Dark Past: The Evil Prince of Baseball Hal Chase

Bryan Zarpentine
Bryan Zarpentine
Bryan Zarpentine
Contributor

Given the long history of baseball, it’s only natural that some noteworthy players will get lost in the shuffle. In the case of Hal Chase, nicknamed Prince Hal, that may actually be a good thing. On one hand, he’s regarded by some as perhaps the best defensive first baseman to ever play the game, which is certainly worth remembering. But on the other hand, he was accused many times of actions that disgraced the game, making it difficult to gauge just where he fits into the history of baseball.

In terms of ability, Chase was in a league of his own, at least defensively. He was known for playing far off the base, something few first baseman in the modern era have been brave enough to do outside of Keith Hernandez. He could overcompensate for bad throws from his infielders and had a knack for making difficult plays look casual. Chase was also a fine hitter, even winning a batting title in 1916 toward the end of his career.

“(Lou) Gehrig had more power and could run. In time he became a good major league first baseman. But the Prince (Hal Chase) was also a very fine hitter who played his entire career before the ball was juiced up. He couldn’t run, he could fly.

“And aside from Ty Cobb, he was the best baserunner I ever saw. Fielding, are you kidding? Prince Hal was the greatest fielding first baseman that ever played. He was worth the price of admission just to watch him toe-dance around first base and pick those wild throws out of the dirt.”

Babe Ruth

Chase was one of the first true stars to play for the franchise that would become the New York Yankees, known as the Highlanders when he made his debut in 1905. Naturally, he had prima donna tendencies, at one point refusing to play for a new manager. Chase would sometimes threaten to remain in the California League, where he played during the offseason, as a way to coerce the organization to do what he wanted. But with money being short in the California League, Chase would always return majors.

Unfortunately, Chase’s issues extended beyond being critical of the team’s choice of manager. As early as 1910, there were whispers of Chase “laying down,” implying that he was throwing games and betting on baseball. The allegations were made by Highlanders manager George Stallings, which upset Chase. But because Chase had a close relationship with team owners, he was able to talk them into firing Stallings and making Chase player-manager of the Highlands.

Chase’s stint as manager only lasted 146 games, during which there was suspicion from other managers that he was trying to throw games because he was betting on baseball. However, Chase was also battling injuries at the time, which could have hindered his performance. As a result, there was little evidence that he was actually throwing games. By 1913, the Yankees decided that it was easier to simply trade Chase than continue to have him a part of the team amidst all the speculation that he was “laying down.”

“No other player in baseball history was so richly praised for his defensive skill – no one. His brilliance with the glove is easier to document than Ty Cobb’s temper, Hack Wilson’s drinking or Walter Johnson’s fastball; it is all over the literature of the sport.”

Bill James, baseball historian

After the Yankees traded him, Chase would go on to play for four other teams. Rumblings of betting on baseball and fixing games followed him everywhere. In 1918, he was accused of offering bribes to both teammates and opponents in hope that they would influence games on which he had wagered money.

In fact, a copy of a check for $500 (nearly $8,000 today) that a gambler allegedly gave to Chase was sent to National League President John Heydler. However, Heydler could still not gather enough evidence or witness testimony to prove without a doubt that Chase had offered players bribes and was intentionally throwing games.

There were even rumors that Chase was the middleman in the infamous Black Sox scandal, helping to connect the guilty players with those in the gambling world. He was actually indicted by a Chicago grand jury for his role in the scandal, but because the extradition was handled improperly, the state of California refused to hand him over to authorities in Chicago.

However, he never played in the majors following the 1919 scandal. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis never officially banned him from the game. But the environment Landis created to dispel gambling and game-fixing from baseball made it impossible for someone with Chase’s reputation to find a job in the majors.

“I did not want to be what I then called a ‘welcher.’ I had been involved in all kinds of bets with players and gamblers in the past, and I felt this was no time to run out… I’d give anything if I could start in all over again… I was all wrong, at least in most things, and my best proof is that I am flat on my back, without a dime… I never bet against my own team”

Hal Chase

Even when his time in the majors was finished and the Prince continued to play in the minors, rumors of throwing games followed him around. Ultimately, he was charged with 402 errors in his career, giving him a below-average fielding percentage. However, it’s believed that many were on purpose in an effort to throw games.

Late in his life, Chase showed remorse for gambling on baseball. He also admitted to knowing about the Black Sox scandal ahead of time but denied he was involved in any way. However, for better and for worse, his contributions to baseball as both an outstanding player and a disgraceful gambler and game-thrower, are largely forgotten in the history of the game.