Not So Classic Yankees: Ben Chapman

Chapman-and-Jackie-Robinson

As we watch Mariano Rivera make his farewell tour and receive gifts in each major league city, we are reminded about how Mo has conducted himself with class, and of the respect he commands throughout baseball.

Not every player has or will conduct himself with class. Some have, and will, tarnish their legacy by their misdeeds. As the recent movie 42, about Jackie Robinson, shows, one such person was Ben Chapman.

The movie shows what happened on April 22, 1947, when Chapman, as the Phillies manager, tormented Robinson with a savage array of racial slurs. Robinson, of course, looks more heroic as a result while Chapman comes across as pond scum.

In writing this article, I don’t defend Chapman in any way, but want to point out how he sadly ruined his legacy. For as despicable a person he was, he was a fine ballplayer. He was selected to each of the first four All-Star teams, got MVP consideration twice and led the majors in stolen bases three consecutive years (four times overall) on his way to a career batting line of .302/.383/.440.

Chapman, born Christmas Day 1908 in Nashville, came up to the Yanks in 1930 at the ripe young age of 21 and played third and second base that year. He would be switched to the outfield the next year and eventually played 582 games in center, 548 in right and 403 in left.

In that rookie season of 1930, he hit .316/.371/.474 with 14 SB and an OPS+ of 116. In 1931, he finished 15th in MVP voting with a mark of .315-17-122, and he led the majors with 61 SB (he also led in CS, with 23). His OPS+ was 135. From Wikipedia: his 1931 total of 61 was the highest by a Yankee since Fritz Maisel‘s 74 in 1914, and would be the most by any major leaguer between 1921 and 1961, equaled only by George Case in 1943.

The 1932 Yankees are often overlooked, because this World Series Championship came in the middle of a good but not great era of 1929-1935. In that era, the Yanks finished first once, third once, and second all of the other times. Ruth was aging, Gehrig was in his prime, but Joe DiMaggio. was still on the horizon. Those 1932 Yankees won 107 games, scored 1002 runs and swept the WS over the Cubs. You may remember that this was the WS of Ruth’s “Called Shot.” This team wasn’t shut out once all year. Chapman, a righty hitter, hit .299-10-107, led the majors in SB with 38 (and CS with 18) and had an OPS+ of 125. In the World Series (his only one), he went 5-for-17, with two doubles and six RBI in those four games. Once again, from Wikipedia: on July 9, 1932, he had three home runs, two of which were inside-the-park.

In 1933, Chapman was named to the original American League All-Star team and finished 20th in the MVP voting. He hit .312-9-98, once again led the majors in SB with 27 (and CS with 18), and had an OPS+ of 125. He was the leadoff hitter for the AL in that initial All-Star game, making him the first AL All-Star to ever come to bat. In 1934, Chapman hit .308-5-86, OPS+ 110. He stole 26 bases, led the majors by getting caught 16 times and was once again an All-Star. He led the AL with 13 triples.

It was in 1934 when he really showed his prickly personality by getting on Babe Ruth. Chapman would often scream at him in the clubhouse and called the aging (39) Ruth too fat, a defensive liability, and accused him of bringing down the team.

Marty Appel, in his book Pinstripe Empire, describes a couple of Chapman events. In 1933, Chapman and Buddy Myer got into a fight at Griffith Stadium in Washington in which Chapman allegedly unloaded some anti-Semitic slurs at Myer, who was Jewish. Chapman, among others, was suspended. That confrontation with Myer lasted 20 minutes, saw 300 fans participate and resulted in five-game suspensions and $100 fines for each of the players involved.

Chapman taunted Jewish fans at Yankee Stadium with Nazi salutes and disparaging epithets.

A few years later, after having been traded away from the Yankees, Appel writes about a play in which Chapman went into home plate hard and catcher Birdie Tebbetts took exception. The next stop after that game was Yankee Stadium, and Appel writes that there was a place under the stands where players could gather and grab a smoke. One player who passed by was Lou Gehrig. He stopped and asked, “Which one of you is Tebbetts?” When Tebbetts identified himself, Gehrig asked if he landed a good punch. When Tebbetts replied “Yes, sir”, Gehrig asked if he’d fight Chapman again. When Tebbetts answered in the affirmative, Gehrig said that if he landed two good punches on Chapman, Gehrig would buy Tebbetts the best suit he’d ever own; this from an ex-teammate of Chapman’s.

It was nothing for Chapman to make anti-Semitic remarks to Hank Greenberg or to call one-time (briefly) teammate Joe DiMaggio out on his Italian heritage. As Appel writes, “Chapman had the same kind of reputation as Ty Cobb.”

In 1935, with Ruth now gone, Chapman was once again an All-Star, hitting .289-8-74 with 17 SB and an OPS+ of 108. He played CF.

Then came Joe D. DiMaggio didn’t start his career in CF. Chapman was still there in 1936, and was still in CF. However Chapman was traded to Washington for Jake Powell in mid-June. Powell himself would later get in trouble for a racist remark and would eventually commit suicide. Of Joe D.’s 138 games in the OF in his rookie year of 1936, 64 were in LF, 20 in RF and 55 in CF. After that, the Jolter would play only in CF, save for three games in LF in 1946 and one game at 1B in 1950.

Chapman made his fourth and final All-Star game in 1936, hitting a combined .315-5-81 with 20 SB for NYY/Wash. His OPS+ was 122.

Halfway through the 1937 season, Washington shipped him off to Boston. He hit a combined .297-7-69 that year, and once again led the majors in SB, with 35. His OPS+ was 104.

Chapman hit .340-6-80 with 13 SB for the 1938 Red Sox.

After that season, he was dealt to Cleveland. He hit .290-6-82, 18 SB, OPS+ 108 for the Indians in 1939.

1940 would be his last season as a regular. It was the year of the Cleveland “Crybabies” and for more on that, here is a website regarding the mutiny the players for the Indians had that year against their manager:  Chapman hit .286-4-50 with 13 steals and an OPS+ of 104. After the season he went back to Washington again. From 1930-1940 he averaged 143 games a year, and .306-8-85, 26 SB and an OPS+ of 116. Solid.

In 1941, Chapman started with Washington, was released, and was picked up by the Chicago White Sox. In 85 games he hit .237-3-29, OPS+ 68. He was just 32 but it seemed his career was over, especially when he was out of the majors in 1942 and 1943.

In 1942 and 1944, Chapman managed in the Class B Piedmont League. What about 1943, you ask? Nope. He was suspended for all of the 1943 season for punching an umpire.

But WWII told a different story. Major league baseball was short of manpower during those war years, and Chapman made it back to the majors in 1944 with Brooklyn—as a pitcher. As a hitter, he went 14 for 38, .368, and drove in 11 runs. As a pitcher, he was a more than respectable 5-3, 3.40, ERA+ 105 in 11 games, 9 of them starts.

In 1945, Chapman started out with Brooklyn, but then went to the Phillies. As a hitter, he was 19 for 73, .260, with 7 RBI. He was 3-3, 5.79 on the mound, ERA+ 66, in 13 games, 7 of them starts.

He got into one game in 1946 for the Phils, going 0 for 1 while giving up no runs in an inning and a third.

His career pitching line was 16 starts and 9 relief appearances, 25 games, 8-6, 4.39, ERA+ 84.

His offensive line was .302, 287 steals (15 of home), 1958 hits. Member of one WS Championship in 1932. He was a 4x All-Star and a 4x SB champ. His 162 g. average was .302-8-92 with 27 steals and an OPS+ of 114. Solid.  During the period from 1926 to 1943, he stole more bases than any other player.

While still playing, he became the Phils’ manager for the second half of 1945, and he went 28-57 as they finished last.

In 1946 the Phils went 69-85. It was an awful record, but the Phils didn’t finish last. In fact, they finished fifth.

Then came 1947 and that awful display at Ebbets Field when he berated Robinson, and instructed his pitchers, (Wikipedia) whenever they had a 3-0 count against Robinson, to bean him rather than walk him. The backlash against Chapman was so severe that he was asked to pose in a photograph with Robinson as a conciliatory gesture when the two teams next met in Philadelphia in May. This incident prompted Robinson’s teammate Dixie Walker (and Walker, as his nickname would suggest, was against the Robinson signing) to comment, “I never thought I’d see old Ben eat shit like that.” Perhaps fittingly, Chapman’s Phils finished last that year with a record of 62-92 (they would win the NL pennant three years later with the 1950 “Whiz Kids” team, but by then, Chapman was gone).  After starting out 37-42 in 1948, Chapman was fired with the Phillies in sixth place. He never managed in the majors again.

Chapman was a coach for the 1952 Cincinnati Reds, but other than that, wasn’t associated with the majors after 1948.

In 1993, aged 84, he died of a heart attack in Hoover, AL.

It’s too bad he was such a jerk because he was a fine ball player. Unfortunately, his legacy will always be clouded by his actions as a person.

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5 Responses to Not So Classic Yankees: Ben Chapman

  1. Michael R. says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  2. LHS says:

    You failed to mention that Chapman refused to shake Jackie Robinson's hand for the photo. Instead, he insisted on keeping his hands on the bat. Chapman wasn't just a jerk; he was a racist jerk.

  3. Mike Sommer says:

    You can see it in the picture and also in the movie, thus the lack of the mention. In the movie, it's Robinson who suggests the bat so the two "wouldn't touch skin."

  4. LHS says:

    Mike, I think you missed the point.

    "You can see it in the picture and also in the movie, thus the lack of the mention." I said that Chapman refused to shake Robinson's hand. You can't see that (the refusal) in the picture.

    As far as it "being in the movie," I am not concerned with what is in the movie, I am talking about what actually happened. Chapman is the one who didn't want to shake hands.

  5. Mike Sommer says:

    True, he didn't want anything to do with it. One can figure that out. Thus the comment by Dixie Walker later in the story. Hope you enjoyed the rest of the article.