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money pitcher

13 july 2007

William C. Kashatus's Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the Tragedy of Indian Assimilation is a strong entry in the genre of old-time-baseball biographies. As with many such bios (cf. Rob Kirkpatrick's Cecil Travis), there's not a lot of new archival research here, and in fact many passages are not directly about the subject of the book at all. Though the subtitle promises tragedy, it's a highly qualified kind of tragedy, as Kashatus himself admits. If you're looking for lurid, try fiction, but if you are looking for solid unsensational research and plausible contextualization of a ballplayer's life, pick up Money Pitcher.

Charles Albert Bender was a mixed-blood (or "Metis") Chippewa from Minnesota, born there in 1884. He went East to school twice – first at the age of seven, to Philadelphia's Educational Home, and then again at 12, to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. By the time he was 19 he was pitching in the starting rotation for the defending AL champion Philadelphia Athletics. Bender put in a half-century in baseball, playing and coaching in the majors and minors, winning three World Championships. He made good money, invested wisely in the sporting-goods business and in real estate, and just before his death he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So where's the tragedy, you may well ask. Kashatus's subtitle contains a clue: this is not the tragic story of Charles Bender per se, but rather the alignment of his success story with a larger, more general story of the disappearance of a culture. "There are occasions when the tragic hero's plight results in a satisfactory – even positive – outcome" (159). I find that formulation a little strained, but it makes some practical, if counterintuitive, sense. For one thing, we do not have access to many of the negative outcomes – the stories of ordinary Indians who were overwhelmed by the forces of assimilation. We do know something about the great celebrity "Chief Bender," though, and we can extrapolate from his story to the experience of many other Indians.

And Bender's life was not one of unadmixed success. Even at the height of his stardom for the A's in the 1910s, he was routinely characterized by the grossest of racial stereotypes in the media. His wife Marie was once called a "Hiawatha" by an idiot journalist. And though Bender was manager Connie Mack's postseason "money pitcher," the Whitey Ford or Bob Gibson of his day, the most memorable moment of his career was a loss, Game One of the 1914 World Series.

Controversy still percolates over Bender's 7-1 drubbing by the Boston Braves. The debacle was overdetermined, you might say: there are too many reasons for Bender to blow up to be able to cut through them all and find the real one. It might just have been that various Boston batters, especially catcher Hank Gowdy, had Bender's number that day; it happens, even against the odds. It might have been that Bender, who was now north of 30 and hadn't been challenged much by American Leaguers that year, had reached his limits as a pitcher; he never regained star status afterwards.

Or it might have been that Bender was tired of making $2,500 a year when competition from the Federal League was driving major-league salaries generously into five figures. And it might further have been that, having decidedly to lay down in the Series anyway, Bender saw a chance to supplement a Series share with some extra contributions from big-time gamblers.

Whatever the reason, Mack waived Bender after the Series, and the pitcher never lived down that final failure. Bender would ultimately return to the A's over 30 years later as a pitching coach, but his place in baseball history was (slightly) clouded. Kashatus implies that the cloud was due in part to the abrasive effect of a decade of racist press and also to Mack's paternalism, and he may well be correct. Mack was tightfisted enough with men he saw as adults. He really never saw Bender as much more than a big child.

Just as a player, Bender has never broken into Baseball Think Factory's Hall of Merit. His high winning percentages – .625 lifetime – are seen as largely due to playing in front of an exceptional offensive club. His sterling 2.46 lifetime ERA owes a lot to the deadball era and to the Million Dollar Infield. But if he was more Dave Stewart than Roger Clemens, the fact remains that Bender was a very good pitcher indeed, and achieved more than his share of big-league success. And most importantly for Kashatus's purposes, Bender came through his success and his trials with patience and dignity. He was sometimes stereotyped as the stoic Indian, but there are times when people can admirably embody the positive elements of stereotype, and Bender did just that.

Kashatus, William C. Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the tragedy of Indian assimilation. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.