- Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star
In Chief Bender's Burden Tom Swift adds to the expanding list of competent and compelling biographies of early twentieth-century professional baseball players. Swift's major aim is to recount Charles Albert "Chief" Bender's sporting and personal life within the complex context of early twentieth-century racial prejudice toward American Indians.
Swift offers a mixture of detailed back stories, usually involving Bender's teammates and various baseball relationships throughout his lively career, and subtle commentary that draw the reader in and encourage interest in one of the less-celebrated American Indian professional athletes of the twentieth century. The biography centers on Bender's uncharacteristic lapse in the first game of the 1914 World Series, a focal point that allows Swift to effectively fast forward and rewind through various periods and events in Bender's improbable and highly successful life.
Bender was born near Brainerd, Minnesota, probably in 1884, and spent his early childhood on the White Earth Reservation with his Ojibwe mother and German-American father. Bender was one of at least eleven children. He began his schooling at the Educational Home outside of Philadelphia, a school operated by the Presbyterian Church. Bender returned home at age twelve, quickly ran away after some harsh treatment from his father, and was recruited to the Carlisle Indian School by a teacher while working at a farm on the White Earth reservation. While at the famous nonreservation Indian boarding school, Bender played football, baseball, basketball, and track and was coached and mentored by Glen "Pop" Warner. Bender did not start on the baseball team there until his junior year, but became the team's captain and leading pitcher by his senior year. Bender would later credit Warner with teaching him the most about pitching, and especially his signature talent for changing pace and off-speed pitches. Bender would become one of the roughly ten percent of Carlisle students who progressed to graduation, a feat that would make him better educated than most professional baseball players of his era. He would return as a young professional player to help coach Carlisle's baseball team and even helped Carlisle players land tryouts with professional teams.
Bender was "hired" to pitch in his first paid (and, technically, professional) game in the summer of 1901 during part of his outing program at Carlisle. After graduating Carlisle, Bender signed a semi-professional contract with the Harrisburg Athletic Club in 1902 for roughly $15 per month. Two weeks into his season with Harrisburg, the Chicago Cubs visited for an exhibition game. Bender faced his first Major League hitters and allowed six hits and three runs in a complete game. Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics noticed, and Bender signed his first Major League contract later that summer for $300 per month.
During the next two decades Chief Bender remained a key member of the Philadelphia Athletics' pitching staff that won five American League pennants and three World Series championships during the Deadball Era of professional baseball. Named for the [End Page 181] type of soft rubber ball used, as well as the infrequency with which baseballs were rotated for new ones during games, the ball would change to its modern form in 1908, and would ironically lead to an increase in offensive statistics during the following years.
Bender's first year numbers were impressive. He won seventeen games, completed twenty-nine, with two shutouts, and a league-average ERA of 3.07. His first start was a four-hit shutout. Perhaps more impressive, he beat Cy Young in a head-to-head dual. In an era in which starting pitchers normally completed their games, and managers used starting pitchers on short rest, Bender developed into a cerebral strategist who scouted hitters to learn weaknesses, and then exploited those weaknesses through changing speeds and, most likely, becoming the first professional pitcher to make regular and effective use of the slider (a point about which Swift wryly comments, "wouldn't...