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Bender, Chieflocked

(05 May 1884–22 May 1954)
  • Frank Van Rensselaer Phelps

Chief Bender.

American Tobacco Co. baseball card, c. 1909–1911.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 13163-18, no. 329).

Bender, Chief (05 May 1884–22 May 1954), baseball player and manager, was born Charles Albert Bender at Partridge Lake, Crow Wing County, Minnesota, the son of Albertus Bliss Bender and Mary Razor, farmers. His father was of German-American descent, and his mother, whose tribal name was Pay shaw de o quay, was a half-white member of the Mississippi band of the Ojibwa (Chippewa). The family moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, on White Earth Indian Reservation during the 1880s, but at age seven Bender was placed in the Educational Home in Philadelphia, an Episcopal school for white and Indian orphan and destitute children. Although he returned to Minnesota in mid-1896, he soon ran away and enrolled at the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he played baseball and football under the legendary coach Glenn Warner. After leaving Carlisle in February 1902, he pitched for nearby Dickinson College. That summer he played for the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Athletic Club, using the surname Albert to protect his college eligibility. There, he pitched a 3–1 win over the Chicago Cubs. Jess Frisinger, a scout for Connie Mack, signed him to a contract for 1903 with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League at a monthly salary of $300.

Because Bender’s dark complexion, hair, and eyes made him appear to many people as fully Indian, his Philadelphia teammates gave him the nickname “Chief,” but he signed autographs “Charley Bender” and said, “I do not want my name presented to the public as an Indian, but [as] a pitcher.” During his career he endured war whoops and other Indian allusions with dignity and good humor. He became the first American Indian to achieve baseball stardom.

Bender won in relief for Philadelphia on opening day in 1903 and two weeks later pitched a four-hit shutout. Thereafter, the 6′ 2″, 185-pound right-hander pitched twelve seasons for the Athletics, although illness frequently sidelined him. In 1904, for example, he suffered from measles, tonsillitis, and “incipient” appendicitis. In that same year he married Marie Clement; they had no children.

Bender’s 193–102 won-lost record with the Athletics included season victory totals of 23 (1910) and 21 (1913), victory streaks of 14 (1914) and 11 (1911), the American League pitchers’ won-lost percentage leadership three times, and an almost perfect no-hitter against Cleveland on 21 May 1910. Besides helping the Athletics secure their 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914 American League pennants, Bender won six and lost four World Series games with an overall 2.44 ERA. He pitched a shutout in the only World Series game that Philadelphia won in 1905 against the New York Giants and contributed to the Athletics’ 1910, 1911, and 1913 world championships.

Bender’s strengths included an excellent fastball, sharply breaking curveballs thrown overhand, outstanding control, unflappability, and thorough baseball savvy. However, extremely warm weather weakened him as a pitcher. A good batter, he occasionally pinch-hit or played in the field in a utility role. In one game in 1906 he played right field and hit two home runs. As a coach, he repeatedly discovered how opposing pitchers unwittingly gave away their intended pitches.

In the 1914 World Series Bender not only lost the first game to the Boston Braves, but he allegedly handicapped the Athletics by disobeying manager Mack’s order to scout Braves’ hitters during the regular season’s final week. When Mack asked waivers on him, Bender moved to the Federal League in 1915, where arm trouble and poor batting and fielding by tail-end Baltimore resulted in his 4–16 record. After relatively limited appearances with the 1916 and 1917 Philadelphia Phillies of the National League and a wartime year working in shipyards, he compiled an extraordinary 29–2 record in 1919 as player-manager for Richmond of the Virginia League. In 1925–1926 he coached the Chicago White Sox and pitched one final big league inning. He pitched and managed in the minor leagues through 1927 at New Haven, Connecticut (Eastern League); Reading, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore (International League); and Johnstown, Pennsylvania (Middle Atlantic League); coached at the U.S. Naval Academy during off-seasons from 1923 through 1928; coached for the New York Giants in 1931; and pitched at times for semiprofessional clubs, including the House of David, from 1932 until 1936.

He again worked for the Athletics from 1938 on, except in 1942 when he scouted for the New York Yankees. With the A’s organization he handled public speaking and other promotional assignments; pitched batting practice; managed Wilmington, Delaware (Inter-State League), in 1940, Newport News (Virginia League) in 1941, and Savannah, Georgia (South Atlantic League), in 1946; scouted in 1945 and 1947–1950; and coached pitchers and catchers from 1951 to April 1954, when heart disease and cancer forced his withdrawal from spring training camp.

Throughout his life Bender developed expertise in such occupations as jeweler and diamond appraiser, watchmaker, and salesman of firearms, sporting goods, and men’s clothing. Besides his favorite recreations, hunting and fishing, his natural athleticism led him to become an exceptional trapshooter, a rival to Christy Mathewson as baseball’s best golfer, and a competitive billiards player. An educated, well-read man, he also was proficient as a painter in oils and as a gardener.

His overall major league statistics included a 212–127 won-lost total, 40 shutouts, and per game averages of 2.46 earned runs, 7.9 hits allowed, 2.1 bases on balls, and 5.1 strikeouts. These figures do not fully convey his value as a “money pitcher.” Mack once said, “Whenever there is a game the fortunes of our club hang on, I send in the Chief, and he has delivered every time.” Bender was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. He died in Philadelphia.

Bibliography

There are no biographies of Bender. The best articles are Robert Tholkes, “Chief Bender—The Early Years,” Baseball Research Journal 12 (1983): 8–13; “Daguerreotypes: Charles Albert Bender,” Sporting News, 21 Oct. 1937; and “Three and One, Looking Them Over with J. G. Taylor Spink” (two installments on Bender’s career), Sporting News, 24, 31 Dec. 1942. Bender’s playing record appears in The Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th ed. (1993); John Thorn and Pete Palmer, eds., Total Baseball, 3d ed. (1993), on which the statistics in this article were based; and Craig Carter, ed., Daguerreotypes, 8th ed. (1990), each volume indicating slightly different statistics. See also the Bender file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York. Obituaries are in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 May 1954; the New York Times, 23 May 1954; and the Sporting News, 2 June 1954.