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Banished: Hal Chase

Career Paths
Marcus' Memoirs


New York Yankees 1905-13
Chicago White Sox 1913-14
Buffalo Buffeds 1914-15
Cincinnati Reds 1916-18
New York Giants 1919

"That he can play first base as it never was and perhaps never will be played is a well known truth.  That he will is a different matter."
-the Sporting News on Hal Chase, June 1913

Hal Chase is one of the most controversial and colorful characters in the game's history.  The first star of the New York Yankees franchise, Chase is regarded as the finest fielding first baseman of his time, if not all time.  Playing throughout his career amid rumors of throwing games, Chase's corrupt behavior eventually caught up to him and led to his banishment from baseball.

Born on February 13, 1883 in Los Gratos, CA, Harold Harris Chase grew up in a rugged, tough and tumble environment.  Despite being left-handed, the young Chase was able to play every position on the diamond with remarkable ease.  After dropping out of school in tenth grade, the young athlete was somehow able to enroll at the University of Santa Clara in 1902.  Although he was technically there to study civil engineering, Chase main purpose at the university was baseball.

After bouncing around the West Coast playing for semipro and minor league outfits, Chase was signed by the American League's (AL) New York Highlanders in 1905.  Playing in the shadow of the more established National League's (NL) Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, the upstart Highlanders needed a star to place themselves on the city's landscape and forge an identity of their own.  Hal Chase was that man.

After hitting .323 in 1906 and wowing fans and opponents with his grace and reflexes in the field "Prince Hal" was a hit in the Big Apple.  In 1910 the Highlanders, also known as the Yankees, were contending for their first AL pennant under manager George Stallings.  Late that season however, Stallings began to suspect his star first baseman of throwing games and went public with that information.  League and team officials sided with Chase, AL president Ban Johnson even issued a strong public statement supporting the biggest drawing card of his New York team without opening any sort of investigation.

Going public with such a serious accusation cost Stallings his job.  He was replaced as skipper by Chase, who acted as player/manager, which was very common during that era.  After finishing second in 1910, Chase guided the Highlanders to a sixth place finish the following season and was replaced as manager by Harry Wolverton.  Chase did, however, remain with the team as a player.

Wolverton also was only able to keep the job for one season.  In 1913, the Highlanders officially changed their name to the Yankees, and hired Frank Chance to manage the club.  Early that season, Chance began to suspect Chase of fixing games.  Instead of going public with the allegations, Chance dealt the star-crossed first baseman to the Chicago White Sox for two players.

After spending a year in Chicago, Chase jumped to the new Federal League early in the 1914 season, where he received a substantial raise.  Playing with the Buffalo Buffeds, he led the new league with 17 home runs, drove in 89, and scored 85 in 1915 -- all career highs.  When the league folded following the season, Chase was sold to the NL's Cincinnati Reds.

After winning the batting title with a .339 average in 1916, Chase dipped to .277 the following year.  When manager Buck Herzog was let go following the 1917 season, Chase felt the job should be his.  Instead, the reigns were handed over to Christy Mathewson, who was known as one of the most honest men in the game.  Mathewson, like Stallings and Chance, suspected Chase was not playing on the level and suspended the star first baseman for the season's final two months.

In 1919, the fallen hero returned to New York with the Giants for one final chance.  John McGraw, the Al Davis of his time, was often willing to take a chance on a talented player with a tattered reputation.  With the Giants, Chase found teammates that were willing to work with him in his constant pursuit of rigging games.  In September, McGraw sent Chase and teammate Henie Zimmerman home without explanation.  He never played another inning of big league baseball.

It seemed that if a game was thrown, Chase had something to do with it.  He even had a fringe involvement on the most famous fix in history -- the 1919 World Series.  Indicted for bribery in the scandal, Chase ignored the allegations and stayed on the West Coast.

Meanwhile back in Chicago at the Black Sox trial, John McGraw testified that he had sent Chase and Zimmerman home during the 1919 season because he had strong evidence that the duo was fixing games and had tried to enlist teammates Fred Toney, Rube Benton, and Benny Kauff in their scam.  After that testimony both Zimmerman and Chase were permanently banned from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Unable to play any form of organized ball in his native California, Chase resorted to the bush leagues of Arizona and New Mexico, where he played throughout the 1920s.  In his major league career, Chase posted a .291 average, collected 2,158 hits, and stole 363 bases.  Despite his reputation as a wizard with the glove, Chase led his league's first baseman in errors seven times.  That might be the most damning evidence that Chase seldom played on the level.

In fact, Chase's defense was held in such high esteem that  Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson each named him as the best of all time.  "No other player in baseball history was so richly praised for his defensive skill -- no one," says noted historian Bill James.  "His brilliance with the glove is easier to document than Ty Cobb's temper, Hack Wilson's drinking or Walter Johnson fastball; it is all over the literature of the sport."

Despite being on the permanent suspension list, Chase received 11 votes in the inaugural Hall of Fame election in 1936.  After his playing days, Chase returned to California where he lived quietly until his death in 1947.

-David Zingler, February 2004


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