George “Bingo” Binks and 1945

As a 30-year-old in 1945, George Alvin “Bingo” Binks was the American League’s top rookie batter. He hit .278 in 145 games. His 32 doubles ranked second in the A.L. His 81 runs batted in, tops on the Senators, were fifth in the league. Yet he is best remembered for a fielding blunder that critics say might have cost the Washington Senators that season’s pennant.

On September 23, 1945, the last day of the Senators’ season, in the 12th inning of the first game of a doubleheader in Philadelphia, the sun had broken through the clouds. Yet Binks didn’t take his sunglasses to centerfield. In the previous inning the A’s centerfielder had called time to get his. Binks proceeded to lose sight of a routine fly that would have ended the inning. The batter, Ernie Kish, reached second and scored the winning run on a single. The Senators won the second game but lost a chance to pull into a virtual tie with the first-place Tigers, who lost that day.[1]

 “Bingo” was a nickname Binks acquired early in his playing days because of how it sounded and his perceived ability to hit in the clutch. His oldest son said sportswriters encouraged his father to use it.[2] Those writers often described Binks as happy-go-lucky, likable and – frustrating to his managers and coaches – forgetful or unheeding of signs.

“I can read the temper of friends, the whims of women, and the changes of weather, but I cannot predict what George Binks will be up to next,” said Casey Stengel, his minor-league manager in 1944. “He is baseball’s Magnificent Unpredictable.”[3] From then on, Bingo had a second nickname.

An operation in high school to treat his mastoiditis punctured Binks’ left eardrum, leaving him deaf on that side and unfit for military service in World War II. The hearing loss occasionally led to collisions with fellow outfielders. “But even with perfect hearing,” one scribe wrote, “Binks would be the type of player who inevitably expresses his personality” on the field.[4]

“I never can tell what he’s going to do,” Senators’ manager Ossie Bluege once said, “because he doesn’t know himself.”[5] “Where Binks labors, the commonplace goes out the window,” Shirley Povich wrote in 1947. “I guess I’m a character,” Binks conceded.[6]

Yet 1945 was the only season he qualified as a regular – he got caught up in the numbers with Washington in 1946. Povich’s article appeared right after Binks was traded to the Athletics, for whom he lasted just one full season. His big-league career was over after appearing briefly for the A’s and Browns in 1948.

Binks was born George Alvin Binkowski on July 11, 1914, in Chicago. His parents were John M. Binkowski and the former Teresa Lewandowski. George was the fifth of their six children. He had three sisters and two brothers. His grandparents were Polish immigrants. He shortened his name when he signed his first player contract. His brother Norbert, the youngest of the six siblings, played for the Lima Terriers in the Ohio State League in 1946.

The Binkowski family was of modest means and struggled financially during the Great Depression. His father was a men’s clothing salesman who usually didn’t come home until late at night, so George was raised mostly by his homemaker mother.[7] Unable to afford a bat and ball when he was a child, George would use a broomstick to hit bottle caps thrown to him by other youngsters.[8] He played on the baseball team at Chicago’s Harrison High School, but dropped out after his second year to earn money doing odd jobs. He often would play in sandlot baseball games, mostly involving unemployed men. Each team would put up $5 and the winning players would split the pot.[9]

As a young man, Binks also played street hockey and, once he could afford skates, ice hockey, a sport he continued to pursue in the off-season during his baseball career. He taught himself by ear to play the harmonica and enjoyed entertaining people.[10]

According to an obituary placed in the Chicago Tribune by family members, Binks jumped a southwest-bound freight train one night in April 1933 to look for work and “to escape the shocking poverty of urban Chicago in the deep years of the Great Depression.”[11]

At dawn, Binks saw several hundred young ballplayers attending what looked like a tryout in Bloomington, Illinois. He jumped off the moving train, slept in the field’s dugout for two cold nights, and made the final cut at the tryout. He was given a few dollars, which he spent on the first food he had eaten in several days.

Binks soon signed up with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which assigned him to its camp at Skokie Valley, Illinois.[12]Among other duties, he showed an aptitude for keeping the field trucks running and learned to tinker with the engines, a skill he would put to use later in life.[13] Binks spent as much time as he could playing ball at CCC camp, he said, “to get out of hard work,” according to a typewritten career summary from 1948 in his Hall of Fame player file. The team won just about every game and featured other men who eventually played professionally, Binks told a reporter in 1945.[14]

His player file at the Hall of Fame says that a minor-league scout saw him play for the CCC team and signed him for the Monessen Indians in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association. At Monessen in 1936, Binks hit .285 in 111 games, with decent power: 24 doubles, eight triples and 11 homers. Cleveland scout Buzz Wetzel, impressed with his play, signed Binks to a contract and sent him to Owensboro, Kentucky, in the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League in 1937.[15] Binks produced similar results there in 83 games and won a promotion to Springfield, Ohio, in the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where he hit .300 in 21 games.

Spending most of the 1938 season with Tyler in the Class C East Texas League, Binks (by then 23) hit .300 with 18 doubles, five triples, and nine homers in 78 games. He also spent a week with Wilkes-Barre in the Class A Eastern League and a second stint with Class C Springfield. In 1939, he put up his best numbers to that point with Cedar Rapids in the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League: .329 with 26 doubles, seven triples and 10 home runs. His 116 RBIs led the league.

Binks couldn’t replicate that success, however, when he opened the 1940 season, again in Cedar Rapids. His .211 average in 57 games brought him a demotion to Charleston in the Middle Atlantic League, where the results weren’t much better. He was so discouraged that he briefly abandoned the game and went home to Chicago. Binks “grabbed up his old tools and got a job as a Ford mechanic.”[16]

Early in the 1941 season, Binks got a call from Richard Paul “Red” Smith, manager of the unaffiliated Green Bay Blue Sox team in the Class D Wisconsin State League. In 29 games after widening his stance on Smith’s advice, Binks regained his batting stroke, driving in 34 runs with seven homers with a .375 average.

On April 28, 1941, before joining Green Bay, Binks married the former Ruth Naus. A son born in 1942 lived just six weeks. Another son, Terrance, born in 1943, went on to medical school and became a physician. George and Ruth eventually had two more sons, Randy and George Jr., and a daughter, Jodee.

On Smith’s recommendation and following a stop at Madison in the Three-I League, Binks was signed by Charlie Grimm for the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers, where he made an impression in his five September 1941 games with eight hits in 18 at-bats and five RBIs.

After war was declared in December, Binks enlisted and initially passed his physical. He was assigned to Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, where he began to play on one of the post’s baseball teams. When he went to have an earache checked, his punctured ear drum was discovered and he was discharged.[17] Nonetheless, wanting to serve in some way, he took a job as a machinist at a South Bend, Indiana, Studebaker plant converted to produce airplanes. He gave up playing ball to work there through the 1942 and ’43 seasons.

Binks returned to the Brewers in 1944, “playing like he was gone for only two days, not for two years.”[18] Casey Stengel became Milwaukee’s manager that May after Grimm resigned. Binks held his own in the outfield and at first base, where he used an old glove with taped-up wires securing the pocket.

“I just can’t part with it,” Binks said. “There’s a lot of memories in that piece of leather. It’s been a lucky charm.” The club finally was able to get him to use a new glove when a violent storm tore off the roof of Milwaukee’s Borchert Field during a game in June. In the commotion, Binks lost his worn-out mitt.[19]

Stengel had no complaint with Binks’ lusty batting average – over .400 in mid-August – but the player’s eccentricities, especially his inability to heed signs at bat or on the bases, were difficult for Stengel to figure out. Binks finished the season at .374, tops in the AA.

To help fill a wartime-depleted roster, Washington owner Clark Griffith acquired Binks from Milwaukee on August 25, 1944, for a price later reported as $15,000 and two unnamed minor-leaguers. Brewers owner Bill Veeck claimed in 1947 that the price for Binks had been $25,000 cash.[20]

Binks, who reported after the Brewers’ season ended, got into five games at the tail end of 1944 for the Senators. Washington finished that season in last place for the first time in Griffith’s long tenure. In his debut on September 23 in Chicago, Binks singled to right in his first time at bat. He was one-for-four facing the White Sox’ Bill Dietrich.

World War II travel restrictions kept major-league teams close to home for 1945’s spring training. The Nats set up camp at the University of Maryland in College Park, a nearby Washington suburb. Griffith showed up there as the camp opened and gave reporters what he expected the season-opening lineup to be. He had Binks in right field, batting third.[21]

Little was expected of the 1945 Senators. Preseason previews by the Associated Press, United Press, and Newspaper Enterprise Association each predicted a second-division finish at best for Washington. “Nobody, including Manager Ossie Bluege, is kidding himself about the chances of the Washington Senators winning the American League Pennant this year,” wrote the AP.[22]

The Nationals scored 14 runs to beat the A’s in Philadelphia in the season opener on April 18. Binks singled four times off four different Philadelphia pitchers. He also walked and stole two bases but was thrown out trying for a third steal. He scored a run and drove in two, batting cleanup.

Binks had his average over .300 and his on-base percentage in the .330s in early May before hitting an 0-for-15 stretch that began at the end of the month. His average briefly dropped below .250 before he got back on track by the middle of June. He actually hit better in the second half of the season. Like all ofhis teammates, he didn’t clear the fences once at cavernous Griffith Stadium.The team’s only homer there was an inside-the parker by Joe Kuhel. All six of Binks’ home runs came in away games.

His RBI total benefited from his performance with men on base – he hit .294 – and in close or late games (as defined by Retrosheet)– .341. The Senators won six in a row in early July when he subbed at first base for an injured Kuhel. Boston’s 21-game-winner Dave Ferriss had trouble getting Binks out. The Red Sox pitcher, who would have been Rookie of the Year, had there been an award, gave up 10 hits to Binks in 18 at-bats.[23]

Despite occasional lapses on the bases by Binks or his obliviousness to signs, his manager acknowledged the rookie’s value. “Bluege has given up on Binks a dozen times,” wrote esteemed Washington sportswriter Povich, “and has ended up marveling at the way he gets a ball in the outfield and hits with men on base.”[24]

“Before Binks came along, I’d say Al Simmons was the best … at going to the left field line, scooping up a grounder and holding the runner to a single,” Bluege said early in 1946. “I believe Binks is better.”[25]

With the war finally over, President Harry Truman showed up at Griffith Stadium on September 8 to throw out the first pitch and take in the game. Binks, not in the day’s lineup, was assigned to sit by the presidential box with a glove to protect the president from any foul balls. At one point, Truman asked to take a look at Binks’ first baseman’s mitt and the two men began chatting, his son George Jr. told author and former AP reporter Frederic J. Frommer.[26]

Binks had been hot – 12 for 30 with five hits in his last two games – prior to the Nats’ season-ending series in Philadelphia. The Senators were finishing a week early because Griffith had rented his stadium to Washington’s NFL team for an exhibition game.

After beating the A’s, 2-0, on September 22, the Nats knew they needed to sweep Philadelphia to preserve a reasonable chance to keep pace with Detroit. One of the Nats’ four knuckleballers, Dutch Leonard, took a 3-0 lead to the bottom of the eighth when errors by Buddy Lewis and Cecil Travis led to three unearned runs that tied the score. Veteran Walt Masterson, back from the service, shut down the A’s for the next three innings, but the Nats couldn’t score. Masterson had two outs with nobody on in the 12th when he induced a lazy fly to center for what should have been the third out.

Looking into the sun, Binks lost sight of the ball. It fell for a cheap double about 10 feet from him. Binks, who walked in the 11th, told his son Terrance years later that he had taken his sunglasses out of his pocket so that he wouldn’t crush them if he got on base and had to slide, Terrance Binks also said his father insisted the glasses wouldn’t have helped because the ball was directly in line with the sun.[27] In any case, George Kell’s single drove in the winning run.

In the clubhouse between games, Binks sat silent as his teammates seethed. Nobody spoke to him. Out of earshot, a pitcher suggested fining Binks the $4,000 that might have been each player’s World Series share.[28]

To Griffith, the blame for Binks not having sunglasses went beyond the player himself. The coaches, Griffith said, should have made sure he had them. (Manager Bluege wasn’t around, having been ejected.) “You take nothing for granted where Binks is concerned,” the Old Fox told Povich.[29]

“Binks’ Boner” was in the headlines on sports pages across the country the next day. But it didn’t take long for Griffith to put the 1945 season and Binks’ overall performance in perspective. In October, he gave Binks a $1,000 bonus.[30]

Despite being what Povich called “one of the rookie sensations” in 1945, Binks headed to spring training in 1946 without a regular spot in the lineup.[31] The Nats got all-star centerfielder Stan Spence and their regular first baseman Mickey Vernon back from the military to nail down two positions Binks had handled. By the end of spring, Buddy Lewis was in right field and Jeff Heath, acquired from Cleveland for George Case, was tabbed for left.[32]

Relegated to the bench, Binks started just 22 of the 65 games in which he appeared. He hit .194 and drove in just 12 runs. So,it was no surprise when Griffith traded Binks in February 1947 to Philadelphia for two pitchers, Lum Harris and Lou Knerr, who had lost a combined 30 games the previous season. Neither lasted long with Washington, but for the A’s, the trade paid immediate dividends.

Binks was inserted into the Philadelphia lineup when Elmer Valo was injured and immediately got hot. His .421 average was second in the league as May began. He had a 14-game hitting streak from April 19 to May 7. He earned recognition in the weekly “Hats Off” column in The Sporting News.[33]

The A’s, losers of 105 games the year before, climbed into the first division during the first half of the ’47 season with key contributions from Binks. Then, a sprained ankle and a knee injury sustained in mid-June kept him out of the starting lineup from June16 through July 9. A four-hit game with three RBIs on July 17 indicated he had recovered, but he had to leave a game on July 24 in the sixth inning and didn’t start again until August 6.

Whatever the reason, his hitting fell off in August (.235) and September (.150) enough to cost him playing time. His last start was on September 7. By month’s end, his batting average had dropped to a season-low .258. Still, he appeared in 104 games, starting 77.

With Ferris Fain having knee surgery in the off-season, Binks began spring training competing with veteran Rudy York for a spot as the backup first baseman. As it turned out, Fain was ready when the season started, and neither Binks nor York played much there. Neither of them hit much, either. Binks had appeared in 17 games and was hitting .098 when the A’s traded him and $20,000 to the Browns for outfielder Ray Coleman. With St. Louis, Binks appeared in 15 games but started just four times before being released to Toledo in the American Association on July 6.

The oldest position player on Toledo’s roster at 33, Binks took over at first base and put up decent numbers: .283 with 36 RBIs in 59 games. Still property of the Browns, St. Louis assigned him to Baltimore in the International League, soon to be the Browns’ AAA affiliate, at the end of the ’48 season.

Binks was in the lineup most days for the Orioles in 1949, playing first base in 65 games and the outfield in 49. His average dipped to .264, but he hit 13 home runs. After one game with Baltimore in 1950, the Orioles sold him on May 2 to Buffalo in the I.L., where he appeared in 100 games, 84 of them in the outfield. He hit just .215 with eight homers and 43 RBIs.[34]

Binks gave it one more try in the spring of 1951 with Buffalo. He was released at the end of April without having appeared in a game. He immediately returned to his home in Chicago.

After he left baseball, Binks parlayed his wartime experience at the Studebaker plant to get hired at General Motors Locomotive in LaGrange, Illinois. During his 30 years there, he rose to master mechanic. His skill was valued enough that he was asked to stay on two years past his normal retirement date.

His son Terrance said his father always was a quick study, as when he picked up auto mechanics with the CCC. Although Binks described his hobby in the 1946 Baseball Register as “woodworking,” he had never worked as a carpenter. Yet after baseball, he bought an old farmhouse 35 miles west of Chicago, which he gutted and remodeled. He passed on his talents to his sons, who learned carpentry, bricklaying, plumbing, and roofing from him. “We can use tools to build houses and repair any machine, all from the guidance of my dad’s mentoring,” son Terrance said.[35]

Binks spent his later years telling his grandchildren stories about fixing “GM big machines” with equal relish as his stories about playing against Hall of Famers.[36] A devout Roman Catholic, Binks attended Mass every Sunday into his 90s. “We all benefited from his example…. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body,” son George Binks Jr. said.[37]

Ruth Naus Binks died in 1998 after she and her husband had been married for 57 years. In failing health with dementia in his last years, Binks was cared for by his son George and then lived with his son Terrance and his wife in Woodbury, Tennessee, until shortly before he died peacefully in a nursing home at age 96 on November 13, 2010.

Binks was survived by his four children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grand-children. He is buried at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Dr. Terrance Binks and George A. Binks Jr. for their help with this biography, which also appears as part of SABR’s BioProject at SABR.org.

Notes


[1] If Washington had won both games of the doubleheader, the Senator’s final record would have been 88-66, .571. The Tigers, with four games left, were 86-64, .573.

[2]Email exchange with Dr. Terrance Binks, October 23, 2021. Every few years, a newspaper or magazine publishes a story recounting notable baseball nicknames and invariably includes “Bingo” Binks.

[3]Frank (Buck) O’Neill, “Bingo Binks, ‘Magnificent Unpredictable,’ Keeps Senators in Scrap for Pennant,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1945: 9.

[4]O’Neill, “Bingo Binks, ‘Magnificent Unpredictable,’”

[5] Shirley Povich, “This Morning” column, Washington Post, March 29, 1946: 10.

[6] Povich, “This Morning” column, Washington Post, February 15, 1947: 8

[7] Email from Dr. Binks, October 25, 2021.

[8] Email from Dr. Binks, October 23, 2021.

[9] Email from Dr. Binks, October 25, 2021.

[10]Typed entry from April 1948 in Binks’ file in the research center at the Hall of Fame.

[11] Paid obituary, Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2010, accessed online:

https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/chicagotribune/name/george-binks-obituary?id+2589409

[12] Art Morrow, “Day Lost for A’s If  Sun Sees No Game Won,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1947: 30.

[13]Email from Dr. Binks, October 25, 2021.

[14] O’Neill.

[15] Morrow.

[16] Povich, “This Morning” column, Washington Post, May 9, 1947: 12.

[17]Email from Dr. Binks, October 25, 2021.

[18] Paul Tenpenny, “Bingo,” Borchert Field, a website devoted to the history of the American Association Milwaukee Brewers, Accessed online: http://www.borchertfield.com/2010/04/bingo.html

[19] Tenpenny.

[20] Povich, May 9, 1947.

[21] John B. Keller, “Griffith Optimistic About Nats as Training Sessions Begin,” (Washington, D.C.)Evening Star, March 24, 1945: 12

[22] Bus Ham, Associated Press, “Senators Are Not Getting Any Applause,” Cumberland (Md.) Evening Times (syndicated from the Associated Press), April 11, 1945: 7.

[23] Ferriss was the choice of SABR members in a poll to pick retrospectively the top rookies each year before 1947.

[24] Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, August 22, 1945: 8

[25] Burton Hawkins, “Fancy Fielding by Binks Gains Him Steady Nat Garden Post,” (Washington, D.C.)Evening Star, May 2, 1946: A18.

[26] Frederic J. Frommer, “How a Half-Deaf Outfielder, a One-Legged Pitcher, and a Team of Misfits Made a Run for the World Series,” Washingtonian magazine, April 30, 2017, accessed online:

//www.washingtonian.com/2017/04/30/how-the-washington-senators-almost-won-world-series-world-war-ii/

[27] Frommer.

[28] Povich, “This Morning,” September 24, 1945:10.

[29] Povich, “This Morning,” February 15, 1947: 8.

[30] Associated Press, “Bonuses to Binks, Myatt,” New York Times, October 10, 1945: 17.

[31] Povich, “Benched Binks Nat Dark Horse,” The Sporting News, February 7, 1946: 14.

[32] Heath was traded to St. Louis in June for outfielder Joe Grace, who took his spot in left. The Nats also took a long look at rookie Gil Coan in the outfield, further limiting Binks’ playing time.

[33] Art Morrow, “Hats Off: George Binks,” The Sporting News,” May 14, 1947: 17.

[34] https://www.statscrew.com/minorbaseball/stats/p-a76a8470. Baseball Reference does not have his 1950 season statistics.

[35] Email from Dr. Binks, October 25, 2021.

[36] Paid obituary, Chicago Tribune, see note 7.

[37] Telephone conversation with George A. Binks Jr, October 26, 2021.

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