Ben Chapman, Once and for All

The look on Chapman's face (right) says it all---he hoped posing for this and several shots with Jackie Robinson would save his job managing the Phillies.

Ben Chapman’s (right) look says it all—he hoped posing for this and several shots with Jackie Robinson during the 1947 season would save his job managing the Phillies.

Jackie Robinson suffered few baitings more vicious than those led by Ben Chapman, the former outfielder who managed the Philadelphia Phillies, when Robinson broke into the Show with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. And, yes, it really did get to a point where Chapman’s job was on the line, and he posed for photographs with Robinson—clearly ill at ease—in a bid to turn down the heat he had brought himself and his team.

Chapman’s portrait in 42 appears to be about as dead on as such a discomfiting portrait can be. And it is only right and proper that Chapman’s behaviour in that time and place should be the thing remembered most about him. He may have come from a generation in which mutual ethnic baiting was as normal around baseball as a .300 batting average (I’ll explain that shortly), but he alone chose what he chose when along came Robinson, who didn’t have the option to fight back, and who (unlike most of the players baiting each other ethnically on the field in Chapman’s playing days) wouldn’t likely have been welcome in the homes of most of those men.

But it is also said reliably enough that Chapman’s racial attitudes changed after he left the major leagues. Allen Barra, in The Atlantic, writes of meeting Chapman and then hearing from those who knew Chapman intimately enough that Chapman came to enjoy talking baseball with black children in black neighbourhoods in his native Alabama. “All I can say,” one-time Birmingham Barons owner Art Clarkson told Barra, “is that Ben really was a different man in his later years—he acknowledged the error of his old ways.”

Chapman died at 84 in 1993. “Because of the success of 42—its opening weekend was the highest of any baseball movie ever—the Ben Chapman portrayed in the movie will certainly define his image in baseball history,” Barra writes. “And that’s fair. But it’s just possible that near the end of his life Chapman did change—or as we say today, he evolved. At least some people who knew him in his later years thought he did, and I think it’s fair, also, that in some tiny corner of baseball history, that Ben Chapman is to be remembered as well.”

Fair enough. And now to the question sometimes stirred when those who knew him remember him: Did Ben Chapman’s racial attitudes, and the notoriety he invited for them especially as a manager, keep him from Cooperstown consideration?

In one word: No.

If you want to look at Chapman’s playing career sabermetrically, the WARriors have a quick answer for you: Chapman played fifteen major league seasons and was good for 41.4 wins above a replacement-level player. At this writing he’s tied with Jack Fournier at 287th all time. Let me run down the twenty players behind Chapman and Fournier on the list: Andy Van Slyke, Mark Belanger, Placido Polanco, Roger Bresnahan, George Van Haltren, Augie Galan, Jim Gilliam, Darrell Porter, Mike Griffin, Gil McDougald, David Ortiz, Phil Rizzuto, Tim Salmon, Pete Browning, David Justice, Hardy Richardson, Jim Sundberg, Dick Bartell, Babe Herman, and Carney Lansford.

I see only two Hall of Famers on that list, and both Roger Bresnahan and Phil Rizzuto are considered to have been extremely dubious Hall of Fame picks at best. (Rizzuto probably does belong in Cooperstown—as a broadcaster.) I bet you’re surprised to see David Ortiz that low on the WAR chart, too, considering his game-busting image, and when Ortiz finally retires and comes up for Hall of Fame consideration oh boy will the debate over the designated hitter hit fever pitch. But you get the idea. Chapman isn’t exactly traveling in overcrowded Cooperstown territory right off the bat.

Chapman finished his career with a .302 batting average. Conceding that the batting average has been devalued overall as a statistic, anyway, note that he did it playing in an era when it wasn’t exactly that difficult to hit .300+. His best season for batting average was 1938, when he hit .340 for the Boston Red Sox . . . and finished third in the American League batting race. (Jimmie Foxx won the title hitting .348; Jeff Heath of the Cleveland Indians finished second with .343.)

Chapman as a Yankee, before a kid named DiMaggio hastened his way out of town.

Chapman as a Yankee, before a kid named DiMaggio hastened his way out of town.

He was three seasons removed from the last one in which he’d led his league in any offensive category. In 1937, divided between the Red Sox and the Washington Senators (who traded him during the season for the Ferrell brothers, Wes and Rick), Chapman led the league in stolen bases, with 35. Come to think of it, it was the only time Chapman ever led his league in steals without leading the league concurrently in being caught stealing. Chapman accomplished that tandem leadership three times and once led the league in being caught but not in stealing successfully.

Except for leading the American League in triples with thirteen in 1934, Chapman never led his league in any other offensive category. He rarely finished in his league’s top ten in key offensive categories, even in his early seasons with the New York Yankees. He seems to have been a reliable outfielder who wouldn’t necessarily hurt you to any excess on the field or at the plate. Yet the Yankees unloaded Chapman almost as soon as they could in 1936, once their center fielder of the future began proving himself that future. You may have heard of him: Joe DiMaggio.

There were other considerations, from everything I’ve read about those Yankees, including the possibility that Chapman was so champion an ethnic baiter, even if he was right that the Yankees and every other club in the league had clubhouses chock full of them. (And, in fairness, even if Chapman was right that southern ballplayers such as himself often took it at least as bad as, say, Italian or Jewish players did.) It probably did prove too much for the Yankees, and it was probably true that Chapman was a goner the moment the Yankees found someone who could out-play him even to a small degree. Finding Joe DiMaggio, of course, which is exactly what happened with the 1936 Yankees, was once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

Chapman seems to have been an early-in-the-order type who had a little long ball power, knew how to reach base by hook or by crook, basically a Pete Rose-Tim Raines type who finished in the top 200 in on-base percentage at this writing. He’s ahead of several Hall of Famers on that list, including but not limited to Bill Dickey, Miller Huggins (who’s really in Cooperstown as a manager), Enos Slaughter, Lou Boudreau, Mike Schmidt, Nap Lajoie, Tony Lazzeri, Al Simmons, Duke Snider, Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron, George Brett, and Kirby Puckett.

That seems impressive enough. But I’m not convinced you’re going to find many people examining the evidence closely and concluding that Ben Chapman was more valuable to his teams than those men were to theirs.

What about his defense? Well, Chapman led his league in assists by a center fielder once, finished top ten three times, but he also led his league in errors by a center fielder twice and finished top ten there four times. On the other hand, later in his playing career, he managed to lead his league twice in double plays by an outfielder. I’d have to conclude he was about an average defensive outfielder who showed flashes of above average play but wasn’t always consistent with the leather.

The average Hall of Famer scores 27 on the Bill James Black Ink Test (league leadership) and 144 percent on the Gray Ink Test (top ten league leadership). Chapman scores 9 on the Black Ink and 67 on the Gray Ink. On the James Hall of Fame Monitor, an average Hall of Famer would score 100 of the Monitor and, meeting the James Hall of Fame Standards, 50 percent. Chapman makes 78 on the Monitor and meets 37 percent of the Standards.

A good ballplayer, who sometimes played above his own head, and who might have been just a trifle better than his final statistics show. But it wouldn’t be enough to put Ben Chapman in the Hall of Fame, even without the issue that marked him and his image for life.

5 thoughts on “Ben Chapman, Once and for All

  1. Saw the movie “42″ last Sunday and Ben Chapman was rightfully shown as a racist of the worst sort. I agree with Jeff that Chapman was no Hall of Famer in any sense. It is good to know that he evidently changed his racist attitudes later in life.

    • Even if Chapman hadn’t been the racist he was in his playing and managing days, even if he hadn’t been Jackie Robinson’s worst among race baiters, Chapman’s playing record taken stand-alone, by itself, just isn’t a Hall of Fame record.

      • I agree 100 percent. He had too many negative stats for Hall of Fame consideration. He hit 37 of his 90 HR’s in his first three seasons and only 53 in his last 12 seasons. One positive stat is that he walked 824 times and struck out only 556 times. Not many players retire with more strikeouts than walks, but still not enough to make him a Hall of Famer.

        • Removing all the other issues tied to him, Ben Chapman was a good player, nothing much more, nothing much less. I’m not convinced you can make the case that his flagrant racism, especially regarding Jackie Robinson, weighed against him when he showed pitifully non-existent results in the two Hall elections in which he got a vote or three (figuratively speaking). But I am convinced that those who did try to make a Hall of Fame case for Chapman as a player tended to neglect a fact that really might have weighed against him: practically the moment Joe DiMaggio proved himself in his rookie season, the Yankees sought and found a taker for Chapman: the Senators, who sent the Yankees Jake Powell in return. Except for leading the league in steals in 1937, a season in which the Senators shipped him on to the Red Sox, Chapman wouldn’t really be the player he was with the Yankees again.

          Jake Powell was quite a piece of work in his own right. He once made what Red Smith would call “a thoughtless remark that offended thousands of Negroes,” in a radio interview before a game in Comiskey Park. The interview also provoked enough of a storm that the American League’s Chicago office was flooded with protests and rumours of boycotts against any park the Yankees played if Powell was in the lineup went wild. I’ll let Smith—writing of Powell after his suicide in 1948 (“A Guy Who Made Mistakes,” New York Herald Tribune, 7 November 1948)—take it from here:

          Well, the next time Powell got to New York, he went up to the top end of Harlem. He went alone, after dark. He worked down from north to south, stopping in every saloon he came across.

          In each he introduced himself. He said he was Jake Powell and he said that he had made a foolish mistake and that he was sorry. Then he ordered drinks for the crowd and moved on to the next joint.

          He did that by himself, on his own initiative, after dark, in a section where he had reason to believe feelings ran high against him.

          That’s one story about Jake Powell. The only story here.

          Smith introduced the column by describing Powell as “a guy who never knew fear and never knew what was good for him, a guy who always acted on impulse and was wrong more often than not.” I suppose you could say that, once upon a time, Jake Powell was a helluva lot less wrong, perversely enough, than Ben Chapman.

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