"Chief Bender's Burden"

A biography tells of how the Native American pitcher overcame long odds and fierce prejudice to star for Connie Mack's Athletics.

Published May 23, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

New York Yankees rookie Joba Chamberlain, a member of the Winnebago tribe from Nebraska, might someday become known as the greatest Native American pitcher in baseball history. That won't happen for a long time, though, if it ever does. Chamberlain's got a ways to go to get the better of Allie Reynolds, and a long, long way to go to pass Charles Albert Bender.

No less an authority than Connie Mack once called Bender "the greatest money pitcher the game has ever known." Mack signed the 19-year-old Ojibwe off a town team in Harrisburg, Pa., and over the next dozen years, from 1903 to 1914, the big right-hander teamed with Eddie Plank and Jack Coombs to anchor the pitching staff of the Philadelphia Athletics. Of course he was known by the standard nickname for Native Americans: Chief.

Chief Bender pitched in five World Series for the A's, who won three of them. He was a star in all but the last, in 1914, when he was hit hard in Game 1 by the "Miracle" Boston Braves in what would be his final game with the team. He bounced around after that, pitching poorly first in the upstart Federal League in 1915, then with the Philadelphia Phillies before pursuing a long career as a minor league player-manager.

He was a good trap shooter, bowler and golfer. He sold men's clothes and sporting goods and was a popular banquet speaker. He drank too much, but while his drinking caused problems for him, including with the upright Mack, it never got the best of him. He was a scout and coach for the A's toward the end of his life and their time in Philadelphia. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, the year before he died.

Freelance writer Tom Swift, a Minnesota native, tells Bender's story in the book "Chief Bender's Burden," another fine offering from the University of Nebraska Press, a steady source of excellent baseball books, including Norman L. Macht's "Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball" last year. The University of Nebraska was also the source, by the way, of Joba Chamberlain, who helped pitch the Cornhuskers into the 2005 College World Series.

Bender traveled east from Minnesota at the age of 7 for Indian schooling in Pennsylvania, most notably at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which he attended a few years before Jim Thorpe did.

The mission of Carlisle was to forcibly assimilate Native Americans. It was a brutal if well-intentioned business -- the school closed in 1918 -- but Bender, bright, ambitious and half-white, thrived there. His father was a Maine native of German descent, so he was never quite of the Native culture on the White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota where his family lived and he spent his early childhood.

But he was hardly accepted by the white culture. "There was scarcely a time when Bender was written about when his race was not prominently mentioned," Swift writes. "Bender didn't win games. He scalped opponents. Bender wasn't a talented pitcher with an impressive repertoire. He pitched in his best Indian way. Bender wasn't a player with guile. He was Mack's wily redskin."

The epithets at the ballpark, from opponents and fans, were far worse. But Bender seemed to take it in stride. He might cup his hand to his ear to better hear a foe screaming at him to "grab heap much wampum!" After a particularly effective inning, Swift writes, Bender might yell at a hostile crowd: "Foreigners! Foreigners!"

Swift spoke to Salon by phone from his home in Northfield, Minn.

What inspired you to write about Chief Bender?

I come from Minnesota, and Bender was the first Minnesota-born man in the Hall of Fame, and for almost 50 years he was the only Minnesota-born man in the Hall of Fame. And around the time when Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor were being considered, daily newspapers wrote stories about them and they mentioned, usually as a footnote, this name: Chief Bender.

I didn't know who he was. I was a baseball fan, but I didn't know anything about him. I started reading a little bit and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn. He had a rare ability to throw a baseball, but what grabbed me was just all the ways in which his success was so improbable. The human interest story was more of what I was after than the baseball games.

His story as an American Indian was obviously one of tremendous prejudice. This is a guy whose big-league career was 1903 to basically 1917. How is it the same and how is it different from what Jackie Robinson went through a half-century later?

Yeah, that comparison's been made. I think there are some flaws. I do actually delve into that a little bit. The difference being Robinson knocked down a wall that had stood for half a century, and Bender was allowed onto the field. He wasn't the first American Indian in the major leagues. So there was a difference that way.

I think just the way white fans and white writers and players, opponents, viewed Indians vs. blacks is also a difference. Native Americans weren't seen as a threat in the way that perhaps blacks were by the time Bender was a major league player. Native Americans were a dwindling minority. This was not many years after the Indian wars.

The other thing about it is, because Bender was allowed on the field and was given the opportunity that he was, I think it's often overlooked just how great the prejudice and the discrimination was against him. So in many respects the taunts and the epithets he heard, I can only imagine, were of a similar intensity, if you will, as Robinson would have heard. So I don't think the comparison is perfect, but I think baseball historians have overlooked that piece just because Bender didn't have to fight his way onto the field.

Even when the newspaper writers were being complimentary, some of the things they wrote about him, to today's eyes, were just unbelievably insulting and offensive.

They really were. Some of the cartoons that accompanied the stories, but even just straight reporting. It was just seldom that Bender was ever written about without his race being a prominent part of the story. Even when he was succeeding, even after he had established himself, he wouldn't have been able to open a newspaper without that being a part of any words that were written about him. It really almost never ceased.

The coverage he received then would shock anyone if a similar treatment was given to a player in the modern game.

You organize the playing-career part of the book around Game 1 of the 1914 World Series. You use it as a device where you keep coming back to Bender walking to the ballpark, then you talk about his schooling, and then he's at the ballpark and so on. He's preparing to pitch Game 1 for a good part of the book, and that clearly seems to be a pivotal moment in his career. It was the last game he pitched with the Athletics, and he pitched poorly. What happened that day and why was it such a turning point?

Everything in Bender's life, he was taught, in no subtle way, in his schooling and just by society, that his race was inferior, that he needed to work extra hard just to join mainstream, or dominant white culture, if you will. I think Bender thought he had established himself and that he had arrived, that he was somewhat comfortable. And suddenly when 1914 happened and the success that I think everyone assumed would continue for him and the A's was sort of pulled out from under him, his world changed in many respects.

He no longer had his father figure [Mack] there, he no longer had teammates who had become very close friends. He still had those friendships but he didn't associate with them on a daily basis any longer because he was somewhere else and they were as well. It was a real turning point in his baseball career, and his baseball career was so central in establishing his identity that it was a really profound change for him.

I think what happened there is not entirely clear. The story is not perfectly documented in terms of what he did, but by several accounts, Bender had really bought into the story, or the hype, that he could flip a switch on and be brilliant when it mattered most. Suddenly, that didn't happen in the 1914 World Series.

I don't think there's any question he became overconfident. There's a story in the book about how he blew off a scouting assignment. There are some who believed he went out drinking the night before the game. The opposing manager that day said that Bender, when he started warming up, threw some underhand pitches as if to say that this was going to be an easy day. So I think it was really a crucial moment for many reasons in his life.

He was 30 years old at that time. He was never any good after that. How much of that was physical? Here was this big strong guy, a farm boy, and throughout his career he was always sick. You talk about how he missed a lot of time not so much with a sore arm but because he had these illnesses. Was he a hypochondriac or was this legitimate?

I think it was legitimate. I explored this a little bit, perhaps not in the depth in the book that I could have. But people who grow up in circumstances like Bender did -- he was essentially on his own from about age 7 on, and lived in really harsh circumstances where he wasn't given very good food, he was worked very hard, pushed to exhaustion. It was a pretty intense place, Carlisle, and even the school he attended before going to Carlisle. And he had no real parental support.

I think in psychological circles it's pretty common that people who start out in such difficult circumstances eventually do have some health problems, mental and/or physical. That's anecdotal more than I'm giving you a specific statistic to prove it.

But I also think there's plenty of evidence to suggest that what happened to him at around age 30 didn't necessarily have to mean it was the end of his career. A lot of pitchers, they lose some velocity as they age and the innings pile up and they have to make some adjustments.

I think Bender was fully capable of making some of those adjustments and in fact some of the success he had in 1917 [with the Phillies] certainly pointed toward a kind of resurgence. He had a stretch during 1917 that was almost as good as anything he did with the A's. But in 1918 the war happened, and I think the drinking also played a part there. Bender talks about how he had upset stomachs and problems after he was let go [by Mack and the A's] in 1914. When he was let go in the Federal League a lot of alcohol-use euphemisms were used for reasons why he was let go. He had a terrible season in the Federal League.

So it wasn't necessarily just a physical breakdown, but I think there were other factors as well, but that with an adjustment he very well could have recovered to a similar level. I mean, he pitched in the minor leagues for a number of years, and pitched exceptionally well. Obviously minor league competition, but it was different back then. You might face some major league caliber hitters at that level during that time, and he piled up some seasons where he was just unhittable. So his major league career didn't necessarily have to end the way it did.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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