Year Inducted: 1953 (Veterans Committee)
Baseball can sometimes be a battleground for race it seems. The first professional African American players (Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby) had to endure a ton of pressure and hate and played amazingly despite it. Go back even further in history, the first great Jewish sportsman (Hank Greenberg) went through similar troubles though not quite as severe. Even further back, Irish players like Hugh Duffy had to face racial angst. The country has had tenuous relations with all of those ethnicities, as they have with Native Americans. And, one of the first great Native American players was Chief Bender.
Bender pitched mostly for the Philadelphia A’s in his 16 seasons. He put up a 212-127 record in 3000+ innings. Bender was a dominant pitcher, striking out 1711 batters while walking only 712 and holding opposing batters to a .237 batting average. In each of his first eight seasons, his ERA dropped going from 3.07 in 1903 to 1.58 in 1910. His career ERA of 2.46 is currently 10th among pitchers with 3000 or more innings pitched, a testament to how good he really was.
Bender’s main issue was his playing time. Due to various illnesses, including being an alcoholic, he threw a limited number of innings in his career. While his career high of 270 innings sounds high from a current perspective, in the early 1900’s there were many pitchers who threw many more innings.
However limited the innings were, there’s no denying the extreme quality of Bender’s pitching. His ERA- was 88 and his FIP- was 84, thanks to a ridiculously low HR rate of 0.12 per 9. He was also an excellent defender at his position, being worth nearly 40 runs defensively.
Bender had a reputation of being a great “clutch” pitcher. Connie Mack, the owner and manager of the Athletics for nearly 60 years, said he would pick Bender over many of his other pitchers because in his prime there were none better. While that statement is somewhat hyperbolic (Lefty Grove would probably pick a couple of nits with that statement), it is true that in his short prime, Bender was a top pitcher and worthy addition to the Hall of Fame. His induction was delayed quite a few years, however. It most likely could be chalked up to his race. Bender was proud of his heritage as an American Indian, but didn’t care for the nickname Chief for most of his life, nor for the rhetoric used about him in the papers and on the streets. Still, following his career as an active player (and a long career of managing in the minors), he came to accept the moniker as most fans would say it with affection after a time.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 10/27/16 While the Cubs continue their push to the World Series, let’s review their greatest pitcher that wasn’t named Greg Maddux.