Ben Chapman is the only baseball player mentioned by name in a book by famed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov.
One of the things that Twitter ensures is that no one can say anything stupid anymore without being punished. Had there been Twitter when Ben Chapman played in the 1930s, his career would have been ruined numerous times. Chapman was an ignorant bigot, which wasn’t entirely his fault, but he was slow to understand the error of his thinking and his mouth and fists got him in trouble throughout his professional career.
Chapman was raised in Alabama at a time when many people still hadn’t come to grips with the results of the Civil War. Like Ty Cobb a generation earlier, Chapman was ill-equipped to deal with people unlike himself, and he had a much worse temper than Cobb. As a young pitcher in Alabama, Chapman quickly learned that his best asset was his willingness to terrorize, which is why he frequently hit batters with his fastball. However, he made it to the big leagues through the use of his legs: Chapman was one of the fastest runners of his era, eventually leading the league in steals four times.
An entire book could be written about the controversies surrounding Chapman, but the highlights (or lowlights as they were) are these:
And the list could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on his most infamous incidents of bench jockeying as manager of the Phillies in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the major leagues. During that historic season, Chapman was at his redneck best.
Like all bullies, Chapman made excuses for his behavior.
“I’m no bigot. I believe that every man, be he black, or white or whatever, is entitled to equal opportunity. The pigment of a man’s skin is God’s doing,” Chapman said. He usually made statements like that every spring when he had to answer for his abhorrent behavior of the previous season.
Faced with meeting his maker, Chapman changed his tune decades later.
“A man learns about things and mellows as he grows older. I think that maybe I’ve changed a bit. Maybe I went too far in those days,” Chapman said when he was interviewed in his eighties. “The world changes. Maybe I’ve changed, too. Look, I’m real proud that I’ve raised my son different.”