Interview with “Chief Bender’s Burden” Author Tom Swift

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.

JGTOne 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?

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The Most Underrated Phillie Ever: Sherry Magee


Perhaps the greatest Phillie of the 1900s was Sherry Magee, a left fielder from tiny Clarendon, PA. Though his statistics during his 11 years with the Phils aren’t overwhelming (.299 BA, 75 HRs, 886 RBIs), he played in the deadball era, and led the NL in RBIs five times. He was also an expert diamond thief, stealing 387 bases for the Phils, 3rd all time. In their excellent 100 Greatest Phillies piece, Phillies Nation had him ranked #11. He was actually nominated to join the Hall of Fame last year through the Veteran’s Committee, but was not voted in. He made the jump directly from the sandlots to the Big Leagues, starting his first game when was but 19 years old.

Magee was also a notorious hothead, and his violent temper may have cost his team the pennant in 1911. This is from an excellent bio of Magee on bioproj.sabr.org: magee_sherry

Sherry was enjoying another banner year in 1911, but his season-and career-were marred by his actions in the third inning of a game in St. Louis on July 10. With the Phils leading, 2-1, Magee came to bat with one out and Dode Paskert on second and Hans Lobert on first. With two strikes, rookie umpire Bill Finneran called Magee out on what appeared to be a high pitch, prompting Magee to turn away in disgust and throw his bat high in the air. Finneran yanked off his mask and threw him out of the game. Sherry, who had been heading to the bench, suddenly turned and attacked the umpire, clutching him for a second before hitting him with a quick left just above the jaw. With blood spurting from his face, Finneran fell to the ground on his back, apparently unconscious.

He missed 29 games due to the ensuing suspension, and the contending team fell to pieces, finishing in 4th place. Magee was traded to the Braves in 1914, and in 1915, without him, the Phillies won their first pennant. Magee would finally get his chance to play in a World Series in the infamous 1919 clash as a pinch hitter for the Reds.


Shoeless Joe in Philadelphia

Jackson A'sMost baseball fans are well aware that Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball (3rd highest career batting average of all time at .356), and they certainly know that he got kicked out of the game following the Black Sox scandal. But did you know he started his pro baseball career in Philadelphia?

In 1908, Connie Mack bought Joe Jackson’s contract from the Greenville (S.C.) Spinners for $325. He came in with a bang. In his first major league game, late in the 1908 season, Shoeless Joe had a hit and RBI, made a spectacular catch, and had two strong throws to the infield. His future in Philly seemed secure, and the sportswriters were singing his praises. The Evening Times wrote, “He has justified early predictions of his abilities. With experience and the coaching of Manager Mack, he should turn out to be…the find of the season.”

But Joe was homesick, had never been in the big city before, and slipped out of town and back to South Carolina before the A’s next game. Philly sportswriters ripped him, saying that he was scared to play against Ty Cobb (The A’s were taking on the Tigers.) His teammates ripped him anonymously in the papers as well. When he returned to the team, the veterans teased him because he couldn’t read and had a Southern drawl.

Joe, embarrassed because he couldn’t read, would look at the menu in restaurants, then order whatever someone else ordered that sounded good. Philly fans would taunt Joe with screams of “Read any good books lately?” (Funny sidenote…in 2008, a Cleveland writer asked Cliff Lee what his favorite book was. Cliff responded, “I don’t think I’ve read a book in my life, to be honest.” The media and the Philly fans seem to have let that one slide.)

Jackson was sent down to the minors in Georgia in the 1909 season, and led the league in batting average. He was called up to the Big League

Get your Philadelpjhia A's shirt at Shibe Vintage Sports on 13th and Walnut.

Get your Philadelphia A’s shirt at Shibe Vintage Sports on 13th and Walnut.

squad in September, but went only 3 for 17 in limited action. He started 1910 in the minors, and in July, Connie Mack decided that Jackson would never make it in a big city like Philadelphia. He traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps (later the Indians) for Bris Lord and $6000. The next year, Shoeless Joe would bat .408 in Cleveland. Bris Lord had a decent 1911, batting .310, but he batted only .238 the next year and was traded to the Cleveland Naps. It’s interesting to note that if not for the Philly fans and writers, one of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history may have indeed spent his career in the City of Brotherly Love.

(Special thanks to Shoeless: The Life and Times of Joe Jackson by David Fleitz, where I got a lot of this information.)

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The White Elephants Come to Town

stomper
The Athletics were one of the charter members of the upstart American League in 1901, and immediately went about stripping the Phillies roster of it’s talent. The A’s grabbed future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie, who led the new league in batting in 1901 with an incredible .426 average (still the AL record). Whereas the Phillies had struggled mightily in their first 25 years of existence, the A’s were dominant almost immediately. They won the pennant in 1902, and went to the Series in 1905, where they lost to the New York Giants 4 games to 1. The Giants were managed by John McGraw, who a year earlier had given the A’s a symbol they still use today, over 100 years later. McGraw told reporter in 1904 that Athletics owner  Benjamin Shibe had a “white elephant” on his hands, and the A’s defiantly adopted the Elephant as their logo. The Athletics have long since moved away, but A’s players still wear an elephant on the sleeves of their jerseys, and their mascot is an elephant named Stomper.