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Minnesotan offers fascinating look at ‘Chief’ Bender, state’s first in Cooperstown

Charles Albert "Chief" Bender, left, shown in 1925, during his last season
Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame
Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, left, shown in 1925, during his last season

For more than two years, Minnesota author Tom Swift researched the life and career of the first native-born Minnesotan elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. And no, he wasn’t writing about Dave Winfield or Paul Molitor.

Charles Albert “Chief” Bender — born to a white father and a American Indian mother (believed to be Ojibwe) in Crow Wing County in the late 19th century — won 212 games in a 16-year career as a righthanded pitcher, mainly for the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics between 1903 and 1914.

New book details Bender’s ‘Burden’ amid prejudice
The just-released book that sprang from Swift’s research, “Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star” (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95), is a fascinating study of the hardship and prejudice Bender endured, and the character he showed in the face of it all. (You can read an excerpt from the book here.)

Bender, a 1953 Hall inductee who died of cancer the following year, was also an accomplished golfer and skeet shooter. His eyesight and intellect were so keen that legendary A’s manager Connie Mack let him coach the bases so he could steal the other team’s signs. (Let’s see Boof Bonser do that.)

Bender was one of the first to throw what we now call a slider, which he may have invented.  And what a big-game pitcher during baseball’s Dead-ball Era of low-scoring games: Bender started 10 World Series games for the A’s, won six (two each in 1911 and 1913) and completed all but one.

All that would be impressive for a basic, white Minnesota farmboy. Throw in the sentiment of the times — that Native Americans were intellectually and physically inferior to whites, and could not survive in Anglo world without renouncing their heritage — and you have a tale that encompassed much more than baseball.

Tom Swift
Tom Swift

‘Human interest’ books transcends world of baseball
“His baseball career is pretty fascinating, but I wouldn’t have written the book if he was just a great baseball player,” said Swift, a St. Olaf College graduate who lives in Northfield. “I was most fascinated by how smart he was, that he may have invented the slider, the way he comported himself, and that he came from Minnesota.

“The human interest story — his struggle with prejudice, and how he handled himself — made me want to pursue this kind of project.”

Swift’s interest in Bender goes back more than a decade. Swift said newspaper stories about the Hall inductions of Molitor and Winfeld usually included passing references to Bender as the first Minnesotan in the Hall, and Swift (that is his real name, if you’re wondering) wanted to learn more. “The more I read, the more I wanted to read,” he said.  

And boy, did he read. The book’s bibliography goes on for 36 pages.

Two things jump out. Bender spent his early years on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota before his parents sent him off to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where the legendary Jim Thorpe starred and Glenn “Pop” Warner coached the football team. Bender graduated before Thorpe enrolled.

Survival itself was an accomplishment at Carlisle. According to Swift’s research, of the approximately 10,600 students who attended the school between 1879 and 1918, more died (about 1,000) than graduated (761). No wonder Carlisle had its own cemetery. Under Warner, athletes lived in separate quarters and ate better food than the other students.

Though Bender had his faults — a drinking problem, for one — he relished debunking stereotypes. Sportswriters of the time considered him soft, but Bender swept that notion aside in Game 1 of the 1913 World Series. Heckled by Giants manager John McGraw with New York rallying in the fifth inning, Bender mocked McGraw by stepping off the mound and cupping his hand to his ear. Bender went on to pitch a complete game victory.

“So many people thought him to be a certain way, so he did the opposite,” Swift said. “People thought he was a savage, so he dressed very well. When he did an interview, he measured his remarks. He did everything different from what people assumed he was.

“And I think that carried over to the mound. They thought they could rattle him, and he was like, ‘You’re not going to make me sweat over that.’ That part of his character has made him an interesting subject.”

Swift will be signing copies of his book at the Metrodome on Friday, when the Twins play Kansas City. 

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