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Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Black Prince of Baseball

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract James says of Hal Chase, or "Prince Hal" as he was known (1883-1947), the slick-fielding first baseman for the Highlanders (Yankees) (1906-1913), White Sox (1913-1914), the Buffalo franchise of the Federal League (1914-1915), Reds (1916-1918), and Giants (1919):

"Hal Chase is remembered as a shining, leering, pock-marked face, pasted on a pitch-dark soul...The secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace that evil...This is not the corrupted. This is the corrupt. No matter what his skills I would not want Hal Chase around, period, and I find it extremely difficult to believe he that he ever helped any team, at all, period."

Although James also writes that he wouldn't choose Chase among a thousand players he does rate him as number 76 in his list of 100 first baseman in his book. Further, James sides with the opinion given by long-time writer Fred Leib, that "the whole thing" - meaning the Black Sox and other scandals - all started with Chase and that had he not been a ballplayer corruption would not have entered the game that eventually culminated in the dissolution of The National Commission and the installment of Judge Landis as Baseball Commissioner.

The authors of The Black Prince of Baseball covering Chase's life and career start with James' appraisal and use it as the springboard to paint a subtler picture of Chase. Their thesis is that Chase most certainly did not enter an organized baseball world that was free from corruption, but rather that Chase simply took advantage of a system already in place. For the authors his major crime was not his indifferent play and association with gamblers, after all, everyone betted on games and fixes were a regular occurrence. No, "the fixing charges had largely been in settlement of other scores" and that his "mistake" was

"in first challenging, then seeming to mock Organized Baseball's authority. Long before taking on Comiskey, Chase had shown little grasp of the reality that when Al Spalding had proclaimed baseball the culturally pure national pastime, it had followed logically that the National Commission and the 16 owners it represented were the Stars and Stripes. One didn't just come and go, only for the chance to make more money than was available elsewhere."

In other words, just as Chase's sister Jessie said after his death in 1947, Chase was the scapegoat. These "other scores" included Chase's jumping from the Highlanders back to the California State League in 1908 and from Charles Comiskey's White Sox in 1914 to the Federal League Buffalo franchise where he won a court battle with the American League and its President Ban Johnson.

The book doesn't go so far as to completely exonerate Chase, in fact far from it. For example, as the authors document there is little doubt truth to the charge that Chase did fix games, partaker in 1917 and 1918 (there is however plenty of doubt that he fixed games as early as 1913 when with the Yankees as is widely believed). In 1918 Chase, feeling pinched for money because of the possibility of the baseball season being cut short due to the war (and his need for money to support his gambling and womanizing habits), and shortstop Lee Magee bet on the first game of a July 25th doubleheader with Boston. Magee wrote Chase a $500 check to cover the bet Chase then placed with a gambler. Magee later testified that he didn't know that Chase had bet against the Reds (it was common for players to bet on their own teams to pocket a little extra cash) although suspiciously Magee made two errors, one that sent the game into extra innings and the other that kept the Braves alive in the final inning. In an interesting irony, the Reds won when Magee couldn't help but score after reaching on an error and being driven in by Edd Roush. Chase also approached a visiting player, the New York Giants Pol Perritt, about throwing the July 17th game. When all of this came to light Chase was suspended for the remainder of the season by manager Christy Mathewson.

By including all of the gory details, the authors contention is not that Chase was pure but that much that has been passed down through baseball writers and historians, particulars Lieb's contention that Chase started it all and that Chase was the ring leader of the Black Sox scandal, is simply not true. This belief in Chase as the spring of all evil reminds me of a particular form of historical revisionism that seeks to find a single cause for complex events, which Stephen Jay Gould in his essay "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs" identified as the "but for this" canonical story.

To back up their thesis the authors devote a chapter to documenting the corruption caused by gambling in organized baseball reaching back to 1857, 19 years before the National League was formed through 1904, the year before Chase joined the Highlanders. They also devote much of another chapter to the long list of gambling related scandals across both leagues from 1905 to 1917 that implicate among others Giants long-time manager John McGraw. They also show how Chase could not have played much of a role in the Black Sox scandal as he was on a barnstorming tour with the Giants during the time that most of the planning took place. Chase was summoned by the grand jury in Chicago but refused to appear without remuneration or forced extradition, neither of which ever were pursued by the authorities in Chicago. While its clear that Chase played a small role and attended at least one initial meeting with gamblers, the groundwork for the scandal was laid before Chase was involved and its culmination took place after Chase had left the scene.

One of the most interesting revelations in the book is that John McGraw committed perjury before the grand jury investigating the Black Sox scandal. During his testimony McGraw said that he did not offer a viable contract for the 1920 season to Chase in part because he was suspicious of Chase hanging around with the ex-ballplayer Bill Burns, the principal organizer of the scandal. The contract offered to Chase for the 1920 season in the amount of $1,083.33 per month is shown as the only figure in the book. Chase remained in good standing with the Giants and could have played the 1920 season but instead chose to remain in his native California, finally deeming he'd had enough of baseball in the east or perhaps because he knew his crooked play wouldn't get him through another season as it barely did in 1918. The authors seem to pinpoint this event coupled with the hatred of Chase by Ban Johnson as a turning point in the standard history of Chase.

One of the other aspects of the book that I found interesting is its portrayal of deadball era baseball. The authors do a great job of portraying a feel for the times using newspaper accounts and that includes the free-flow of players between leagues, the relative parity of other leagues with the American and National Leagues, and the way in which ballplayers would play on semi-pro teams on Sundays and barnstorming teams during the winter to make extra cash. Of course Chase was the quintessential player in this regard and really never developed any skill other than playing baseball and so always looked for opportunities to play for cash, including sometimes being under contract to two teams at the same time and making excuses to one and then the other as he hopped back and forth.

For all of the meticulous baseball detail in the book the authors also follow the off field events of Chase's life including his two marriages which both ended in divorce, his failure as a father, his incessant womanizing, his compulsive gambling, and finally his fall into alcoholism that consumed his final years. Although Chase was not the pure evil of the canonical tale, you'll find little to like in his career both on and off the diamond. In the end he comes across as simply an utterly selfish man to whom satisfying his pleasures came first, last, and always. What you end up with is a pathetic picture epitomized in this vignette from the mid 1930s as told by Tuscon realtor Roy Drachman when as an alcoholic Chase was working odd jobs in Arizona order to survive.

"There was this one time he came by the Opera House and asked if I could give him a dollar. I was getting kind of mad about always giving him money, so I said no, I had only fifteen cents. Anyway, we get talking about baseball for awhile. He kept up with what was going on in the major leagues. Never struck me as very embarrassed, either, about talking about McGraw or any of the people he had played with. But so much of it was really just a lead-in for asking the impressed kid for money. This day I mean, for instance, after all the talk about this one and that one, he suddenly looks at me a says, 'Well, I could use that fifteen cents you mentioned. Maybe buy a loaf of bread or something.'"

Some of the most interesting parts of the book detail Chase's post major league playing days in outlaw leagues of the southwest from the early 1920s until he returned to California to attend his father's funeral in 1934. Particularly entertaining is the account of how Chase won $2,000 from billiards champion Willie Hoppe in 1926 as told by Hoppe and how Chase, after winning Hoppe's ivory cue then gave it back with the advice "Don't get attached to people or things." There is also a somewhat convoluted story of Chase's involvement in the disappearance of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and a possible abortion/blackmail caper.

But perhaps most entertaining is the account of the 1925-26 seasons in Douglas Arizona when Chase at 42 years old was playing firstbase for the local team. After the team got off to a poor start in 1925 Chase went to California to recruit more players and returned with Black Sox firstbaseman Chick Gandil and third baseman Buck Weaver. Weaver then recruited pitcher Lefty Williams for the 1926 campaign. Their third baseman, Cowboy Ruiz, tells this story of one memorable game in 1926 when Negro League star and Hall of Famer Bullet Joe Rogan was pitching for the Fort Branyard team against Douglas. After eight and a half innings Fort Branyard is winning 1-0 with two outs and nobody on and Buck Weaver is up.

"I hear Buck say to the Prince, 'I'm gonna lay one down, Hal. If it works, I'm gonna go on the first pitch.' Sure enough, Weaver drag bunts past the pitcher and beats the throw. Up walks Hal. There must have been half of Douglas at the game and they are hollering and screaming. They were hanging from the rafters. We were thinking, 'Too bad the Prince is old now. I bet in the old days he could hit this guy.' Well, anyway, Buck goes on stirke one to the Prince. Rogan doesn't pay any mind to him because he's after Hal. I'm standing next to Lefty Williams, who usually was very quiet. But all of a sudden, Lefty starts screaming at Hal, 'Get his ass Prince! The son of a bitch got only pitch! He can't spin it to save his ass!' Rogan glares over at Lefty and then throws a curve to Hal, and the old boy hit that pitch, which was around his eyes, at least 100 feet over the left field fence.'

'I never saw anything like it. The crowd ran on the field. buck was jumping in the air. Hal is circling the bases in this real slow trot. He has this kind of half-smile on his face, waving to the crowd in a real kind of slow wave...He was waving to the people."

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