Thursday, May 9, 2013
Ben Chapman, Once and For All
Jackie Robinson suffered few baitings more vicious than those led by Ben Chapman, the former outfielder who managed the Philadelphia Phillies, when Robinson broke into the Show with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. And, yes, it really did get to a point where Chapman's job was on the line, and he posed for a photograph with Robinson — clearly ill at ease — in a bid to turn down the heat he had brought himself and his team.
Chapman's portrait in 42 appears to be about as dead on as such a discomfiting portrait can be, and it is only right and proper that Chapman's behavior in that time and place should be the thing remembered most about him. He may have come from a generation in which mutual ethnic baiting was as normal around baseball as a .300 batting average (I'll explain that shortly), but he alone chose what he chose when along came Robinson, who didn't have the option to fight back, and who — unlike most of the players baiting each other ethnically on the field in Chapman's playing days — wouldn't likely have been welcome in the homes of most of those men.
But it is also said reliably enough that Chapman's racial attitudes changed after he left the major leagues. Allen Barra, in The Atlantic, writes of meeting Chapman and then hearing from those who knew Chapman intimately enough that Chapman came to enjoy talking baseball with black children in black neighborhoods in his native Alabama. "All I can say," one-time Birmingham Barons owner Art Clarkson told Barra, "is that Ben really was a different man in his later years — he acknowledged the error of his old ways."
Chapman died at 84 in 1993. "Because of the success of 42—its opening weekend was the highest of any baseball movie ever—the Ben Chapman portrayed in the movie will certainly define his image in baseball history," Barra writes. "And that's fair. But it's just possible that near the end of his life Chapman did change—or as we say today, he evolved. At least some people who knew him in his later years thought he did, and I think it's fair, also, that in some tiny corner of baseball history that Ben Chapman is be remembered as well."
Fair enough. And now to the question sometimes stirred when those who knew him remember him: did Ben Chapman's racial attitudes, and the notoriety he invited for them especially as a manager, keep him from Cooperstown consideration?
In one word: no.
If you want to look at Chapman's playing career sabermetrically, the WARriors have a quick answer for you: Chapman played fifteen major league seasons and was good for 41.4 wins above a replacement-level player. At this writing he's tied with Jack Fournier at 287th all-time. Let me run down the twenty players behind Chapman and Fournier on the list: Andy Van Slyke, Mark Belanger, Placido Polanco, Roger Bresnahan, George Van Haltren, Augie Galan, Jim Gilliam, Darrell Porter, Mike Griffin, Gil McDougald, David Ortiz, Phil Rizzuto, Tim Salmon, Pete Browning, David Justice, Hardy Richardson, Jim Sundberg, Dick Bartell, Babe Herman, and Carney Lansford.
I see only two Hall of Famers on that list, and both Roger Bresnahan and Phil Rizzuto are considered to have been extremely dubious Hall of Fame picks at best. (Rizzuto probably does belong in Cooperstown — as a broadcaster.) I bet you're surprised to see David Ortiz that low on the WAR chart, too, considering his game-busting image, and when Ortiz finally retires and comes up for Hall of Fame consideration oh boy will the debate over the designated hitter hit fever pitch. But you get the idea. Chapman isn't exactly traveling in overcrowded Cooperstown territory right off the bat.
Chapman finished his career with a .302 batting average. Conceding that the batting average has been devalued overall as a statistic, he did it playing in an era when it wasn't exactly that difficult to hit .300+. His best season for batting average was 1938, when he hit .340 for the Boston Red Sox ... and finished third in the American League batting race. (Jimmie Foxx won the title hitting .348; Jeff Heath of the Cleveland Indians finished second with .343.)
He was three seasons removed from the last one in which he'd led his league in any offensive category. In 1937, divided between the Red Sox and the Washington Senators (who traded him during the season for the Ferrell brothers, Wes and Rick), Chapman led the league in stolen bases, with 35. Come to think of it, it was the only time Chapman ever led his league in steals without leading the league concurrently in being caught stealing. Chapman accomplished that tandem leadership three times and once led the league in being caught but not in stealing successfully.
Except for leading the American League in triples with thirteen in 1934, Chapman never led his league in any other offensive category. He rarely finished in his league's top ten in key offensive categories, even in his early seasons with the New York Yankees. He seems to have been a reliable outfielder who wouldn't necessarily hurt you to any excess on the field or at the plate. Yet the Yankees unloaded Chapman almost as soon as they could in 1936, once their center fielder of the future began proving himself that future. You may have heard of him: Joe DiMaggio.
There were other considerations, from everything I've read about those Yankees, including the possibility that Chapman was so champion an ethnic baiter, even if he was right that the Yankees and every other club in the league had clubhouses chock full of them. And, in fairness, even if Chapman was right that southern ballplayers such as himself often took it at least as bad as, say, Italian or Jewish players did. It probably did prove too much for the Yankees, and it was probably true that Chapman was a goner the moment the Yankees found someone who could out-play him even to a small degree. Finding Joe DiMaggio, of course, which is exactly what happened with the 1936 Yankees, was once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
Chapman seems to have been an early-in-the-order type who had a little long ball power, knew how to reach base by hook or by crook, basically a Pete Rose/Tim Raines type who finished in the top 200 in on-base percentage at this writing. He's ahead of several Hall of Famers on that list, including but not limited to Bill Dickey, Miller Huggins (who's really in Cooperstown as a manager), Enos Slaughter, Lou Boudreau, Mike Schmidt, Nap Lajoie, Tony Lazzeri, Al Simmons, Duke Snider, Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron, George Brett, and Kirby Puckett.
That seems impressive enough. But I'm not convinced you're going to find many people examining the evidence closely and concluding that Ben Chapman was more valuable to his teams than those men were to theirs.
What about his defense? Well, Chapman led his league in assists by a center fielder once, finished top-10 three times, but also led his league in errors by a center fielder twice and finished top-10 there four times. On the other hand, later in his playing career, he managed to lead his league twice in double plays by an outfielder. I'd have to conclude he was about an average defensive outfielder who showed flashes of above average play, but wasn't always consistent with the leather.
The average Hall of Famer scores 27 on the Bill James Black Ink Test (league leadership) and 144 percent on the Gray Ink Test (top 10 league leadership). Chapman scores 9 on the Black Ink and 67 on the Gray Ink. On the James Hall of Fame Monitor, an average Hall of Famer would score 100 of the Monitor and, meeting the James Hall of Fame Standards, 50 percent. Chapman makes 78 on the Monitor and meets 37 percent of the Standards.
A good ballplayer, who sometimes played above his own head, and who might have been just a trifle better than his final statistics show. But it wouldn't be enough to put Ben Chapman in the Hall of Fame, even without the issue that marked him and his image for life.