by Mark McDermott/BaseballSacramento.com
Born: August 16, 1913
Died: September 15, 1949
High School: Amador
Debut: August 5, 1940
Last Game: August 27, 1949
Teams: New York Yankees 1940-1946; Pittsburgh Pirates
Ernie Bonham was called
His nickname didn’t come close to painting a
true picture of the man. He grew into a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame by working on the family
farm in Ione and in the Northern California lumber camps.
Who could have known that Bonham, who described
his hometown as “one of those ghost towns from the Gold Rush days” would become one of the
greatest pitchers in New York Yankees history.
When Bonham arrived in New York in 1940 at age
26, the club was 11.5 games behind the American League-leading Detroit Tigers. He showed the
ability to keep opposing batters off balance with a baffling variety of deliveries. He won
five of his first six starts. When he beat the Cleveland Indians' Hall of Fame ace Bob Feller
on September 19 the Yankees took over first place. However, the Yankees would finish the
season two games back of the Tigers, prompting Yankees manager Joe McCarthy to declare that
if the team had Bonham all season they would have won the pennant.
The two-time A.L. All-Star was the first
successful pitcher to utilize the forkball and have excellent control of it. In 10 seasons,
he led the American League in walks-per-nine-innings twice and had a career BB/9 mark of
Post sportswriter Shirley Povich once wrote, “When he
walked as many as two men he was having a bad day.”
Bonham led the A.L. with a 1.90 ERA as a rookie
in 1940. In 1942, his .808 winning percentage, 21-5 record, six shutouts and 22 complete
games were the league’s best. He pitched the Yankees to the World Series from
Bonham had an unusual routine he went through in
preparation for a start and during the game. He worked with a three-pound iron ball the size
of a baseball. Minor league coach and pitcher Wee Willie Luderus introduced him to the
concept of the heavy ball, explaining it would have the same effect as a hitter swinging
multiple bats before an at-bat. The baseball would feel lighter.
Bonham suffered from chronic back problems
throughout his career. Before the 1941 season, the Yankees sent him to John Hopkins
University for an examination. Doctors suggested he sleep on a board and fitted him for a
“whalebone corset” to support his spine.
The pain never eased. In 1941, he missed six
weeks and was limited to 14 starts, but still compiled an 8-6 record and 2.48 ERA. McCarthy
would give him seven days rest in between starts. His ailment severely reduced his
effectiveness during his final five seasons. Despite the toll it took on his body, he
remained a tough competitor. The aches and pains were attributed to his lumber camps
In 1949, Bonham told teammates he planned to
retire to his California farm after the season. His back problems worsened. By early
September, his record was only 7-4, as he had been limited to just 14 starts. But he still
gutted it out, winning his last six games. Always tired and complaining from stomach pain, he
was admitted to Pittsburgh Presbyterian Hospital on September 8 for an appendectomy only to
have the surgeons discover intestinal cancer.
Eighteen days after his admission to the
hospital Bonham died. He was only 36 years old.
Career Statistics -- Ernie