2010 Season

Edition No. 8

March 4, 2010







I will scribble a few notes on my Tuesday night flight back from Orange County and see if we can’t produce something resembling an issue of From the Bullpen when everything is said and done. 


On the first leg of my return trip from John Wayne Airport to Phoenix, I sat next to a nice guy (Jeff Odekirk) who develops Little League baseball complexes that are built to resemble historic major league ballparks such as Fenway, Wrigley, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and the like.  He saw that I was reading my book about Chief Bender, asked me if I was a baseball fan or just a fan of Chippewa Indians in general, and we were soon engaged in a Shamu-and-total-stranger-like conversation.  Turns out when Odekirk was a kid, he was a batboy for the LA Dodgers of Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey fame, and became a huge Bill Russell fan.  Russell now does work for his company (Big League Dreams USA, LLC), helping to close ballpark development deals with local politicians and businessmen who knew his name from the Dodger heyday. 



Odekirk said that one of his life’s great moments was when they had a big press conference to open up a new facility that features a replica of the old Polo Grounds, and they brought in Bobby “The Staten Island Scot” Thompson and Ralph Branca (of “The Shot Heard Round the World” fame) for the event.  He said he sat right between the two of them, and got to hear Thompson say that it felt like he was back at the Polo Grounds again.  Pretty cool story.  Anyway, his website is www.bigleaguedreams.com for anyone who wants to take a look at what they do.



Chief Bender’s Burden


Speaking of the book Chief Bender’s Burden, I finished it up on my flight home from California, and so let me give you this short review.  Written by a relatively unknown Minnesota author by the name of Tom Swift in 2008, this book, published by the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln, is based on the premise that Bender was the subject of much anti-American Indian sentiment and prejudice, and that he had to learn to survive in the white man’s world in order to become a star baseball pitcher.  The subtitle is “The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star.” 


My overall assessment of this book is that it is an earnest attempt by a neophyte author to make the case that Charles “Chief” Bender was worthy of the baseball Hall of Fame because of his struggles against prejudice, as much as for his statistics, which seem marginal compared to qualifications of modern starting pitchers who are under consideration for the Hall of Fame.  Swift’s book begins with Chief Bender’s preparations to pitch the opening game of the 1914 World Series between the powerful Philadelphia Athletics of Connie Mack and the “Miracle” Boston Braves, who were in last place in the National League in early July 1914, fifteen games behind the powerful New York Giants of Mugsy McGraw.  On July 15 of that season, the Braves were in last place with a record of 33-43, while McGraw’s Giants appeared to be cruising to a fourth straight NL pennant.  However, the Braves caught fire in the second half of the season, and ended up winning the National League pennant over the Giants by a whopping 10-1/2 games.  They then boldly thumped the powerful Mack Men in the 1914 Series, beating the theretofore almost invincible Chief Bender in the first game of the Series and rolling on to an unthinkable 4-0 Series sweep. 


While Bender’s Burden provides some great information about the powerful Athletics in the first two decades of the last century and the general state of things in the dead ball era, Swift’s prose often jumps around from year to year in such a way as to be distracting, and it is often hard to follow which season and which team he is talking about.  Unlike most of the books I have reviewed in From the Bullpen, I cannot heartily recommend this one to you.  Rather, allow me just to share with you a few of the interesting revelations: 



Charles Albert Bender was born either on May 3  or May 5, 1883 or 1884 in Crow Wing County in Northern Minnesota, about 20 miles east of Brainerd, which is often called his birthplace.  His father, Albertus Bliss Bender, was one of the early white settlers in Minnesota, a homesteader-farmer of German-American descent.  His mother, Mary Razor Bender, was believed to have been a member of the Mississippi band of the Ojibwe tribe, and her Indian name was Pay Shaw De O Quay.



Shortly after his birth, the Bender family moved to the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, and Bender spent many of his young years on the reservation.  Eventually, after receiving a kick in the pants from his father (the details of all of this seem quite suspect), Bender ran away from the reservation and found his way to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he attended the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School of Jim Thorpe fame.  Although he pitched for the Carlisle High School team, his high school athletic prowess would have led no one to believe that he would go on to become a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. 



After high school, Bender was recruited to play for the Harrisburg (PA) Athletic Club, and his success with that organization in the early years of the century led to his signing by Connie Mack in 1902, reportedly to a contract which would pay him $300 a month.  He made his major league debut on April 20, 1903 in relief of Rube Waddell, and made his first start on April 27, 1903, twirling the Athletics to a 6-0 win over the Highlanders.  At 19 years of age in 1903, Bender had one of the best age-19 seasons in the history of the major leagues.  He won 17 games, completed 29, and shut out 2 opponents.  He ended up with a 3.07 ERA in 270 innings of work, striking out 127 batters and walking only 65.  In spite of his pitching prowess, the Athletics finished second to the powerful Boston Americans by 14-1/2 games in the inaugural major league season of the American League, and the Americans went on to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series. 



Bender began earning his reputation as a big-game pitcher in the 1905 World Series, when he threw a 3-0 shutout in Game Two of the ’05 Series against Christy Mathewson’s Giants, besting Iron Man Joe McGinnity.  In Game 5, he valiantly pitched a five-hitter against the great Christy Mathewson, but Mathewson threw his third shutout of the Series and the Giants beat the Athletics by the tune of 2-0. 



Bender would go on to be the starting pitcher for the Athletics in Game One of the 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914 World Series.  He ended up with a 6-4 World Series mark, a 2.44 World Series ERA, and the utmost respect of his peers and of Connie Mack for his clutch pitching. 



Swift suggests, with very little proof, that an Itchie-like battle with the bottle was the reason that Bender got battered in the Opening Game of the 1914 World Series by the clearly inferior Boston Braves, and that this same native taste for illicit spirits was the reason that Connie Mack put him on waivers at the conclusion of the 1914 season.  Seems more likely to me that it was Bender’s signing with the upstart Federal League that led to his waiver by Mack. 



Bender completed his major league career with 212 wins, 127 losses, a 2.46 ERA, pitching 3017 innings, giving up 2645 hits, striking out 1711 batters and walking 712.  His career WHIP of 1.113 is phenomenal.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1953, and died on May 22, 1954 in Philadelphia. 



It is clear from Swift’s book that Bender was an upright, intelligent, articulate and honorable individual who was well-liked by all who crossed his path.  It is also clear that he did in fact overcome great prejudice to become one of the great major league pitchers of all time, and likely the greatest American Indian pitcher. 



So now you know the story of Chief Bender’s Burden





I had a great trip to California on Monday and Tuesday, staying at a terrific resort in Huntington Beach.  After my deposition on Monday afternoon, I had dinner and a few cold ones at “Duke’s” Restaurant on Huntington Beach, named after the iconic king of Southern California surfing.  The next morning, I got up early for a walk along the beach, and was fascinated to see 60 or 70 surfers trying to catch waves on a Tuesday morning in March. 



After a fantastic breakfast at the Sugar Shack, I made my way back to my hotel to bag a few rays in the 75-degree weather before having to catch my flight back to Omaha and its two feet of snow still on the ground. 



Remind me again why my parents moved from Southern California back to the Midwest in 1957 instead of giving me the chance to explore my true calling as a surfer?  Oh, well.  Home is home, wherever you end up.


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As I put the finishing touches on this week’s edition of From the Bullpen, Draft Day is precisely 30 days away.  If you are like me, you can hardly wait.


Have a great rest of the week.