John Bender

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Between the two of them, the baseball-playing Bender brothers embodied much of the popular turn-of-the-century American Indian stereotype, both positive and negative. Tall, dignified, and stoic, Charles “Chief” Bender epitomized the Noble Savage. He was also one of the finest pitchers of the Deadball Era. Never the staff workhorse, Chief Bender was manager Connie Mack’s money pitcher, the man on the mound when the Philadelphia Athletics most needed a pennant race or a World Series victory. Although he was not altogether accepted by the white-centric sporting world, Bender’s abilities were much respected by it, as exemplified by his 1953 induction into the Hall of Fame.

Older brother John “Big Chief” Bender was an altogether different character. Good-sized and with a striking facial resemblance to his celebrated sibling, John was a lesser talent who also lacked his brother’s stable temperament. Frequently bedeviled by the effects of drink, Big Chief was a troubled man, widely perceived by the sports press and fandom as likeable but unreliable, the archetypical chronically alcoholic Injun. A fine defensive outfielder but only a mediocre batsman, John Bender never rose higher than midlevel minor leagues, bouncing from team to team while leaving a trail of fines, suspensions, and other disciplinary sanctions in his wake. He even spent three years on baseball’s blacklist, the result of a drunken, near-fatal stabbing of his manager with Columbia of the South Atlantic League. The year of Big Chief’s restoration to playing eligibility saw the Bender brothers attain their respective destinies. In October 1911 Charley pitched the A’s to their second consecutive World Series title, but John was unable to bask in any of the family glory. Weeks earlier, hard living and a weak heart had put him in his grave at age 32.

Gaps and conflicts in US and tribal censuses make suspect any biographical narrative about Native Americans born in the 19th century. But in all likelihood, John Charles Bender was born in or about Crow Wing County, Minnesota, in October 1878. He was the second of at least 11 children1 born to Albertus Bliss Bender (1849-1922), a homesteader of Dutch or German descent born in Massachusetts,2 and his half-Ojibwe (Chippewa) wife, the former Mary Razor (or Pay shaw de o quay, c.1855-1930). When John was still a boy, the ever-multiplying Bender family moved to the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota to farm acreage doled out to Indian claimants by the government. Thereafter, John was among the vanguard of reservation children sent to the Philadelphia area to further their education at Episcopal Church-run prep schools. In time, a number of younger Bender siblings would follow them East.3

On September 5 1896, John Bender was admitted to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.4 Either simultaneously or shortly thereafter, his younger brother Charles joined him there. The Carlisle program was designed to immerse Native American youngsters in Christian values and the dominant European-American culture, but the school soon became known more for its athletic teams. John and Charley became members of the Carlisle football and baseball teams, although one Chief Bender biographer asserts that John “didn’t develop at Carlisle to the point where he earned a spot on the varsity [baseball] squad.”5 Other sources state that John Bender, like his brother, was a star pitcher at Carlisle.56 Whichever the case, John’s time at Carlisle ended abruptly. He was expelled from school on unknown grounds on March 8, 1900.

Tribal census records invariably place John Bender back on the White Earth Reservation during his post-Carlisle years, but his actual whereabouts are unknown until he began playing professional baseball in 1902.7 Now 24 years old, he was presumably close to the 6-foot-plus/190-pound ballplayer depicted in a photo of Big Chief Bender published in the March 15, 1908, edition of the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle. With the exception of one ill-fated pitching audition, the lefty batting/righty throwing Bender played his entire career in the outfield. That career began with stints playing for a terrible (14-71) Sheldon team in the Class D Iowa-South Dakota League, and mediocre ones in Cavalier (15-32) and Fargo (30-26) of the independent Northern League. Seeing action in 49 games total, Bender batted a promising .300.8

John returned to the now-Class D Northern League the following summer, batting .302 in 63 games for the (41-51) Duluth Cardinals.9 Meanwhile, Charley inaugurated his Cooperstown-bound career with a 17-win rookie season for Philadelphia. His older brother began the 1904 season with the Hartford Senators of the Class D Connecticut State League, but was released after hitting only .188 in 21 games. Thereafter, John Bender returned once again to the Northern League, landing a berth with Fargo. Back in familiar surroundings, he batted a career-high .343 in limited (29 games) action. A regrettable precedent was also established there: Bender and teammate Joe Lynch were suspended for “going too heavy on the liquid portion of Fourth of July celebrations.”10 In 1905 Bender signed with the Charleston Sea Gulls, commencing a multiseason odyssey through the Class C South Atlantic (SALLY) League. John would call Charleston home for the remainder of his life. He also initiated a relationship with the College of Charleston, in time becoming the school’s football and baseball coach. Perhaps most important, Charleston was the place where John met future wife Theresa Delany, the daughter of Irish immigrants.

In his first Charleston go-round, Bender hit .264, posting the second highest batting average on the offensively challenged Sea Gulls (whose team batting average was a dismal .201).11 Early the following year, John made the first of his recorded court appearances, being fined $20 by a Charleston police court “for applying a vile epithet to a spectator.”12 Soon thereafter, he was dispatched to a league rival, the Augusta Tourists. Between the two clubs, Bender batted a SALLY League-acceptable .234. But the highlight of Bender’s season occurred away from the diamond. On August 26, 1906, John and Theresa were married at the Delany residence at 115 Calhoun Street in Charleston,13 the place where the couple would live for the entirety of their childless five-year marriage. After the ceremony, league president Charles W. Boyer presented the newlyweds with a silver service, a gift from Augusta teammates and club management.14

With club permission, Bender spent the early spring of 1907 coaching the College of Charleston baseball team. When he joined Augusta, trouble was not long in following. On May 9 Bender failed to appear at the ballpark for a league game, drawing a $10 fine and an indefinite suspension.15 Once reinstated, he managed to avoid problems for a while. But on August 1, Augusta manager Dick Crozier fined Bender $20 and suspended him indefinitely for “violation of team rules.”16 Despite this, a .250 batting average in 106 games earned Bender a place on the Augusta reserved list for the 1908 season.17

That season would be a tumultuous one. Early in the campaign, a “hilariously happy” Bender was deemed unfit to make a road trip to Charleston.18 In May he was reportedly released by Augusta, with the hometown newspaper lamenting that “Bender when right is a good fielder, a fairly good hitter, and has one of the greatest arms in baseball. … Booze has been the undoing of the Big Chief.”19 But new manager Charlie Dexter was apparently unwilling to give up on Bender, who had “one of the strongest and swiftest right arms in baseball.”20 Dexter wanted to convert him into a pitcher, but the idea was kiboshed by club management. Bender was released by Augusta, only to be signed by another SALLY League club, the Columbia Gamecocks. Still drinking to excess, Bender was soon fined and suspended indefinitely by his new club. When restored to the roster, Columbia manager-first baseman Win Clark decided to try Bender as a pitcher, inserting him into a July 10 game hopelessly lost to Macon. Eight hits later, Columbia starter Gus Salve was back on the mound, thus bringing the pitching career of “one of the greatest arms ever seen in the South” to its one-appearance conclusion.

Within a fortnight, the life of John Bender would be irrevocably altered. After a Saturday game in Jacksonville, Bender went out drinking with a friend and was arrested that evening for public intoxication.21 Manager Clark then bailed Bender out and escorted him to the Iroquois, the steamship booked to return the club back to South Carolina. Shortly after Bender had gotten on board, a ship steward sought Clark’s intervention with Bender following complaints made by female passengers. “That night at the supper table, Bender again began to annoy the lady passengers and Clark was again called down.”22 Bender, “crazy drunk,” wanted to fight, but Clark refused to accommodate him while the two were aboard ship. Evicted from the dining area, Bender waited for Clark to finish his meal and then attacked him in a ship’s corridor. Clark knocked Bender to the floor and had the better of the fight until onlookers interceded. It was then discovered that Clark had been stabbed and was bleeding from wounds to the arm, chest, and torso. Providentially, a young physician named Weeks was among the Iroquois passengers. Summoned to the grievously wounded victim, Dr. Weeks stanched the blood loss, and then, using fishing line, closed the wounds via 40 to 54 improvised sutures (accounts varied). Meanwhile, Bender was placed in irons until the Iroquois reached Charleston.

Once the ship reached port, Clark was rushed to the hospital, treated, and later pronounced out of danger.23 Bender, meanwhile, was turned over to federal authorities for prosecution, as the incident had occurred on the high seas rather than in the jurisdiction of a particular state.24 Pending proceedings in the United States District Court, Bender was placed in lockup. Thereafter, testimony by eyewitness Augusta players established a prima facie case against Bender, but with the victim on the mend, Bender was released on $1,000 bond posted by his wife.25 When sufficiently recovered, Clark testified, albeit reluctantly, against Bender, but made plain that he had forgiven Bender and did not wish to see him prosecuted. Still, the evidence presented left US Magistrate Arthur Young little choice but hold the charges over for trial during the coming court term.26 But prosecutors, presumably acting upon Clark’s wishes, declined to pursue the case, and the charges were quietly dismissed about a year later.27

Baseball was not so lenient with the Big Chief. Within 24 hours of the incident, Bender had been fined and suspended by the Columbia club, with SALLY League President Boyer vowing to seek Bender’s permanent banishment from Organized Baseball.28 The advice of counsel inhibited Bender from discussing the incident, but his contrition was evident to those having contact with him. He also benefited from the fact that, notwithstanding the assault and his other failings, Bender was well-liked by teammates, league officials, SALLY League fans, and the local press. Once it was clear that Win Clark would recover, many observers felt sorry for Bender and were not averse to his eventual return to the game. Nevertheless, his immediate baseball prospects appeared bleak.

Columbia retained the suspended Bender on its reserved list for the 1909 season,29 and supporters, particularly in his adopted hometown of Charleston, hoped for Bender’s reinstatement. In the meantime, John busied himself with coaching duties at the College of Charleston. He also reportedly became involved in running a local restaurant. 30 Prior to the 1909 season, Columbia club brass refused to seek Bender’s reinstatement by the league, but later relented, following receipt of a telegram sent on Bender’s behalf by prominent Charleston citizens. Columbia agreed to petition for Bender’s reinstatement, conditioned upon his payment of an unsatisfied $50 fine. The club would then sell his contract to Charleston.31 League President Boyer, however, was having none of it. Bender would remain the property of Columbia and on the league blacklist. In March 1910, a petition for Bender’s reinstatement to new SALLY League President Cap Joyner was referred to the collective club ownership,32 but no action was taken.

Early in 1911, Charleston manager Ed Ransick contacted Columbia regarding release of Bender to the Sea Gulls, a maneuver intended to foster his reinstatement by the league. Momentum was building in Bender’s favor, with SALLY League sportswriters publicly urging leniency upon league officials,33 progress that Bender then jeopardized by getting himself arrested on a street robbery charge.34 Notwithstanding that, Columbia club president F.C. Williams put his imprimatur on the Bender reinstatement petition,35 and on March 20, 1911, league President Joyner granted the application, directing Bender to report immediately to Columbia.36 As Bender was making ready to rejoin the club, another happy event occurred. The Philadelphia A’s came to town for a preseason game against the Charleston Sea Gulls, occasioning the first meeting of John and Charley Bender in nine years.37

Bender was anxious to get back into uniform, but increased age (he was now 32) and the three-year layoff had taken their toll. Toward the close of spring training, the Macon Telegraph reported that “Chief Bender is also trying for a place on the [Columbia] club, but the old war horse has slowed up considerably, and he will have a tough time beating Marty Krug out of the left field job.”38 Shortly thereafter, Bender was released. He then signed with Charleston. His tenure was short-lived. After batting a meager .189 in 38 games, Bender was released again, the Charleston Evening Post observing that he “is not considered fast enough for the rejuvenated club and has not hit as well as an outfielder should.”39 Bender’s final professional destination was a distant one: the Edmonton Eskimos of the Class D Western Canada League. But even such modest competition was now too much for Big Chief. In 33 games, he batted a soft .213, with only three extra-base hits. The day before the league season ended on September 3, Bender was given his walking papers for a third time in 1911.

For reasons unknown, Bender did not immediately head for home. Instead, he lingered in Edmonton. On the morning of September 25, he had breakfast in a local café. Suddenly and without warning, John “Big Chief” Bender collapsed and died.40 He was 32. A Coroner’s Certificate subsequently cited “acute dilatation of the heart” as the cause of death.41 News of Bender’s death was conveyed to SALLY League fans via reportage that sometimes maintained that Bender had died in the middle of an Edmonton game,42 a canard that would not be discredited for decades.43 After a slow railway passage to Charleston, funeral services were conducted at the Bender residence on Calhoun Street. Among those paying their respects were a large contingent of College of Charleston athletes.44 Suffering from the flu and in need of rest for upcoming World Series assignments, brother Charles Bender was noticeably absent.45 On October 7, 1911, John Bender was laid to rest at St. Lawrence Cemetery in Charleston. Meanwhile some 770 miles to the north, Charley Bender took the mound against the New York Giants in the Series opener. Chief would drop a 2-1 decision to Christy Mathewson that afternoon, but would pitch brilliantly throughout the Series, winning Game Four and the decisive Game Six for the world champion Athletics.

Products of the same blood and upbringing, the Bender brothers were distinguished by differences in talent and temperament. When it came to baseball, Charles would go on to great major-league success and, ultimately, immortalization in Cooperstown. His older brother John, a minor-league journeyman, would die young and fall into the obscurity that shrouds his memory to this day. Neither fate is undeserved.

This biography is adapted from an article published in the September 2014 issue of "The Inside Game," the newsletter of SABR’s Deadball Era Committee.

 

Notes

1 Chief Bender biographies maintain that Albertus Bender was of German descent, but Chief himself described his father as Dutch. See The Sporting News, December 24, 1942. Paternal grandfather William Bender was also American-born – in New York around 1825. Although only one-quarter Ojibwe, Charles, John, and the other Bender children for whom there is photographic evidence were all distinctly Indian (black hair, coppery skin, Native American facial features) in appearance.

2 In chronological order, the Bender children who survived childhood were Maud (born about 1873), John (1878), Frank (1881), Charles (1884), Anna (1886), Elizabeth (1888), Emma (1890), Albert (1892), Fred (1894), George (1900), and James (1902).

3 According to a recent Chief Bender biography, John, Charles, and their younger sister Anna were enrolled at the Educational Home in Philadelphia in July 1891. Later, younger siblings would attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. See Robert Peyton Wiggins, Chief Bender, A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010), 13-17.

4 John Bender, Carlisle Indian Industrial School records, folder 377.

5 See Tom Swift, Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), 164.

6 See e.g., Sporting Life, June 15, 1907. See also, “The Curious Case of John Bender,” by Rich Necker, accessible online via attheplate.com/webl/1911_4chtml.

7 According to another Chief Bender biography, John Bender played for a semipro baseball team in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after he was expelled from Carlisle. See William C. Kashatus, Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the Tragedy of Indian Assimilation (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Penn State University Press, 2006), 27. This assertion, however, must be viewed with caution, as most else said about John Bender in the Kashatus book is mistaken or improbable.

8 Statistics presented herein have been taken from Baseball-Reference.com and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds. (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2nd ed. 1997).

9 Accounts differ regarding whether John played under the alias McCoy (Sporting Life, July 30, 1904) or used his own name (Sporting Life, December 16, 1905).

10 As reported in Sporting Life, July 23, 1905.

11 Throughout Bender’s tenure in the circuit, batting averages in the South Atlantic League would be inordinately low, even by Deadball Era standards. In 1905, only two league players (Ty Cobb and Paul Sentell) posted batting averages over .300.

12 Sporting Life, May 2, 1906.

13 As reported in the Charleston Evening Post, August 27, 1906. The wedding ceremony was performed by the Reverend P.L. Duffy, a Catholic priest.

14 As per the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, August 28, 1906. See also Sporting Life, September 15, 1906.

15 As reported in the Augusta Chronicle, May 9, 1907, and the Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, May 10, 1907.

16 As per the Augusta Chronicle, August 1, 1907, and Sporting Life, August 17, 1907.

17 As noted in Sporting Life, October 2, 1907.

18 As euphemistically reported in the Augusta Chronicle, April 19, 1908. Bender was unable to make the trip due to “the quantity and quality of the liquid refreshment that he had taken on board the day previous,” according to the Macon Telegraph, April 19, 1908.

19 Augusta Chronicle, May 8, 1908.

20 According to the Augusta Chronicle, May 11, 1908.

21 The events related above were reported nationwide. The instant account is drawn primarily from reportage in the Charleston Evening Post, Charleston News and Courier, and Columbia (South Carolina) State, July 21-24, 1908.

22 Columbia State, July 24, 1908.

23 The skillful work aboard ship by Dr. Weeks spared two lives: those of stabbing victim Clark and his assailant, as well. Having lain in wait and then attacked an unarmed man with a knife before a host of witnesses, Bender would almost assuredly have been tried, convicted of premeditated murder, sentenced to death, and executed had Clark died.

24 As per the Charleston Evening Post, July 20, 1908, and Charleston News and Courier, July 21, 1908.

25 As reported in the Charleston News and Courier and Columbia State, July 24, 1908.

26 As reported in the Charleston News and Courier and Columbia State, August 2, 1908.

27 According to Wiggins, 104.

28 As reported in the Charleston Evening Post and Charleston News and Courier, July 21, 1908.

29 As per Sporting Life, October 8, 1908.

30 According to obituaries subsequently published in Charleston Evening Post, September 26, 1911, and Charleston News and Courier, September 27, 1911.

31 As per the Charleston News and Courier and Columbia State, May 14, 1909.

32 As reported in the Columbus (Georgia) Daily Enquirer, March 16, 1910, Columbia State, March 17, 1910, and Charleston News and Courier, March 18, 1910.

33 See, e.g., the Augusta Chronicle, March 12, 1911.

34 As reported in the Charleston News and Courier, March 12, 1911. Bender was accused of taking $15 from one L.M. Harley on Meeting Street. After Bender’s arrest, charges were referred to a Charleston magistrate, but their disposition is unknown to the writer.

35 Williams later said that a letter from Bender’s wife had moved him to intercede on the suspended player’s behalf. Charleston Evening Post, September 28, 1911.

36 As reported in sports pages throughout the SALLY League, March 20-21, 1911.

37 According to the Charleston Evening Post, March 25, 1911.

38 Macon Telegraph, April 2, 1911.

39 Charleston Evening Post, June 6, 1911.

40 Slightly differing accounts of Bender’s final moments were published in the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Daily Bulletin, September 25, 1911. A more accessible account of Bender’s death is provided by Rich Necker, “The Curious Case of John Bender,” cited in note 6, above.

41 Acute dilatation of the heart is the sudden distention of a cavity of the heart, an often fatal condition.

42 See, e.g., the Charleston Evening Post, September 26, 1911, and Charleston News and Courier, September 27, 1911.

43 Among other places, the demise during a game yarn was subsequently perpetuated in the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstracts of 1985 and 2001. For the definitive rendering of the facts surrounding the death of Bender, see Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks, Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008).

44 As reported in the Charleston News and Courier, October 7-8, 1911.

45 Despite the bonds of blood and baseball, Charley and John Bender were not close. Charley’s situation was also complicated by the untimely passing of sister Anna Bender Sanders only four days after John’s death.