Grave Story: Tom “Tink” Turner (1890-1962)

Here lies Tom “Tink” Turner, who got his one-game career in major-league baseball the old-fashioned way: he asked for it. Yes, things were a little different in baseball in the 1910s. Turner pitched in one game for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1915 and parlayed that into a long career as a scout and minor-league executive.

Tom Turner was born in Swarthmore, Pa., on February 20, 1890. He was a high school pitching star and a graduate of Drexel Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. The path that led Turner from graduation to pitching in Shibe Park is an uncertain one. Baseball Reference has a fairly thorough background, but there are also references from contemporary reports that don’t line up.

Turner entered professional baseball in 1910, playing for the Raleigh Red Birds of the Eastern Carolina League. If he pitched, there are no statistics available, but he hit a lousy .105 in 26 games. His first pitching stats are with the Henderson Hens in 1913, where he went 10-7 in 17 games. In 1914, Turner pitched briefly with Chattanooga but spent the bulk of his season with the Toledo Mudhens, where he had an awful 5-22 record in 29 games. He occasionally pitched brilliantly but once walked 11 batters in a game; he seemed to be a pretty fair hitter, too. Other newspaper reports list him as playing in Des Moines, Danville and in the New England League. The book Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, 1915-1951 by Norman Macht states that Turner had a pretty mediocre stay with Hornell of the Interstate League in 1915. None of those teams are included in his record on Baseball Reference.

Taken as a whole, then, the 25-year-old Turner was an experienced pitcher by the time he decided to visit Shibe Park in September 1915 to talk with the legendary A’s manager Connie Mack. Macht writes that Turner asked Mack for an audition, and Mack sent him to the mound to start the second game of a doubleheader against the White Sox on September 24. The A’s had already lost 100 games, so it was a pretty low-risk move. It went about as well as you might expect, as the Sox swept the woeful A’s in the doubleheader by the scores of 7-5 and 12-5.

“Poor fielding in the opening tiff and weird flinging by Turner and [Cap] Crowell in the afterpiece was responsible for the two defeats,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer the following day. Turner got pounded for 6 runs (5 earned) in 2 innings against the Sox. He walked 3 and gave up a homer to Shoeless Joe Jackson in a 12-5 loss, leaving him with a 0-1 MLB record and a 22.50 ERA.

Turner and Mack had a heart-to-heart conversation sometime after that game, and by then Turner had decided that his pitching days were over. Mack (according to Macht) said that he was looking for a scout who could tell when a player was no good. Turner had already scouted himself and knew he was no good, so he was qualified for the job.

“Anybody could get excited about bush league stars, he told me, but it took a bird like me to tell when they wouldn’t by any manner of means do. So by declaring myself unfit for big league company as a player, I became a picker of others who might be,” Turner recalled.

Turner began scouting part-time for Mack by 1916, but he also continued to pitch for a couple more seasons before he was drafted into the military. Turner was a major in the infantry during World War I; one later news report said that he was under shell fire in the Argonne Forest for 22 consecutive days. He left the Army and returned to Mack’s employ in 1919. He traveled across the entire continent, from Norfolk, Va., to Winnipeg, Alberta, to Des Moines, Iowa. He had his work cut out for him, because the A’s teams of the late 1910’s and early ‘20s were just horrible and needed all the talent Turner and the other scouts could possibly find. He quickly gained a reputation as a fine judge of talent. But nobody’s perfect, as this quote about Babe Ruth in 1921 shows.

“I don’t look for the Babe [Ruth] to be playing in the majors after 1923, as he looks too heavy to get around. Of course, he may find some kind of a flesh reducer which will prolong his stay.”

Turner’s relationship with the Portland Beavers is a little confusing. In early 1922, scout Turner became the manager of the Pacific Coast League team when skipper William Kenworthy was temporarily kicked out or organized ball by Commissioner Landis, along with Portland’s president and vice president. Turner held the manager position until mid-July stepped down from his position and was replaced by Al Demaree. “The need of the Portland club is ball players. My place is in the East where I can obtain them,” Turner said of his decision to go back to his scouting role.

It seems that Turner was working with the Beavers in an advisory role, as a separate, “independent” venture from his official scouting roles. I use quotes because while it appears that the two jobs were unrelated, Turner helped to a large amount of talent Mack’s way. For instance, after third baseman Sammy Hale had two good seasons with Portland in 1921 and 1922, Turner helped him land in Philadelphia, where he starred with the A’s for the better part of a decade.

In October 1924, the Portland Beavers were sold to the trio of Duffy Lewis, John Shibe and Turner. Lewis was a former big-league outfielder who would manage the Beavers in 1925. Shibe was the son of the late Benjamin Shibe and one of the co-owners of the Athletics, along with his brother Tom and Mack. Despite the fact that 2/3 of the new ownership were connected to the Philadelphia Athletics, Shibe made an announcement in Portland that there would be “not even the remotest effort on the part of the Athletics to dictate the policies of the Portland club.” (per The Salt Lake Tribune).

By a remarkable coincidence, the Beavers and Athletics worked out a deal on November 17 that sent Portland’s top asset, 21-year-old catching sensation Mickey Cochrane, to Philadelphia in exchange for Chuck Rowland, Dennis Burns, Bob Hasty, Harry Riconda, Ed Sherling and $50,000 cash. If you’ve never heard of any of those players, it’s because that accumulated a combined 5.0 WAR in the big leagues. Cochrane topped that total in five of his 13 seasons in the majors, as part of a Hall of Fame career. The young catcher was said to be headed to the St. Louis Cardinals until the new ownership took over in Portland.

Source: The Eugene Guard, March 31, 1932.

“I am sorry to let the five players go in the deal for Cochrane, but as the Portland Club insisted on several men, we had to pick out some players to send them,” Mack said, doing his level best to make this deal seem remotely fair.

Turner had discovered Cochrane playing for a team in Dover under the name of “Frank King.” He acquired him for the Beavers for $1,000, so he turned a nifty $49,000 profit in addition to five players in that deal.

The name of the game in the minor leagues at that time was to develop prospects to sell to the big-league clubs, so that you made enough money to continue running the team and find more prospects. To that end, Turner was pretty successful as a minor-league magnate. He made more than $1.2 million by selling players to the majors – mostly to Philadelphia – in less than a decade with the Beavers.

Rube Walberg, who won 155 games in the majors in a 15-year career, was a goldmine for Turner. He discovered the pitcher in a lumber camp, signed him to pitch in Portland and ended up selling him to two different MLB teams.

“John McGraw paid $35,000 for the Rubs, with an agreement to pay more if he wanted to keep him after a certain date,” Turner said in 1930. “McGraw decided he wouldn’t do and returned him to me, and I later sold him outright to the Athletics for $25,000.”

The team, though, struggled and went through a series of managers while finishing in the lower half of the standings year after year. Turner also feuded with Portland sportswriters over the team’s lack of success. The Beavers (also called the Ducks) won the PCL pennant in 1933 but ran into financial problems. Turner sold the team to E.J. Scheffer after the 1934 season.

Turner returned as an Athletic scout for a couple of seasons before retiring in 1949. According to the Sporting News obituary on Turner, he sent more than just Cochrane to the A’s over the years. He also delivered Walberg, Ferris Fain, Bing Miller, Doc Cramer, Lou Finney and Ed Coleman.

Turner had a love-hate relationship with the press. He was good for a quote; he once boasted that if the Beavers lost a key series, he and his wife would walk to Philadelphia. “And mind you, Mrs. Turner had bunions,” he added. Turner also messed with reporters. He dropped a bombshell once at a baseball banquet when he stood up and announced that he bought the Boston Braves. The news made headlines, but San Francisco sportswriter Al Baum called up Braves president Bob Quinn to see if he could elaborate on the news.

“Mr. Baum,” Quinn said, “who is Tom Turner?”

Weeks later, Turner announced that he had sold Bill Cissell to the White Sox for a whopping $125,000. West Coast reporters laughed that one off, figuring it was another stunt. It was the truth, and they were all scooped by the Chicago media who reported the news two days later.

Tom Turner died on February 25, 1962 from cancer and congestive heart failure. He had turned 72 five days prior. He is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

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