The Whitewashing of Hal Chase

This article was written by Jacob Pomrenke

Note: This article was originally published at The National Pastime Museum on May 27, 2013, and is reprinted here by permission.

By Jacob Pomrenke

When Ban Johnson founded the American League in 1901, he strove to publicly distance his league from the rowdyism and lawlessness that had characterized the National League’s first quarter-century. The 1877 Louisville Grays game-fixing scandal, which resulted in the banishment of four players, had been a serious threat to the NL’s integrity. In an attempt to head off any similar incidents in the AL, Johnson banned gamblers from the league’s ballparks. Nonetheless, betting continued to flourish in both leagues throughout the Deadball Era.

Professional athletes then liked to hang out in houses of ill repute, such as saloons and pool halls where underworld types flourished. Johnson couldn’t monitor players’ activities 24 hours a day, and many of them cultivated friendships with gamblers who bet heavily on baseball.

These friendships were mutually beneficial. Ballplayers enjoyed the social perks of being around high rollers with big bankrolls, and gamblers could gain an inside edge in betting by finding out who was pitching the next day or when a star player was injured. Chick Gandil, later banished in the Black Sox Scandal, claimed that he had frequently supplied Boston gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan with inside information going back to his days with the Washington Senators.

No player had more friends in the gambling world than “Prince” Hal Chase, a charming, confident Californian whose peers called him the best defensive first baseman ever. Chase’s talents were legendary: He made one-handed catches with astonishing ease, played farther off the bag than anyone had ever seen and charged sacrifice bunts with speed and agility. He also earned the reputation of being the best hit-and-run batter in the American League and frequently ranked among league leaders in batting average, RBI and stolen bases.

But Chase only displayed these talents when he was in the mood. His career in the major leagues from 1905 to 1919 was checkered with accusations of game-fixing. Two of his managers with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), George Stallings and Frank Chance, accused him of “laying down” on the team. He missed signs frequently (especially on the hit-and-run, causing base runners to be hung out to dry) and dropped balls from his infielders in such a subtle way that it made their throws look like errors. But whenever a stink was raised about his play, club owners Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery sided with their star first baseman — and even made him the manager once, a decision that satisfied no one. Chase lasted just one full season in the role.

Farrell and Devery were no strangers to the underworld. Farrell owned some of the top casinos in New York City, along with saloons and horse racing stables. Devery was an influential Tammany Hall figure, a corrupt police official and politician who was “constantly under indictment or administrative charge for extortion, bribery and other misconduct,” according to SABR biographer Bill Lamb.

They weren’t the only baseball officials with ties to gambling. For example:

  • In 1906, Cincinnati Reds owner Garry Herrmann — Chase’s future boss — admitted to betting thousands of dollars with three New York gamblers that the Pittsburgh Pirates would not win the pennant. One of the bookies was a Pirates fan who informed the team, and Herrmann was forced to cancel the bet.
  • New York Giants owner Charles Stoneham and Hall of Fame manager John McGraw co-owned a racetrack and casino in Cuba, and McGraw’s business interests also included a Manhattan poolroom that he co-owned with Arnold Rothstein, who later masterminded the fixing of the 1919 World Series.
  • In one of the more inexplicable connections between baseball and gambling in the Deadball Era, Chicago Cubs secretary John O. Seys testified that he was the stakeholder for bets placed during the 1919 Series by two of the gamblers who helped organize the fix, Abe Attell and Lou Levi. Attell and Levi were well-known by baseball insiders, and Seys apparently thought nothing of holding bets for these gamblers.

After several tumultuous seasons with the Chicago White Sox and the Buffalo Blues of the Federal League, Chase in1916 joined the Reds, where manager Christy Mathewson opened a new round of game-fixing accusations against the first baseman. Matty suspended Chase for offering bribes to both teammates and opponents, including Jimmy Ring, Greasy Neale and Mike Regan of the Reds and Pol Perritt of the Giants. On another occasion, Chase and teammate Lee Magee attempted to throw a game to the Boston Braves. 

The suspension by Mathewson was the first time any baseball official had seriously punished Chase for his transgressions. As usual, it didn’t stick. NL president John Heydler reluctantly exonerated Chase after Mathewson joined the military and could not testify against Chase while serving overseas.

During the investigation, Chase denied offering bribes but was open about his betting on Reds games. The Sporting News considered the latter merely a venial sin, reporting on August 22, 1918, “There is unquestioned evidence showing that during the Cleveland-Red series last fall, Hal put up a flock of coin on [Hod] Eller to beat Cleveland twice, and won each time — betting honestly on his own team. When a player bets honestly on his own club, he’ll surely do his best to win, but it is a bad practice just the same.”

The problem, of course, was that players didn’t always bet “honestly” — especially Chase, who had lost all discretion by then. The whitewashing by major league officials made him feel invincible. If the great Mathewson, baseball’s gentlemanly former superstar whose ethics were beyond reproach, couldn’t run him out of the league, no one could.

In 1919, Chase signed with the only team that would have him, McGraw’s Giants, and promptly formed a two-man game-fixing ring with teammate Heinie Zimmerman, who also was no stranger to repeated accusations of laying down on the job. Chase and Zimmerman attempted to bribe three other Giants players, Fred Toney, Rube Benton and Benny Kauff, to throw games. Cubs infielder Buck Herzog also got in on the action, offering a bribe to Benton at Chase’s urging.

After McGraw found out about the actions of Zimmerman and Chase in September, he suspended Zimmerman but Chase again went unpunished. He remained with the Giants for the rest of the season. The following month, Chase’s connections in the gambling world allowed him to profit greatly by betting on the fixed 1919 World Series. Benton later testified that Chase had won $40,000 in bets against the White Sox.

When Mathewson heard about the World Series fix later, he bitterly responded, “Damn them, [baseball officials] deserve it. They whitewashed two players after I caught them with the goods.” It was an out-of-character outburst for Matty, but he was fed up. Chase had bounced from team to team fixing games for more than a decade, and nothing had been done to stop him.

When the Black Sox Scandal was revealed in 1920, it shocked fans and forced baseball’s hand. Public indignation and concern about the game’s integrity made it necessary for owners to begin cleaning up the sport. Hal Chase and other game-fixers like him soon would no longer be welcome in major league baseball.

To read part 3 of this series, on the 1917 Fenway Park Gamblers Riot, click here.