If there’s one thing that baseball itself will debunk somewhere, some time, somehow when you least expect it, it’s the idea that you’ve seen everything on or off the field. The moment you satisfy yourself that you have, the game has a way of replying in a split second, “Pants on fire!”
That doesn’t work with great hits or great plays alone. You think you hear it all (over again) whenever Pete Rose’s dwindling supporters burp up yet another mealymouth argument on behalf of putting him into the Hall of Fame despite what Rule 21(d) and the Hall’s own rule about ballot eligibility say? Brace yourselves.
For whatever reason, the subjects of the day a few days ago, on a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) social media group thread, included Hal Chase, whom history still treats as perhaps the poster boy for baseball’s gambling infestation from the late 1800s through the end of the Dead Ball Era.
A thread opener cited Babe Ruth’s once-famous observation, when asked to name those he thought the best at their positions:
[T]he Prince was also a very fine hitter who played his entire career before the ball was juiced up. He couldn’t run, he could fly. And aside from Ty Cobb, he was the best baserunner I ever saw. Fielding, are you kidding? Prince Hal was the greatest fielding first baseman that ever played. He was worth the price of admission just to watch him toe-dance around first base and pick those wild throws out of the dirt.
Funny, but that’s not exactly what Chase’s statistics say. When I pointed that out in the thread, among the replies was, “And that’s what makes the stats on him useless,” which was dubious enough. But then came the real corker: “Just goes to show how much stats are useless.” Not the stats on Chase himself but stats overall. On a SABR group thread, no less.
Just about all accounts of Chase affirm that what Ruth saw in him was there. But add that it tended to happen only when Chase was of a mind to exercise it. You don’t even have to read Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella’s The Black Prince of Baseball to comprehend. The record was long enough in place attesting that, in baseball’s arguable most corrupt era, Chase was its arguable most corrupt figure.
“Chase’s talents,” wrote SABR director of editorial content Jacob Pomrenke in a 2013 essay, “were legendary: He made one-handed catches with astonishing ease, played farther off the bag than anyone had ever seen and charged sacrifice bunts with speed and agility. He also earned the reputation of being the best hit-and-run batter in the American League and frequently ranked among league leaders in batting average, RBI and stolen bases.”
There is, of course, an ocean’s worth of distance between one’s talents and one’s development and exercise of them. In this instance Pomrenke’s reminder is vivid enough:
His career in the major leagues from 1905 to 1919 was checkered with accusations of game-fixing. Two of his managers with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), George Stallings and Frank Chance, accused him of “laying down” on the team. He missed signs frequently (especially on the hit-and-run, causing base runners to be hung out to dry) and dropped balls from his infielders in such a subtle way that it made their throws look like errors. But whenever a stink was raised about his play, club owners Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery sided with their star first baseman—and even made him the manager once, a decision that satisfied no one. Chase lasted just one full season in the role.
We’re not going to run down the entire record of Chase’s corruption here. We know that the Dead Ball Era could also have been called the Dubious Ball Era considering how many players were involved in gambling-inspired game fixing and how many owners and managers lacked clean hands themselves. (It only begins with remembering New York Giants manager John McGraw owned a piece of a pool hall belonging to and run by eventual 1919 World Series financier Arnold Rothstein.)
We won’t even go into the complete details about how Christy Mathewson—pitching star (and charter Hall of Famer) turned manager of the 1916 Reds, where Chase landed after a two-season term in the upstart/outlaw Federal League—caught Chase dead to right bribing teammates and opponents to help him fix games and suspended him, only for Chase to be let off after Mathewson entered the Army during World War I and was unable to testify at a league hearing.
Let’s hark back to the Ruthian recollection of Chase’s abilities. Far from being meaningless, Chase’s actual major league statistics do portray him the way the stats so often portray outsize talents that don’t turn them into performance at the plate or on the field:
A very fine hitter. Well, Chase won a batting title in 1916 and had four other top-ten finishes. That might speak well of a player with a short career, but Chase played fifteen major league seasons. He finished third in the batting race once, eighth once, and tenth once. For eleven major league seasons (including his Federal League years) he wasn’t a top-ten guy for batting average.
Aside from Ty Cobb, he was the best baserunner. This one’s tricky, because the stats are incomplete on how often Chase was caught stealing while he did steal 363 bases and finished in the lower third of his league’s top ten three times.
He was worth the price of admission just to watch him toe-dance around first base and pick those wild throws out of the dirt. Ruth’s hardly the only Chase contemporary or semi-contemporary to praise Chase as a fielder. But considering the full story, isn’t it possible that Chase flashed that amazing ability selectively, delivering the goods just as Pomrenke observed, when he bloody well felt like it or when it was in his personal as opposed to his teams’ interest?
Think of this, too: Forgot for the moment how dubious “errors” are (think deep and ponder that an “error” is some official scorer’s notion of what should have happened on a play no matter how tough) and consider that Chase led his league eight times (it’s the most black ink on his record), finished second three times, third twice, fourth twice, fifth once, and seventh once. All fifteen major league seasons he played show him with top ten finishes including eight league leaderships in fielding errors.
The final stats show Chase shaking out as the 124th best first baseman who ever played the major league position. I think the entire body of evidence shows that he didn’t just hurt his teams and his game with his game-fixing actions.
Writing The New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked him number 76, but that was published in 2001. “[W]hat greatness as a baseball player comes down to is, ‘What did he do to help his teams win?’ If you were trying to win a pennant, how badly would you want this guy? Hey, this is not Joe Jackson that we are talking about here. This is not the corrupted. This is the corrupt.”
As James pointed out further, Chase never played on a pennant winner, “and most of the teams he played for declined precipitously when he joined them and improved dramatically after he was gone.” Let’s look at that all the way. Was James right? The following table shows where Chase’s teams finished the year before he joined, right after he joined, and the year after he left:
|New York (AL)||1905||2nd||6th (-)||1913||6th (push)|
|Chicago (AL)||1913||4th||5th (-)||1916||3rd (+)|
|Cincinnati (NL)||1916||7th||7th (push)||1918||1st (+)|
|New York (NL)||1919||2nd||2nd (push)||1919||2nd (push)|
Two Chase clubs finished farther out of the race after he joined them than they finished the year before. Two finished exactly the same after he joined, but one (the 1918 Reds) won the pennant the year after he left. One (the 1919 Giants) finished the same before, with, and after Chase.
What we have is a baseball talent who elected to undermine his own skills on behalf of the worst elements in baseball during the era that climaxed with the disgraces of the Black Sox scandal. (Chase had no part in the 1919 World Series fix attempt himself, but it’s on the record that he made $40,000 betting against the White Sox.) He was avariciously corrupt enough to undermine his own abilities and thus his own final statistics.
You can run down baseball history and find scores of players who had all the talent but none of the final results that equaled the talent. Many were undermined by injuries, many squandered or eroded their talents by themselves. For every truly talented player who worked concurrently on the team-first ethic, there’s another who placed himself well beyond the team need.
Chase was a team player in the sense that he enlisted teammates and even opponents to be part of a game-tanking for profit fraternity whose purpose was to continue undermining the very essence of honest competition for his and their own profit.
Ruth and other contemporaries praising Chase’s skills so extravagantly begs the question of just how far they were willing to look the other way. How far were they willing to ignore the dark side leaving Chase with a statistical record on both sides of the ball that’s nowhere near what you expect or hope of a ballplayer that gifted who exercises and advances his talent.
You’d be as hard pressed to find a player as simultaneously gifted and corrupt as Chase as you’d be to understand what about him (other than equally corrupt or corrupted officials) enabled him to skate on numerous attempts to run him out of the game. Except perhaps his personal popularity.
Rose’s gambling issues traced back at least to the mid-1970s. But as John Helyar wrote, in The Lords of the Realm, “baseball let him get away with it. GMs wouldn’t mess with a gold-plated gate attraction. Writers had no need to expose the best quote in the business. And baseball’s security director then, Henry Fitzgibbon, limited himself to Dutch-uncle talks with Rose.”
Only when it became too flagrant to dismiss did baseball finally take steps forward. But in Peter Ueberroth’s final days as commissioner he called Rose in, listened to Rose’s flat denials, then told a reporter, “There’s nothing ominous, and there won’t be any follow-through.” Not so fast, we came to learn the hard way soon enough.
Chase was insulated similarly long enough. He was popular, according to most accounts from his time; in fact, he was the first homegrown star of the Yankee franchise. (They were known as the Highlanders when he came up; the name changed in 1913.) A game that deep in gambling corruption wasn’t that anxious to make an example of Chase, no matter how earnest the equally popular Mathewson was—and he might have been the only man in baseball willing to stand up to the gambling cancer—in trying to purge him and similar elements.
Only in 1919 as a Giant did Chase’s major league career come to a halt. Technically, he suffered an injured wrist, but even McGraw couldn’t look the other way anymore when he’s said to have caught Chase and third baseman Heinie Zimmerman trying to bribe teammates to tank a few games.
The following spring, Chase was home on the west coast playing semipro ball when his old Reds teammate Lee Magee blew the whistle: Magee and Chase conspired to throw games in 1918. Chase was also caught trying to bribe players in the Pacific Coast League in 1920. The only thing knocking those out of the headlines was the slowly revealing scandal of the 1919 World Series.
The PCL banned Chase for life. (Chase came to the Highlanders/Yankees attention originally when he starred for the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels.) Incoming baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis didn’t ban Chase formally from the rest of organised ball, but the hammer upon the Black Sox plus Chase’s age (37), injuries, and flagrant corruption meant he wasn’t going to be seen in the majors again.
Chase didn’t inaugurate baseball’s gambling corruption. That was established before he emerged as a major league first baseman. He merely found himself at home on the corrupt side. His major league statistics aren’t meaningless. They’re the outcome for a genuinely talented player who embraced instead of rejecting the game’s pre-1920 corruption.