|Book Review: Chief Bender - A Baseball Biography|
Written by Richard Coreno (Contact & Archive) on November 25, 2009
The Hot Stove League fires out to a sizzling start with baseball historian Robert Peyton Wiggins and his excellent exploration into the life and times of legendary pitcher Charles Albert "Chief" Bender in Chief Bender: A Baseball Biography (November 2009; McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers).
"Charles Bender is not well known today except by the most devoted of fans of baseball history and the memorabilia collectors who realize that a 'Chief Bender' autograph is one of the rarest in sports," writes Wiggins. "Unlike many of his hard-drinking and profane contemporaries, Charley was not controversial and was generally a quiet and gracious man.
"Few know that he (was) an outstanding all-around athlete, 'a natural,' proficient at shooting, billiards and golf as well as baseball."
He fanned 1,711 batters, notched a 2.46 earned run average and invented the "nickel-change" pitch, now known as the slider. Bender was also a key player in the 1910, 1911 and 1913 World Series victories of the Athletics, but was mostly forgotten by fans and baseball scribes outside of Philadelphia until he gained induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum through a 1953 vote by the National Baseball Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans and posthumously enshrined in August 1954.
"Although Charley Bender was half European, contemporary accounts either suggest or state the pitcher was a full-blood Indian," Wiggins writes. "Even his plaque on the wall of honor in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum begins with the words 'Famous Chippewa Indian.'"
Born on May 5, 1884, in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, Bender demonstrated his athletic prowess in football, baseball and track from 1896 to 1902 while attending the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School. He was expelled after being "loaned out" by the school to participate in sports for Dickinson College, which soon found him competing against Carlisle in track.
Wiggins begins to expertly hit the corners of the strike zone as the 237 pages of text and photographs scamper into Bender's pro career, which parallels the rise to prominence of Cornelius "Connie Mack" McGillicuddy as manager of the Athletics. Bender made his mound debut at the age of 18 and immediately drew special attention, but sometimes for all the wrong reasons, which he handled in low-key ways.
"Indian ball players received substantial attention because they were the only 'uncivilized savages' the eastern fans had ever seen in person," writes Wiggins. "Charles Albert Bender signed autographs as 'Charlie' until later in life when he began to scrawl 'Chief Bender.'
"But most often, Bender responded to derisive chants and war whoops from the fans by making the 'Indian sign' (placing a hex on the opposition) or doffing his ball cap."
In 1915, Bender jumped to the Federal League of Base Ball Clubs and struggled to a 4-16 mark with Baltimore. The upstart league ceased operations after that season and Bender immediately became an outsider to the pro game. Wiggins writes: "On January 19, 1916, Chief Bender's name appeared on a list of former Federal League players who, as a result of the peace pact with Organized Baseball, were deemed to have little or no value in the open market. Essentially, Bender was now a free agent."
He eventually played two years with the Phillies, but refused to sign a contract with the club for the 1918 season and went to work in the shipyards to assist the domestic effort during World War I. From 1919 to 1932, Bender made numerous stops in the minors as a pitcher and manager -- along with coaching at the U.S. Naval Academy -- while making it back to the majors as a pitcher for one game and coach with the White Sox, along with working outside of baseball.
In June 1939, the rift between Bender and Mack was over, with his former manager hiring him as a scout for the Athletics. Bender would remain with the club in a variety of positions until his death at the age of 70 on May 22, 1954, due to a heart attack.
"(Mack) wrote in 1950 that the Chief was one of the top half-dozen pitchers in the history of the game," writes Wiggins. "Mack is also reported to have said that Bender was the greatest 'money pitcher' he'd ever coached and 'the thinkin'est pitcher I ever saw.'
"Chief Bender had the discipline to ignore the war whoops and racial aspersions to perform at a high level and dispel many of the myths of the time that the Indian did not have the intelligence to become successful in baseball at the highest level. He ignored politics and handled the bias of his time, not with anger, but with likeability and intelligence."
AHP Rating: 4 Balls
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