Interview: Chief Bender storyteller Tom Swift


With the regular season winding up and the World Series right around the corner, the time is ripe for a chat with writer Tom Swift, author of Chief Bender’s Burden: the Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star—a Minnesota scribe paying home to one of our state’s Native sons.

Swift, a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan, is an editor and writer residing in Northfield. Charles Albert Bender was first Minnesotan to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Born near Brainerd, he spent his early years on the White Earth Reservation and, on the Philadelphia A’s staff, wound up being one of the greatest pitchers the game ever saw—and unfortunately one of the most determinedly overlooked, even moreso than even Negro Leaguers like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. It’s a fine book, informative and fascinating. You have to believe that if Charles Bender could reach up from the grave, he’d tap Tom Swift on the shoulder to thank him.

What prompted you to do this biography?
For almost the entire second half of the twentieth century Minnesota had only one representative in the Baseball Hall of Fame. When the second and third members of that club, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, were inducted, the name of the first, “Chief” Bender, popped up in newspaper articles—usually as a footnote. I knew almost nothing about him, so I started reading. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I discovered a man [with] a rare ability to throw a ball, but what fascinated me were things that can’t be found in box scores. The kind of person Bender was, the way he conducted himself on and off the mound, and the sheer improbability of his success. Including and apart from the baseball, Bender’s life is a terrific human-interest story. He was exceptionally bright, courageous, and classy: a self-made Renaissance man. And he excelled at nearly everything he did, whether it was firing a gun, swinging a golf club, or pitching a baseball. He [inspired] tens of thousands of people who never saw him throw a pitch.

Why did Charles Bender succeed long before Jackie Robinson?
The color barrier didn’t apply to Native Americans. Bender had to withstand untold and immeasurable prejudice, but—unlike African-American players—he was not banned from the playing field.

Why do you think of Bender was never lauded, before the publication of your book, as a superstar?
Bender had several outstanding seasons and especially [shone] during the World Series. His raw career totals don’t overwhelm. Wins are a flawed way to judge a pitcher’s performance, but they are one of the first statistics people look at when they thumb through the record book. The total next to Bender’s name is not high…when compared to many other Hall of Fame pitchers. As I write in Chief Bender’s Burden, there are reasons Bender’s raw totals are lower than they otherwise might have been. So, rather than argue that Bender’s stats are under-appreciated, I would say that history has overlooked Bender’s amazing and uplifting personal story, his ability to perform so capably despite the racism he [faced] every day.

“Rather than argue that Bender’s stats are under-appreciated, I would say that history has overlooked Bender’s amazing and uplifting personal story, his ability to perform so capably despite the racism he faced every day.”

How do you think Gaylord Perry would’ve made out in the era of the deadball? Bob Gibson?
It’s fun to sit on a barstool and send players in time machines, but I am generally of the mind that great players are great because they have the ability to apply their mental and physical talents according to the [circumstance] they are given. A pitcher with as many smarts and skills as Bob Gibson would be exceptional in any era on any planet. An exception to this line of thinking might be made in the case of foreign aids. Gaylord Perry’s dubious tricks may have been nullified somewhat in the Deadball Era, when many pitchers also used things other than their arms to get hitters out.

Was it hard to find a publisher for this book?
I was fortunate, especially for an unknown first-time author. The University of Nebraska Press specializes in Native studies books and it has a fine catalog of baseball titles. After I pitched Charles Bender’s story, it didn’t take long to realize there was a natural fit.

You consulted with Marcie Rendon on the manuscript, yes?
As I tried to articulate in a long-winded bibliographical essay in the back of Chief Bender’s Burden, I couldn’t have written the book without the advice and assistance of many generous people, Ms. Rendon included.

You touring?
“Tour” would be a strong term. I’ve been invited to readings, classroom discussions, book signings. I feel lucky about the terrific opportunities I have had to talk about Charles Bender’s story.

What’s next?
I’m exploring another idea, but it’s too early to know whether that idea will come together—and I’m too superstitious to say much more than that.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Dwight Hobbes’s review of Chief Bender’s Burden (August 2008) and Joel Grostephan on Marcie Rendon and the Border Crossing controversy (May 2008).