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Chief Bender

This article was written by Tom Swift.

American Indian. Innovator. Renaissance man. Charles Albert “Chief” Bender lived a unique American life, fashioned a Hall of Fame career, and was an important member of modern baseball’s first dynasty. He silently struggled against racial prejudice, became a student of the game, and was a lifetime baseball man. His legacy, however, is less nuanced than all of that. Bender is known foremost for a rare ability to pitch under pressure. “If I had all the men I’ve ever handled, and they were in their prime, and there was one game I wanted to win above all others,” said Philadelphia Athletics icon Connie Mack, who managed fellow all-time pitching greats Lefty Grove, Herb Pennock, Eddie Plank, and Rube Waddell, “Albert would be my man.”

For nearly the entire second half of the 20th century Bender was the lone Minnesota representative in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That he is no longer a household name in the North Star State is in part because he spent so little time in Minnesota and because some details about that time remain unclear. Bender’s birthday, for one, is not certain. His birth certificate, registered decades after the fact, says May 3, 1883. Other sources list May 5, 1883. Based on the federal Indian census and on Bender’s school records, the correct year, almost certainly, is 1884. Many sources list his birthplace as Brainerd but that is likely inaccurate. According to research on Bender’s early years conducted by researcher Robert Tholkes, within a year of Charley’s birth the family lived in an area close to Partridge Lake, 20 miles east of Brainerd. No town existed on the site at the time. So it is most accurate to say that Bender was born in Crow Wing County.

Not long after Charles’s birth, the Bender family moved to the White Earth Reservation in the northwest section of the state. Bender’s father, Albertus Bliss Bender (often referred to as William), was an early white settler in Minnesota, a homesteader-farmer of German-American descent. Charley’s mother, Mary Razor Bender, was believed a member of the Mississippi Band of the Ojibwe. Mary, whose Indian name was “Pay shaw de o quay,” gave birth to at least 11 children, perhaps as many as 14. Charley was the fourth child born and the third son. His troubled older brother, John Charles Bender, was an outfielder who bounced from team to team in the minor leagues. 

At White Earth, the family lived in a log house on a small farm. The Benders had to be self-sufficient and they were not the only ones. As scholar Melissa Meyer chronicles in The White Earth Tragedy, during the early years of Charley’s childhood White Earth was destitute. Things were so meager that as a young boy Charley supposedly went to work, taking a job as a farmhand for a dollar a week. At the time reservation families such as the Benders often sent their kids to boarding schools. There were four on-reservation boarding schools, and Charley attended one of them for a short time, but at age seven he was sent to the Educational Home, which was under the auspices of the Lincoln Institution, an off-reservation boarding school for American Indian children near Philadelphia.

Bender was at the Educational Home for five years before he went back to White Earth not long after he turned 12 in June of 1896. He had been out of touch with his family for those years and he returned to a situation that had not improved and possibly regressed. During his time away, too, the Bender family had continued to grow; Charley was then one of nine children in the modest Bender home. A few months after he returned to White Earth, according to a story Bender told The Sporting News as an adult, he and his older brother Frank ran away from home. The two went to another White Earth farm and got jobs in the fields. While there, a teacher from the Carlisle Indian School, a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, later made famous by Jim Thorpe-led powerhouse football teams, came through and recruited Frank and Charley to Carlisle.

In many respects, Charley Bender’s life was shaped during five years at Carlisle, which was run by Richard Henry Pratt, a military man who strictly drove his pupils to assimilate into the dominant white culture. At Carlisle, Bender continued to develop his sharp mind—during his career, teammates, and sportswriters often attributed Bender’s success to his mental approach—and he met his first real baseball coach, legendary football maven Pop Warner. After becoming a rare Carlisle Indian School graduate in 1902, the right-handed pitcher signed with the semipro Harrisburg Athletic Club. While playing for that team in the summer of 1902—not long after he held his own in an exhibition loss to the National League’s Chicago Cubs—Bender was discovered by one of Connie Mack’s birddogs.

Bender joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1903 and, as chronicled in Chief Bender’s Burden,  had one of the great seasons in history for someone aged 19. After an impressive debut in which he pitched six innings in relief for a victory over Boston’s Cy Young, Bender earned his first complete-game shutout victory on April 27, defeating New York Highlanders pitcher and future Hall of Famer Clark Griffith. By the end of the 1903 season the rookie had 17 wins and a 3.07 earned-run average (ERA), which was about league average. His control was impressive from the start as he walked just 2.17 batters per nine innings.

Compared to his peers, Bender did not have an inordinate level of pitching stamina as he was plagued by poor health during several seasons. (Bender battled a number of physical ailments and, later in his career, drank heavily.) He never pitched more than 270 innings in any season, a feat regularly attained by top-tier starters of the Deadball Era. Near the end of the 1905 season, however, Bender showed he could labor long if given the chance. The Athletics needed to win two games against Washington to all but secure the pennant. Bender won the first game 8-0 and came on as a relief pitcher in the second game to win that one as well. It was an incredible one-day performance. Bender pitched 15 innings, won two games, and struck out 14 Senators. What’s more, he was the hitting hero. A right-handed hitter who posted a lifetime .212 batting average, he made five hits in six official at-bats, including two triples and a two-run double in the fourth inning of the second game that pushed Philadelphia ahead. On the day he drove in seven runs.

Bender’s poise in big games was most evident during the World Series, and he received his first such opportunity in 1905. Starting the second game against John McGraw’s New York Giants, he delivered a masterful, four-hit, 3-0 shutout in the Athletics’ only victory of the series. Following the 1905 season, and after studying New York’s Christy Mathewson up close, Bender worked to further develop his control. He threw a well-directed fastball and a sharp-breaking curve—a man named Bender has to have one — that was a precursor to the slider, a pitch he may have invented. He also threw a submarine fadeaway—a pitch that moved like the contemporary screwball, away from a left-handed hitter. “I use fast curves, pitched overhand and sidearm, fastballs, high and inside, and an underhand fadeaway pitch with the hand almost down to the level of the knees,” Bender told Baseball Magazine in 1911. “They are my most successful deliveries, though a twisting slow one mixed up with them helps at times.”

Bender was exceptionally bright. His intelligence was recognized by teammates, opponents, and umpires, such as Billy Evans, who believed Bender was one of the smartest pitchers in the game. “He takes advantage of every weakness,” Evans said in his New York Times column, “and once a player shows him a weak spot he is marked for life by the crafty Indian.” Bender possessed a keen ability to focus on the task at hand, attributes that won the admiration of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, who once called Bender one of “the greatest competitors I ever knew.” Rice and Bender often played golf together, and Rice sometimes quoted Bender in his syndicated column. “Tension is the greatest curse in sport,” said Bender, according to Rice. “I’ve never had any tension. You give the best you have—you win or lose. What’s the difference if you give all you’ve got to give?”

During his first eight years in the major leagues, Bender continued to hone his craft. Though his win-loss record fluctuated, his ERA dropped every year, to a career-best 1.58 in 1910. That year he also won 20 games for the first time, notching 23 victories against only five defeats, which gave him the league’s best winning percentage (.821). Among his victories that season was a no-hitter, thrown May 12 against the Cleveland Indians. Bender was nearly perfect; he faced just 27 hitters as the lone man to reach, shortstop Terry Turner, was caught stealing after a walk. Bender won the opening game of the 1910 World Series, and the Athletics beat the Chicago Cubs in five games—Philadelphia’s first world championship.

The following year, Bender helped the A’s win a second title, as his 17-5 record again led the league in winning percentage (.773). Facing the New York Giants in the World Series, Bender pitched brilliantly, winning two of three starts, posting a 1.04 ERA, and striking out 20 batters in 26 innings. Philadelphia failed to win a third straight pennant in 1912 as injuries, illness, and a team suspension for alcohol use limited Bender to a 13-8 record in just 171 innings. But the following year the A’s were again the premier team, as Bender won 20 games and also led the league with 13 saves (retroactively calculated). In that year’s World Series—the A’s and Giants squared off one more time—Bender won two games and the Athletics captured their third world championship in four years.

Bender’s World Series career line was blemished in 1914, as the favored Philadelphia Athletics were swept by the so-called “Miracle” Boston Braves. Bender had put up a fine regular season record, winning 14 straight games during one stretch, finishing the year with a 17-3 mark and a league-leading .850 winning percentage. But, in his only appearance in the World Series, Bender started the opening game and surrendered six earned runs in 5-1/3 innings. It was his last appearance in an A’s uniform.

The next year, Bender signed with the Federal League and was assigned to Baltimore. Pitching for the last-place Terrapins, he went 4-16 and was released by the team in September. After the 1915 season, Bender was picked up by the Philadelphia Phillies, where, pitching mostly in relief, he had a 7-7 record in 1916. In 1917, he showed flashes of his previous level of performance with an 8-2 mark and a 1.67 ERA but nonetheless was released by the Phillies at the end of the season. During the 1918 season Bender went to work in the Philadelphia shipyards to contribute to the war effort.

His life in baseball did not end, however. When the war was over, Bender began a successful career as a minor-league player and manager. He was offered opportunities to return to the big leagues but enjoyed managing so much—and probably earned as much money in the minors as he would have in the majors—that he declined. Bender managed Richmond of the Virginia League in 1919 and also dominated the league as a pitcher, winning 29 games against two defeats. Subsequently, he pitched and managed at New Haven in the Eastern League (1920-21); Reading (1922) and Baltimore (1923) in the International League; and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in the Mid-Atlantic League in 1927. During that period he also spent several years as a baseball coach for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Bender pitched once more in the major leagues. In 1925, while employed as a coach for his friend, Chicago White Sox manager Eddie Collins, he worked a gimmicky frame in a game against the Boston Red Sox—the club he had beaten for his first major-league victory 22 years prior. Bender, 42 at the time, allowed two runs on a walk and a home run but did manage to retire the side.

During the 1930s, Bender managed the Eastern team of the independent House of David. He also managed Erie in the Continental League in 1932, Wilmington of the Inter-State League in 1940, Newport News of the Virginia League in 1941, and Savannah of the Southern Association in 1946. Thereafter he was associated with the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Athletics as a coach or scout. At 61 he began pitching batting practice to the Athletics and years later served as the A’s de facto pitching coach.

Over a 16-year major-league career, Bender won 212 games and posted a .625 winning percentage. He pitched to avoid the bats of American League hitters, and every time he did he stared into the face of racism. Though he often exhibited a calm, levelheaded demeanor, he was seldom portrayed in newspapers, cartoons, or words on the street without references—many of them demeaning, few of them subtle—to his race. Though proud of his American Indian heritage Bender resented the bigotry and the moniker he and nearly every other Indian ballplayer of the time received. “I do not want my name to be presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher,” he told Sporting Life in 1905. The writers didn’t listen. Though his manager called him Albert, prevailing stereotypes rarely were absent from baseball coverage and bench jockeying. Bender didn’t publicly protest, but he signed his autograph as “Charles” or some derivative. Eventually, he was called “Chief” so often (and so often with affection) that he allowed the name to be etched into his tombstone. But the tacit racism never went away. Even decades after his retirement, Bender’s obituary in The Sporting News carried the headline, “Chief Bender Answers Call to Happy Hunting Grounds.”

As noted in Chief Bender’s Burden, as a way to keep his mind occupied, Bender engaged in an inordinate number of sports and hobbies outside of baseball, and he was exceptional at many of them. He was often referred to as one of the top trap shooters (he shot live bird and clay pigeons) in the country. He loved to hunt and fish and was an outstanding golfer. Bender’s favorite hobbies were gardening, playing billiards, and painting oil landscapes. He also occasionally served as a consultant to people in the diamonds and textiles trades. He had a long post-major-league career in retail, selling, among other things, sporting goods and men’s clothing.

Bender’s life partner was Marie (Clement) Bender, whom he married in 1904. The couple’s marriage, which lasted nearly 50 years, did not produce any children. In 1953, Bender became the first Minnesota-born player enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and he remained the only one until Dave Winfield joined him in 2001. On May 22, 1954, the year following the vote, Bender died, a few weeks shy of his 71st birthday and a few weeks before his induction ceremony. He had previously suffered a heart attack and was receiving treatments for prostate cancer. Bender is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Roslyn, Pennsylvania.

A version of this biography appeared in the book "Minnesotans in Baseball," edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

Portions of this profile are from Chief Bender’s Burden by Tom Swift (University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

The Connie Mack quote that if he could pick one pitcher for a big game, “Albert would be my man,” has been included in nearly every biographical profile ever written about Bender, including Baseball: The Biographic Encyclopedia edited by David Pietrusza, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman (Total Sports, 2000, p. 80). Mack made the statement often in his later years.

Research conducted by Robert Tholkes, written in an excellent article called “Chief Bender: The Early Years,” published in the 1983 edition of the Baseball Research Journal of the Society for American Baseball Research, was the solid foundation upon which I conducted further exploration about the rough details of Bender’s first years, his family, and life at White Earth. Beverly Hermes provided additional genealogical research assistance. The Charles Albert Bender file at the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bemidji, Minnesota, was useful. Facts about the Bender family were also found in the federal Indian census and the U.S. census.

Paulette Fairbanks Molin’s article, “Training the Hand, the Head, and the Heart: Indian Education at Hampton Institute,” published in the fall 1988 issue of Minnesota History, revealed facts about the Bender family.

Information about the White Earth Reservation during this time was found in The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920 by Melissa L. Meyer (University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

Articles in a multiple-part series about Bender’s life published in The Sporting News, December 24-31, 1942, were used for information about Bender’s childhood, including the story of how Bender and his brother ran away.

Regarding Bender’s alcohol use, Connie Mack discussed problems he had with Bender and a teammate in the March 6, 1950 New York Times. Bender’s drinking habits in the 1912 season were discussed most prominently in the Philadelphia North American’s coverage that year, from September 12 on. Other useful information was found in an article under the headline “The Fallen Stars of the 1912 Season” in the September 21, 1912 Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. One of Bender’s contracts, according to his salary history card at the National Baseball Hall of Fame (thanks to Gabriel Schechter for providing a copy), stated that he must “[refrain] from intoxicating liquors.”

Billy Evans’s views on Bender were printed in columns Evans wrote that appeared in numerous periodicals, including the New York Times, and picked up by newspapers such as the Carlisle Arrow. I found copies in the Charles Bender file at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Grantland Rice wrote about Bender in several columns during and after Bender’s major league career, including a column that appeared in the September 2, 1915 Boston Daily Globe.

There is no one agreed-upon inventor of the slider. One source among several sources consulted on this topic was The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches by Rob Neyer and Bill James (Fireside, 2004). E-mail correspondences with Bill James were also useful.

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