Baseball’s Most Reviled Racist: Ben Chapman

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:

  • During a series in 1933 against the Senators in Washington, Chapman was in full bench-jockey mode, his target was second baseman Buddy Myer, who was (falsely) thought to be Jewish. Chapman twice spiked Myer during the series, the last time going out of his way to spike him on the leg not even near second base. Myer tumbled to the ground, popped up, and punched Chapman. A melee ensued that rivals the infamous “Malice in The Palace” as one of the worst fan/athlete fights in professional sports history. Reportedly, as many as 300 fans spilled onto the field and it took 20 minutes to restore order in Griffith Stadium.   
  • In 1934 more than 12,000 fans submitted a petition demanding the Yankees trade Chapman after he got into an argument with Jewish fans at Yankee Stadium and made anti-semitic remarks. Chapman used the Nazi salute during the confrontation.  
  • In 1935 during a game at Yankee Stadium Chapman made an error and was hearing it from a few fans near the home dugout. Throughout the game he exchanged words with a particular fan who was razzing him, promising to “get him” when he had the chance. After the last out of the game, Chapman climbed into the stands and chased the startled fan out of the park all the way to a nearby tavern in full uniform. A police officer stopped Chapman from inflicting any physical harm on the fan.
  • On July 11, 1937, Chapman was ejected from the first game of a doubleheader in Philadelphia for inciting a fight due to his bench jockeying. In the second game, after he was picked off first base and tagged in a run-down, Chapman jawed at umpire John Quinn, poking his finger in Quinn’s face. When Quinn tossed him out of the game, Chapman punched him. Amazingly, the American League suspended Chapman for only three games.
  • In 1938, in a game against the Tigers, Chapman punched Detroit catcher Birdie Tebbetts when Birdie teased him. He was fined but not suspended.
  • That same season, when his Red Sox faced the Tigers late in the season, Chapman tried to spike Detroit first baseman Hank Greenberg twice. Greenberg, a Jew, was closing in on Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and had become a target because of it.
  • After his playing career, when he was a minor league manager, Chapman was suspended three times for physical confrontations with umpires or opposing players and managers.

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.”

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