Grave Story: Bert Brenner (1887-1971)

Here lies Bert Brenner, who had a brilliant major league pitching debut but had only one more major-league appearance after that. Brenner played for the Cleveland Naps (1912).

Delbert Brenner was born in Minneapolis on July 18, 1887. Brenner never played in professional baseball until he threw his first pitch for Cleveland. He had played for some city teams in his hometown and pitched in Burlington, Iowa, in 1910, but he didn’t really make a name for himself until he joined a team in Alexandria, Minn., in 1911. He had a reputation as a talented, but lazy, ballplayer, but he started winning a good share of ballgames once he started pitching for his new team, both with his arm and his bat. “Not only is he throwing good ball, but he is cracking the pill right on the trade mark, and this always helps a twirler,” reported the Star Tribune.

Brenner started off 1912 with the Racine Belles of the Wisconsin-Illinois League. While there are no statistics available for the league, Brenner appeared to have a great season. There was some talk that the “big kid from Minnesota” would have to get farmed out to a smaller league after some early struggles, he was a hot pitcher by the summer. He shut out Madison 6-0 on July 19, striking out 7 and hitting a home run, too. Three days later, he fanned 6 Oshkosh batters on the way to a 6-2 win. He tossed another shutout on July 27, this time striking out 11 Wasau hitters. All total, he won 15 of 18 games, averaging 9 strikeouts per game. As evidenced by the home run, he was a solid hitter too. At one point, the papers reported that he had reached safety in 10 straight at-bats.

Source: The Times Democrat, March 20, 1913.

Racine manager William Fox sold Brenner to the Cleveland Naps (so named because of star player Nap Lajoie) for $2,000 in mid-August, effective after the Belles’ season had concluded. Connie Mack wanted the young pitcher for his Philadelphia Athletics, but he wouldn’t meet Fox’s asking price. Brenner officially joined Cleveland on September 15 after helping Racine to a second-place finish. He made his MLB debut on September 22 against the New York Highlanders.

It took 10 innings, but Brenner and his teammates came away with a 5-4 win. He threw all 10 innings in his debut, walking 3 batters and striking out 1. The Naps’ defense let him down, as all of the Yankees runs scored on errors, according to game recaps. Right fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, first baseball Doc Johnston and catcher Bert Adams all had errors, and shortstop Ray Chapman had two miscues. Cleveland rallied to score twice in the bottom of the 10th, when Chapman and Terry Turner both doubled, and Turner scored the winning run on a passed ball.

Brenner’s last game was on October 5, when the Browns destroyed the Naps 13-1. Brenner worked the final 3 innings and gave up 4 runs, striking out a pair, walking 1 and throwing 2 wild pitches. The season ended a game later, and Brenner returned to Racine briefly before heading home for the winter. In his 2 games, Brenner allowed 4 earned runs in 13 innings for a 2.77 ERA. He walked 4 and struck out 3, to go with his 1-0 record. Brenner was expected to be invited to Spring Training in 1913 and be a part of the Naps pitching staff.

Plans changed once 1913 rolled around. Brenner was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association in exchange for rookie pitcher Nick Cullop. New Orleans manager Charley Frank was impressed by the pitcher in the Spring, but when the regular season rolled around, Brenner couldn’t buy a win. He pitched so poorly that he was briefly demoted to Jackson of the Cotton States League, and he didn’t fare any better there. He ended up with an 0-11 record for the Pelicans in 33 appearances, and nobody seemed too broken-hearted when Brenner was released on August 5, 1913, to spend the rest of the season with Omaha of the Western League.

“Outside of losing about a dozen straight games, Brenner has done nothing worth speaking of except strike out many times,” reported The Times-Democrat of New Orleans. “When the unfortunate Nap recruit did have a good day and was pitching good ball, the Birds went to pieces behind him and booted the game away or else they didn’t hit and win.”

(The Times-Democrat gave up on Brenner way before manager Frank did. The paper wrote on July 21, “If Bert Brenner keeps healthy, he may win a baseball game some day, provided he lives long enough.”)

Brenner seems to have pitched better for the Omaha Rourkes than he did in New Orleans and signed a contract for 1914 after a short holdout for more money. The problem was that he was hurt. He had a sore shoulder and arm that kept him from pitching until June. When he did finally get to the mound, he didn’t show any of the speed he once had and was hammered by the opposition. Several seasons of overuse may have finally come back to haunt Brenner. Racine in 1912 pitched him once every three or four days. The Pelicans in 1913 once had him pitch both games of a doubleheader. That sort of abuse takes a toll.

Brenner was released by Omaha in February 1915 and signed with the Grand Forks Flickertails in North Dakota. After a season, he played for a local Grand Forks team called the Cavaliers. Not much information is available about that team, but he did drop a 5-0 decision to the touring All-Nations team, featuring legendary African-American pitcher John Donaldson.

Bert Brennet coached softball teams up to a year before his death at 83. Here is is with his son, Jim. Source: The Minneapolis Star, July 23, 1959.

While in North Dakota, Brenner married Lillian Stearns and would have four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. He worked as a self-employed carpenter before moving to Minneapolis in the 1920s, working as a floor layer. He played with and later managed, local teams before stepping away. He was pressed back into service in 1959 to help one of his sons. Jim Brenner, who had been a high school baseball player, was playing in an adult softball league. When his team needed a manager, he recruited his 62-year-old father. The team immediately went on an 8-game winning streak.

“If you want me for a manager, you’re going to play ball,” he told the team when they recruited him. Jim said that his dad hadn’t been happier in 15 years, now that he had a team to manage.

“We just needed a stern hand for the team,” he said at the time. “Dad has it.”

Brenner stayed active as a softball manager throughout the rest of his life. He was also an avid bowler. Bert Brenner died on April 11, 1971, at the age of 83. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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