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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Seventy years ago today, Zeke Bonura of the White Sox stole home with two outs in the 15th inning to beat the Yankees – as good a reason as any to post a tribute to Vice President John Nance Garner's favorite player and wartime Czar of North African Baseball.
A fans' delight and manager's nightmare, Bonura led AL first basemen in fielding in 1936 by refusing to become involved. As easy grounders bounded by untouched, Zeke waved his "Mussolini salute" with his glove. Known affectionately as "Banana Nose," the colorful and outspoken Bonura was the White Sox' first bona fide home run hitter, with 27 in his rookie year. He continued slugging, but his nonchalant fielding, aggravating annual hold-outs, and rumored interest in owner J. Lou Comiskey's daughter got him traded to Washington in 1938…
Hugely popular with Chicago fans, Bonura was a unique trial for White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes:
A colorful member of the team was Zeke Bonura, a slugger stationed at first base who was not known for either high intellect or fielding grace. Zeke had a problem understanding signs – Dykes recalled that one game got him so flustered that he yelled out, "Bunt, you meathead. Bunt! Bunt! B-U-N-T." It didn't work – no bunt from Zeke that day.
After Zeke was traded to Washington in 1938, Dykes did not bother to change the signs because Bonura couldn't remember them anyway. Nevertheless, a surprise was in store when the teams did meet that season. After Zeke advanced to third base, he saw Dykes in the dugout swat at a mosquito. Recalling (for once in his career) that a swat meant a steal, Bonura took off for home, knocked the ball away from the catcher, and scored. Considering that he stole only 19 bases in his career, this was quite a shocking event! Bonura explained later, "I saw Dykes give the sign to steal, but forgot I wasn't on his team anymore."
Zeke was welcomed to the nation's capital by Vice President "Cactus Jack" Garner, remembered today for his saying about the vice presidency and a bucket of warm spit. A tribute site to the New Deal veep carries this account by Washington sportswriter Shirley Povich (warning: music – turn down your speakers):
Vice President Garner, Zeke's Biggest Fan
"When the announcement was made in the spring of 1938 that Zeke was coming to the Washington Senators, the happiest man in Washington was neither owner Clark Griffith nor manager Bucky Harris. It was Vice President John Nance Garner.
"Cactus Jack took an early fancy to Bonura and repeatedly urged Griff to buy, trade, or steal him from the White Sox. When Garner received news of the trade, he promptly turned to Senate over to a junior member of that august body and telephoned Griff his congratulations.
"Bonura's finest hour was the Opening Game of the 1938 season. Just before the start of the game he went over to the Vice President's box for a chat with Garner. Zeke told the Vice President, "I'll hit a special home run for you today."
"On his first trip to the plate as a Senator, he slugged the third ball pitched on a straight line into the centerfield bleachers. Zeke ran around the bases at full speed, crossed the plate and rushed directly to Garner's box. The happy Vice President hugged Bonura then and there, while the action stopped."
Bonura later was traded to the New York Giants, but wasn't so happy about it, recalls Washington fan Mediocre Fred:
One of our less-famous ballplayers here in Washington was a first baseman by the name of Zeke Bonura. Zeke was a good-hit, no-field sort who played here for a couple seasons before being dealt to the Giants in 1939. The Giants were a presumed contender that year, while the Senators were projected to struggle, and yet Zeke seemed unhappy about the trade. He didn't want to leave. So a puzzled reporter asked him why he didn't seem happy about going to New York. And Zeke, in a turn of phrase that Shakespeare himself might envy, replied: "Now I won't be able to sign my letters 'Senator Henry J. Bonura, Democrat, Louisiana.'"
I ask you, friends: Who are we to argue with the wisdom of Zeke Bonura?