Saturday, July 28, 2001

Prices of Thieves: The Special Case of Hal Chase by Reggie Lee Ray

Hal Chase. The legend of this hard-drinking, league-jumping, card-playing, game-fixing pariah has held my fascination since I was 10-years-old. I first came across the man they dubbed “Prince Hal” in a baseball history book. Someone had written that he had a “corkscrew brain.” That description alone moved him a few rungs up the cool ladder in my mind, past the Chesbros and the Keelers and all the other faceless heroes of baseball’s original Golden Age.

No less an authority than Babe Ruth picked Chase as the best first baseman of all-time, even though the Bambino’s teammate, Lou Gehrig, was still very much alive and kicking at the time. By the time Ruth made his choice, in 1934, Chase already had been banned from the Major Leagues for some 14 years. He obviously still had some supporters.

In fact, in 1936, during the first Hall of Fame election, Chase received 11 votes, 9 more than received by fellow lifetime banee (and far more sympathetic character) Shoeless Joe Jackson. Prince Hal must’ve done something right.

What Chase did right, of course, was field his position like no one before him. Prior to Chase’s arrival with the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) in 1905, first basemen were virtually anchored to the bag, positioned to receive throws and little else. Not Chase. He roamed far off the bag, to the point where he would often field bunts on the left side of the infield. He set records for putouts in a single game and in a doubleheader that have since been tied, yet not surpassed. By all accounts, he revolutionized the position.

But Chase was hardly all glove, no stick. While playing for Cincinnati in 1916, he led the National League in batting with a .339 average, and he batted .291 for his career. He was also the Yankees’ career steals leader until another card-enthusiast named Rickey Henderson came along and erased one of Chase’s few positive marks from the record books.

You see, what Chase really excelled at wasn’t stealing the occasional base. And it wasn’t slapping singles through the right side or scooping grounders behind the mound, either.

What Hal Chase did best was throw baseball games, and in this area he had few peers.

“That he can play first as it was never played before and perhaps never will be played is a well known truth. That he will is a different matter.”

So said The Sporting News in 1913.

By then, Chase’s reputation as a game-fixer was one of baseball’s least-guarded secrets. Fans often taunted him with chants of “What’s the odds?” when he took the field. Prince Hal, the man with the golden glove, led the league in errors seven times. Seven times. With his range, Chase was afforded a disproportionate amount of opportunities to effect the outcome of a contest, and this legendary gloveman usually found a way to boot the ball at the most inopportune time.

The first person to openly accuse him of throwing games was Highlanders manager George Stallings. Chase had never been popular with the brass, as the San Jose native was fond of spending his offseasons playing in the outlaw California League and had been suspended for such actions previously. But during the 1910 season, Chase’s insubordination took a new turn, and Stallings accused his star player of intentionally losing games. New York owner Frank Farrell took swift and immediate action: Stallings was forced to resign and Chase was named his successor. Prince Hal, notorious league-jumper and alleged game-fixer, was now player-manager of the New York franchise.

As unsavory as the charges may have been, Farrell didn’t want to risk losing his drawing card. Chase was one of the league’s top attractions, and his $6,000 salary made him one of the game’s highest paid stars. Of course, that figure doesn’t include whatever amount Chase managed to pocket by selling out his teammates.

After little more than a season at the helm of the Highlanders, Chase was demoted back to player-only status, though he relinquished little in terms of dictating the outcome of the games. His next New York manager, Frank Chance, who knew a little bit about fielding first himself, grew suspicious of Hal’s play and went to the papers. It was another showdown with management. This time, Hal lost. He was shipped to the White Sox during the 1913 season. 

Chase quickly wore out his welcome in Chicago and jumped to the rival Federal League 1914. When that league folded following the 1915 season, Chase joined Cincinnati of the National League. He had several solid seasons for the Reds, though game-fixing charges continued to hound him. Teammates even claimed Chase attempted to bribe them.

During the 1918 season, Christy Matthewson, then manager of the Reds and baseball’s official choirboy, suspended the incorrigible Chase for what he termed “indifferent play.” The League, anxious to squash any notion that gambling had corrupted its sport, reinstated Hal, who found his way to the New York Giants and John McGraw in time for the 1919 season.

It would prove to be Prince Hal’s last stand.

Following the season, more charges of game fixing surfaced and Hal was quietly suspended indefinitely and he returned home to California. His name then surfaced in connection with the Black Sox scandal. Some alleged that Chase played a role in setting the Big Fix in motion, and as baseball’s best-known gambler, the charges weren’t that far-fetched. But California refused to allow extradition and Chase never testified at the trial. For his part, Chase later admitted to knowing the Series was rigged, but steadfastly denied participating in, or profiting from, the fix.  

After his banishment from the majors, Hal continued to kick around the western leagues, throwing games and venting about his “enemies in baseball.” Unlike members of the Chicago Eight, Chase never actively pursued reinstatement, though it is believed he once wrote a letter of apology to Commissioner Landis.

Shortly before his death in 1947, Chase took the time to reflect on his career. “You will note that I am not in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “I am an outcast and I haven’t a good name. I’m the loser, just like all gamblers are. I’d give anything to start over.”

Anyone know what the over/under is on Prince Hal ever getting reinstated?

Reggie Lee Ray led the 1984 Orleans County (NY) Midget League with 7 sacrifice bunts.

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