In August 1987, Dave Bresnahan, a second-string catcher for the Williamsport Bills (AA-Eastern League), hatched an idea: what if … I used something other than a baseball to trick a runner off base to get him out?
When Bresnahan shared his idea with teammates, they laughed, then dared him. “Everybody said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ Bresnahan told Baseball America in 1988. “It started out as a dare, became a challenge, and I eventually did it.”
With Williamsport in last-place (27 1/2 games back) and his dream of playing major league baseball waning (in 51 games, Bresnahan was hitting .141), Bresnahan got serious about his proposed gag.
“I went to the local grocery store and bought a bunch of potatoes,” Bresnahan said in an interview with the Williamsport Cutters. “I went back to my house and peeled one to two-thirds the size of a baseball. I even tried to draw laces on the potato with a red pen, but the ink wouldn’t stay on.”
“It was tough,” remembers Bresnahan, in preparing the perfect potato trick. “I had to empty the whole bag of potatoes. The produce guy got kind of upset. He said, ‘Hey, what are you looking for?’ I didn’t want to tell him what I was doing. So I said, ‘I’m just looking for the right potato here.’ ”
Bresnahan finally mastered the potato, peeling it into a perfect size baseball. Seeing it in flight, you’d never know the baseball was – in reality – a peeled spud.
With Bresnahan playing sparingly and hitting a mere .149, he knew his days were numbered and his opportunity to pull off his trick limited. Bresnahan placed his perfectly peeled tater in a backup catcher’s glove and waited …
On September 1, 1987, opportunity knocked. Bresnahan was penciled in the starting lineup of game one of a doubleheader with Reading.
In the fifth inning, with Reading’s Rick Lundblade on third base, Bresnahan realized it’s now or never. The Bills catcher called timeout and told the home plate umpire something was wrong with his mitt, allowing him time to make the switch to the now infamous “potato glove”.
“When I picked up the potato glove that was the cue for everybody on the Bills that it was going to happen,” Bresnahan said later in an interview. “I called for a slider away, so the batter wouldn’t hit the ball. During the pitch, I had to move the potato from my glove to my bare hand. After catching the ball, I rifled the potato over the head of the third baseman in to the left field.”
That set off a chain of events that left Bresnahan’s teammates in stitches and fans, umpires, coaches and Reading players completely confused.
“The home plate umpire didn’t know what to do,” Bresnahan recalls. “He (Scott Potter, home plate umpire) asked me, ‘What did you throw into the outfield?’ I said, it doesn’t matter because I have the ball and tagged the runner.
“They figured it out when the third base umpire retrieved the potato, which, by that time, was in three pieces in the outfield, “Bresnahan chuckles. “He (the third base umpire) thought it was funny, but he didn’t have to make the call.”
Potter eventually decided to call the runner safe and the inning continued.
Williamsport manager Orlando Gomez was the only man in the park not laughing at the gag. Fuming, the Bills manager removed Bresnahan from the game, fined him $50 and the next day, the Cleveland Indians released Bresnahan and his four-year pro career was over.
“Gomez felt that I did it to make him look bad,” remembers Bresnahan. “I was surprised they released me, but not too upset. I wasn’t playing well, and there were just a few games left. It wasn’t like they were taking my livelihood away …
“Steve Howe got five chances to play this game after using drugs. I was just trying to have some fun playing minor league baseball. We were 27 games out. Reading was already in the playoffs. I just figured, what the hell?”
Bresnahan received instant recognition from the media. “After being released, I got home at 10:30 (a.m.) and the phone was ringing,” Bresnahan says. “It was a writer in Arizona who said he saw the story on the AP wire, and he told me that everyone wanted a piece of me because of the potato thing. When I told him I just got released, he said that just added more spice to the story.”
Bresnahan was interviewed by the NBC “Game of the Week,” Time magazine, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and USA Today. He appeared on hunrdeds of radio and print interviews.
In 1988, the Williamsport club held a “Dave Bresnahan Day” and retired his uniform number 59. Bresnahan told the more than 4,000 fans in attendance, “Lou Gehrig had to play in 2,130 consecutive games and hit .340 for his number to be retired, and all I had to do was bat .140 and throw a potato.”