April 12, 2011
Hall of Famer Charles Albert “Chief” Bender played one season with the Phillies, but he is much better known for the 12 seasons he spent across town with the Philadelphia A’s. He won over 63% of his starts, and the higher the pressure was, the better he performed, winning six World Series games with a 2.44 ERA in the Fall Classic. He is also credited by many as being the inventor of the slider. While he loved Philadelphia, he also struggled here, as his Native American heritage caused him to be taunted both home and away, and belittled in newspaper reports. Even his nickname, Chief, was an insult. To learn more about this fascinating figure of Philly’s past, I interviewed Tom Swift, who wrote an excellent biography of Bender called Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star, which was published last year.
JOHNNY GOODTIMES: When did you first become interested in the story of Charles Albert “Chief” Bender?
TOM SWIFT: For almost fifty years Charles Bender was the only man from my home state — Minnesota — enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. When the next two guys (Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor) joined that club, newspaper articles often mentioned this name, “Chief Bender,” almost as a footnote. I thought I should know more about Bender than I did — which is to say, not much — and so I started digging around. I did some research, wound up writing a magazine article about him, and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn.
What I discovered was a man who, yes, had a rare ability to throw a baseball. But what fascinated me, what made me want to write this book, is what I consider an amazing human-interest story. Bender’s success was improbable for so many reasons, he had a fantastic run as one of the game’s foremost clutch pitchers, and he was, without question, an interesting human being.
JGT: One of the more interesting things about the book to a person here is the way it portrays Philadelphia roughly 100 years ago. Even back then it was a rough sports town, but Bender seemed to like it here. After his playing days were done, he worked for the A’s organization until the early 1950s and died in Philadelphia. What was it about Philly that Bender liked so much?
TS: I guess you could say that Philadelphia was the home he never had. Like a lot of American Indian children of the time, at a young age Bender was placed on a train and sent across the country to attend off-reservation boarding school. He attended a school in the Philadelphia area for five years and then spent five years at the Carlisle Indian School. So most of his life after age 7 was spent in Pennsylvania.
And almost everything good that happened to Bender happened either in Philadelphia or elsewhere while he was representing the city. He signed with the A’s as an 18-year-old and in the dozen years that followed became a Philadelphia celebrity. A star. People knew him and recognized him on the street. He was revered for his role on the Athletics during the days they were the greatest team assembled — and when he was the game’s premier “money pitcher.” Philly is also where many of Bender’s friends — Connie Mack included — were made and where they lived.
JGT: On the other hand, Philly was known for being exceptionally cruel to later pioneers like Jackie Robinson and Dick Allen. How did they treat a Native American who played here almost 50 years before Jackie began playing?
No doubt, the rivers of intolerance ran through the City of Brotherly Love; Bender endured prejudice and racism from fans, fellow players, and newspapermen. In fact, there was scarcely a time when Bender was talked or written about when his race was not prominently mentioned — and usually in derogatory terms. No, it wasn’t always easy. Nearly everywhere Bender went, on or off the field, he was reminded that people, most people, believed, and told him in so many words, that he was inferior. His very nickname is an example of that.
JGT: There are many who think that Bender “invented” the slider. What do you think?
TS: Bender is the earliest known pitcher to have, unquestionably, thrown the slider (though the pitch wasn’t called a slider when he threw it). But few things in baseball history — like the origin of the game itself — can be correctly attributed to one clear and recognized inventor. Being historically accurate, we don’t know for certain and almost certainly never will.
Speaking subjectively, Bender was the kind of guy who was always thinking of new ways to get hitters out. Whether that meant changing speeds, developing excellent control, or using different deliveries — he was one of the first to be known for a big kick — and he was exceptionally bright. In other words, if you created a profile of the kind of guy who might have invented the slider, you would very likely sketch a guy like him.
JGT: How did Bender maintain his composure despite the constant heckling and the derisive “Chief” nickname?
TS: He did three things:
1) He stayed active. Bender absorbed himself in a staggering number of hobbies that gave him pleasure and allowed him to escape the pressure. He fired a gun (he was well known as one of the best trapshooters in the country); he golfed (one magazine called him the best golfer in the American League); he painted, fished, played billiards — the list is long. Bender seldom sat around contemplating the injustice of the world.
2) He won. His pitching was his answer to the howling crowd. He remained cool. He focused and he had an air about him that told the world that the taunts and jeers didn’t bother him (even if they did). I tell this story in “Chief Bender’s Burden,” but during the World Series one time John McGraw — legendary manager and Hall of Fame bench jockey of the New York Giants — just rode Bender, yelling inventive, even for McGraw it was bad. Bender calmly stepped off the rubber, took a couple steps toward the New York dugout and cupped his hand around his ear, as if to let McGraw know that he couldn’t hear him.
3) He drank. Especially late in his career Bender had trouble with alcohol and at one point was even suspended from the A’s. Given everything, it would have surprised me had he not sought some sort of salve.
JGT: What is Bender’s lasting legacy to the sport of baseball?
TS: Not an accurate reflection of his contribution, at least in my opinion. We — rightly — honor Jackie Robinson for his place in baseball history. Like Robinson, Bender and other players of his time faced almost constant hatred and bigotry. He played with a pressure few of his contemporaries had to face and that pressure took its toll. It almost certainly diminished his chance to win more games and play more years. Yet he always carried himself with class and grace. It was hard to watch him over time and not see that the prevailing stereotypes were all so wrong. He didn’t break a color barrier — as I write in the book, the Robinson analogy is flawed — and he didn’t wage a public campaign. What he did do was quietly change and soften racist attitudes. In that respect, Bender made life better for those who followed. In my opinion, his place in baseball history is underappreciated.