Johnny Bassler

Johnny Bassler

C, 3B, OF
June 3, 1895
5' 9"
170 lbs
Major League Debut:
7-11-1913 with CLE

John Landis Bassler (June 3, 1895 – June 29, 1979) was a Major League Baseball catcher. Born in Mechanics Grove, Pennsylvania. Bassler played professional baseball from 1913 to 1937, including 9 seasons in the major leagues with the Cleveland Naps (1913 - 1914) and Detroit Tigers (1921 - 1927). Bassler had a career on base percentage of .416 in his 9 major league seasons, the second highest all time among major league catchers. He was considered the best catcher in baseball from 1921–1925, finishing in the top 7 in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting three straight years: 6th in 1922, 7th in 1923, and 5th in 1924. In addition to his major league career, Bassler played 15 years in the Pacific Coast League and has been inducted into the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame. After his playing career ended, Bassler lived in Southern California. He died on June 29, 1979 in Santa Monica, California.

Early life

Bassler was born in 1895 to a Mennonite family in Mechanics Grove, Pennsylvania. He was one of 13 children. He left the Mennonite community in 1912 at age 17 and moved, on his own, to California. Bassler worked as an usher at one of the big theaters in Los Angeles. When two major league teams held a series of exhibition games in Los Angeles, Bassler attended. One of the team’s catchers was injured during the game. In a stroke of luck, Bassler later told his family that the manager of the team came to the theater that night, and Bassler asked him what he was going to do for a catcher. Bassler told the manager he was a catcher, and the manager told Bassler to “come on out.”

That turned out to be Bassler’s big break, as he was playing his first major league game for the Cleveland Naps on July 11, 1913. Just one month after his 18th birthday, Bassler was in the major leagues, playing on the same team as Nap Lajoie and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Bassler played only one game for the Naps in 1913 – an 11-5 loss to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Bassler went hitless in 2 plate appearances and committed an error in that game. He did not play again until 1914. In 1914, Bassler played in 43 games for the Naps but hit only .182.

After a disappointing start with the Naps, Bassler returned to Los Angeles and played for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Bassler played 6 seasons with the Angels from 1915-1920.

Detroit Tigers (1921-1927)

In 1921, the 26-year-old Bassler made it back to the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers. Over the next seven seasons, from 1921-1927, Bassler proved to be the best catcher in the major leagues, finishing in the top seven in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting three straight years: 6th in 1922, 7th in 1923, and 5th in 1924.

Bassler was an outstanding offensive and defensive player. Baseball analyst Bill James wrote that, "if his major league career wasn’t so short he would rank among the top 20 catchers of all time.” ("The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," (2001), p. 482). Because of the brevity of his major league career, James ranks Bassler as the 47th best catcher of all time.

Bassler was a career .304 hitter with a good batting eye. He walked 437 times in his major league career, while striking out only 81 times. That is a remarkable ratio of 5.4 walks per strikeout – one of the highest in major league history. The only two American League players known to have a higher walk per strikeout ratio are Joe Sewell and Tris Speaker.

Bassler was also among the American League leaders in at bats per strikeout four straight years from 1922-1925. His 1925 total of 57.3 at bats per strikeout is one of the highest in American League history. Only nine American League batters (Joe Sewell, Stuffy McInnis, Tris Speaker, Mickey Cochrane, Sam Rice, Eddie Collins, Dale Mitchell, Homer Summa, and Lou Boudreau) have had a season with a higher at bat per strikeout ratio than Bassler.

Bassler’s sharp eye helped fuel his career .416 On base percentage. Bassler had an on base percentage over .400 in all seven years he played for the Tigers (1921–1927). The only major league catcher with a higher career on base percentage is Mickey Cochrane who had a career on base percentage of .419. Bassler’s 1924 on base percentage of .441 was second only to Babe Ruth. His .406 on base percentage in his years with the Tigers ranks third in franchise history, behind Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg. And his .346 batting average in 1924 was 5th best in the league and tops on a Detroit Tigers team that included Hall of Fame batsmen, Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, and Heinie Manush.

Bassler was also an outstanding defensive catcher in his years with the Detroit Tigers. In 1923, his .988 fielding percentage (eight errors in 128 games) was twelve points higher than the league average of .975. Bassler was known for his strong throwing arm. In his prime years from 1921–1925, Bassler had 462 assists in 482 games. In 1923, he had 133 assists in 128 games as a catcher. He also had 14 double plays in 118 games in 1925.

The weakest area of Bassler’s game was power. In 2,319 career at bats, Bassler hit only 1 home run.

A Babe Ruth Story

In 1923, Bassler was part of one of the great trick plays in baseball history. When Babe Ruth came to bat, player-manager Ty Cobb whistled a signal to Bassler and pitcher Hooks Dauss from center field, directing them to give Ruth an intentional walk. When Dauss threw a strike past Ruth, Cobb ran to the infield, yelling at Dauss and Bassler for disobeying his order. When Dauss then threw a second strike past Ruth, Cobb raced in again, stomped around and pulled both Dauss and Bassler from the game. After warming up, the relief pitcher fired a third strike past an unsuspecting Ruth. Cobb reportedly doubled up in laughter, calling it a "once in a lifetime setup play." (Al Stumpf, "Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball" (1994), p. 350)

Return to the Pacific Coast League (1928-1937)

In 1928, the Tigers sold the 32-year-old Bassler to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. Bassler continued his playing career for several more years on the West Coast. He played for the Stars from 1928-1935. In 1930 he hit .365 to lead Hollywood to the PCL pennant. In 1931 he hit .354, and in 1933 hit .336. According to Bill James, "the PCL didn’t record walks, but it would be a safe guess that he wasn’t walking any less often." ("The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," (2001), p. 482).

In his book, "The Hollywood Stars," Richard E. Beverage wrote that Bassler was “one of the greatest catchers in minor league history.” He caught 868 games for Hollywood and had a batting average of .331. Perhaps his best year was 1932 when he caught 156 games and batted .357. ("The Hollywood Stars," by Richard E. Beverage.)

Bassler also played in 1936 and 1937 for the Seattle Indians in the PCL. He was a player manager in 1937. Bill Klepper, the Seattle Indians owner, had major financial problems. On the last day of the 1937 season, pitcher Dick Barrett needed two victories to reach 20 and earn a $500 bonus. He beat Sacramento 4-1 in the first game of a doubleheader. Between games, federal and state tax agents seized the gate receipts for money due on admission taxes. Klepper told Bassler to pitch Marion Oppelt in the second game. Bassler started Barrett anyway. Barrett went all the way and got his 20th win, 11-2. The next morning, September 20, 1937, Klepper fired Bassler for insubordination. ("Strike 1 Was for Pay -- Early Rainiers Used Sitdown Strategy to Collect Wages from Owner," The Seattle Times, October 2, 1991) In December 1937, Klepper sold the club to Emil Sick, owner of the Rainier Brewing Company Sick changed the team's nickname to the Seattle Rainiers and hired another former Detroit Tiger, Jack Lelivelt, to manage the team.

In 1,525 games in the Pacific Coast League, Bassler had a .321 batting average with 198 doubles and 403 RBIs. He was subsequently inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame.

Bassler also coached with the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns in the late 1930s, after his playing career had ended.

During the 1940 season, Bassler was the #2 man under Indians' manager (and former Bassler teammate) Ossie Vitt. Vitt was a tough man to get along with and became embroiled in a player revolt by the 1940 team that became known as the "Cleveland Crybabies." In his autobiography, Bob Feller wrote that the players decided to stop dealing with Vitt and work instead with Bassler. "We decided to go around Vitt. We worked with his coaches, mostly with his number two man, Johnny Bassler. We were doing what people in a lot of organizations with management problems do: ignore the top guy and work with the second in command." ("Now Pitching, Bob Feller: A Baseball Memoir," by Bob Feller, p. 98)

Life after baseball

After retiring from baseball, Bassler lived in Santa Monica, California and Malibu, California.

Bassler’s son James Bassler is a renowned weaver and fiber artist  who was a Professor at UCLA. The Smithsonian Institution conducted a lengthy oral history of James Bassler in which he spoke extensively about his father. A full transcript of the oral history can be viewed on the Internet. The topics covered in James Bassler’s oral history include the following:

    After retiring from baseball, and even during the offseason during his years in baseball, Johnny Bassler spent much of his time hooking rugs. Bassler would take old silk stockings and dye them in pots on the stove. He would then cut them in strips and hook them into silk rugs.
    In the 1940s, Bassler bought 48 acres (190,000 m2) in Latigo Canyon in Malibu for $75 an acre. Bassler drove up there every weekend and planted plants. According to his son, Bassler loved the chaparral.
    In the 1940s, Bassler built a house on his land in Latigo Canyon. He used discarded tile from a Malibu tile company and tried to re-use wood from the demolition of the Venice Pier. Bassler also collected materials from his job at the Twentieth Century Fox movie lot in Century City. According to his son, the studio job was “mainly to get building supplies.” After a project, the sets would be torn down and burned. Bassler saw an opportunity to obtain materials from discarded sets to help build his house in Latigo Canyon. Bassler’s son joked that their house went up bit by bit with pieces from Hollywood sets, including the front door from a Gene Tierney film "Leave Her to Heaven," and the back of the house (in Chinese style) from Gregory Peck’s "The Keys of the Kingdom."
    Bassler coached Bob Feller before he entered the military during World War II, and the two became friends. When Feller got out of the military, Bassler took him on a tour of the studio. Alfred Hitchcock knew of Feller and let him sit in on the shooting of the film "Lifeboat."

Bassler died on June 29, 1979 in Santa Monica, California. He was 84 years old. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica.

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