Pastime Portraiture: Ivy Olson


Third in a series celebrating the last time the Dodgers and Red Sox met in the World Series, in 1916, and next up is Brooklyn’s steady, hard-nosed shortstop, Ivy Olson (photo from the Ernie Harwell Collection via the Detroit Public Library). Olson was an interesting character – a good clutch hitter with strong plate discipline, and was also rough-and-tumble on the basepaths; on the other hand, he was often keen for a brawl, would sometimes take certain liberties on the field, and he wasn’t the surest of gloves, typically committing errors at inopportune times.


1916 World Series, Game 3, Tuesday, October 10th – 21,087 on hand (capacity, 30,000) to see the first ever World Series game at Ebbets Field (New York Times)

With Brooklyn dropping the first two games of the 1916 Series in Boston (and apparently discouraging some of their fans from attending the contests), Game 3 back at Ebbets Field (first WS game ever for the relatively new park) was a must win (similar to 2018), and Olson was up to the task, being one of the locals’ hitting stars of the contest, going 2-for-4 with a run scored and two key RBI (a 2-run triple in the 5th inning to put Brooklyn up 4-0 in a game they would eventually win 4-3). Unfortunately, Olson contributed to the Dodgers being in that 0-2 hole, with 2 errors in Game 1, one which led to an unearned run and a big 3-run inning for Boston, helping turn a tight 2-1 contest into a 5-1 game – “(Tillie) Walker hit to Olson, who obliged with one of his justly celebrated errors”, as the NY Times wryly put it. And his defensive struggles in the 1916 Series were not over. Also, although it didn’t affect the outcome, in the marathon 14-inning Game 2, in a 5th inning play the umps ruled that Olson tripped (or otherwise interfered) with a runner baring down on him going for a triple, and the runner was awarded third base.

Olson in his rookie season in Cleveland. From RMY Auctions, Conlon photo
Olson (left) in action in a 1911 game against the Highlanders at Hilltop Park, NYC

Ivy Olson broke in with the Cleveland Naps in 1911, hitting .261 as their starting shortstop and developing a reputation for aggressiveness (and often overconfidence). In the next few years his versatility led to him playing all over the infield and even the outfield (everywhere but pitcher and catcher in 1914), but in turn, his averages suffered (down to .242 in ’14), and the Reds came along and bought his contract for 1915. However, despite some initial fanfare, the Reds waived him and his .232 average mid-season, and Brooklyn claimed him. With Robins’ manager Wilbert Robinson a fan of his pugnacious style, he was reinstated as a starting shortstop for 1916 and took to his new role fairly well, batting .254 in helping lead Brooklyn to the 1916 pennant (and his tough play already paid dividends in the third game of the season with a fists-flying tussle with Rabbit Maranville in Boston on a close play at third).

Your 1916 Brooklyn Robins’ infield, L-R: 1B Jake Daubert, 2B George Cutshaw, SS Ivy Olson, 3B Mike Mowrey. Daubert the “star” with a .316 BA, but the others all had more RBI on the season. Bain photo, from LOC

Despite his average sinking to a low of .179 in late July, Olson continued to start most games at short as the Robins maintained a small lead in the NL most of the season, but he began to heat up soon afterward, hitting .446 in a 2 1/2 week spurt to raise his average 89 points, as Brooklyn went 13-4 during that span to have a 4-game lead in mid-September, and eventually won the pennant by 2 1/2 games over the Phillies.

Olson would end up batting .250 for the Series (4 hits), including his Game 3 heroics, but would struggle defensively, as in the aforementioned Game 1, but especially in the deciding Game 5, in which he set a WS record – with 1 out and men on 1st and 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd inning and the game tied 1-1, Olson bobbled a Hal Janvrin grounder to not only lose an inning-ending double play, but allow Janvrin to reach; he then whirled and fired the ball to second, where no one was covering (Janvrin had held 1st), allowing a run to score. So Olson was the first to commit two errors on one World Series play, only matched once, by Willie Davis in 1966. With the inning continuing, another (unearned) run scored to put Boston up 3-1, and they would win the game 4-1, and the Championship.

Olson remained Brooklyn’s reliable starting shortstop for many years and would have a love-hate relationship with the local fans, who would cheer him as loudly after a clutch hit as they would vociferously boo him after another miscue. He’d have his best year in 1919, batting a career high .278 and leading the NL in hits and games played, and the majors in at-bats and plate appearances. He’d also return to the Fall Classic for one more time in 1920, and would actually have a very good Series, batting .320 – and committing no errors – but the Robins would fall to the Indians in 7 games.

He retired after the 1924 season, but interestingly, the irrepressibly up-and-down player did have one part of his game that he was better at than any Dodger before or since – a good eye at the plate. Indeed, Olson holds the Dodgers franchise records for most at-bats per strikeout in a season (1 per 55.1 AB in 1922 – he only struck out 10 times that season, with none in the last 57 games!), and the all-time career Dodger record of 1 strikeout per 26.8 AB. So cheer him or boo him, he rarely walked back to the dugout, bat in hand. As Olson had said about the makeup of a ballplayer, “so long as he has the nerve and determination to win, give him to me in preference to some other fellow with twice his natural talent but without his heart.” Ivy Olsen, most assuredly, was referring to a player much like himself.




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