With charisma and bravado that earned him the nickname The Prince, Chase charmed his way across America, spinning lies in the afternoon, dealing high-stakes poker at night, and gambling with beautiful women until dawn. Most notoriously of all, he undermined his stature as the era’s greatest first baseman by conniving with gamblers to fix games and draw teammates into his diamond conspiracies.
But as Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella reveal in their groundbreaking biography, The Black Prince of Baseball, Chase was also a scapegoat for baseball notables with hands even dirtier than his. These included league officials who ignored facts in an attempt to pin the 1919 Black Sox scandal on him and—a previously unknown twist—the fabled John McGraw, who perjured himself on a witness stand against the first baseman. Although Chase, contrary to popular belief, was never banned from the major leagues, meticulous research by the authors implicates him in other shady enterprises as well, not least an attempt to blackmail revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson.
As The Black Prince of Baseball makes clear, in his protean talents and larcenies, Hal Chase personified all the excesses of Ragtime.
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The Black Prince of Baseball
Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game
By Donald Dewey, Nicholas Acocella
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2004 Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella
All rights reserved.
Cats And Cradles
CASEY CHASE was born a year after his grandfather's death, so he was grateful for any clues about the famous ancestor he had never met. That was why he regarded his visit to Gallagher's Steakhouse on West 52nd Street the highlight of his 1991 visit to New York City. How many times had he been told that his grandfather had gamboled at Gallagher's with the Broadway set at the beginning of the century?
Certainly the atmosphere seemed right. Hundreds of photos of bygone show business and sports celebrities dotted the walls. Even the menu offered snaps of Jimmy Durante and Babe Ruth, Mickey Rooney and Casey Stengel along with specials like cold poached salmon and sliced steak salad. Where else would Hal Chase, first baseman for the Yankees between 1905 and 1913 and then for the Giants in 1919, a Broadway trooper of the night back at a time when Broadway wasn't just an urban mall, where else could he have hung out but at Gallagher's? The stories that Casey had heard from his father and read about back in his home of Los Gatos, California, took on exquisite reality as he ordered lunch in the same place where his grandfather once had. He was so impressed by the experience he returned two years later with a photograph of his grandfather that the restaurant immediately included on its second-floor wall gallery.
Except, as Casey was to discover later, Hal Chase had never stepped foot in the steakhouse. He couldn't have, for the simple reason that he had left New York City for the last time after the 1919 baseball season and Gallagher's hadn't opened until 1927. Once again, Hal Chase had proved elusive to his own family as much as to anybody else. Once again, fable had clothed nonexistent fact in the kind of detail meant to deliver Hal Chase as more than a collection of ancient accusations and smug historical verdicts. The fallaciousness of the detail seemed to bother few people, least of all Casey's father and Hal's son, Harold Jr. The son, in fact, had contributed more than a little of his own misinformation about his father over the years. One of his routine stories, for instance, had been to point out a clapboard house on University Avenue in Los Gatos as his father's birthplace — a structure that hadn't even been built until the future big leaguer was in his teens. In short, there has been no lack of attempts to invent Hal Chase, even within his own family.
Geographically, the starting point for the inventions was as far from Gallagher's as it is possible to be in the Lower 48. Before becoming a manicured village nine miles south of San Jose in modern Silicon Valley, Los Gatos was wildcats and trees. It was the wildcats that gave the fertile expanse at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains its name and the trees on the mountains that gave the Chase family its footing there.
Depending on the legend you prefer, Rinconada de los Gatos (Corner of the Cats) acquired its name in the first half of the 19th century from a Mexican settler, from an irritated missionary, or from a devoured child. According to the most popular story, Jose Hernandez, his brother and his brother-in-law hacked their way over the mountains in 1839 in search of acreage for their growing families, came upon the future Los Gatos, but were skeptical there was enough water for developing the land. Their doubts evaporated when they heard two wildcats fighting nearby — a sign of sufficient irrigation for sustaining animal life. In the missionary version, two friars are said to have been astounded by the natural beauty and richness of the Santa Clara Valley site, going so far as to proclaim it heaven on earth and to propose calling it Paradise. But a more disenchanted companion, weary from having spent the night driving circling wildcats away from their campfire, submitted that the place was closer to a hell on earth and should be known as The Cats. The bloodiest tale, tracing to the same period, centers around a shepherd named Pedro Vasques. After tying down his sheep during a fierce rainstorm, Vasques was drowned while making his way back to his family. For hours his terrified widow huddled in a hut with her infant son while the storm raged on, finally deciding to leave the child while she negotiated the brutal elements to get to a mission for help. She got no further than a rickety bridge before she was forced to turn back — only to discover that wildcats had in the meantime invaded the hut and carried off the baby. In despair she drowned herself in the same waters that had claimed her husband.
A couple of decades later, in 1859, the wildcats were still prowling around, but it was the trees that drew Stephen Hall Chase and Josiah W. Chase to the region. Members of a timber cutting family from Chase's Mills in Washington County, Maine, Stephen and Josiah sailed around the Horn with expectations that the aftermath of California's gold strikes would continue to feed an unprecedented need for lumber. They were also confident of getting in at the start of the lumber exports that would become big business once a planned transcontinental railroad was completed. Their one immediate problem was money — they had only $16 between them when they set foot in present-day Mountain View. But this they remedied quickly enough, first by digging ditches, then by returning to the family trade by cutting trees outside Lexington. (Family stories say the brothers were the area's first full-time lumbermen.) By 1867 Stephen, Josiah and Josiah's more recently arrived brother, Foster, had established their own mill in Lexington, and were turning out 4,000 board feet of redwood lumber a day. The Lexington mill became the cornerstone for an enterprise that would extend into San Jose, Alviso, and Centreville well into the 20th century.
The success of the Chases was noted on both coasts. In California, Watkins Howell, one of the biggest ranchers in the Santa Clara Valley, had no reason to oppose the marriages of two of his daughters to Josiah and Foster Chase. Back in Maine, James Edgar Chase and his brother Elmer were hearing too many stories about their cousins in the West and looking at too many thinning forests around them in New England. In 1869 they too moved to California, via Panama, to find their fortune in redwoods. James Edgar was the father of Hal Chase.
In one sense Edgar (he always went by his second name) was 10 years late to the party. For a good part of his life he worked for his cousins at their various sawmills, never attaining their social standing or wealth. Born in East Machias, Maine, in 1846, he was usually described as a mild-mannered man with a taste for hard work. He had had little choice about working back in East Machias: He had been only 18 when his father, a Civil War veteran with roots tracing to the Mayflower, died soon after being mustered out of the Union Army. In California, he appears to have taken on logging jobs with a similar unquestioning attitude. There were none of his cousins' dreams about courting the daughters of the local gentry, either. The same year he arrived in the West, he married Mary Jane Cavenee, a 25-year-old Ohioan who had journeyed to California by covered wagon with her family in 1862. Cavenee's father ran a roughhouse frontier hotel (as much tent as building) in Redwood Township, an area that today embraces Los Gatos, Saratoga and Lexington.
Three years after their marriage Edgar and Mary had saved enough money to purchase a one-acre parcel of land in Los Gatos for $550 from Thomas Vance. The tract, on San Thomas Aquino Road, is described by contemporary records as being "of fine garden and orchard." By the time they moved onto the land, the Chases had two sons — Oscar (1870) and Albert (1872). Over the next 11 years the household would grow with Clifford (1877), the only girl Jessie (1879), Edwin (1881), and the youngest, the future ballplayer Harold Homer (February 13, 1883).
The only thing growing as rampantly as Edgar Chase's family in the 1870s was Los Gatos. As late as 1868, a year before Edgar's arrival, it had consisted of little more than a grain mill, blacksmith's shop, stage depot, lumber yard, schoolhouse and a hotel that did double duty as a post office. But with the redwoods coming down with increasing rapidity, it grew into a stopping off post for the teamsters moving their wagons back and forth between the mountains and the sawmills in Lexington and Alma. By 1872, the somewhat ramshackle Ten Mile House, as the original hotel had been named, had to be expanded for accommodating the transients — not a few of whom had to be dropped into their beds after one whiskey too many. But there was little of the roughhouse frontier town about Los Gatos. If its surrounding redwood and black oak forests attracted loggers, the climate and the abundant artesian wells made fruit growing even more seductive to farmers. By the turn of the century there would be 41,000 acres of peaches, apples, apricots, oranges, lemons, figs and grapes under cultivation, not to mention the largest almond orchards in the world.
But little of the wealth created by the timber and the fruit ever quite trickled down to Edgar Chase. While hardly scraping bottom, his swelling family and his relatively modest income as a logger for his cousins did not allow for expansive plans. In the early 1880s he was hard up enough for cash to sell off a 60-foot-wide parcel of his land to the First Baptist Church. But even that was not enough. Whether because of tensions with his cousins or the simple desire to support his family more independently, Edgar decided to pull up stakes again. The move came on December 1887, only a few months after Los Gatos had grown enough to gain official township status. After selling the remaining two-thirds of his land for $2,000, he transported his large family over the mountains to Soquel. It was the first of several relocations he would make over the next decade and would establish a pattern of practical vagabondage (keeping on the move after the money) that would also mark his youngest son's life years later.
Soquel, five miles east of Santa Cruz on the Southern Pacific Railroad, was not the most promising of areas for Edgar to get a fresh start in the late 1880s. Although at its height a few years before it had boasted five sawmills, a planing mill, two tanneries, a chair factory, and a wool and leather plant, thinning timber resources had long since sent many residents off in the opposite direction from the Chases. When a newly constructed train trestle in Capitola diverted the transportation corridor away from the town, Soquel's estimated 800 citizens had to make do with counting down the trees they processed at the mills and serving drinks and dealing cards in 11 saloons to the packs of lumberjacks that had come to regard it as one big watering hole. For all that, though, Edgar appeared to have had little trouble finding work as a lumberman, and independently of his cousins. It was in Soquel that Hal began his schooling — in the center of town in a massive two-story building that was as stolid as the atmosphere around it was raucous. If he had not known what gambling, drinking and fighting were before, he certainly found out going back and forth between his reading and arithmetic lessons.
By 1893, whatever had remained of Soquel's timber industry had all but abandoned the field to agriculture, and even Edgar was finding work scarce. His next move was back across the mountains to Alviso — now a part of San Jose but then a separate community eight miles from the future Silicon Valley capital. Like Soquel, Alviso had seen an earlier flourishing period ended by the railroad, in this case with the advent of a San Francisco-San Jose line in 1864 that completely bypassed the town. But whereas the citizens of Soquel had taken this setback as an incentive to pour drinks and shuffle cards, Alvisans remained angry enough to cut off their noses to spite their faces. Thus when the railroad came back in 1876 to build a branch line right through the center of town, even prompting a mini-economic revival, the merchants and shippers with long memories refused to allow a depot to be built. This was a particularly bizarre decision insofar as it had nothing to do with protecting the serenity of a residential community: Alviso had been a strictly commercial hub from the 1850s, when it had claimed to be California's first incorporated town and served as a jumping off point for steamboats and schooners moving back and forth from San Francisco. The first church wasn't even established in the town until shortly before the arrival of the Chases. But for all that, surviving resentments did as much as possible to shun the railroad, in its stopovers if not in its tracks.
As a commercial community without much immediate commerce, Alviso in the 1890s was always open to get-rich fantasies, the more extravagant the better. The most noted of these has been described by local historian Gregory McCandless:
"The first of several unsuccessful schemes to reawaken the past glory of Alviso occurred in the 1890s when a speculator laid out a large residential and industrial development to be called New Chicago. The catalyst for the new city was to be a large watch factory and deep water port, with plans being made also for a deep water canal to San Jose. Hundreds of acres of worthless tideland were divided into small lots and sold to Midwesterners by mail order. Although heavily promoted, the scheme fell apart when the watch factory went broke after one day; also the money to be used for dredging the harbor, a prerequisite for building a port — thus attracting industry — could not be raised."
But for Edgar Chase, Alviso had more than one virtue. The first was that it wasn't Soquel, where his three youngest sons, Clifford, Edwin and Hal, had soaked up just about all the local culture deemed appropriate. The second was that cousin Stephen had a new lumber yard that needed a manager. At an age (47) where his axe delivered as many aches as blows, Edgar settled down for the life of a company overseer. It was during this period that his son Albert and daughter Jessie would go off on their own. It was also in Alviso where Hal made it clear he regarded his grammar school and high school hours as mere prelude to the baseball games organized after them. By the time he was 14, he was the second baseman for a town team otherwise made up of 20 and even 30-year-olds.
The Stephen Chase subsidiary held out until 1899, when it went the way of most of Alviso's other end-of-the-century industries. But while his cousins consolidated their lumber business around San Jose and his son Oscar decided to stay with them, Edgar moved back to Los Gatos with the remnants of his household and opted to try his hand as a fruit and vegetable retailer. With his savings from his years as a yard manager, he set up a partnership with a local ice company owner, John R. Shore, to open Chase and Shore Fruits on West Main Street. It was a prime location in a town whose population had doubled since he had moved away 12 years earlier and where banks, hotels and canneries had become the navel for vast fields of orchards and vineyards. But a dollar did not go as far in the new Los Gatos as it had in the 1880s. Although only his three youngest sons were still with him, prohibitive prices and his investment in the fruit store prevented Edgar from buying property, and he laid out monthly rent as a tenant for a good five years — first for a narrow clapboard house on Massol Street, then for slightly more spacious rooms on University Avenue.
While the move to a vegetable stand might have held risks for Edgar, his youngest son showed little regret at returning to his birthplace. As Hal would confide in later years, he was relieved just to get away from the Alviso lumberyards, where he had been called on to earn a few dollars for the family by chopping wood — an activity that he complained endangered his throwing arm. In Los Gatos, he was asked to put in after-school hours at one of the local canneries. But lumber yard or cannery, the fact of the matter was that any part-time job had become irritating in its irrelevance since, according to acquaintances, he had already made up his mind to play baseball professionally. The closest he came to adapting his ambitions to his family's money needs was at his father's store. As the Los Gatos Times reminded its readers in its Chase obituary in 1947:
"Right next door to where your paper is published, (Hal) worked in a fruit stand for $3 a week. Everytime a butcher or grocery delivery boy went by, Chase, with the deft aim of a tail-gunner, would throw an apple, banana, or any other edible to hand, right to the bullseye between the first and third rib of the horse they were driving, causing the animal to jump out of its harness and provoking great mirth for all on-lookers plus despair to the owner, seeing his profits thrown away."
Hal's throwing abilities, though, were good for more than terrorizing horses. His diamond play for the Los Gatos high school and for a separate town club made him a teenage cock of the walk, and he wasn't shy about cultivating attention from either the young boys who were always after him to have a catch or from the teenage girls who didn't mind catching — and throwing back — his brashness. It was crucial training for his years in New York, which were much closer than even he knew.
Excerpted from The Black Prince of Baseball by Donald Dewey, Nicholas Acocella. Copyright © 2004 Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Cats and Cradles,
Playing the Fields,
Games for Sale,
Inlaws and Outlaws,
Poxes on the House,
Chase in Charge,
Affairs to Remember,
The Second City,
A Federal Case,
The Red Prince,
Fibbers and Magee,
The Wild Bunch,
Out at Home,
Still Crazy After All These Years,
On the Borderline,
When Hustlers Meet,
The Nuclear Family and Other Meltdowns,
The Extra Innings,