In the last four installments of this series, we've looked at the clippings for two Hall of Famers (Ed Walsh, Ray Schalk) and another one who should be in Cooperstown, too (Minnie Minoso).
Today's subject, Henry John Bonura, aka "Zeke," might be equally memorable for those who watched him play for the White Sox from 1934 to 1937. The first baseman made his mark on the franchise's record books and an indelible impression on observers, although not always for the best reasons.
Why Zeke Bonura?
Before Albert Belle went and ruined all the fun, Bonura was an answer to a fantastic trivia question: "Who holds the White Sox single-season record for RBI?" He drove in 138 runs for the White Sox in 1936, and that record stood for 62 years before Belle shattered it with 152 in 1998.
It was easy to see how Belle set the record -- he also set White Sox records for homers (49) and doubles (48). Bonura, on the other hand, drove in 138 runs on only 12 homers, which is by far the most RBI for any 12-homer season in baseball history (Goose Goslin is second with 129, if you care).
Bonura was the team's clean-up hitter, and given that he batted .330/.426/.482, he deserved it. But he also scored a whopping 120 runs because Luke Appling was batting fifth and setting records of his own. That year, Appling hit a franchise-high .388, winning the batting title while driving in 128 runs ... on six homers. And yes, that's also a record number of RBI for any six-homer season (Honus Wagner is second with 126, if you care).
But Bonura was the White Sox's first real slugger of the live ball era. He set the team record for homers in his rookie season with 27 (Carl Reynolds hit 22 in 1930), and he held the record -- or a share of it -- until Gus Zernial hit 29 for the 1950 White Sox.
With his unprecedented power and a big-time personality to match, Bonura became a fan favorite on the South Side. In fact, fans liked him a lot more than his manager did, because he was a designated hitter four decades before the position came into existence.
Also, he was Italian. And this was a big deal to some people.
Seriously, he's Italian
Bonura was something of an outlier growing up in Louisiana. He grew up in a financially set family, the son of parents who owned a large produce company. Physically, he was something else, too. He set a javelin-throwing record in 1925 at the age of 16, and he also received offers to play other sports. Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne tried recruiting him, telling Bonura's coach that he wanted to know more about the kid with the noteworthy "physique." Teammates started calling him "Physique," which was then shortened to "Zeke."
He attended Loyola University in New Orleans instead, where he was on the football, basketball and track teams. But baseball was his favorite sport, and so he pursued it professionally, playing in minor-league stops at New Orleans and Dallas. He won the Texas League MVP in 1933, and so the White Sox signed him.
In what appears to be one of the first feature articles about Bonura in a Chicago paper, the Chicago Daily News used the following headline in massive print:
SPAGHETTI-EATING PLUTOCRAT, BONURA IS BALL PLAYER, TOO
"Spaghetti-eating plutocrat." I don't know if those words have been used consecutively since. And if you didn't believe it, there was a photo of Bonura, whom the Daily News also described as a "big Italian first-sacker," eating a comically large plate of spaghetti.
And if that wasn't blunt enough, the New York Daily News later wrote about Bonura, "Receding hair, high forehead and a Roman nose give him a dignified appearance until he smiles." Man.
Super-sized personality, miniature glove
In the New Bill James Historical Baeball Abstract, Bill James lumped in Bonura with another former Sox first baseman we're familiar with: John Kruk. In his blurb about Kruk, James wrote:
Fun player. Every generation has a few players who are just fin -- fun to watch, fun to talk about, fun to make fun of. A lot of these guys are first basemen, like Zeke Bonura, Steve (Bye Bye) Balboni, Marv Throneberry and Ken Phelps. Kruk was arguably the best of the fun first baseman, except maybe Boog Powell.
Bonura was fun to watch for his hitting, as he hit .317/.396/.518 over his four-year White Sox career and gave the team some desperately needed brawn. He was fun to talk about, because he always talked. "When Bonura plays, he umpires, coaches, leads cheers and holds pep sessions for the full nine innings."
But his defense was equally laughable -- at least for everybody but Jimmy Dykes. Despite his physical talents, he showed little range at first base, mostly due to a lack of effort. He lazily waved his glove at passing grounders so often that the Chicago Tribune named the move "The Mussolini Salute." Again, he's Italian.
Dykes thought Bonura was a liability at first, and Bonura objected. At first, the disagreement was more humorous in nature, but the dispute became more divisive over time, especially as Bonura campaigned for more money.
I'm not a lousy fielder; that's one of those stories spread by Jimmy Dykes and Lew Fonseca. I was always being called lousy by those guys. They've been labeling me as a poor first baseman for years, by Dykes so I couldn't ask or too much money, and by Fonseca so he wouldn't lose his job.
Just about everybody sides with Dykes on this matter. Bonura had a career year in 1937, hitting .345/.412/.573, all personal bests. He held out for raise that was a few thousand more than the Comiskeys had in mind. Given that Dykes was tired of the non-hitting facets of the Bonura experience, the Comiskeys saw no reason to make the effort to keep him. They traded Bonura to Washington for first baseman Joe Kuhel, who was every bit the fielder Bonura wasn't.
Senators owner Clark Griffith couldn't have been happier to acquire Bonura, saying, "It's the best deal I've made in fifty years of baseball."
But the Sox got three decent years out of Kuhel, including his 1940 season where he matched Bonura's home run total with 27. That was more than Bonura had to offer. 1940 was Bonura's last season in baseball, as he managed just seven homers over 128 games. When one-dimensional players lose it, they lose it quickly.
Then again, World War II might have ended Bonura's career anyway. He served in the Mediterranean Theatre, where he earned the Legion of Merit Award from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for improving morale in North Africa by setting up baseball and softball grounds with salvaged materials and organizing league play.
Previously in this series: