A Baseball Allegory
There was rumor of a young ballplayer in California, a first baseman that could play the position as perhaps it had never been played before. Now this young man was handsome, charismatic, and more than a bit arrogant concerning his talent, but considering the grace and skill he displayed on the field, that was not surprising. He was, even at that young age, more than a bit lacking in the moral virtues. He was described by friends and teammates as a compulsive liar and kleptomaniac.
Hal Chase was an instant hit with the fans, soon becoming one of the top draws in the league.
“I was standing right in back of Prince Hal and he turned that pair of Kings into four of a kind right in front of my eyes! It’s the damnedest thing I ever saw! The pot must have been $2,500. It was mostly Zinn’s money (Heine Zimmerman). Hal winks at me: ‘Isn’t life beautiful, Gabby my boy?’”
“…Later that night I saw Zinn smiling with a pretty young thing at the bar. I’m thinking to myself, what an actor! He calls me over, buys me a beer, and tells me what a great guy Hal Chase is. Zinn said that Hal called him over and said, ‘What’s the matter, Zinny, lost your best friend?’ Zinn replies, ‘Worse, Hal, six months pay.’ Hal then drops $1,000 in his pocket and says, ‘Hell, Zinny, it’s only money.'”
The team he played for was owned by a colorful duo indeed – one of which was a former corrupt police chief from Tammany Hall (“Big Bill” Devery), and the other owned the largest Casino on the East Coast, frequented by the likes of Diamond Jim Brady. This team, of course, played in the pure-as-driven-snow American League, led by Ban Jo, who single-handedly would fight the battle of truth, justice, and preserve the American way against the forces of corruption attempting to waylay baseball.
“He (Devery) was no more fit to be Chief of Police than the Fish man was to be Director of the Aquarium, but as a character, as a work of art, he was a masterpiece.” – Lincoln Steffens, corruption-fighting journalist
Now this young man’s fielding was not only wondrous, but innovative and appealing to both fans and players, and he was no slouch as a hitter either. The chorus of adoration reached heights as great as that then given to the hitting exploits of Cobb, or the pitching mastery of Cy Young. He was the talk of Gotham and was introduced to the best clubs, the most influential people. Rumor had it that these shadow-men had been slowly corrupting baseball for a generation, that gambling had an umbilical connection with baseball, and that, in fact, ball games — even the World Series — had been thrown as a matter of course over the last twenty years. But, no one wanted to believe that something as horrific as that could possibly be the case. In fact, he became a favorite of an iconic manager, and for a time managed a major league club because of the recommendation of the legendary skipper.
“Oh my goodness, could he play! Now, let’s talk fielding. Remember, I was in the Major Leagues for 16 years. I was a Major League coach and a scout after I finished. And I followed the game closely all my life. Great fielding first basemen – well, there was George Sisler, Joe Kuhel, Ferris Fain, Bill Terry…Gil Hodges…and in modern times, Keith Hernandez. But sakes alive, there was only room for one guy at the top of the heap – the Prince. The rest, you could put in any order you want, and build a case for all. But there was only one Prince, Hal Chase. Nobody comes close.” George Kelly, Hall of Famer
So, he began to subtly start “Laying Down.” Now, laying down is a baseball term that can have a number of different meanings and nuances. It can mean that the player is a bit on the lazy side, and just is playing out the string, especially at the end of a meaningless game or a meaningless season. Or, perhaps, he is attempting to force his team to trade him (think Manny Ramirez’ last days with the Red Sox). The term is also used when a player is paid off to throw a game and consciously makes an error for that reason. Because Chase was such a superb fielder, his antics were at first hard to catch, even by his teammates, whom initially blamed themselves for the errors, for a misplay couldn’t possibly be the fault of the greatest first baseman ever to grace God’s green earth?
Whispers began to occur in print that he didn’t always play 100% in the field. He began frequently holding out for a higher salary and then jumped to the Federal League. His imaginative use of the Reserve Clause as a legal justification for his leap to Buffalo of the Federal League (a quite similar argument was used more than fifty years later by Marvin Miller in the Andy Messersmith case) aroused the ire of the scions of MLB, especially Ban Jo, and Ban banned our ballplayer, not so young any more, from ever playing in the hallowed fields of the American League — for life.
However, our friend found a place in the Senior Circuit. For some years, the whispers that he had been laying down had become more frequent in baseball circles, but it became apparent by this time that he was throwing games. The hearings found our ballplayer innocent for lack of evidence, but it seemed quite clear to all concerned that he was not only throwing games, and had been for a long while, but had induced other players to do the same. This would be Hal’s last season in the majors.
Then, of course, came the 1919 Black Sox World Series and in 1920 the hearings concerning the fix. Truth be told, the testimonies are wildly conflicting, as well as self-serving, not just about Hal Chase, but about many of the individuals involved in what was a most disorganized and scatterbrained attempt to throw the Series. There was even some convincing evidence that gamblers were throwing money at the Cincinnati players to throw the Fall Classic. By this point in time, Chase was in debt and didn’t have any money to gamble with, much less set up a major fix. Nevertheless, the ire that he had inspired by the Major League owners and American League President, especially concerning his league jumping and legal battles concerning the Reserve Clause, as well as his (well-deserved) reputation as a cheat and scoundrel, allowed the majordomos of baseball to use Chase as their personal piñata. This deflected some of the guilt from their shoulders, particularly that of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who reportedly knew early on that the Series was fixed but did not report this knowledge to the authorities.
“Could he really have existed, or was he perhaps invented by Robert Lewis Stevenson?…there is some evidence that he appeared in the flesh, but I lean more toward the invention theory… what mother, if she/he was real, what Rosemary, could have given birth to such a creature?…There is an evil, a smallness, lust, and greed that lives inside all of us. And the secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace the evil…”
Bill James – Historical Baseball Abstract
Chase lived like a derelict for most of the last 15 years of his life; he was interviewed several times by the Sporting News, but even at that point in life found it difficult to tell the truth. He was apparently desperate to clear himself, rationalizing and minimizing his wrongdoings, until the day he passed on.
For the record:
The American League President referred to in the piece was Ban Johnson.
The iconic manager was John McGraw.
The original team Chase played for was the New York Yankees
Historical Baseball Abstract – Bill James
The Black Prince of Baseball — Hal Prince
Mythology of the Game – Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella
Baseball as I have Known It – Fred Lieb