TOT – Boston Brings Back Fred Tenney

TOT – Boston Brings Back Fred Tenney

Transaction of Today…December 19, 1910 – The Boston Doves sign Fred Tenney as a player/manager

He once was part of one of the game’s best infields. Now, as he closed on the big 4-0, Fred Tenney was back in the city he had spent most of his career. It would last significantly shorter than his first stint.

Frederick Tenney is a fairly unknown name to Braves fans, but from 1897 until 1907, he was one of the game’s finest first basemen. During those eleven years, he ranked fifth among first basemen in wOBA (min. 4,000 PA) with a .361 mark. While he certainly wasn’t known for power – it was the dead-ball era after all – Tenney was a strong hitter who hit over .300 seven times. He was renowned for his ability to put the ball exactly where he wanted after he hit it.

A catcher in college at Brown University, Tenney’s erratic arm got him moved from behind the plate. He played some outfield under manager Frank Selee after joining Boston but found a new home at first base. At the time, Boston already had Bobby Lowe at second, Herman Long playing shortstop, and Jimmy Collins over at third. The three were among the best at their respective positions. Tenney quickly joined his position’s elite as well.

His offense was good, but his defense was his calling card. Tenney is credited with popularizing the 3-6-3 double play, something the franchise’s current first baseman, Freddie Freeman, excels at. In addition, Tenney threw out the conventional wisdom at the time by playing deep and off the first-base bag to give him increased opportunities to make plays in the field. His abilities at the position may have not been given the statistical importance they deserved at the time, but by adding up boxscores, Tenney was given 1363 assists. No other first baseman had more when Tenney retired. Only two had more put-outs.

1900 Boston infield of Tenney, Long, Collins, and Rowe (clockwise starting at the top) | Public Domain

Tenney was frequently approached after the turn of the century about jumping to upstart leagues for more money, but remained loyal to Boston and the National League. He was named Team Captain in 1903 and manager two years later. He continued to play first base throughout his time as the manager. The results, though, weren’t pretty. A dominant team of the 1890’s, the aging Boston franchise fell on bad times once the new century began. Jimmy Collins jumped to the crosstown rival Red Sox after 1900. Bobby Lowe and Herman Long would leave over the next two years, breaking up what had been possibly the best infield in baseball. The Hall of Fame duo of Kid Nichols and Vic Willis would also be no more. When Tenney took over the 1905 Beaneaters, he had one pitcher with an adjusted ERA over 100 – which is league average. The offense scored the fewest runs in baseball. That year, they became the first club in franchise history to lose 100. There would be many more.

Tenney was in charge for three years and Boston lost 295 games during those years. After ’07, Tenney was replaced as the team’s manager and traded in an eight-player deal with the New York Giants. Of the five players coming to Boston in the deal, only Cecil Ferguson would still be with the franchise when Tenney returned after the 1910 season. Interestingly, while a member of New York, Tenney still owned stock in Boston and somehow, that wasn’t a conflict of interest. You couldn’t imagine baseball allowing that nowadays, but Tenney was above reproach.

More importantly, Tenney’s move to New York would connect him – however indirectly – with one of baseball’s most famous blunders. In 1908, the ever-durable Tenney was a veteran leader on a young team with a future MVP in Larry Doyle at second and a still pretty young Christy Mathewson in the rotation. Tenney would play in all but one game that season and though he hit only .256, he got on base frequently enough in front of New York’s impressive collection of hitters to lead the league in runs scored for the first time in his career.

Like I said, he played in all but one game. On September 23, Tenney woke up with a bad back. Up until that point, he had started every game, but even the most durable of players need a day off. John McGraw, the cranky Giants manager, understood and took Tenney out of the lineup. In his place, he put in a 19-year-old rookie who the club was very high on – Fred Merkle. Merkle would spend two decades in the majors, but the events of that day would be all that is remembered.

With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, there were two outs when Merkle came to the plate and a runner on first. 40,000 people were in attendance that day at the Polo Grounds between the Cubs and Giants – two of the best teams in baseball. Merkle, facing Jack Pfiester, rocketed a single to right field. The potential winning run, which was Moose McCormick, hustled into third base. Al Bridwell came to the plate. He had been one of the players Tenney had taken under his wing after joining the Giants. Bridwell shot the ball right back where it came from, passed Pfiester and into center field. McCormick raced home and the Giants began to celebrate a win. Fans swarmed the field, cheering wildly. It was, after all, a big win. It put the Giants a game up on the Cubs.

Cubs second baseman – and future leader of the 1914 Miracle Boston Braves – Johnny Evers had seen something, though. When Merkle saw the fans and everyone else celebrating, he headed back to the dugout thinking the game was over. What he had not done was touch second base, though. Evers explained this to his the Cubs center fielder, who navigated the fans to find the ball. He threw it to Evers, but it was intercepted by a Giants player, who threw it back into the sea of fans. Evers found it again, touched second, and explained the situation to the umpires. They ruled that Merkle had never touched second and he was forced out because of it, meaning that McCormick had never scored. The game would end in a 1-1 tie.

On October 8, with the Cubs and Giants tied for the National League pennant, the two teams met for one more game. The Cubs won 4-2 and went to the World Series. There is a strong chance that none of this happens if Tenney doesn’t wake up that day with a sore back. Tenney, by the way, would never play in the World Series.

The veteran first baseman spent another year in New York, but his numbers continued to decline and he was released. He spent a year in the New England League with Lowell before, on this day in 1910, returning to Boston as a player/manager. To convince Tenney, Boston bought out his shares in the team and gave him a new two-year contract. Now 39, Tenney would hit just .263/.252/.328 during the season while the franchise, now calling themselves the Rustlers, struggled to a 44-107 finish. Only one other team in franchise history has a worse winning percentage and at least the 1935 Boston Braves had Wally Berger to be excited about. Tenney would be fired and released after the 1911 season. He spent the next season being paid to not manage the club and his career was over.

Boston replaced Tenney with its Team Captain from the previous year, Johnny Kling, before hiring George Stallings before 1913. That proved to be one of the biggest moves in franchise history as Stallings would lead the 1914 Braves to its impressive turnaround season.

As for Tenney, he’d spend his post-playing days selling life insurance and serving as a baseball correspondent for the Boston Sunday Post and New York Times. He would die on July 3 in 1952.

More Boston-era TOT’s
Boston Beaneaters Add Herman Long
Beaneaters Get One of Baseball’s Most Vulgar Characters
Jack Quinn is One of Baseball’s Strangest Stories 

Recent TOT’s
Warren Spahn Leaves the Braves
The Time the Braves Re-Acquired Vizcaino
Braves Finalize Deal for Neagle

2 Comments

I continue to enjoy your historic Braves franchise stories. Please keep them coming.

Two thoughts re the article on Fred Tenney, who was one of the best to play for the Boston version of the franchise. The relationship between the Giants and the Braves was periodically quite sketchy from the early 20th century until almost 1930. The relationship between the two teams was often unhealthily close, particularly after the Giants used their influence to have the NL approve the sale of the franchise to Judge Fuchs, who apparently re-named the team as the Braves to celebrate being cousins of the Tammany Hall-connected Giants. Tenney being allowed to hold Braves stock after being traded to New York is symptomatic of the two franchises being too close for comfort. In the early 20s the Giants had an inside track to cheaply acquire talented Braves in the same way the Yankees of the late 50s/early 60’s regularly skimmed away the cream of the Kansas City Athletics.

As for Fred Merkle — his “boner” was a hypertechnical application of the force-out rule in 1908. Baserunners eligible to be forced out were not usually expected to advance to the next base when a sudden-death (now “walk off”) hit took place. But during the summer of 1908, Johnny Evers had been raising the non-enforcement of this rule with NL umpires, and had had a particular disagreement with umpire Hank O’Day about it weeks before the infamous Merkel incident. The upshot of their previous disagreement had resulted in O’Day telling Evers that upon reviewing the technical application of the rule, he would begin enforcing it should it arise with two already out again later during the season. When Al Bridwell connected for the “winning hit” O’Day was on the umpiring crew, and Evers reminded O’Day of his prior commitment to call the out in such a situation. And after considerable delay, O’Day did call Merkel out. As you noted in your article, contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that the ball used to record the infamous force out was probably not even the game ball. But the league stood behind O’Day later that night, and the game was declared a tie — reducing a talented player to an infamous nickname he really didn’t deserve.

Hope you have as much enjoyment writing about the earlier Braves as I do reading your articles.

Thank you for those tremendous additions to the story, Ben. I remember reading how John McGraw and company basically set up Christy Matthewson with a GM job with Boston, which is straight up ridiculous.

I do love writing these TOTs. Some aren’t focused on Boston, but I love getting into baseball history. They aren’t the most popular of the articles we do here at Walk-Off Walk, but they are some of the most fun I have writing. Thanks for reading!

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