Hal Chase: Portrait of a Scoundrel

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By Glen Sparks

Hal Chase played first base as well as anyone. By most accounts, he was also a scoundrel.

Chase died poor on May 18, 1947, at the age of 64. He left a mess of a life behind. The former ballplayer threw games like most guys threw fastballs. It didn’t matter the team or the league. Hal Chase was a dirty player.

George Stallings, Chase’s manager with the New York Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees), accused Chase of “laying down” in games, according to a New York Times article written by Jim Reisler in 2013. Frank Chance, another Highlanders skipper, made the same claim.

Reisler’s piece, titled “Yankees’ 1913 Season Was Sunk by a Rogue Captain,” pulls as many punches as the accusatory headline. Chase was not a man to be trusted. He had, Reisler writes, “a propensity for dishonesty.”

He also was a borderline Hall of Famer. Harold Homer Chase, born Feb. 13, 1883, in Los Gatos, Calif., near San Francisco, grew up around a local lumber business that his family had built. The only piece of lumber that interested Chase, though, was a baseball bat. He played semi-pro ball in the Bay Area and at Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University), a West Coast powerhouse.

The Los Angeles Angles of the Pacific Coast League signed Chase to a pro contract in 1903. The rookie quickly turned into the star of the team. (He also reportedly bribed players and umpires.) A reporter for the Los Angles Examiner wrote, “If Chase isn’t a great natural ballplayer, then Los Angeles never saw one,” according to an article on Chase in baseball-almanac-com. Soon, the Highlanders swept in and inked Chase to a deal.

New York City suited Chase. He liked the restaurants, the nightclubs, the fancy restaurants. He knew song-and-dance man Al Jolson and composer and theatrical producer George M. Cohan, according to an article written for the Society for American Baseball Research. Did Chase get to know some shady characters, too? That seems like a good bet.

Chase spent 15 seasons in the majors (1905-19). He batted .291 lifetime (but with just a .319 on-base percentage. Hal worked the odds, not the count.) The right-handed batter (lefty thrower. Chase was quirky in more than one way.) ripped 57 career homers, playing his entire career in the Deadball era. He led the Federal League in homers with 17 in 1915 as a member of the Buffalo Blues.

Mostly, Chase impressed baseball people with his slick glove at first base. Baseball-almanac.com includes a quote from statistical guru Bill James on Chase’s defensive prowess. “His brilliance with the glove is easier to document than Ty Cobb’s temper, Hack Wilson’s drinking or Walter Johnson’s fastball.” Hal Chase could pick it. (More on this later.)

Good glove and all, trouble followed Hal Chase. Or, more appropriately, Hal Chase followed trouble. Managers marveled at Chase’s range and the way he caught nearly every pop-up hit in his direction. They also accused him of being a “selfish prima donna” and a “disruptive force,” according to the SABR article.

He threatened to jump leagues from the majors to the outlaw California State League. He demanded that managers be fired.

“His neatest trick.”

Reisler’s article features a quote from Frank Lieb, one of the most respected writers in baseball history. Lieb believed the rumors that Chase cozied up in the back pocket of gamblers. “His neatest trick, I think, was to arrive at first base for a throw from another infielder just a split second too late,” Lieb once wrote.

Chase made fun of managers, ignored instructions, sawed players’ bats in half and the like. Oh, and he cheated at poker, too.

The Yankees (They began using that name in 1913.), which went into the season with high expectations, traded Chase to the Chicago White Sox on June 1. Chase was batting all of .212 at the time. The deal didn’t help. The Yanks still lost 94 games. But, Chase was someone else’s problem.

“Prince” Hal (an ironic nickname?) jumped to Buffalo and the Federal League during the 1914 season. He played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1916-18 and retired after his 1919 campaign with the New York Giants.

Rumors about Chase continued. Some say he acted as a middleman of sorts between the players and gamblers involved in the infamous Black Sox scandal of ‘19. Nothing was proved. MLB Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis threw Chase out of baseball anyway.

Even so, Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included Chase in their 1981 book, The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. Chase also picked up 11 votes, or 4.9 percent of the total, on the initial Hall of Fame ballot in 1936, more than eventual inductees John McGraw, Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown and others.

Chase’s on-field talent is no longer so strong. Bill James, despite the previously mentioned quote, only rated Chase a C-grade first baseman defensively in his book Win Shares. Chase made lots of errors, purposely or not.

Post major leagues, Chase drifted from teams in California to ones in Arizona and Texas. By time he died, he had gone through a few marriages and had an estranged son. Near the end, he admitted mistakes and expressed remorse to reporters for at least some of his dirty deeds.

“I had been involved in all kids of bets with players and gamblers in the past,” he said, according to the SABR article. “I’d give anything if I could start in all over again.”

Lieb tried to figure out Chase, a tough job. “Nature fitted him out to be a superstar,” Lieb wrote. Unfortunately, “he was born with a corkscrew brain.”

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