Growing up in Pennsylvania as a member of the Mennonite community, little Johnny Bassler learned to be plain. That was sort of the idea with members of that community – adherence to strict Protestant values and lifestyle without standing out too much.
But despite the regiment of his youth, Bassler fled to Hollywood and eventually launched a career as a professional baseball player, becoming one of the best hitting catchers in the game. But he took a very peculiar route to the diamond.
In 1912 the 17-year old Bassler attended an exhibition game in Los Angeles between two major league teams touring the west coast prior to the start of the regular season. That evening he reported to his job as usher at The Orpheum Theater. As luck would have it, several members of the Cleveland ballclub arrived to view the motion picture – which was still quite a novelty of entertainment. Bassler recognized the manager and asked him what he was going to do about his injured catcher.
“Why, do you know a catcher?” the manager asked.
“Yes,” Bassler quickly replied, “I’m a catcher.”
“Then come out to the ballpark tomorrow.”
Thus began the career of Johnny Bassler, who was teammates with some of the greatest hitters in history: Napolean Lajoie, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, Charlie Gehringer, and the immortal Ty Cobb. Every one of those sluggers ended up in baseball’s Hall of Fame, and Bassler, despite his strange route to the big leagues, may have joined them if a few more things had been different.
After a year tutoring with the Toledo Mud Hens, 18-year old Bassler debuted his fuzzy face with Cleveland in 1913. But a mediocre start to his career sent Bassler back to the west coast where he played six seasons in the Pacific Coast League, at the time the best professional baseball west of St. Louis. By 1921, Bassler’s play in the PCL was too good to be ignored and he signed a deal with the Detroit Tigers.
The 1921 Tigers were a team in transition, with a new manager – Cobb. The club never won much in the 1920s because their pitching was always second-rate, but with Bassler and several other new ballplayers, and of course the bats of Cobb and Heilmann, the team was a blast with the bat. In ’21 the team hit .316!
Bassler was a short little left-handed hitter but he excelled at one thing almost better than any other hitter in history – making contact. In more than 800 big league games, Johnny struck out 81 times – about half a season of swinging and missing for many big leaguers today. Only nine other players in MLB history struck out less frequently than Bassler. Four times Bassler hit over .300, batting .346 in 1924. His penchant for striking the ball came at a cost – he rarely hit for power. Bassler hit just one home run in his entire career. But Bassler was a master at getting on the bases – he posted an on-base percentage over .400 in every season he played for Detroit. In ’24 his .441 OBP was second only to Babe Ruth.
As good as Bassler was with the old “wagon tongue”, he was famous as well for his play behind the plate. Quick and tough, Bassler was one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. His greatest asset may have been his throwing arm. In one game he threw out six Senators who tried to swipe a bag against the Tigs. For his fine hitting, great batting eye, and defensive wizadry, Bassler received MVP votes in three straight seasons, finishing in the top 10 each time.
Bassler was smack dab in the middle of one of the greatest pranks played in a Tigers game in the mid-1920s. In a game against the New York Yankees, with Ruth – the Colossus of Clout, the Great Bambino – at the plate, manager Cobb sent a signaled to Bassler from his center field station – Ty whistled in to Bassler, calling for an intentional walk. However, after the Detroit pitcher delivered a strike right down the middle of the plate, Cobb bristled, ran into the infield and loudly ordered his battery to send the next four pitches wide. But the next pitch came right down the middle of the plate again – striiiiike two! Incensed now, Cobb bolted to the mound and removed his pitcher and catcher from the game, insisting he would find players to do his bidding. After barking at his new pitcher to walk Ruth, Cobb returned to the outer pasture. With Ruth standing in the box expecting to be passed, the first pitch from the reliever came right down the middle of the plate for strike three. Watching as Ruth stomped back to the bench, Cobb practically fell over in center field, laughing at his clever ruse. ”That’s a once in a lifetime play!” Cobb bragged to reporters after the contest.
Bassler had the perfect temperament to play under the difficult Cobb, but even though he performed well as the Bengal catcher for seven seasons (batting .308 in a Tiger uniform), he was sold after the ’27 season to the Hollywood Stars. Bassler was going back to the west coast, which was fine with him. He loved the climate, he loved Hollywood, and in those days many stars like Bassler made as much or more money playing in the PCL.
For 10 seasons, until he was 42, Bassler played in the PCL, hitting .338 in his second stint in the league. He became one of the most popular players to ever wear the Stars uniform. Between his major league career and the PCL, Bassler batted close to .325 with more than 2,000 hits. Had he remained in the big leagues, Bassler may have been recognized as one of the greatest catchers of the 1920s and 1930s, putting up batting and on-base numbers similar to Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey. As baseball historian Bill James has pointed out, there was no catcher better with the glove than Bassler in that era.
After his playing career, Bassler coached for the Cleveland Indians, where he forged a friendship with pitcher Bob Feller. In retirement in California, Bassler returned to a lifelong love affair with farming and planted thousands of flowers and plants on his spacious property in southern California. He also enjoyed hooking rugs, a craft activity that he learned as a boy from the Mennonites in Pennsylvania. According to his son, who went on to become a well-known weaver and fiber artist, the Bassler family home was built from discarded parts and lumber that Bassler scavenged from movie sets in Hollywood.
“Our front door had been in the movie Leave Her to Heaven, and the porch was from The Keys of the Kindgom, starring Gregory Peck,” James Bassler said.
Johnny had pieced together a one-of-a-kind home, just as he forged a unique baseball career.