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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Black Prince of Baseball- Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game: A Review

Before Babe Ruth, another mega star dominated the baseball landscape.  His name was Hal Chase and he was a supremely talented and flawed athlete and human, who was ultimately overtaken by his demons and unceremoniously cast out of the majors because of his penchant for gambling and allegedly throwing games—which possibly included involvement in the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. Detailing his rise and fall is Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella, with their excellent The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2004/2016).

Chase was a first baseman who spent 15 seasons (1905-1919) in the majors with five different teams; rising to stardom with the New York Highlanders/Yankees. Known as one of the slickest fielders the game has ever seen, he was no slouch at the plate, hitting .291 with 941 RBIs and 336 stolen bases during the final decades of the Dead Ball Era. Off the field was another story, as he was an inveterate gambler and womanizer; thought nothing of jumping contracts if the money was right; and was an alleged frequent flyer when it came to making a couple of bad plays to keep the score close, or even orchestrating outright dives for a price.

Dewey and Acocella have done a first-class job in researching and writing about Chase’s life. Always a shadowy figure, it was surely no easy task, but the reward is massive, as they have produced a seminal work on the first sacker.

Trying to track the movements of the nomadic Californian must have been quite an undertaking but The Black Prince emerges with a coherent timeline that takes the reader throughout his life. His exploits on the field are fun (he was a bonafide gregarious star who by all accounts had the hands of a magician in the field) to read about but the real star of the show, sad though they may, be are all of his transgressions. One cannot possibly take delight in his wrongs, yet when splashed across the pages, they keep the reader from looking away, much like a car crash.

In addition to the suspicions of intentionally playing poorly and recruiting others into his nefarious schemes, he also frequently held out or jumped to different teams in order to extract the most money. This included stops in the Federal League and a bushel of professional and semi-pro circuits in California, Arizona and Mexico. Although the fans adored him, his reputation within the game was something less, given his constant focus on making a buck or gaining an angle.

Although he was not officially thrown out of baseball, nevertheless, a cloud of impropriety continues to hang over Chase’s head to this day. The book is rife with accounts from opposing players and former teammates who claim they were witness to his transgressions. There was also substantial suspicion that he was among those who conspired to rig the 1919 World Series in an effort to make a financial windfall by betting. No formal charges were ever proved against him, but he never played or coached in another major league game after the 1919 season, despite still being a productive player.

Utilizing thorough research, the authors paint a complete picture of Chase. While he cut a dashing and brash figure as a player, despite his schemes, things were quite different in his personal life. He was a serial philanderer, who once erroneously accused his first wife of cheating on him so he could secure a divorce in order to marry his second wife (with whom he had been having an affair). He was an absentee father, who alienated many of his family members because of his dishonest and boozy ways. 

Ultimately, once his body began to betray him, and baseball of any kind was no longer an option, his life spiraled into a pathetic end. A memorable passage in the book has an acquaintance recalling how Chase was so down and out that he used to emulate his baseball swing with a pool cue in Arizona border town bars in exchange for drinks.

Chase can best be summed up as the extremes in baseball that came to be because the games popularity outgrew its leadership and infrastructure. He lived and played as to be a lesson to those who came after him. That’s not a great legacy to aspire to but it’s the best the flawed first baseman has nearly a century after he departed the game in disgrace.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review

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