Jimmy “Bruno” Block

Buried in St. Adalbert Cemetery, Milwaukee Wis.

Here lies James Blochowicz, aka Jimmy Block aka Bruno Block. He was a catcher for the Washington Senators (1907), Chicago White Sox (1910-12) and Chicago Chi-Feds of the Federal League (1914). Had he not suffered from repeated hand injuries, he may have been the Sox starting catcher for years. As it is, his biggest contribution to major league baseball may have come from his involvement in a trade.

Bruno Block pic
Photo from Topeka State Journal, July 31, 1909.

Why did he shorten his name to “Block”? This was the early 20th Century, so Poles, Italians, Irish and anyone else with a non-WASP last name were fodder for ridicule. One paper noted that Block’s real name is “composed of a series of z’s, an n and a few other letters,” and other attempts to spell his name invariably butchered it. No wonder a host of players from that era Americanized their surnames. I know how you must have felt, man. Block went by “Jimmy” for the early part of his career, but the papers called him “Bruno” or “James Bruno” from about 1912 onward.

Block’s parents came from Poland, according to the 1900 U.S. census. By then, Jimmy was 15 and helping to contribute to the household by working as a shop boy at an iron works in Milwaukee. His mother, Kunegunda, was retired, and his father may have already passed away, so his two older sisters and one brother worked too. He played sandlot baseball in Milwaukee starting in 1901 or so. He and his group of Polish teammates were called the Shamrocks—out of irony, I suppose—and they played the Irish and German teams in town.

“I was manager and chief fighter for the club, because we had to fight whether we won or lost a game,” he later recalled. His frequent fights led to a brief boxing career, and he went 13-1 one year. That one loss, a knockout, made him stick to baseball for his athletic endeavors. Block set off for Texas in 1905 to find his way in pro baseball, but he also spent time with the hometown Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, in 1906.

Block was in Galveston, Texas in 1907, struggling with the Sand Crabs of the Texas League when the Senators picked him up. Injuries had seemingly thinned out the Sens’ roster, so Block was added to the team. He hit just .140 in 24 games, and to make matters worse he split open a finger on August 20, so the Senators had to scramble and grab another minor-league catcher. At the end of the season, Block was sent to Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, “as he did not show enough class here to warrant holding him over.”

Block spent two seasons with the Millers and did well for himself. He hit .266 in 1908 and hit 3 homers and 9 triples in 1909. While he had some fielding problems, he had a strong arm and could make the dazzling play every so often. One game recap from June 1909 described how he crashed into the grandstand to catch a pop foul and then threw the ball to second to nail the runner trying to advance on the play. He was acquired by the White Sox near the end of the season, being regarded at one of the best catchers in the AA.

The Sox had three catchers in 1910, with Block sharing time with Fred Payne and Billy Sullivan. Block hit .211 in 55 games and was slightly below average behind the plate. He saved his best move for after the season, when he went back to Milwaukee to marry his wife Marie. Block had his best season the following year, which may or may not have been a coincidence. He slashed .304/.339/.400 and clocked his only MLB home run, off Detroit’s Ed Willett. A foul tip off his throwing hand ended his season in early October, and there were rumors he would be traded in the offseason. However, he had a meeting with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and manager Jimmy Callahan and ended up being the first player to sign a contract for 1912.

Block started the 1912 season strong, getting his batting average over .330 by mid-May. He was sidelined for a bit with two broken bones in his hand but continued to hit well into June. He slumped from there – a broken finger hampered him at bat and in the field. If not for that last injury, Block may well have stayed as the starting catcher for the Sox. As it was, he traded to Milwaukee in early August for a young prospect by the name of Ray Schalk. Schalk, of course, would go on to hold down the catcher’s job for the White Sox for the next decade-plus as part of his Hall of Fame career.

Block was stung by the trade, performed poorly for the Brewers and announced his retirement from baseball in August. He’d bought a saloon in Milwaukee and intended to devote his time there. However, a surgery to re-break and re-set his finger removed a troublesome splinter of bone, and he decided to resume his career. His statistics for the 1913 season are not available, but Block was picked to catch for the Chicago Chi-Feds of the short-lived Federal League, the last league to rival MLB. He hit .198 in 45 games and was not picked up for the team’s second (and last) season.

For his career, Block hit .231 in the majors, with 131 hits. He managed 10 career triples, which is a fair accomplishment for someone whose speed once earned comparisons to a glacier. His fielding was just above average, but he had a good arm and twice finished in the Top 5 in runners caught stealing.

Block continued to play ball in semi-pro teams. He played for Lincoln in the Western League in 1916, the Bloomington Bloomers in 1917 and Topeka in 1918. By 1920, he was back in Milwaukee working as a collector for a brewery. By 1930, he owned his own real estate company, according to the census records. Jimmy Block died on August 6, 1937 at the age of 52.

An Ottumwa newspaper that once covered a White Sox exhibition game in June 1912 stated that Blocks’ “gesicht [face] must have been shoved on him by some cartoonist.” He was also referred to as “the guy with the funny face.” He did get his revenge on Ottumwa by belting a game-winning homer in the 10th inning.

“It has been hard work all the time and I have been handicapped, but I am not sorry,” Block wrote about baseball in 1910. “I still love the game as much as I did when a kid on the lots. When they will not pay me a salary any longer I am going to catch for nothing.”

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