The story behind Minor League Baseball’s infamous ‘Potato Game’

You’ve probably heard the legend of the Minor League Baseball catcher who fooled a runner with a peeled potato. But where did the idea for the infamous Potato Game come from?

The background surrounding the most famous and infamous game in the history of minor league baseball, The Potato Game, is as crazy as the game itself. I should know, I was there.

In 1987, the Williamsport Bills of the Eastern League (AA) were professional baseball’s bastard child, if ever there was one. Originally, Williamsport was supposed to temporarily host an International League (AAA) team for a season or two, until a new stadium could be built in the hometown of Dunder-Mifflin, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

However, with two months before opening day, a judge temporarily nixed the sale of the team, and the AAA franchise was sent back to its previous home in Maine without ever playing a game in Williamsport. In desperation, the ownership group moved the other team it owned, the Waterbury Indians, from Connecticut to Williamsport. The month before, I had been hired as the Assistant General Manager of the Waterbury team, and, just like the office furnishings, I was boxed up and moved to Williamsport on a moment’s notice. Welcome to the glamorous world of professional baseball.

Williamsport in 1987, to an outsider like me, appeared to be a place that time forgot — part Mayberry, part Leave It to Beaver. Housing was cheap, banks closed on Wednesdays, and one drinking establishment sold draft beers for a nickel. For one US dollar, you could drink yourself into a coma. And like Brigadoon, one week each year, the town sprung to life when it hosted the Little League World Series.

We played our home games at Bowman Field, which was problematic in itself, as it hadn’t hosted a professional baseball game in 16 years and needed some profound upgrades. These changes had to be squeezed in during the course of the season. Even, at times, squeezed in during the game.

For the first several weeks of the season, we played all day games until we could put in new field light towers. One of my jobs in-between innings was to open a gate in left field to allow a cement mixer on the field to pour footers for the light towers, which were located in front of the grandstand. Occasionally, the cement mixer couldn’t pour its load quick enough, and the game had to be held up to allow the cement truck to — beep-beep-beep — back its way off the field. We even had a chalk line outside the third baseline that designated anything past it was out of play, so a third baseman wouldn’t kill himself running into a hole or construction equipment chasing a foul ball.

We were led by Bill Terlecki, the team’s capable General Manager, who, despite being only 34 years old, was already a grizzled minor-league baseball veteran. As home runs that season flew out of Bowman at a prodigious rate, Terlecki, who everyone called Turk, had me hold a tape measure at home plate as he marked out the distance to the outfield fence. Somehow, we had either screwed up the location of the fence during installation, or we had put up incorrect distance markers on the outfield fence. Long story short, the fences were at least ten feet closer than advertised. In the end, I doubt if we ever informed the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or our parent club, the Cleveland Indians, of the error. Some things in life are better left unsaid.

Bowman Field didn’t have any office space, just a shack to count money on game days. Because of this, our team offices were in an old hotel in the center of town. The four employees of the club, including myself, shared a hotel suite for an office. Our office bathroom even had an old-fashioned claw-foot tub. Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon of night games, we would melt away from our office and meander our way down to Bowman Field.

Our team that year wasn’t very good, and our most well-known player was Turner Gill, who was famous for being a star quarterback for the University of Nebraska. Gill led the Cornhuskers to a near national championship, falling just one point short against Miami in the Orange Bowl. In the end, despite being a fantastic athlete, he was at best only a mediocre minor-league baseball player.

Where did the idea for the “Potato Game” stunt come from?

The star of this epic tale, Dave Bresnahan, came to Williamsport with some notoriety of his own prior to the famous Potato Game. He was a direct descendant of Hall of Fame catcher, Roger Bresnahan, who, folklore has it, was the first catcher to wear shin guards and who also helped develop the batting helmet.

Like Roger, Dave was also a catcher, but not a very good one by professional standards, hitting just a buck fifty for the Bills that season. He was 25 and had served as a backup catcher for three seasons. Professional baseball is a cruel business, and there is nothing crueler than being a backup catcher in the minors, as the dream of making it to the show is dead on arrival. A backup catcher is a necessary evil, nothing more than someone to catch the second game of doubleheaders and day games following a night game to give the regular catcher, the prospect, a breather and to save his knees.

When you’re a backup catcher in the minors and hitting just a buck fifty, the writing is on the wall in huge block capital letters. I knew, and Dave knew, and anyone who knew anything about baseball knew that he was going to get his walking papers at the end of the season. This is an important element to the story, as Bob Dylan points out in song, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

My memories of Dave from that season of watching him play ball were his squat catcher’s physique and the early stages of male-pattern baldness. He looked more like someone who would do your taxes than a professional ballplayer. Oh, yes, I do remember he had a good sense of humor, also an important element of the story.

As the season dragged on, things were looking up for the Bills. Attendance had picked up, the weather broke in a good way, and at one game the Phillie Phanatic even came to Williamsport to entertain a sold-out crowd. We also hosted a high school baseball game that featured local star high school pitcher and future Hall of Famer, Mike Mussina.

The inspiration for The Potato Game started as idle talk with teammates when Bresnahan had a revelation, “I thought, ‘What if we snuck maybe a rosin bag (or for some reason, maybe because I’m Irish) a potato into the game?’”

From there, teammates being teammates, they egged him on and pointed out they had a doubleheader coming up where he was sure to catch at least one of the games.

As dreamed up, the plan was if the visiting team had a runner on third base with two outs, he would throw a shaved potato over the third baseman’s head, and the runner, thinking it was the baseball, would bolt home, where Bresnahan would produce the real baseball and tag out the baffled runner.

In preparation, Dave had skinned and prepped several potatoes to make each look like a baseball, and even practiced throwing them around with teammates to make sure this concept would work.

“There was this larger catcher’s glove that I kept in my bag in the dugout,” Bresnahan said in an April interview. “I told [the umpire] that my glove broke and I needed to get another glove. He said, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ … I go to the dugout and, of course, all my teammates know what’s going on and they’ve got me almost bursting out laughing.”

“I call for a pitch away. I had to give the signal with my bare hand, because I’ve got my glove hand with the potato in it, and then I have to transfer the potato to my bare hand. I had to do that so nobody could really see, and then I had it kind of hanging by my right ankle as he was throwing it.”

“So, my heart’s beating. I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m committed.”

After Bresnahan’s so-called errant throw sailed over the third baseman’s head and into left field, the runner on third broke for home and just before he made it, Dave produced the real baseball and tagged him out.

From there all hell broke loose. I was inside one of the concession stands at the time, which had a metal roof and was tucked in under the grandstand. When it happened, the crowd reacted with such force that it sounded and felt like the stadium was about to collapse on top of us.

The next morning, I found myself alone at the shack at Bowman Field, and the phone began ringing. For the next several hours I got to be Dave’s personal receptionist as call after call came in, nonstop, from national media outlets and TV shows like Late Night with David Letterman. It seemed like the entire world was looking to interview Dave or for him to appear on whatever show they represented. He had become an overnight sensation.

Professional baseball frowns on anarchy; therefore, in short order, Dave was quickly released by the Indians, never to play professional baseball again and fined $50 for his antics. The perfect kicker to all of this is that quick-witted Dave paid his $50 fine by giving the team $50 worth of potatoes to account for his tab.

Every year, leading up to Aug.31, the anniversary date of the potato game, a reporter is sure to look up Dave and do a retelling of the famous incident. Dave Bresnahan has become an enduring baseball legend. All of which proves that if you’re a rule follower and do what you are told, you’ll be quickly forgotten. However, if you defy the norms and do so with a sense of humor, the world will forever be your oyster.

This upcoming Aug. 31 will be the 35th anniversary of the famous potato game. Where has the time gone? Dave, wherever you are or wherever you may go, I salute you for the brief shining moment when you gave everyone a laugh and made our world a sunnier place to be. I should know, I was there.

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