Ben Chapman and Jackie Robinson
(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Seamheads.com in March 2010. With the release of “42” I thought it appropriate to re-post it—ML).
Ben Chapman or “Chappy” as I was instructed to call him, (see my previous article for my introduction to him) was born and reared in the Deep South during a time when racial segregation was the norm. He played baseball during the segregated years as well. What is interesting to me is how he is portrayed in most of the online biographical entries. Some of the stories just don’t measure up to how Chappy told them to me. I must admit my own bias from the start. I loved Chappy and his stories. Whether they are true or not, they were very entertaining to a college guy who loved baseball. I don’t have any reason to doubt Chappy believed his side of the story. When I knew him, he was already an old man, far removed from the limelight and the need to embellish or sugar-coat his own legacy. Given that he told us some of his less than self-flattering stories, I believe he would have told us the straight up truth about his issues with race. I know that he, like most of his generation, was plagued by bigotry on some level. It was hard to live in the South in those days and escape some form of racial prejudice, although it wasn’t just in the South where this was an issue.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways others have portrayed him in their biographical entries and then I’ll unfold for you Chappy’s side of the stories that seem to mar his otherwise stellar baseball career.
The Wikipedia entry for Ben Chapman contains the following paragraph:
It was in New York that the extent of Chapman’s bigotry first surfaced. He taunted Jewish fans at Yankee Stadium with Nazi salutes and disparaging epithets. In a 1933 game, his confrontation with the Washington Senators’ Jewish infielder, Buddy Myer, caused a 20-minute brawl that saw 300 fans participate and resulted in five-game suspensions and $100 fines for each of the players involved.
While I know that almost anyone can put almost anything on Wikipedia, the article is quoting a 2008 article in the New York Times by Chris Lamb regarding the Nazi salutes and disparaging epithets based on his research of articles published at the time of his trade. As for the brawl with Myer, that is the issue that is at hand. Combining these two statements paint the picture that the brawl was started because Myer was Jewish. This incident is painted in a different light by the writer of the Baseball Page entry about Chapman in which the fight began when Chapman slid into Myer’s legs followed by Myer kicking Chappy in the thigh and Chappy responding with several punches. The incident really escalated when Chappy was forced to walk through the Senators’ dugout and got into it again with pitcher Earl Whitehill, who Chappy knocked out. Chappy’s teammates came to his rescue through the spectators that had spilled onto the field.
Chappy’s version of the events of that fateful day was more along the latter rather than the former. He didn’t like to talk about it, but it was always about the game policing itself rather than about the race of the guy at second base. He was a hard-nosed player in an era where guys didn’t show each other up because they knew either they would get beaned or their teammate would and when you didn’t wear a helmet, a high and tight fastball carried a lot of incentive to keep your celebrations in check. It was the way of the game, the unwritten code if you will, and the players all knew and respected it as such. Baseball was a lot like Hockey in those days. The players took care of it on the field without having to worry about suspensions and huge fines, although Chappy got both for his involvement in that momentous brawl.
But the bigger issue I have with the way most portray Chappy is his involvement in the Jackie Robinson issue. The above referenced Baseball Page entry begins with this paragraph:
Ben Chapman would have been more at home playing twenty years earlier than he did. He was a fierce base runner with skills to scratch out runs, but he played for the powerful longball-hitting Yankee teams of the 1930s before bouncing around with six other teams in both leagues. The outfielder led the American League in steals four times and was involved in some of the most vicious baseball fights in history. Later, as a manager in the National League, his southern prejudices reared their head when Jackie Robinson integrated the game.
The article never goes into any detail about how that happened or lists any quotes by Chapman. The Wikipedia entry states, “In later years, his playing reputation was eclipsed by the role he played in 1947 as manager of the Phillies, opposing the presence of Jackie Robinson on a major league team on the basis of Robinson’s race.” Later it states that “Chapman instructed his pitchers, whenever they had a 3-0 count against Robinson, to bean him rather than walk him.”
Chappy may have been the most vocal of those who opposed the integration of baseball, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Most of the players shared his position at the time; a position that seems untenable to those of us alive now. But even recently the issue of race continued to be a current one in baseball with the allegations made by Milton Bradley about Chicago Cubs fans and maybe even management. I don’t think anyone can argue that Chappy was a racist at the time, given when and where he was born, but the point can be made that it wasn’t just about race that made him the villain in so many eyes. Let me unfold for you, his side of the story.
I asked him why he left baseball when he got fired by the Phillies and his side of the story is very different from the one told by most. The short version was that he was fired because his pitcher threw at Robinson. The longer version is a much more interesting story. The history of the harsh treatment of Robinson by the Phillies under Chappy’s leadership is well documented. So much so that he was forced by the league to have a photo taken with Jackie to give the appearance that African-American players would be accepted in Philadelphia. As you can tell from the photo, I don’t think Chappy was fully invested in the effort.
I asked him how he felt about Robinson playing in the league and he said at the time he didn’t think a black man should play in the big leagues. He told me they tried to get under his skin to see if they could get him rattled. It obviously didn’t work the way he thought it would.
Chappy said the league was protecting Robinson and had sent word that anyone who threw at him would get the manager fired. Whether that was all teams or just the Phillies was never made clear, but it was clear to him. His pitchers asked him what he wanted them to do and he said his reply was “I don’t care what color his skin is, if you need to knock him down, do so.” I asked him if his guys knocked him down, and he said yes. He then told me that when he came in the next day, there was the pink slip on his desk that said he had been fired. He gathered his things and walked away from the game.
He made one more attempt at a career in baseball as a coach with the Reds, but he said he didn’t like the way the game was headed with players making too much money and the league having too much power, so he walked away for good. He came home to Alabama and started in the insurance business. Growing up in Birmingham, I never heard anything about Ben until I met him on the field at Samford. Even though he was a four time all-star, the first batter for the AL in the first all-star game, at that time he was still second on the Yankee’s all time stolen base list, and had played the game with some of the best players in history. My guess is that the last episode with Robinson has tainted his image so much, that with all the other bad press Birmingham had received during the Civil Rights Era, the city had no place for one of its most colorful sports legends.
Ray Robinson quoted Chappy in a 1994 article in The Sporting News after his death as saying, “A man learns about things and mellows as he grows older,” Chapman began. “I think maybe I’ve mellowed. Maybe I went too far in those days, when I thought it was OK to try to throw guys off-balance and upset them with jockeying. I’m sorry for many of the things I said. I guess the world changes and maybe I’ve changed, too.” Robinson went on to say, “Ben Chapman sounded sincere to me. People can change. Whether in that brief exchange he was seeking some vague absolution for forgiveness from an intruder into his life, I do not know.”
He didn’t need absolution from Ray Robinson, he already had that from his relationship with Jesus Christ. It was just the reflections of a man who had grown to see the folly of his youth. He was a far different man from the one who had led the charge to make life difficult on Jackie Robinson. This was the Ben Chapman that I had come to know and it is a shame the rest of the baseball world never had a chance to know that Chappy.