Curtain Call: Tipping the cap to Minnesota’s first Baseball Hall of Famer, Charles Albert Bender

Charles Albert Bender, the first Minnesotan inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the inventor of the slider (Yep, we said it!) // Photo by Paul Thompson, 1911

Charles Albert Bender, the first Minnesotan inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the inventor of the slider (Yep, we said it!) // Photo by Paul Thompson, 1911

The thing about Major League Baseball history is that there’s *a lot* of it. With much of it taking place in the part of the past that gets called “yore” and all the players and observers being completely dead for a while now, certain “firsts” are up for debate.

For every one Mendoza Line (definitely named after light-hitting infielder Mario Mendoza), there are likely two baseball mysteries that will remain unsolved until the heat death of the universe. Who started calling bases-loaded home runs “grand slams”? No one knows, but it’s believed to have been borrowed from bridge. Who created the 7th-inning stretch? Maybe the stout President William Howard Taft needed to get up and walk around a bit. Maybe a priest named Brother Jasper Brennan wanted everyone to hit their step goals on a hot and muggy day in 1882. Maybe neither!

The slider falls into the latter “fog of history” category, but there’s only one person with a claim on its creation that happens to be One of Us. The Minnesotan writing this, and the Minnesotans reading this, understand the import of this and will defend Charles Albert Bender as its one true creator going forward. Anyone crediting George Blaeholder can go jump in a damn lake, and you can tell them I said it.

Bender was born in Crow Wing County in 1884 and raised on the White Earth Reservation. At the age of seven he was sent to the Educational Home, an off-reservation boarding school for American Indian children near Philadelphia that was under the auspices of the Lincoln Institution. He returned to White Earth Reservation at the age of 12 and shortly after ran away from home with his brother Frank. Charles was working as a farmhand on the reservation when a teacher from the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, recruited him and his brother Frank to the boarding school. It was at this boarding school that he caught the eye of Glenn “Pop” Warner (yes, the youth football legend), who was the school’s baseball coach. By the age of 19, Bender was pitching in the majors for the Philadelphia Athletics.

(Bender’s older brother John was also a baseball player, and while he was less successful at the game, he holds the unofficial record for most managers stabbed at one, after his scuffle with Columbia Gamecocks skipper Win Clark on a steamship in 1908. Clark survived and asked that the charges be dismissed. Clark also managed players named Pinky Swander and Phenomenal Smith. And some people say baseball is boring.)

Chief Bender throwing a pitch while with the Athletics.

Charles Albert Bender throwing a pitch while with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics.

The pitch that would help the younger Bender win 212 MLB games and earn a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame splits the difference between a fastball and curveball, with more speed than a curve and more breaking/tailing motion than a fastball. Also called a nickel curve, the slider would go on to be a deadly pitch for other Hall of Famers like brief Minnesota Twin/legendary crank Steve Carlton, mustache haver Rollie Fingers, and enemy of all birds Randy Johnson.

Bender started his career in 1903 with a bang, going 17-14 with a 3.07 ERA and 29 complete games as a 19-year-old Philadelphia A’s rookie. It was a different era, but if anyone were to pitch 29 complete games in 2019, it would be an actual, Vatican-recognized miracle. In 1905, Bender pitched the biggest game of his young career, defeating John McGraw’s New York Giants in the World Series on a four-hit, 3-0 shutout. (It was the only win the Athletics would have in the series.)

The A’s would go on to win the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913, and Bender was an integral part of their rotation. His 1910 season, in particular, was extraordinary: 23‒5 with a 1.58 ERA. Connie Mack, the legendary A’s manager, said: “If I had all the men I’ve ever handled, and they were in their prime, and there was one game I wanted to win above all others, Albert would be my man.” Mack won 3,731 games, so you know, this carries some weight.

The other thing about Bender, and frankly the more interesting thing, is that he accomplished all of this in spite of the stupefying amount of bigotry he faced. A brief and incomplete list of awfulness follows:

  • Depicted in a newspaper with full headdress and a tomahawk after a particularly dominant start.
  • Derided with war whoops and slurs like “go back to the reservation” and the N-word. He responded to some of these slurs by saying “Foreigners! Foreigners!” Which is pretty good, and as uttered by a Native American, entirely accurate.
  • The fact that everyone called him “Chief.” As noted in writer Tom Swift’s biography, Bender said, “I do not want to be presented as an Indian, but as a pitcher.” If you want to know how successful this request was, you’ll find him in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseball Reference, and Wikipedia as Chief, not Charles.
  • This passage from Swift’s biography is breathtaking. Trigger warning for an avalanche of racism:

There was scarcely a time when Bender was written about when his race was not prominently mentioned. Bender didn’t win games. He scalped opponents. Bender wasn’t a talented pitcher with an impressive repertoire. He pitched in his best Indian way. Bender wasn’t a player with guile. He was (Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie) Mack’s wily Redskin. The prejudiced descriptions were almost unyielding. […] After Bender’s sterling performance in the 1905 World Series, Sporting Life writer Charles Zuber said that ‘Bender, according to reports, is a typical representative of his race, being just sufficiently below the white man’s standard to be coddled into doing anything that his manager might suggest […] like the Negro on the stage who… will work himself to death if you jolly him, the Indian can be ‘conned’ into taking up any sort of burden.’

I’m leaving out the part where a newspaper called Bender “a child of the forest.” And the part where his wallet was stolen and a newspaper cartoonist depicted him on all fours looking for his “wampum belt.” Despite this, Bender still had it “better” than African Americans, who weren’t even allowed in the league at the time.

(Over a century later, Cleveland’s professional baseball team finally phased out their incredibly racist Chief Wahoo mascot in 2018. The dumbest motherfuckers alive still got mad about it. Fortunately, they can still do the Tomahawk Chop at Florida State and Atlanta Braves games and claim it’s being done as a tribute and/or tell people to stop being so politically correct. Anyway, America.)

Charles Albert Bender passed away in 1954, one year after being elected to the Hall of Fame. He is still one of the greatest pitchers from Minnesota of all time. Period.