My Time With Ben Chapman
Unlike my esteemed colleagues on this website, I am not a baseball historian. I am not a professional baseball writer. Nor have I ever played the game professionally. So as you read this article, please keep that in mind. What I am however, is a life-long fan of the game of baseball. I played it from the time I was old enough to walk. I am only 17 months old in the picture with my dad. I listened to it on the radio and rarely missed a game of the week on Saturday unless I was playing in a game at the same time. I spent hours in the back yard hitting rocks with a broomstick or throwing a rubber ball against the steps of our house counting the seconds between the pitch, the hit, my fielding and throwing the ball off the steps back to me as the first baseman to play games against my favorite Major League teams. I loved hearing my dad and grandfather talk about the “old” players, some of them my grandfather had actually played against but that is for another article. For now, he never left his South Alabama farm, but he played against the barnstorming teams of the era. I played Dixie Youth baseball from the time I was 5 years old until I was in high school and played summer Pony League games.
My Junior High and High School years revolved around baseball and football seasons and I was pretty good at both. I made our varsity team and started as a sophomore in football but made the varsity baseball team as a freshman. I was fortunate to play with 7 other guys in my class from the time we were in the 7th grade and they were good as well. We lost a total of 15 games in those 5 years but due to the quirky way the state playoffs were run in Alabama at the time, we never won a state championship. I was being recruited to play college ball until I tore my ACL, PCL, and MCL in a football game the fall of my senior year in high school. The offers stopped but my passion for the game drove my rehab and I played my senior season without a brace on my right knee. I had a tryout with a major league club and they wanted to sign my friend but not me, so my choice came down to playing baseball at a junior college or going to a university to pursue my life calling. I chose the latter.
Two years later, Samford University decided to re-start their baseball program to maintain their Division I status for basketball. I saw the sign up sheet in the gym for the informational meeting and decided to check it out. I was planning on getting married that August and so after the meeting I discussed it with my soon to be wife and after praying about playing again, decided I wanted to give it one more try. I spent that summer of 1982 making arrangements to move into an apartment on campus, working, playing some ball with an adult league when I could make the games, and working out. My apartment was beyond the fence in center field, so after moving in, I heard some guys hitting at the field and crawled under the fence to join them. They became the nucleus of the team and some of my good friends. Our team that year wasn’t very good. We were young, we had one other junior and me and the rest of the guys were freshmen, most of whom were walk-ons because the school didn’t lavish the resources our way. Our field was a converted intramural football field that we did most of the conversion on including building the dugouts. It was 379 feet down the left field line to the 10 foot chain link fence that continued out past the 460 feet power alley in left to the end of the fence at 600 feet away from home plate in center field. It was 350 feet down the right field line to the edge of the pine trees where there was no fence. It wasn’t exactly the field of dreams, but it was to me. I was playing ball again and loving every minute of it. We lost 40 games that year while winning only 4, and while that was more games than I had lost in all my teen years, I wouldn’t trade that year or the one that followed for playing for a College World Series title. Let me tell you why.
As we were lacing up our cleats one day in the fall, an elderly gentleman with a bowed back and a pipe came lumbering across the diamond. He was met by our coach and after a hug and some brief discussion, they both approached where we sat waiting for our practice to begin. Our coach introduced us to our new volunteer assistant coach by saying, “Boys, this is Ben Chapman, who used to play with the New York Yankees.” Ben’s first words were, “Don’t call me Mr. Chapman that was my dad, call me Chappy.” None of us knew who he was but we were soon to find out just how much baseball we didn’t really know. He was in his early 70′s and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be but he could spot a flaw in your swing in a moment and he wasn’t shy about letting you know about it. He was a deacon in his local Baptist church but his language had never left the ball park. In rare moments you could catch a glimpse of the fire that got him into so much trouble as a player and manager, although I didn’t know anything about his history at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to hang around this guy as much as possible and hear his story.
It started with a simple question around the batting cage. I asked him when he played with the Yankees and who were some of the guys he played with that I might know. After chewing on his pipe for a moment, he said in the early 30′s and did you ever hear of a guy named Ruth? You mean Babe, you played with the Babe was my reply. That’s the guy was his only response. Which was followed by a quick, “get your ass in there and take your cuts.” Pauses in practice became a time to pick the brain of Chappy about what life was like as a big leaguer in the 30′s and 40′s. I’ll share a few of them with you in this article and maybe in a few others along the way if you are interested. What I am sharing with you are my recollections of what he shared with us on road trips and the practice fields. Some of the stories don’t square up with other historical accounts and I’ll let you decide which ones you want to believe and which ones you want to debate.
My favorite Chappy story about the Babe happened in Spring Training. He wanted to get an autographed photo of Babe so he got one from the team and took it to Babe to sign. When he gave it to him the Babe looked at him and said, “What’s your name again Kid?” To which Chappy replied, “It’s Ben, Ben Chapman, I played outfield with you all last season!” The Babe followed with, “Yeah, that’s right, I thought I recognized you from somewhere.”
There were many more Babe stories, along with stories about Gehrig which brought tears to his eyes and other players from his days in pinstripes. The only negative feeling he had toward the Yankees revolved around all the money the players in the 80′s were making from them. He told us one year, he got off the train in Spring Training in Tampa and went in to meet with the front office people to sign his contract. He’d hit over .300 the previous year and had a solid season and was expecting a raise only to be told he would have to take a pay cut if he wanted to stay with the team. He was furious to say the least. He had a family to take care of by now so he argued with them until they finally said, “Chappy you can sign the damn contract or get your ass back on the train.” He signed the contract. He had little patience for the modern players and their agents who were making millions and holding out for a few dollars more. He was like most players who had to work during the offseason to make ends meet for their families. When we asked him why he did it then, he just said it was all he knew how to do at the time and the money was pretty good.
After the summer of ’83 I had another question for Chappy. That was the 50th anniversary of the first All-Star game in Chicago. I was shocked when I watched the old-timers game and there was Chappy on the list as the first batter for the American league. He couldn’t play due to a recent prostate surgery, but he was there. When he got back, I asked him why he hadn’t told me he had been an All-Star. His reply, “you never asked.” He brought back the bats that had been made for him for the game which were the same as he had used during his playing career. As we grilled him about the game and made fun of the bats as being logs, he offered to let any of us use them if we thought we were man enough to swing it. I couldn’t let that go, so I piped up and said, I could get a hit with it that day in our fall game. I didn’t expect him to take me up on it, but he did. I remember him saying something about a snowball in hell having a better chance of getting a hit because I was used to those aluminum things. I tried to get out of it by not wanting to break one of the only two bats made for his celebration of the 50th All-Star game, but he wouldn’t let me out. His remark was, “It’s only a damn piece of wood, so swing the SOB!” I protested again about the possibility of getting jammed and breaking the bat to which he gave me the sage advice of “then don’t let him get inside.” I went 3-4 with the bat and earned a great deal of respect in Chappy’s eyes for having the balls to use it. He wanted me to use it the rest of the fall and the spring, but after explaining that if I got used to that bat and it broke, I’d be out of luck, he finally relented.
I loved my time with Chappy. I rode with him every chance I had. I am sure he got frustrated with me both on and off the field but he never tired of talking about the game. That was true until I asked him why he left baseball and never went back until that All-Star tribute game. He grew very serious and then started to unfold the story of his departure from the game he loved, but that is a story for another day.