- Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star
In his award-winning book, Chief Bender’s Burden, Tom Swift tells the complex story of how Native American ballplayer Charles Albert Bender contended with racial prejudice as he rose to become one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball during the Deadball Era. The author frames his work around Bender’s performance in the first game of the 1914 World Series. As Swift walks the reader inning by inning through this critical game in Bender’s career, he flashes back to formative periods in Bender’s past. Drawing from a variety of sources including newspapers, magazines, journals, dissertations, books, and interviews, these asides piece together a complete picture of the pitcher, his character, and his experiences in professional baseball leading up to the 1914 World Series. Taken as a whole, the work reveals Bender’s journey to the top of Major League Baseball, the obstacles faced by players of Native American descent, and a discussion of possible explanations of Bender’s performance in the 1914 World Series.
Charles Albert Bender was born the son of an Ojibwe Indian and a German American in northern Minnesota. He attended the Lincoln Institute and the Carlisle Indian School. While attending Carlisle, Bender discovered sports. He played football, basketball, and ran track, but he excelled at baseball. Carlisle’s athletic director and multisport coach, Glenn Scobey Warner (“Pop” Warner), worked with Bender, assisting in his development as an athlete and preparing him for life as a Native American in the world of professional sports. [End Page 170]
After leaving Carlisle, Bender pitched one year of semi-professional baseball before manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics signed him to a professional contract. From 1903 to 1914, Bender established himself as one of the A’s aces, earning the label of being a “money pitcher,” or the most favored pitcher for high-pressure situations. While on the A’s staff, using a “slider,” he pitched a no-hitter against Cleveland in 1910 and contributed to World Series victories in 1910, 1911, and 1913. In describing Bender’s rise to the highest level of professional baseball, Swift never strays from the fact that he enjoyed success in a segregated world.
Bender faced both implicit and explicit forms of racism throughout his playing career. Swift often focuses on the language employed by sportswriters. They created a caricature of Bender, calling him a son of the forest, a wily redskin, or having scalped opposing batters. Cartoons appeared of Bender wearing a headdress and wielding a tomahawk. Perhaps the most obvious example of implicit racism was the nickname “Chief.” Depending on the context, even that could become a derogatory term when uttered by players on opposing teams and their fans. According to Swift, the home crowd at New York’s Polo Grounds could be the fiercest. He notes that some of the common taunts included “Back to the tepee for yours,” and “Giants grab heap much wampum,” an insulting version of an Indian yell (p. 119). How did Bender respond? Sometimes he smiled, laughing off the comments. Almost every time he increased his concentration, focusing on the batter. Throughout the book, Swift emphasizes Bender’s poise when contending with near constant bigotry.
Bender’s streak of clutch performances ended with the first game of the 1914 World Series. Swift considers several explanations for Bender’s poor performance, which include a disregard for the underdog Boston Braves, chronic illnesses, alcohol abuse, game fixing, and divisions in the clubhouse. He casts doubt on most of the theories and suggests that the weight of pitching at such a high level, dealing with expectations, and contending with racial prejudice could have been too much for Bender to handle. Whatever the true reason, Bender did not pitch another game for the Athletics, but he remained in baseball as a pitcher, manager, or coach for the rest of his life.
Overall, Swift provides a vivid portrait...