Harold Homer Chase (February 13, 1883 in Los Gatos, California - May 18, 1947 in Colusa, California), nicknamed "Prince Hal", was a first baseman in Major League Baseball, widely viewed as the best fielder at his position (see below, however). During his career, he played for the New York Highlanders (1905-1913), Chicago White Sox (1913-1914), Buffalo Blues (1914-1915), Cincinnati Reds (1916-1918), and New York Giants (1919).
No lesser figures than Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson named him the best first baseman ever, and contemporary reports describe his glovework as outstanding. He is sometimes considered the first true star of the franchise that would eventually become the New York Yankees. In 1981, 62 years after his last major league game, baseball historians Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. Most reliable historians would not even rate Chase among baseball's top 500 players. Babe Ruth's listing of Chase as his all-time first baseman in "the Babe Ruth Story" (Ruth with Bob Considine and Fred Lieb) is usually regarded as a personal slap at Lou Gehrig, and perhaps George Sisler by Babe Ruth. Ruth, however, was terminally ill at the time.
However, despite being an excellent hitter and his reputation as a peerless defensive player, Chase's legacy was tainted by a litany of corruption. He allegedly gambled on baseball games, and also engaged in suspicious play in order to throw (deliberately lose) games in which he played.
Chase faced allegations of wrongdoing as early as 1910, when his manager, George Stallings, claimed that Chase was "laying down" in games. This claim was later made by manager Frank Chance. Yet, during this era, gambling was so rampant that whenever a player wasn't at his best, particularly in a big city such as New York, there were claims of players laying down, whether it was true or not. Stallings' claims may have resulted from a feud between him and Chase. While Chance allegedly made the same claim, he later told management that Chase was giving his all, but his abilities were in a state of decline.
Following a spell in the short-lived Federal League, he went to the Reds of the National League where Chase led the league in hitting i n 1916, becoming one of the few to lead the league in batting average while batting righthanded and throwing lefthanded. After Buck Herzog was fired as Reds manager in 1917, Chase was again passed over again for management in favor of Christy Mathewson. Midway through the 1918 season, Chase allegedly paid pitcher Jimmy Ring $50 to throw a game against the Giants. Mathewson got wind of it and suspended Chase for the rest of the season. Mathewson brought formal charges against Chase for fixing games, but National League president John Heydler acquitted Chase. Heydler had told sportswriter Fred Lieb in private that he believed Chase had bet on baseball, but did not have enough evidence to convict him.
Following Chase's acquittal, he was traded to the Giants. It has long been rumored that the Giants acquired him after Mathewson let it be known he wanted nothing to do with Chase. However, this story is belied by the fact that Mathewson signed on with the Giants (where he had starred for many years as a pitcher) as assistant manager to John McGraw. What is more, after McGraw took a leave of absence from the team near the end of the 1919 season, Mathewson named Chase as first base coach.
After the end of the season, someone sent Heydler a copy of a $500 check that Chase received from a gambler for throwing a game in 1918--the same year that he had acquitted Chase for throwing games. Armed with this evidence, Heydler ordered Giants owner Charles Stoneham to release Chase. Since no American League team would sign him (on the advice of Detroit Tigers manager Hughie Jennings), Chase was now effectively blacklisted from the major leagues.
Out of organized baseballEdit
Rumors of him being the middleman between the players and the gamblers in the Black Sox Scandal have never been confirmed. In 1920, while playing for the minor Mission League, he attempted to bribe Spider Baum, a pitcher for the Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League, to lose a game to the Los Angeles Angels. He also allegedly bribed an umpire. It turned out to be one of the last games he played in organized baseball. In the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal, newly-appointed Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis, citing Chase's long legacy of corruption, formally banned him from the game for life.
For a time, Chase was player-manager of an outlaw team in Douglas, Arizona that included Buck Weaver, Chick Gandil and Lefty Williams. It was part of a league run by S.L.A. Marshall, who later said that Chase admitted to throwing a game. A few months later, he tore both Achilles tendons in a car accident. He later drifted to Mexico, where in 1925 he began making plans to organize a professional league. When American League president Ban Johnson got word of it, however, he pressured Mexican authorities to deport Chase.
Chase spent the rest of his life drifting between Arizona and his native California, working numerous low-paying jobs. Later in life, he expressed considerable remorse for betting on baseball. He died in a Colusa hospital at the age of 64.
In his day, Hal Chase was almost universally considered one of the best fielders in the game -- not just at first base, but at any position, even compared to middle infielders. In his Historical Baseball Almanac, Bill James quotes this poem, entitled "You Can't Escape 'Em":
Sometimes a raw recruit in spring is not a pitching find;
He does not act like Harold Chase upon the fielding job,
But you may find in such a case, he hits like Tyrus Cobb.
Douglas Dewey and Nicholas Acocella's book on Chase, The Black Prince Of Baseball, talks about Chase's defensive abilities at length. He apparently made many spectacular plays that burnished his reputation as a glove wizard, but also committed 402 errors at first in just ten seasons, making his career fielding average only .980, four points below average for the period. (And since Chase was known to throw games, it's impossible to know how many of these misplays were intentional.)
A more recent work by James, Win Shares, shows Chase to be only a C-grade defensive player at first base.
- On why he bet on baseball: "I wasn't satisfied with what the club owners paid me. Like others, I had to have a bet on the side and we used to bet with the other team and the gamblers who sat in the boxes. It was easy to get a bet. Sometimes collections were hard to make. Players would pass out IOUs and often be in debt for their entire salaries. That wasn't a healthy condition. Once the evil started there was no stopping it, and club owners were not strong enough to cope with the evil."
- On his legacy: "You note that I am not in the Hall of Fame. Some of the old-timers said I was one of the greatest fielding first baseman of all time. When I die, movie magnates will make no picture like Pride of the Yankees, which honored that great player, Lou Gehrig. I guess that's the answer, isn't it? Gehrig had a good name; one of the best a man could have. I am an outcast, and I haven't a good name. I'm the loser, just like all gamblers are. I lived to make great plays. What did I gain? Nothing. Everything was lost because I raised hell after hours. I was a wise guy, a know-it-all, I guess."
- Ginsburg, Daniel E. The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals. inMcFarland and Co., 1995, 317 pages. ISBN 0-7864-1920-2. Contains a chapter dedicated to Chase and his various scandals.
- Career statistics and player information from Baseball-Reference
- Bio on BaseballLibrary.com
- The Hal Chase Place
- Bio on TheDeadBallEra.com
- The Hal Chase Place
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