Literally a son of Fate, Bert Edgar Chapman changed his name to Ed Chaplin because he got caught cheating in 1919, the same year that the Chicago “Black Sox” consorted with gamblers during the World Series. He was player-manager for the Sanford Celery Feds in the Florida State League. (Sanford was known at the time as the Celery City.) He hit .250 as a player, and his team won the pennant, tied with Orlando. There was a best-of-nine postseason playoff and Sanford won five of the first eight games – but two wins were thrown out on October 11 due to ineligible player violations and the series was declared a tie with both teams as co-champions.1
Chapman told The Sporting News what had happened: “During the second half of the season, every club started cheating by bringing in better-class players than they were allowed. I brought in an emery-ball pitcher and eventually I was fined $500 and suspended from Organized Ball.”2 In order to continue his career, Chapman adopted another name: Ed Chaplin. “Everybody called me Chappy, so I changed from Chapman to Chaplin and I joined Carrollton in the Georgia State league. Not a soul knew my real name and when I went with the Red Sox, I was still Chaplin.”3 And so he remains in the record books today – though when he completed and signed a player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he presented himself only as Chapman.
The Tampa Tribune published a lengthy look at the situation, but it’s perhaps not worth trying to untangle today. The newspaper seemed to come to no conclusion, “We know men who say Chappy is a class man and we know men who say Wyatt is – but they can prove it against neither.”4 Chapman’s own later admission of cheating seems to trump that uncertainty, even though it be cheating that was not his alone.
Chapman was 25 in 1919. News stories in his Hall of Fame player file say he was the catcher named B. E. Chapman who played for Eufaula in the Dixie League in 1916 (hitting .237 in 54 games), but we have been unable to find more, nor have we located a probable Chapman in the years 1917 or 1918 – he served in the United States Navy during World War I, from 1917-19.5 He was one of the first Americans to enlist after war was declared. “Where do you think I was [at the time war was declared by Congress]? Just on top of the Washington Monument, that’s all. I’d gone there to do some sightseeing, and while I was up there, I heard all this shouting, and steamboats tootin’ and everything. So I walked down the steps and joined the Navy.”6
The Sanford team not only had Bert as catcher in 1919 and 1920, but had Clyde Chapman as a pitcher. That may have been Bert’s younger brother Clyde, but that could not be confirmed, either.
Chapman told the Hall of Fame’s Lee Allen that he’d first played, at least briefly, with Waycross in 1914 and played semipro ball in Miami in 1915. There “a man offered me seven lots for $700 three blocks west of the courthouse. They’d be worth three or four million today.”7
Bert Edgar Chapman had been born on a cotton farm near Pelzer (Greenville County), South Carolina, on September 25, 1893. He hit left-handed and threw righty. He’s listed at 5-foot-7, weighing 158 pounds, perhaps a little stocky but far from imposing as a catcher who might need to block the plate. His father was Fate L. Chapman, a cotton farmer in Greenville. Fate and his wife Eliza were both South Carolinians by birth and in turn Eliza gave birth to at least eight children who were listed at the time of the 1900 census with some occasionally idiosyncratic spelling: Clarence, Luther, Nellie, Berddie, Barbee, Clide, May, and Rubie. “Berddie” was, of course, Bert E.
About his early life we know little. He went through elementary school and high school at Greenwood, South Carolina, and then spent two years at the University of South Carolina.8 How he became a player-manager at such a young age, we do not know, nor how he so quickly progressed from Carrollton, where he was so unknown as to be able to play under an assumed name, to the major leagues.
The first mention of Chaplin and the Red Sox was an August 12, 1920, reference to the comedian of the same surname: “Menosky looked like Charley [sic] Chaplin chasing Jacobson’s single that slipped between his ankles in the second. Mike fell three different distinct times in chasing the ball and the last one was enough to let Jake complete the circuit.”9
Ed Chaplin only arrived in town on September 2. He’d been purchased from Carrollton and took part in practice before the September 3 game. The Boston Globe noted in passing, “He is a pretty nifty looking player.”10
Chaplin debuted with the Red Sox on “Babe Ruth Day” at Fenway Park, September 4, 1920. Ruth was the former Sox player who had been sold to the Yankees, but remained immensely popular in Boston, as popular as the owner who sold him – Harry Frazee – was not. Ruth hit two homers, Nos. 45 and 46. Chaplin pinch hit in the bottom of the eighth inning for Boston pitcher Harry Harper and drew a base on balls. The Sox were down, 5-3, after six innings and Chaplin was unable to score.
It was 13 days later before he got into another game. He drew a pinch-hit walk again, this time making more of a difference. The game was in Detroit and the Tigers were winning 9-1 after six innings. The Red Sox scored five times in the top of the seventh to close the gap, but the Tigers picked up another run, making it 10-6 through seven. In the top of the eighth, an error and two walks loaded the bases. Chaplin entered, and he walked, driving in a run (it was his only RBI of 1920), and then came around to score the tying run on a double by Mike McNally. The Sox scored five times in all, taking an 11-10 lead. Chaplin stayed in the game long enough to record three putouts and an assist (and commit an error), but Wally Schang pinch-hit for him and doubled in the top of the ninth. The Tigers won it in 12, by a 14-13 score.
On September 24, he got his first start and his first major-league hit (and the only one of 1920), a double in the seventh inning. His last game was on September 28 – again, one plate appearance and a walk. Chaplin had been put in to pinch hit three times and each time reached base with a walk; indeed, he drew a walk in each of his first four games in the majors. The one game he started, he also walked but doubled, too, in four plate appearances. His record for the year thus stood .200 for batting average, but .556 for on-base percentage. He’d committed one error in ten chances. He’d scored two runs and driven in one.
Even after he’d played in Boston for the Red Sox in 1920, when he returned to Florida, he appears not to have mentioned it, preserving his separate identity as Chaplin. Witness the entry in the Tampa Tribune listing social comings and goings: “B. E. Chapman of Sanford, formerly manager of the Sanford Baseball club, was among the arrivals in the city yesterday from central Florida. He will attend the Tulane-Florida game today at Plant Field.” 11
Anonymity maintained, Chaplin returned to the Red Sox in 1921. He joined the Red Sox at Hot Springs before the campaign. Boston sportswriter Melville Webb reported his weight as 138 pounds at the time; he was said to have worked over the winter as a fireman on a locomotive and was “as hard as the proverbial nails.”12 He traveled north with the team, and stuck, but hardly got any work at all, appearing in four scattered games – May 3, July 29, September 24, and October 2. He never got a hit, but he did walk three times in the October 2 game, giving him a .429 on-base percentage for the year.
Again he trained with Boston in the spring of 1922, and this year he got a chance to get in some more work. He got into his first headline in a Boston paper, hitting a homer in St. Petersburg on March 20 to help beat the Braves. He was with the team most of the season, except for six weeks from the end of June to mid-August when he was with Shreveport (batting .279 in 44 games). A perhaps distracted Globe compositor set his name as Charley Chaplin in the May 4 edition; manager Frank Chance had left him in Boston when the team went out on a road trip (not an uncommon practice at the time.) Chaplin was placed briefly with the Springfield Ponies in Western Massachusetts during the road trip, but instead he went on to Shreveport, the Springfield Republican reporting, “Chaplin prefers playing in the South.” 13 One wonders whether at some point, someone who’d seen Bert Chapman play for Sanford saw Bert (or Ed) Chaplin play for Shreveport – or, later, for Mobile, Selma, or Albany, Georgia.
He later returned for a second stint in Shreveport, as indicated, for all of July and until reappearing with the Red Sox on August 15.
In his 28 Boston Red Sox games in 1923, he hit .188 with one double and one triple – and drew nine more walks. He ended his time in the big leagues with a .184 average. Even before the Red Sox season was over, Chaplin’s contract was sold to Mobile, on September 20.
In 1924, he played for Mobile, and again in 1925. At some point in 1924, he seems to have quit the game but reconsidered and played in 54 games, batting an even .200 with two home runs.14 He played more in 1925, working in 88 games and hitting .271. Though still on the Mobile roster for 1926, he never reported to training camp and was sold outright to the ballclub in Meridian, Mississippi.15
As far as we have been able to determine, Chaplin didn’t play in 1926 but next turned up with Selma in 1927 (actually, both for the Albany and Selma teams), batting .275 in 60 games. His Sporting News obituary says that “in the late 1920s he managed Meridian and Tampa and then left baseball.” He is not listed with the Meridian club in any capacity at any point in the 1920s. A catcher named Bert Chapman played with Tampa in 1928, hitting .265 in 94 games, but the manager was Roy Ellam. Had he reverted to his given name?
He is not listed with Tampa in any other year, but Bert Chapman is the name given in various Tampa Tribune articles, and in Lee Allen’s discussion with him in 1969 he says that managing Tampa in 1929 was his last time in baseball.18
Reflecting his father’s farming background in Sanford, the September 13 issue of the paper even let readers know that “Bert Chapman…is an authority on plain and fancy celery, from the angels of both the producer and consumer.”
The next trace we find of Chapman (such was always his name in the census) came in 1940. He was living in Sanford, working as a cashier at a race track. In April 1929, he had married a Georgia woman named Rosamond Radford who worked as an instructor with a recreation project. The couple had three children, George (who was 10 in 1940), Barbara, 9, and Martha, 7. A Florida state census in 1945 listed him as a foreman but did not indicate of what he was a foreman. It was perhaps with his own company, Chaplin Concrete Company, which he established in Sanford.
Lee Allen of the National Baseball Hall of Fame visited Chapman in Sanford in 1969 and wrote a full column for The Sporting News.19 In the column, Allen said that Chapman was a retired celery grower and concrete block manufacturer.
Bert Chapman died in Sanford on August 15, 1978.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Chaplin’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Necrology, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, editors, Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, 2007.) The teams had identical 46-30 regular-season records.
2 The Sporting News, January 18, 1969 and September 9, 1978.
4 Tampa Tribune, October 17, 1919. Chapman wrote on his player questionnaire than he was in the Navy from 1917-19.
5 Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2009)
6 The Sporting News, January 18, 1969.
8 One news story had him at the University of North Carolina, but the player questionnaire he completed for the Hall of Fame lists his native U.S.C.
9 Boston Herald, August 12, 1920.
10 Boston Globe, September 4, 1920.
11 Tampa Tribune, November 6, 1920.
12 April 25, 1921 news clipping located in Chaplin’s Hall of Fame player file.
13 Springfield Republican, May 19, 1923.
14 The Richmond Times Dispatch of July 9, 1924 mentioned his decision to return.
15 New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 7, 1926.
16 Tampa Tribune, December 10, 1928.
17 Augusta Chronicle, May 6, 1929.
18 See, for instance, the May 9, 1928 issue.
19 The Sporting News, January 18, 1969.