Each June, Major League Baseball has its amateur player draft. The draft lasts for many, many rounds, and as each one passes, the odds of a player making it to the Major Leagues declines. The 18th round of the 1984 draft is a decent enough example. Of the 26 players drafted in that round, almost all of them spent their careers entirely in the minor leagues. Only one — a pitcher named Mike Harkey — ever made it to the Majors. (And his story is an aberration. Instead of signing with the San Diego Padres, who drafted him, Harkey went to Cal State Fullerton to play ball. He thrived there and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1987 — this time in the first round, with the fourth overall pick.) The overwhelming odds are that, if you’re a ballplayer taken that late in the draft you’ll end up a career minor leaguer at best.
And if you’re really good with kitchen utensils, you may become kind of famous.
With the second pick in the 18th round of the 1984 draft, the Seattle Mariners selected a catcher named Dave Bresnahan. Bresnahan played four years of pro ball, most in the low minors, and never made it to the big leagues. In 1987, his final season, he hit .150 for the Williamsport Bills, then the AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. (If you don’t know a thing about baseball, AA is where a lot of career minor leaguers peak, and it’s still two hops away from the Majors. And more importantly, hitting .150 in the Majors is terrible. Hitting .150 in AA? Let’s just say you probably won’t be playing much next year.) Bresnahan probably knew his time as a pro ballplayer was coming to a close. And on August 28, 1987, he effectively ensured it.
The Williamsport Bills were hosting the Reading Phillies that day. Bresnahan, the Bills’ backup catcher, was behind home plate — where catchers usually are. The Phillies had a runner on third base. The Bills’ pitcher delivered a pitch like he normally would, the batter didn’t hit it, and as one would hope, Bresnahan caught it. Typically, Bresnahan (or any catcher) would simply lob the ball back to the pitcher. But instead, Bresnahan tried to get the guy on third out. He fired the baseball to the third baseman — well, he tried to fire the baseball to the third baseman, but the throw wasn’t well-aimed and flew down the left field foul line. The runner broke for home, figuring he’d score easily due to Bresnahan’s throwing error.
But the runner was wrong. When he arrived at home plate, he was met by a waiting Bresnahan, who still, somehow, had the ball in his hand.
Nope. A potato.
Before the game, Bresnahan had peeled a potato to vaguely resemble a baseball. He hid it in a backup glove which he fetched just before the play. While everyone — the runner included — thought that Bresnahan had thrown the ball away, the truth is he hadn’t. The projectile thrown errantly down the third base line was a spud.
The umpire didn’t take too kindly to the ruse, ruling the runner safe despite the fact that Bresnahan had clearly tagged him out. Bresnahan’s manager pulled him from the game for the trick (the manager saw it as “an unthinkable act for a professional” per Baseball America) and fined him $50. The Indians released him shortly thereafter — the team saw the trick as “jeopardizing the integrity of the game” (per the same Baseball America report). Bresnahan’s first potato he threw was his last.
But while Bresnahan didn’t get the runner out — and while he did lose his job in the process — he also captured the attention of a nation. The Williamsport Bills, eventually, embraced this claim to fame and ran a promotion where fans could gain entry to the park for $1 plus one potato. According to one book, “nearly two bushels of potatoes were collected for the local food bank” due to the promotion. The season after the potato incident, the Williamsport Bills retired Bresnahan’s uniform number as well.
Bresnahan’s playing days were over, though. He found a new career as a stockbroker, as of the ten year anniversary of his tater toss. No word on whether he recommended potato futures to his clients.
Take the Quiz: According to Samwise Gamgee of the Shire, there are three ways to prepare potatoes. Name them.
From the Archives: Regal Potatoes: Tricking people into eating potatoes using reverse psychology.
Related: A different type of baseball potato.