What a mouthful. Named for six uncles and nicknamed for the family St. Bernard dog that followed him around as a child, Christian Frederick Albert John Henry David “Bruno” Betzel (1894-1965) was a dead ball era baseball player whose brief career as an infielder with the St. Louis Cardinals spanned the years 1914 through 1918. Betzel made the majors at the tender of age of 19 and was through by 24. Normally, a player prodigious enough to make the show as a teenager has a long, even Hall of Fame caliber career. Robin Yount was the starting shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers at 18. Al Kaline jumped straight from high school to the Detroit Tigers, also at the ripe age of 18. I have been unable to find any story recounting why Betzel was washed up so young. At any rate, his name was truly longer than his career, and the sportswriters of that pre-broadcast era must have been thankful for his sobriquet.
The closest Betzel ever came to being a Hall of Fame player was to room with one–Rogers Hornsby–during his years with the Cardinals. He also once touched off a brawl in spring training when his errant infield throw beaned the irascible Ty Cobb. Hornsby and Cobb were not only Hall-of-Famers, but to this day have the two highest career batting averages in MLB history. They did not rub off on Betzel; he hit a paltry .231 over his five big league seasons.
But baseball–as this author readily knows–is chock full of interesting if obscure side stories, and Betzel’s is a prime example. While his playing career may have been forgettable, his post-playing days were most certainly not. He won six pennants in a 30 year minor league managing career, for which he was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame. But it was for some little known words and deeds that he should be remembered, as he helped propel one of the all-time greats of baseball–and American history–to immortality. The year was 1944. He was manager of the Montreal Royals, the AAA International League affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a particularly effective coach and mentor to his standout young second baseman of whom he said, “I don’t care if he is polka-dotted, he will play in the major leagues,” and added, “I would tuck him in at night if necessary to get him to play for me in the major leagues.”
That player was Jackie Robinson. While Branch Rickey deservedly gets most of the credit for bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1947, thus breaking the sport’s color barrier, Betzel should not be overlooked. Robinson was quoted, during one spring training during his Dodger career, as saying that Betzel was one of the best people he ever played for and was responsible for rounding him into a major league ball player. He also implied that he preferred Betzel as a manager over the volatile Dodge skipper, Leo “The Lip” Durocher. In the upcoming movie “42” depicting Robinson’s life, there is a character apparently identified only as “Montreal Royals Manager.” If it’s not Betzel, it should be, and he ought to be identified by name. He may not have been a Hall of Fame player, but in my book, he was a Hall of Fame human being.
My own obscure place in baseball history is chronicled on my blog, The Millennium Conjectures.