“SUNNY JIM” BOTTOMLEY IN THE 1920’s GOLDEN AGE OF BASEBALL

 

Baseball before Bottomley

Baseball has roots in two sports brought to America by colonists—rounders and cricket. By the 1840s, rules were codified for this loosely organized game, which was readily adapted to any terrain and momentary gathering of players. 1850’s New York went mad for baseball, and it was deemed the country’s “national pastime.” Modern baseball began in 1903 when the American and National Leagues competed in the first World Series.

 

The curveball emerged early on as a deceptive, albeit democratic, technique. The spitball soon followed and would not be made illegal until 1920, though several established pitchers were grandfathered in and allowed to continue the practice. Another rough-and-tumble technique was camouflaging the ball with tobacco juice or slippery elm, but when Ray Chapman died just 12 hours after being hit in the head with a darkened ball in 1920, baseball shifted from a pitcher’s game to a batter’s game. Umpires were required to enforce new rules mandating clean balls be used.

 

What was acceptable before 1920 was now called into question, including the overuse of balls. Though they were constructed of cork and wrapped in cowhide, they unraveled and softened so much over the course of a game that long-distance hits were difficult. It did not help that, at the time, baseball diamonds were gargantuan compared to their modern counterparts. These conditions coalesced to encourage baseball players to adopt a “small ball” strategy of bunts and stolen bases; spectators witnessed few home runs and low scoring games, Thus, the period before 1920 is referred to as the Dead-Ball Era.

 

Despite the dampening quality of baseball in the Dead-Ball Era, spectators enjoyed the leisurely game, which invited conversation punctuated by moments that arose and passed with exciting speed. The improvisational choreography of players shifting over a diamond-shaped field is the kind of scene that results from the fact that baseball is the only game where defense has the ball. This sport was approachable in the sense that it appeared to be just the kind of game that spectators themselves could succeed at.

 

Each player stood as an individual statement on the character of America. They came to the field from diverse occupations and worried about going back to their day jobs. With little separation between players and spectators, this personal game naturally courted corruption in the form of gambling, which led to cheating. Baseball grew in popularity until some White Sox players were accused of intentionally losing the 1919 World Series in exchange for payoffs from gamblers. The White Sox were such a heavy favorite against the Cincinnati Reds that a Reds victory posed quite a lucrative opportunity for gamblers. As a consequence of this scandal, eight ball players were banned for life from professional baseball. Additional reports of fixed games came to light and seemed to signal that the entire sport had been corrupted.

 

Only the exploits and slugging power of Babe Ruth could move baseball past the shady 1910s. His success in drawing crowds with awe-inspiring home runs effectively ended the Dead-Ball Era. Home runs became more commonplace as “swinging for the fences” replaced the small ball strategy. The 1920s opened a door to Baseball’s Golden Age. “Sunny Jim” Bottomley’s 1922 debut in Major League Baseball was full of promise and helped move the sport into a respectable light.

 

"Sunny Jim" Bottomley
(April 23, 1900 - December 11, 1959)

James LeRoy Bottomley was born to John and Elizabeth Bottomley of Oglesby, Illinois. As son to a coal miner who worked for the LaSalle Carbon Coal Company, he grew up in a modest house across from the old Lehigh Mill. They moved to Nokomis and, shortly after WWI, James lost his eldest brother, Ralph, to a mine collapse with the Peabody Coal Company. From these humble roots, at the age of sixteen, James dropped out of school to financially support his family. He worked as a grocery and railroad clerk, coal miner, blacksmith, and truck driver.

This family photo shows Uncle Ed and Aunt Bessie in the back of a car “driven” by Ralph, who is accompanied by his brother James in the passenger seat.

 

For pleasure in his downtime, Bottomley played semi-pro baseball for $5 per game ($80 today). To get there and back, he walked eight miles each way. After a St. Louis policeman reported his two home runs and three triples at a Labor Day game in 1919, Bottomley captured the attention of Branch Rickey, a man of great influence in baseball for having signed the first black player, Jackie Robinson, and developing the Cardinals into a legendary team.

 

Bottomley’s bright smile and pleasant demeanor earned him the nickname “Sunny Jim.” He was known for wearing his cap cocked to one side over his left eye, a symbol of good nature that played well off of what his fellows described as a country-style, crackerjack humor.

 

Bottomley was a favorite of the “Knot Hole Gang Youngsters,” a name that derives from the groups of children who gathered to spy on the game through knots in the wooden fences surrounding baseball fields. The Cardinals were the first team to transform this natural phenomenon into a promotional technique designed to attract families. They saved a bleacher each game as a free seat giveaway to children. Bottomley started in the big leagues with the Cardinals on August 18th, 1922. That very year, he hit for his highest season batting average of .371.


In 1924, Bottomley set a major league record by driving in twelve home runs in a single game, a record that would not be tied for 69 more years. Bottomley was once sued for hitting a home run. Yes! After hitting a home run, a fan by the name of Irwin Hayes was struck in the nose, resulting in severe nerve damage and a $7,500 suit, though Hayes failed to argue that Bottomley deliberately did so with his “intention to create a situation known as a home run.”

 

In 1926, Bottomley led the Cardinals to the World Series, beating the Yankees in a seven-game battle. Bottomley played with the Cardinals for a full decade through 1932, including four World Series: 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1931.

 

“Sunny Jim” was the perfect baseball star at a time when the sport wished to be known as a “gentleman’s game.” In 1928, eight professional baseball writers served as committeemen with the National League; together, they voted Bottomley the “Most Valuable Player” and gave him one of the highest scores ever in the history of the award. He brought home $1,000 in gold!

 

Five years before wrapping up his baseball career, on February 4, 1933, Bottomley married Elizabeth “Betty” Brawner of St. Louis. With noticeable heart problems, he settled on a 120-acre farm, just 60 miles outside of St. Louis.

 

Bottomley holds a goat as he nears retirement on a farm with his wife. This article recalls an incident when Bottomley brought a Jersey Cow to the diamond and literally milked her “to the shrieks of a 10,000 Ladies’ Day crowd.”

 

Bottomley returned to baseball as a talent scout for the Cardinals and, later, the Chicago Cubs. In 1957, he managed the Pulaski Cubs of the Class D Appalachian League. While Christmas shopping with his wife on December 11th, 1959, Bottomley passed away from a heart attack at the age of 59.

 

 In the above picture Bottomley does an interview while receiving treatment for anemia in a hospital in 1956. He recalls the old days with nostalgia.

 

The statistics attached to players function as tags that allow us to compare and contrast skills across generations. Bottomley’s numbers hold strong, and many of his records remain unbroken. “Sunny Jim” was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1999, the Chicago Tribune listed Bottomley as the all-star first baseman for the Golden decade of the 1920s.

 

 Above, a collector’s card contains a slice of Bottomley’s game-use bat.

Above is a limited edition card authorized by Leland Bottomley. Both cards show Bottomley in his signature stance.

 

“Sunny Jim” holds his second cousin Von Jay Bottomley (circa 1950s).

Leland Bottomley’s sister kept this photo, which had been folded into quarters. Leland digitally repaired it, pixel by pixel. The photo was probably taken by Uncle Avon Bottomley, a professional photographer in Pekin who liked to travel up to LaSalle County for getaways on the boat, which Von Jay liked to steer as a young boy.

Thanks to Leland Bottomley, lifelong resident of Utica, for lending reference material, photos, memorabilia and artifacts related to “Sunny Jim” Bottomley. In the family photo to the left, Leland’s father is shown at the very right of the standing row; he was “Sunny Jim’s” first cousin. Leland Sr’s father (in center with wife and child in white) was brothers with “Sunny Jim’s” father.

 

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