February 13 – Happy Birthday Hal Chase
Imagine if at some time during the 2012 season, Joe Girardi held a press conference after a Yankee defeat to announce to the media that he suspected Mark Teixeira had just purposely played poorly in that game. How would the public react if Girardi went on to accuse Teixeira of throwing the game for gambling reasons? Then try to comprehend Teixeira pleading his case to Hal Steinbrenner, who ends up believing his star first baseman’s story, fires Girardi, and names Teixeira, of all people, to become the next Yankee manager. Unbelievable! Right? Such a course of events involving the current star Yankee first baseman is beyond the realm of imagination of today’s baseball fans. But this is exactly what happened to the very first star first baseman in the franchise’s history.
Hal Chase became the regular New York Highlander first baseman in 1905 and remained in that position for a little more than eight seasons and over 1,000 games. “Prince Hal” was a smart and gifted athlete who immediately became a fan favorite in New York. It was Chase who first began the now accepted defensive strategy of charging the plate in likely sacrifice situations. He also pioneered the practice of moving into the outfield to receive and relay cut-off throws. In addition to being an excellent and innovative fielder, Chase was also a strong hitter and a great base runner. He had a .291 lifetime batting average and his 248 stolen bases made him the all-time Yankee base stealer until Willie Randolph and Ricky Henderson passed him seven decades later.
Chase, however, had one passion greater than his love for baseball and that was money. Perhaps, if he lived in today’s era of free agency and multi-million dollar contracts, his story and career would have had a different ending. But at the turn of the century, professional baseball players were not paid royally. As a result, many of them were forced to earn a living doing other things.
Before the 1908 season, Chase tried holding out on the Yankees, to force team management to pay him more money. Even though the tactic was successful, Chase still jumped to the outlawed California league and played for the San Jose franchise using a fake name. Caught in this charade, Chase was suspended by the Highlanders but his immense popularity with New York fans quickly got him reinstated. It was after this episode that Chase’s reputation as an unsavory character began to emerge.
His manager, George Stallings, began to suspect Chase of throwing games. The skipper’s suspicions grew so strong during the 1910 season, he leveled the charges publicly. But Chase’s popularity on the field helped him earn enough support with Yankee President Frank Farrell and League President Ban Johnson to beat back Stallings’ charges and actually get the manager fired. Adding insult to injury, Chase got himself named to replace Stallings as the team’s field boss.
Chase was not a good manager and his continued unpredictable behavior on the playing field led to the resurfacing of attacks on Chase’s integrity as a ballplayer. By 1913, even the Yankee brass became convinced Chase could not be trusted and they shipped him to the White Sox, where in 1914, Chase chased the money again and jumped to the Buffalo team entry in the upstart Federal League. The smaller than normal confines of the Buffalo home field helped Chase accumulate 17 home runs during the 1915 season, so that when the league folded after that season, the Cincinnati Reds welcomed him to the National League with wide open arms.
Even though Chase won the National League batting title with a .339 average in 1916, the Reds skipper, Hall-of-Famer Christy Matthewson, felt the first baseman was involved in throwing games and promptly suspended him. This time the team ownership and league officers backed the Manager instead of Chase and upheld his suspension. The next year was the year of the Black Sox scandal effectively destroying any chance a player with Chase’s shady reputation would ever have of playing Major League Baseball, again.
Hal Chase’s story is a sad one, but only three other Yankee first sackers had more hits or more runs scored as a Yankee than Chase did. The fact of the matter is that if Hal Chase had not gotten himself accused of throwing baseball games, his career with New York would have been longer and his numbers and stature as a Bomber, even more impressive.
This former Yankee, also born on this date, once quarterbacked the Michigan Wolverines to a Big Ten title and a Citrus Bowl victory over Auburn. This former teammate of Chase’s was also born on this date.