Review of The Black Prince of Baseball

Dewey, Donald and Nicholas Acocella. The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. PP. xi + 456. Notes, bibliography, index, 2 photographs. $19.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Doug Wilson

Hal Chase is generally viewed as baseball’s all-time leading crook, a degenerate gambler and general ne’er-do-well who had a hand in every scandal in the early days of the game, including as a major force in establishing the landscape that led to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game informs readers that this may not be quite a fair legacy.  Yes, he was a crook and all the rest, but maybe not so monolithic, and in his nefarious activities he definitely had company, including some of the biggest names in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Hal Chase

University of Nebraska Press, 2016

Hal Chase was drawing raves on the baseball field by his mid-teens as he played throughout California in the early part of the twentieth century. Working his way up from town teams to semipro squads, as an unenrolled ringer on a college team and finally in various professional leagues, he often played for several teams at the same time. He quickly developed a reputation for two things: flamboyant, often brilliant, play in the field and the penchant for jumping to whichever team offered him more money, regardless of previous commitments.

After being a top drawing card in the Pacific Coast League for several years, the 22-year-old Chase joined the major league New York Highlanders in 1905. Charismatic, well-spoken, and a good-timing guy in the bars of Manhattan, the much-hyped rookie quickly became a favorite of both fans and the media. By his second year he was being proclaimed as one of the best players in professional baseball.

While he was a better-than-average hitter, the enduring legacy of Hal Chase’s play was his excellence on defense. Quick, daring, with a strong arm and great instincts, he was exceptional at taking away bunts—in an era when bunting was a major part of offenses—and acrobatic catches became routine. He was considered by many, fans and enemies alike, to be the best fielding first baseman in the first half of the twentieth century.

But there was another side to Hal Chase, one that would ultimately overshadow his playing ability. Throughout his career, he is shown having difficulty getting along with teammates and undermining managers he did not like. He had a propensity for holdouts and jumping teams; he skipped practices, missed games with mysterious illnesses, and behaved generally as a clubhouse cancer. In viewing the discord around him, it was perhaps no coincidence that Chase never played on a pennant winner, despite several teams that went into the season with high hopes.

Traded to the White Sox in 1913, he continued his habit of personally thriving in dysfunctional clubhouses. He jumped his contract the next year to join a team in the rival Federal League, winning the ensuing court case but making powerful enemies of both White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson, men who controlled the game and knew how to nurse a grudge. The authors insinuate that it is these two grudges more than anything else that contribute to Chase’s ultimate reputation as the worst of the worst among baseball’s rogues.

Back in the majors in 1917, but blackballed from the American League, Chase signed with the Cincinnati Reds. It was in Cincinnati that his luck began to play out. He had always enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, living far above his means, as likely to swindle a friend out of a poker hand as to spring for drinks for an entire bar after he had done it. As the authors note, at 35 years old in 1918, Chase was one of the oldest regulars in either league and “Chase didn’t have to be told that his big pay days were winding down to a precious few and that he hadn’t provided for even an overcast day” (p. 256).

Exactly when Chase began throwing games for gamblers is not known. As early as 1913 he was being accused of laying down in the field, however, at the time it was felt that he was doing it to cause an unpopular manager to lose his job. Chase had long ago perfected the subtle moves of short-arming throws and arriving late to the bag to make missed throws look like errors on the infielders—the hustler’s art of playing poorly while still looking good.

Considerable evidence exists that by 1917 Chase was making money on baseball skullduggery.  There was a string of suspicious losses for Cincinnati late in the season, often due to uncharacteristic errors or baserunning blunders. Hall of Fame teammate Ed Roush told an interviewer years later, “He was the best first baseman I ever saw. He was also the worst if he wanted to lose a game. . . You could tell after an inning or two whether he was in there to win or to lose” (p. 239).

Another Cincinnati teammate later testified that Chase approached him on the mound one day with “I’ve got some money bet on this game. There is something in it for you if you lose” (p. 239).

By 1918 Chase, emboldened by meeting little resistance from baseball’s establishment, was regularly meeting with well-known gamblers around the league and also attempting to enlist teammates and opponents to throw games. Reds manager Christy Mathewson, unable to tolerate what he felt to be Chase’s open disregard for rules or the team, suspended him in August 1918, with the official explanation of “indifferent playing.”

The suspension and subsequent evidence of dirty play led to a highly publicized hearing in front of Baseball’s National Commission. But while Chase’s motivations were well-known to players, proving it in court was another matter when the only witnesses were other dirty players and gamblers. Chase lawyered up and beat the charges.

Although the National League President was enraged at the outcome of the hearing, the head of the commission, Reds owner Garry Herrmann, did not take the news so badly. He had earlier implored the other baseball leaders that if overwhelming evidence warranted expelling Chase from the game, it should be kept private to avoid any public appearance of wrong-doing within baseball.

This feeling among the baseball powers to overlook gambling in order to protect the image of the game provides a dark undercurrent to the book. While telling the tale of Chase, the authors provide an excellent look at the rough and tumble state of major league baseball in the early days of the twentieth century. The public was fed a constant reminder that the game was beyond reproach as “a model of morally uplifting athleticism” (p. 20). This squeaky-clean image is shown to be misleading, however, as unscrupulous egomaniacal owners fought savage power struggles with league officials, routinely pillaged other franchises and exploited players bound by the reserve clause. Meanwhile ruffian players and managers showed little regard for rules and gamblers openly plied their trade in box seats. In short, there was little morally uplifting about the game, on or off the field.

The authors show baseball of the time to be a game thoroughly entwined with gambling. Owners and players alike routinely enjoyed gambling over high stakes poker tables, in pool halls, casinos, racetracks, and on baseball games, and often they were business associates of well-known gamblers and bookies. In fact, betting on baseball games by baseball players and managers was not even expressly prohibited until an edict by the National League president in early 1919.

Major league baseball in New York particularly was lousy with gamblers and racketeers. The Highlanders owners were Frank Farrell, well-known as one of the biggest gamblers on the East Coast, and Bill Devery, a Tammany Hall crony who had amassed his fortune as one of the most corrupt Police commissioners in the city’s history. New York Giants czar John McGraw and a professional gambler co-owned a popular Manhattan pool hall that was frequented by many prominent bookies and lowlifes, including the notorious Arnold Rothstein. This was business as usual within the game of baseball at the time and no one thought twice about it, except maybe to double check the odds of the next day’s games before laying down their money.

There was no true will among owners to seriously combat gambling, in part because most agreed that gambling was good for the turnstile. “Betting had been so grafted onto the roots of baseball that there was little certainty in the sport’s boardroom that it [cracking down on gambling] was bad for business” (p. 31). Even crookedness among players of the time was tolerated as long as it didn’t become too public, less fans at large perceive a gambling problem and lose confidence in the effort of the teams (and stop spending money to watch them). Although there were numerous complaints of throwing games, no player was ever sanctioned as the cases were quietly settled.

Of the whitewashing efforts of the owners, the authors write, “If Herrmann, Johnson and the National League President of the moment [members of the ruling commission] were not out and out crooks, they were sitting on a library of suppressed reports identifying who was” (p. 243). The authors imply that the keepers of the game were as culpable as the gamblers and the crooked players in the growing corruption of the sport. “If the stink in the air wasn’t that of institutional immorality, it was of the closest thing to it—random morality. Executives of both leagues acted satisfied with the sliver of difference” (p. 248).

Assisting in the public whitewash were the writers who were indebted to baseball owners for their very livelihood. They went to great lengths to perpetuate the myth that all was wholesome and clean within the professional game. The authors state, “The subject of gambling in baseball brought out the worst intellectual contortions . . . Albert Spalding had made it abundantly clear that it [baseball] was an uniquely American enterprise . . . this seemed to call for a patriotic protectiveness in which only clear thinking stood as a scoundrel” (p. 242).

And so it was in this environment of casual rubbing elbows with gamblers and tacit acceptance by owners that men like Chase saw the opportunity to improve their meager pay.

After he was exonerated by the National Commission, Chase played one more year, joining McGraw’s 1919 Giants. In the period following the Black Sox scandal, in which he was widely reported to be somehow involved without any evidence, the 38-year-old Chase became a pariah. He continued to play baseball for another decade, however, blackballed by organized baseball but making his way through the outlaw leagues of California, Arizona, and Mexico. While plying his trade for peanuts in dusty towns, Chase was unable to outrun his reputation even though he had never formally banned by Baseball Commissioner Landis. Broken down, unable to make a living with anything other than a baseball glove or a pool cue, Chase eventually played out his days in sad obscurity as an alcoholic, frequently dependent on his sister.

The book is exhaustingly researched and provides great history. It flows smoothly in chronological order and is well-written in the academic style, but it is not for light readers. At times it is a slow read, especially during his offseason California ballfield exploits. Baseball historians will find this an excellent addition to their knowledge on the early game and the general topic of gambling in baseball.

The authors are neither apologists nor crucifiers, but present a fact-filled portrait of a flawed man. The question of Hal Chase is not an easy one to answer and should not be undertaken flippantly. He was a man with gifted hands, equally adept at palming cards, hustling pool, and digging errant throws out of the dirt. He was an unrepentant womanizer, an uncaring absent father, a philandering husband, a gambler, and at times seemed completely selfish and amoral. But perhaps no more so on any of these charges than many other ballplayers, some of whom reside permanently in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Doug Wilson has written biographies of major leaguers Fred Hutchinson, Mark Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk. His website is: dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com.

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