Too bad baseball’s Hall of Fame doesn’t have a Most Valuable Book category. Tom Swift’s biography of historic hurler Charles A. Bender, Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star qualifies hands down.
It’s not easy to make a baseball book interesting—even to baseball fans—but Swift’s easy, engaging hand with details and history entertains as it informs. And, except for rarities like Michael Bradley’s The Iceman Inheritance, reading a white writer’s thoughts on racism hardly can be expected to shed a world of light on the subject. Swift, though, offers keen, compelling insight into the hell Bender must have endured as a Native American excelling at the great American pastime.
Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star by Tom Swift, published by the University of Nebraska Press (2008). $24.95.
Back in the 1900’s, which is when Bender pitched, you were told to make something of yourself instead of layin’ around eatin’ watermelon, and we will respect you. Bender prevailed as top hurler on the baddest team in Major League Baseball. Won games? As the quip goes, all he had to do was toss his glove on the mound. Dominating? Threw shut-outs left and right. Off-hand, that qualifies as having made something of oneself. Yet still, he was looked on as one of the game’s best pitchers second and looked on first as a red nigger. Go figger.
The media, of course, were no help. In addition to other players vilifying Bender, he had to read things in print referring to him as being “on the warpath” or “scalping” the opposition. And he was always called “Chief,” despite the fact that he was not a chief. Numbing himself to ignorant insult after insult and anchoring the World Champion Philadelphia Athletics superb mound staff at the same time, it’s amazing the man didn’t go stark, raving mad. It’s not surprising he drank like a fish. Fortunately, he did not lose his Hall of Fame career in the bottom of a bottle. He lost it to natural causes, pitching his butt off until the day came to him that comes to all athletes—when you just can’t do it as well as you used to. Nor did he languish as a broke, washed-up has-been. He simply got to see more of his wife of some 30 years and to live comfortably ever after.
Tom Swift tells this and much more with a deft, detailed pen and a world of passion, giving splendid homage. Adding local interest is the fact that Minnesotan Swift, who lives in Northfield, is writing about an Ojibwa Minnesotan. Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star is written with flawless style. The subject fascinates. Pick an afternoon when you can relax and enjoy a good book, then go get this one.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.