancroft, Dave’s wife, had a handbag with jewelry and bonds — worth $9,000 — stolen at New York’s Hotel Alamac, two blocks from Central Park. Edna was planning to take the pricey goods to the bank after arriving from Florida. The Bancrofts were relatively wealthy, although they lived modestly in Superior, Wisconsin, during the off season. They also weathered the Great Depression, which began in August 1929, better than most because Dave earned a salary in pro baseball through 1933.

On the field, the Robins struggled throughout in 1929. They lost their first five games — then won for the first time when boxing sensation Jack Dempsey attended Brooklyn’s home opener. Bancroft won that game with a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning. On defense, Bancroft added to his fielding legacy in 1929. Twice in an eight-day period, he sparked triple plays. His season went well and he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “I guess I’ll play ball until they cut the uniform off me.”

Bancroft also renewed his feud with Earl Smith, the Pittsburgh catcher who punched him in 1927. In St. Louis, Bancroft slid hard, with spikes up, into Smith and cut Smith’s arm. To retaliate, the Cardinals’ pitcher Herman Bell appeared to deliberately throw a pitch at Bancroft’s head.

In late May 1929, Brooklyn signed another player, Eddie Moore, who had conflicts with Bancroft, because Bancroft released Moore when he managed the Boston Braves due to Moore’s laziness. Discord among Robins’ players grew through the season. Robinson noted the conflicts by putting an old-school manager spin on Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words:

“A house divided against itself,” Robinson said, “is sure to flop.”

By late September, with an injury keeping him out of the lineup, Bancroft coached first base and often spoke to the fans at the game. He also encouraged his teammates to the fans’ delight. During a game in St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, with fewer than 1,000 people in the stadium, Bancroft was described as making “more noise than the whole crowd.”

The Robins finished in sixth place out of eight National League teams for the fifth straight year, but they still drew 732,000 fans, ranking third in the league for attendance. Three days after the season ended, the Robins, citing financial issues, released Bancroft.

Robinson also wanted to remain as manager, and he worried that having a ready-made replacement on the Brooklyn roster would make him expendable. In November, though, Bancroft received an opportunity he cherished: his mentor John McGraw, still the New York Giants’ manager, hired Bancroft as one of his two assistant coaches.

Before leaving the Robins, Bancroft offered his take on Brooklyn’s faithful fans. “When they’re winning, they draw a crowd of around 25,000 to cheer ’em on,” he said. “When they’re losing, they draw around 25,000 to jeer ’em.”

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