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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Great Talent Corrupted
Book Review by David Shiner

Martin Donnell Kohout. Hal Chase: The Defiant Life and Times of Baseball's Biggest Crook. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001, 347 pp., $29.95, paper.

 

As a boy growing up in Chicago, the late James T. Farrell of Studs Lonigan fame was a diehard White Sox fan. In A Baseball Diary he recalls watching one of his idols, Hal Chase, cavort around first base for the Sox in 1913. He compares Chase to Joe DiMaggio in sheer grace on the field. A little further along in the book, Farrell recalls the "shock" of learning a few years later that Prince Hal had been banned from baseball in the wake of the scandals that surfaced in 1920.

Although Farrell's homage to Chase is just over a page long, Martin Kohout quotes from it in his new book on three separate occasions. That's typical of the detail that went into the preparation of this volume, on which Kohout labored for more than a decade. Nearly everything that has been penned about Chase, whether fact or fiction, figures in this well-written and exhaustively researched tome.

Chase was a remarkable character. One of the most eagerly anticipated arrivals in the majors nearly a century ago, he burst on the major league scene to the sorts of accolades usually reserved for superstars in their prime. He was revered by many, as Kohout's frequent references to bouquets and loving cups and Hal Chase Days during the early stages of his career attest.

But that affection was hardly universal. Almost from the beginning, there was something not quite right about Chase. He would fail to catch a throw at a critical moment, or miss a sign, or be accused of undermining his manager. Whenever whispers about such events reached the ears of the public, the young star would protest his innocence—usually to the satisfaction of said public. And yet the whispers continued. Over time they increased in frequency and volume, ultimately gutting his career.

Most knowledgeable baseball fans believe that Chase's dishonesty cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Kohout concurs with that view, and rightly so. While sabermetricians have concluded that Chase's numbers are no better than those of good-but-not-great contemporaries like Jake Daubert and Ed Konetchy, those facts would have been irrelevant to the baseball men who watched him play the game. Most of them considered Chase the greatest first baseman of all time—greater than Gehrig, Sisler, Anson, or anyone else. His brilliance on the playing field made him a legend in his own time, and he remained one for many years afterward.

The overall caliber of Chase's play remained creditable to the end of his playing days, so his major league career probably would have lasted longer than its actual fifteen years if he had been honest. "Of course, had Chase been honest, he would not have been Chase," Kohout asserts. "He would have been some other, considerably less interesting person." Well put, and undoubtedly true. That, however, hardly justifies Kohout's conviction that we should "acknowledge him as the most complex, and thus the most compellingly human, character in the history of the grand old game." Unless corrupting one's profession in ways that adversely affected a large number of people is a prerequisite for being "complex" and "compellingly human," I can think of at least ten baseball notables whom I would nominate for that honor ahead of Hal Chase.

Kohout's contention that Chase's transgressions hurt no one other than Chase himself and "those who had bet illegally on the other team" is even further off the mark. And his subsequent claim that Chase should not have been singled out for "special opprobrium" stands in stark opposition to the subtitle and much of the rest of the book.

In general, though, Kohout is not prone to making controversial statements. In fact, while his attention to detail is commendable, the lack of any overarching sense of his subject's culpability is frustrating. Kohout regularly mentions Chase's role in games his team lost without offering any assessment concerning whether he was deliberately playing to lose. Given that no one alive can testify firsthand on that matter, a certain reluctance to engage in speculation is understandable. However, Kohout's approach serves only to deepen the mystery about what Chase did or didn't do, a mystery that will never be fully solved.

Baseball bigwigs heard various allegations against Chase during his playing days but failed to act decisively on any of them. Had they done so, it's possible that there would have been no Black Sox scandal and no need for many of the other proscriptions of the Kenesaw Mountain Landis era (or even for Landis himself). Baseball paid a steep price for its lack of a sense of urgency. So did Chase, who spent most of his post-playing days as a destitute alcoholic. "What an object lesson in square shooting," wrote sportswriter Bill Corum about Chase when the onetime Prince Hal was fifty and a ramshackle shadow of his former self: "[B]ecause nothing made a bum out of Hal Chase but Chase himself." —EFQ

 

DAVID SHINER has been a member of the faculty at Shimer College in Waukegan, Illinois, for more than twenty-five years. His book Baseball's Greatest Players: The Saga Continues, a sequel to Tom Meany's Baseball's Greatest Players, is available from Superior Books at www.superiorbooks.com.

© 2002 David Shiner

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