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The Black Prince of Baseball

Hal Chase, an extraordinarily gifted first baseman who played in the big leagues from 1905 until 1919 and in various decidedly not big leagues for a good deal longer, is said to have demanded fifty cents before he would take the field for a neighborhood game when he was twelve years old. The only surprising thing about that story is that it does not go on to say that the twelve-year-old Chase struck out on purpose in the bottom of the ninth to lose the game after the manager of the opposing team slipped him an additional half dollar.

Some baseball historians have presented Chase as the most reprehensible of all baseball blackguards, a fellow willing to fumble a ground ball for money whenever a gambler suggested same, a traitor to his teammates as well as to his own talent. Chase has also been accused of participating in the Black Sox Scandal.

In "The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game," Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella make a convincing case that Chase, who earned the nickname "the prince" with the sense of style he brought to everything from baseball to pool to buying dinner and drinks for the house when he was flush, has long been maligned. The authors don't deny that Chase tossed games from time to time, especially as his big league career was winding down. They merely suggest that the prince was one of a great number of players (and managers) engaged in supplementing their paychecks during the days when gamblers openly bet in the stands during games, and that he was a hell of a lot more interesting character than most of his teammates and opponents, dirty and clean alike. His chicanery, on and off the field, had a certain flair. After he was married, he used to erase the salary figure in his contract and write in a smaller number before showing the document to his wife, so he could squirrel away enough money each payday to wine and dine other women.

Dewey and Acocella have a wonderful subject in Hal Chase, a man they sometimes find "completely and congenitally amoral," but never find dull. He showed, they write, "little grasp for the reality that when Al Spalding had proclaimed baseball the culturally pure national pastime, it had followed logically that the National Commission and the 16 owners it represented were the Stars and Stripes." Chase was, in short, a terrific antidote to the hypocrisy rampant in sport for sale. It was no surprise that the sometimes-loveable rogue was spectacularly popular in his prime. It is also no surprise that his final days were desperately sad.Beyond telling the story of Hal Chase, Dewey and Acocella have told the story of baseball's early years and the part the game played in entertaining a fair portion of the nation's populace when baseball really could be considered the national pastime, in part because there weren't as many competing candidates for that distinction. Looking down from that great diamond in the sky, Al Spalding won't much care for some of the stories in The Black Prince of Baseball. Neither will Bowie Kuhn or Bud Selig. Happily, most readers needn't care about the concerns of various guardians of the game. They can enjoy the book for its ambition, its energy, and the fun Dewey and Acocella have in the company of Hal Chase throughout his long baseball days.

This program aired on May 8, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.

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