A baseball lifer, Austin Ben Tincup spent fifty years playing and teaching baseball to thousands of kids all over the country – but not before he became the first Native American from Oklahoma to make it to the big leagues.
In doing the research, I found four different birthdays listed for Ben. A couple of places, including FindaGrave.com and the Baseball-Reference.com Bullpen biography of Tincup, show his birthday as December 14, 1890. Baseball-Reference.com has a main player page and a minor league player page for Tincup, too. Those show April 14, 1893. His obituary and his grave stone in Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulsa, OK says his birth year is 1894. (You’d think that the findagrave.com mini-bio would want their data to match the picture, right?) SABR and Retrosheet.org, as well as the database I use for compiling this data, say 1893. Let’s go with that one…
Tincup was born on April 14th, we’re pretty sure, to James and Lucinda (Vance) Tincup. A TSN article listed Ben’s birthplace as Sherman, TX, but other sources say Adair, OK. (I’m tempted to go with Adair, mostly because the TSN writer probably read that Tincup came from Sherman when he joined the Phillies, but that was his minor league city and not his birthplace.) Not long out of school, Tincup was signed to pitch for Muskogee in the Oklahoma State League, the first professional team to operate in Muskogee. By the end of the 1912 season, though, he had been shifted to Sherman in the Texas-Oklahoma League. He stayed in Sherman for 1913, figured things out, and won his last fourteen starts.
The winning streak got him noticed, and the Philadelphia Phillies brought him out for spring training to see how he’d fare. Before long, the young Cherokee Indian was making relief appearances in May and June. In July, he was given his first major league start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Tincup pitched a masterful game, winning 1 – 0, and holding the Pirates to just five hits – three of them by Honus Wagner.
Tincup became a bit of a celebrity and the newspapers called him The Millionaire Indian, one of many landowners who got rich when oil was found on a number of large farms in Oklahoma. Ben countered, however, that the writers missed their mark. “The stories were only half right,” said Tincup. “I’m 100 percent Cherokee Indian and I own 500 acres of Oklahoma land. But I’m the Indian who owns land where they didn’t find oil.”
Among the first Native Americans not nicknamed “Chief”, Tincup won two other games by shutouts: a 1 – 0 blanking of St. Louis and a 2 – 0 win over the Pirates. However, he mixed in a few rougher outings, including a 13 – 5 loss to Brooklyn and 12 – 3 loss to Boston. When the year was out, he finished 8 – 10 as the third starter on the roster.
However, the fourth starter was lefty Eppa Rixey, a fine thrower out of the University of Virginia. Rixey roomed with Tincup for a year while the rookies found their way through the league. In 1915, Rixey made the step forward, joining Grover Cleveland Alexander and Erskine Meyer and New York Giant import Al Demaree. The new rotation helped propel the Phillies to their first pennant in 1915. Tincup was reduced to a marginal reliever, making just ten appearances, and hardly contributing to the 1915 National League championship. In fact, Tincup was voted just a half-share of the team’s post-season take.
The Phillies chose to dispatch Tincup to the minors for a little more seasoning. In 1916, Tincup went 16 – 11 for Providence in the International League. Moved to Little Rock in 1917, Tincup threw a perfect game against Birmingham in the Southern Association. He kept a ball and the press clippings for years – the ball finally being donated to the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, OK.
St. Louis claimed Tincup for the 1918 season, but the National Association ruled that Tincup still belonged to the Phillies, who called him up for a few outings. Tincup decided to retire and went off to join other Americans in the US Army who were fighting in Europe during the first World War.
When he came back in 1919, he was declared a free agent. Bill Neal, who had scouted and signed Tincup for Philadelphia, was now associated with the Louisville Colonels in the American Association. Neal signed Tincup for more money than he might have made with the Phillies – and Tincup became a minor league lifer. For the next twelve seasons, Tincup was a regular starter and later a reliever for the Colonels. He won 20 twice; the first time he went 20 – 14 in 1922, and two years later he won 24 games. And he could hit, too. One year, he played left field when he wasn’t pitching and wound up hitting .331 with 16 doubles, 16 triples, and eight homers. He missed the batting crown by four points. However, the next season manager Joe McCarthy and Tincup decided pitching was the right thing to do – and Tincup only played the outfield in emergencies.
The 1921 team won the American Association and challenged Baltimore in the Little World Series, a battle between the top minor league teams. Louisville won, in part, behind the pitching of Tincup. Tincup outdueled Lefty Grove to put Louisville in charge of the series.
In 1922, Harry Davis, the old Athletics first baseman, was sent to scout the team. He was looking at two players, Brewers outfielder Al Simmons and Colonels outfielder Earle Combs. Davis asked Tincup to really bear down on Simmons to see what he could do.
“I brushed Al back with a high, inside pitch. I had plenty on it, believe me,” said Tincup. “I wanted to scare Simmons, but he didn’t scare at all. Instead, he just just dug in and dared me to come back with the same pitch. I did. He didn’t move an inch. The next ball was a dandy curve. Simmons whacked it over the first baseman’s head for a triple. I figured he just had beginner’s luck. The next time he came up he lined a double to left… Some time later I read that Simmons had been sold to the Athletics for $100,000. I wasn’t surprised. When I saw Davis later, I told him that I had helped ‘sell’ Simmons to the A’s the day I pitched to him. Davis had a smart comeback. ‘You’re right, Ben. But I made a mistake. The day we bought Simmons, we also should have bought Combs.’”
Combs signed with the Yankees – and years later, well after he was done playing, Tincup would join the Yankees, too.
In the winters, Tincup would play ball in Cuba. The 1925 Marianaos Gray Monks may have been the best team of his generation, featuring players such as Freddy Fitzsimmons, Jess Petty, Otto Krueger, Mike Griffen, Charlie Dressen, Eddie Brown, Mark Koenig, Walter Christensen, Tiny Chaplin, Bill Burwell, and Jim Cooney. Some of those names we still recognize today – others, we’d probably have to look up.
Toward the end of his Louisville career, Joe McCarthy was with the Cubs – he needed a temporary reliever. He called for Ben Tincup, who got a couple more appearances in the majors. Then, he was returned to Louisville. As he got older, Tincup left the rotation and became a quality reliever. According to a TSN article:
“Manager Allan Sothoron this spring decided that the veteran redskin could best serve his team in the role of relief chucker, and in this capacity Ben has proved invincible.” He would finish the season 14 – 3 in relief, and another article claimed that he “…saved approximately 13 games, for which other pitchers received credit.” Jerome Holtzman hadn’t yet coined the term “Saves.”
1930 was Tincup’s last hurrah. He had a rough year (7 – 16) in 1929 and was given a pay cut. After 1930, he wanted a raise and Louisville ownership didn’t agree. Before long, Tincup was cut and scooped up by Minneapolis. The next year, Tincup was pitching in Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, but he was pretty much done as a pitcher.
Instead, he was signed as an umpire by the American Association – a job that barely lasted two months. Per a blurb in TSN:
“Ben Tincup, veteran Indian pitcher formerly with Louisville, has been released as an umpire in the American Association by President Thomas J. Hickey. Tincup made his debut as an arbiter this season, but there were so many complaints over his decisions on balls and strikes that his release resulted.”
He went back to his farm in Oklahoma for the next three years.
However, guys who knew Tincup needed scouts and coaches – and Tincup was hired by the Cincinnati Reds to manage their farm team in Paducah, a member of the Kitty League. In his first season, Tincup led Paducah to a first-half crown and a trip to the playoffs. However, Tincup argued that two pitchers that helped Union City to a second half crown should have been ineligible. When that protest failed, he began to lose favor with his Paducah owner, B.B. Hook. Tincup next complained that he had to play night games in Union City, when his team only played day games at home. That, too, failed.
So, Tincup told his team to play but he was going to stay home to protest the league’s decisions. After Paducah lost to Larry Irvin (one of two players Tincup felt should not have been eligible to pitch) and Union City in that first game, seven other players decided to side with Tincup. The series was forfeited to Union City and National Association President W. B. Bramham chose to put Tincup and the seven players on the ineligible list. That ban lasted about four months, and Tincup was signed to manage a different Reds farm team, this one in Peoria, Illinois.
While there, Tincup traded for a pitcher who had been successful for him in Paducah, Gene “Junior” Thompson. Thompson was the ace of the Peoria staff and the Reds soon promoted him to the big league team where Junior (he hated that nickname) helped the Reds win the 1940 National League Pennant. Thompson’s ascent and Tincup’s role in his development earned Tincup the reputation as someone who could mold young pitchers.
Tincup was a proponent of throwing strikes, saying that the biggest problem young pitchers have is not being willing to hit the catcher’s glove. “They’re so scared somebody is going to get a base hit they throw all around the target but seldom at it,” said Tincup. “What they don’t realize is that even when you put across a perfect strike with nothing on it, the batter won’t hit it safely more than three times out of ten. That’s proved in batting practice.”
By 1938, he was taken by Larry McPhail from Cincinnati to Brooklyn to become a roving pitching instructor and coach. In 1939, young kids would have seen an advertisement for a California baseball camp where young ballplayers could learn from coaches like Leo Durocher, Charlie Dressen, Bill Killefer, and Ben Tincup. On the other hand, some things from his minor league days didn’t go away as quickly. Tincup earned a fine in his last days managing Paducah in 1936. When he tried to step on the field as a coach in 1940, the league told him he had a $10 fine due and Kennesaw Mountain Landis wouldn’t let him on the field unless he paid that fine. A wire was sent, and Tincup was allowed to coach.
After two more seasons as a coach, Tincup took a short hiatus to join the war effort for World War II – this time helping build boats on the docks of the Ohio River at Jeffersonville. During that time, he ran into an old friend – Ray Kennedy. Kennedy was Tincup’s catcher when Tincup tossed that perfect game in 1917 for Little Rock. Now, Kennedy was the General Manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kennedy knew a few people – and by 1946, when the war was over, Tincup was a scout for the Boston Braves.
Tincup’s scouting and coaching career meant he went all over the place for a bunch of different teams. He left Boston to join the Pirates. Roy Hamey had brought him into the Pirates organization, and when he left for the Yankees, he took Tincup with him there, and then to the Phillies. “We had him traveling around the farm clubs and working with the pitchers,” said Hamey. “He helped fellows like Bob Friend and Vernon Law so much that when I moved over to the Yankees, I talked George Weiss into bringing him to New York. He did such a good job with the Yanks that I had a tough time getting him for the Phils. But I told Weiss I needed him worse than the Yankees did, so George turned him over to me.”
During his time with the Phillies, a prized prospect was a young Yaqui Indian out of Arizona named Phil Ortega. Hamey assigned Tincup to handle the negotiations, figuring that one Native American might be better able to relate to another Native American than the other scouts. The Dodgers, however, countered with a bigger bonus check. Buzzie Bavasi wired Hamey when he won. “How dumb can you get,” Bavasi asked. “Don’t you know Ortega’s and Tincup’s tribes have been at war for 300 years?”
The Yankees got Tincup back when Ralph Houk, who had used Tincup as a pitching coach in the middle 1950s, asked for him to coach his 1961 squad. Joe Falls wrote about it in the Detroit Free Press: “The Yankees have signed Ben Tincup, a 73-year-old Cherokee, as their minor league pitching coach… And this is the team that fired Casey Stengel because he was, at 70, too old.”
If Tincup was 73 in 1961, that would put his birth date at 1888… Another option… I don’t think so.
Anyway… Eventually baseball’s tribal elder called it a career and returned to the Tulsa area. He was inducted into various Halls of Fame in Oklahoma, including those celebrating Native Americans in sports. In 1980, he was staying at the very hotel in Claremore, the Will Rogers Hotel, where his perfect game baseball would have been on display. Sometime in the night on July 5, 1980 Tincup was called to pitch on the great ball field in the sky.
The Sporting News
“Finishing Second No Small Honor in A.A.” The Sporting News, Oct. 7, 1920, Page 5.
“Colonels Carry On and Never Say Die.” The Sporting News, July 14, 1921, Page 3.
“Didn’t Start A One But Has Won Seven.” The Sporting News, June 19, 1930, Page 4.
Williams, A. W. “Louisville Releases Tincup.” The Sporting News, July 30, 1931, Page 3.
“Ben Tincup New A.A. Umpire.” The Sporting News, January 19, 1933, Page 2.
“Tincup to Pilot Paducah” The Sporting News, March 26, 1936, Page 7.
“Bramham Punishes Paducah ‘Strikers’.” The Sporting News, September 24, 1936. Page 7.
“Long Arm of the Law.” The Sporting News, May 23, 1940, Page 3.
“Tincup Donates No-Hit Ball.” The Sporting News, April 10, 1941, Page 11.
“8-Game Streak Has Almendares Out in Front.” The Sporting News, November 17, 1948, Page 20.
The Sporting News, March 8, 1950, Page 14.
“Old-Time Ben Tincup Back; Gives Advice to Phils’ Kids.” The Sporting News, March 7, 1956, Page 33.
Notes, The Sporting News, January 1, 1961, Page 12.
Obituaries, The Sporting News, August 9, 1980, Page 50.
“Phils Forgot Tribal Wars When They Bid for Ortega.” The Sporting News, June 27, 1964, Page 26.
Claremore (OK) Progress (July 8, 1980)
Bryson, Bill. “The Indian Glove Call.” Baseball Digest, Feb 1964, Pages 67 – 73.
Levy, Sam. “Simmons First Steps to Hall.” Baseball Digest, April, 1953, Pages 25 to 27.