Hunter or Hunted?
Long before Pete Rose, there was Hal Chase. In “The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game,” authors Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella examine whether Chase left an indelible black mark on baseball or whether the culture of baseball scourged Hal Chase.
1. Chase was one of the game’s first stars.
Babe Ruth, Nap Lajoie and Walter Johnson proclaimed “Prince” as the prototypical first baseman. He remained the standard for decades. He was no Hal Chase was not an uncommon evaluation. “Lou [Gehrig] had more power and could run. But 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 me?” Ruth said before his death. (35, Black)
Sporting Life issued similar compliments. No one was better at preying on opponents nor was there a superior in the game’s nuances of bunting and fielding, the magazine stated. Ladies couldn’t get enough of him, and boys gave it all they could to emulate his sensational diamond play. As a team, the Highlanders/Yankees struggled, but Chase was a one-man publicity engine who could almost single-handedly attract thirty to forty thousand spectators to the park.
2. Despite his light on the field, Chase perpetually drifted in and out of the shadows off of it.
Word had it Chase demanded an appearance fee by age 12. Whereas fellow players received a percentage of gate receipts, and who knew how much that would be, Chase’s price, perhaps fifty cents a game, was non-negotiable. From an early age, he was an employee on the field. What he did off of it was his business.
As a collegian, no gradebook registered his marks. He wore the school’s uniform at game time and had little use for any association with higher learning. Upon his arrival in New York, he made his way in and out of pool halls and other establishments, seemingly daring people around him, “Catch me if you can.” Baseball was not immune to this behavior either. After a dispute with his manager, he took off. Murmurs grew louder and louder that at best Chase was unreliable and at worst he was a pariah.
3. No matter your position on Chase, the ballplayer’s gambling vice was far reaching.
In 1917, The Sporting News noted that the Reds dropped eight consecutive games. All but two were because of miscues. “[Chase] was the best first baseman I ever saw. He was also the worst if he wanted to lose a game,” Edd Roush said. “I’ve got some money bet on this game and there is something in it for you if you lose,” a teammate confided about Chase approaching him. (239) Chase escaped World War I, but he was smack in the middle of baseball’s battle. From at least one pulpit it was said baseball was a model for faith. The game’s values of concentration, efficiency and deliberation were qualities every American would do well to possess. Meanwhile, the game’s executives were doing everything they could with damage control. No wonder the master of sleight of hand vanished, albeit forever scathed.
“My life has been one big mistake after another,” Chase said. “I’m the loser just like all gamblers.” (IX)
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.