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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #52 Ben Chapman

Chapman was a constant presence on the bases for the Yankees in the '30s, but he definitely carries an uncomfortable legacy.

Name: William Benjamin Chapman
Position: Outfielder
Born: December 25, 1908 (Nashville, TN)
Died: July 7, 1993 (Hoover, AL)
Yankee Years: 1930-36
Primary number: 7
Yankee statistics: 910 G, .305/.379/.451, 209 2B, 64 3B, 60 HR, 184 SB, 119 wRC+, 25.3 rWAR, 25.4 fWAR


I'm not going to lie. This is the "Top 100 Yankees" post I least wanted to write. Ben Chapman was a reprehensible person with racism and antisemitism dogging his career. He also put together a strong baseball career on the field for the Yankees though, so he pretty much has to be on a team top 100. It'd be irresponsible to skip him, and to do so would be trying to view the Yankees' history through rose-tinted glasses.

So warts and all, this is the story of Ben Chapman.

Alabama boy

Chapman was born in Nashville on Christmas in 1908 as the only child of amateur pitcher Harry "Tub" Chapman and his wife, Effie. They weren't in Nashville for long though, as Chapman was raised in Birmingham. Baseball was in his blood thanks to not only his father (who was scouted by the Tigers), but also his uncles, Jim and John Chapman. All three brothers spent time in the minors, making it very easy for Ben to learn about the game.

After the elder Chapman's career fizzled out, he moved his family to Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked in a steel mill. Ben was always involved in sports, serving as a batboy for the Barons, the local minor league club, and playing plenty of both baseball and football. He inherited some of his father's mound presence, as he once threw a one-hitter with 19 strikeouts in high school and also pitched for a state championship-winning team at Phillips High School.

The elder Chapman's time as a player had come to an end as a result of a pitching injury though, so he strongly encouraged Ben to find his role as a position player. So Chapman found his way to third base, and his talents were so renowned in the region that he played semipro ball with a cotton mill's team while he was in high school. That was where he met his future wife, Ola, whose father ran the mill.

Chapman was faced with a tough decision after high school. Scout Johnny Nee and the Yankees liked what they saw from him and made a contract offer, but Purdue University presented him with a scholarship for his skills on the gridiron. At his mother's urging, he went to Purdue for a month, but ultimately decided to sign with the Yankees anyway.

The "Alabama Flash" teams with legends

It did not take long for Chapman to rise through the Yankees' ranks. In 1928, his first minor league season at Asheville in the Sally League, he hit .336 with 32 doubles, 17 triples, and seven homers in 147 games. A year later, the Yankees challenged him by putting him a step away from the majors with the St. Paul Saints. He only got better, adding more power to his game too with 31 bombs in the long 168-game season. Chapman notched 222 hits, again hit .336, and this time slugged .594, almost 100 points higher than his excellent '28 campaign.

So in spring training of 1930, it was pretty clear that Chapman needed a spot on the MLB roster. He was too skilled to keep in the minors. Manager Bob Shawkey made him the starting third baseman, and he hit the ground running with 31 doubles, 10 homers, and a .316/.371/.474 showing, leading all American League rookies with a 117 wRC+. Had the Rookie of the Year award existed then, he would have been an excellent candidate.

The Yankees weren't satisfied with a second season in a row losing the pennant to the Philadelphia A's though, so they brought in Joe McCarthy to replace Shawkey. One of the new skipper's first points of order was to move Chapman to the outfield. For as good as he'd been at the plate in his rookie year, he was an abysmal defender in the infield, committing 24 errors at third and 18 at second for 42 on the season. McCarthy felt that he would be better suited for the outfield.

"Marse Joe" was right. Chapman appeared far more comfortable in the outfield, and his great speed took some of the pressure off the aging Hall of Famers playing beside him, Earle Combs and Babe Ruth. Chapman's speed was also what made his '31 season the best of his career. He notched 6.0 WAR and reached career-bests with 17 homers, 120 runs scored, and 61 stolen bases. It was the first of three straight years that Chapman would lead the AL in steals, following up '31 with 38 and 27 swipes in '32 and '33, respectively. He also led the league in getting caught stealing all three years, but the Spalding Guide still noted that Chapman "did more to revive the art of base running than any other individual player in ten years."

The 22-year-old Chapman earned down-ballot MVP votes for his standout season, but it wasn't quite enough to get the Yankees over the A's. It was a remarkably talent-laden team with Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey in their primes, Ruth and Combs still playing well, and Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing leading the pitching staff. So while the A's had their own superstars with the likes of Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, there was understandably some frustration that the Yankees had let the pennant slip away yet again.

In '32, they would leave no questions about their performance. They seized control of the AL after just a couple months of play and won the flag by 13 games, running up 107 victories to well outpace the distant A's. Chapman was again a catalyst, smacking 41 doubles and 15 triples while scoring 101 of the team's remarkable 1,002 runs. They met the Cubs that year in the World Series, and while Ruth stole the show with his "Called Shot" and Gehrig obliterated Chicago pitching, Chapman did his part. He hit .294/.368/.412 with two doubles in the four-game sweep. Although it would be his only World Series appearance, he ended up with a ring.

Ben Chapman 2 Getty Images - Conlon Collection

Chapman's stellar play continued in the mid-'30s, even as the Yankees went back to failing to win the pennant. In 1933, MLB held its very first All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The AL starting lineup was loaded with legends and Hall of Famers: Ruth. Gehrig. Al Simmons. Charlie Gehringer. Rick Ferrell. Yet at the very top of the lineup in left field stood Ben Chapman, who took the AL's first at-bat in All-Star history (he grounded out). It was the first of four consecutive All-Star Games for the man nicknamed "the Alabama Flash."

Yet in the last of those All-Star seasons ('36), Chapman was dealt to the Washington Senators at the trade deadline. The first 36 games had been a bit sluggish for him with just a 91 OPS+, but he was only 27, had never failed to finish a season with an OPS+ better than league-average, and was in that run of consecutive All-Star Games. The Yankees had a wunderkind rookie named Joe DiMaggio to take a spot in the outfield and another Top 100 Yankee in George Selkirk, but surely there could have been room for Chapman.

So why would the Yankees get rid of Chapman for a clearly worse player in Jake Powell? Well, he was simply a nuisance.

The ugly side

To say that Ben Chapman was problematic would be an understatement. There have always been bench jockeys in baseball. It's athletics--trash talk happens all the time, even today. (Jorge Posada and Pedro Martinez still despise each other, in part because of Pedro's bench jockeying and Posada's response.) In later years, Chapman claimed that what he said was no different than other bench jockeying of the time since, unfortunately, race was a common theme. However, he took it the next level, so much so that the Yankees had to address it.

Chapman was known for constantly making antisemitic remarks, and at one point in April 1933, a ferocious brawl between the Senators and the Yankees erupted between Chapman and second baseman Buddy Myer. He went in hard on a double play and spat at Myer about being Jewish shortly after the play ended. Myer kicked him in the thigh, Chapman punches, and the fight was on. It was so bad that some fans stormed the field and Dixie Walker, one of Chapman's teammates, pulled a Ron Artest and went into the stands after taunting fans.

Tigers legend Hank Greenberg was also a constant subject of Chapman's antisemitic trash talk, and a brawl between the Yankees and Tigers once happened in part because of it. After a hard slide into home, Chapman was punched in the face by catcher Birdie Tebbetts, who had heard enough of Chapman's bluster. Perhaps most troubling for Chapman's reputation among his own teammates was that according to Tebbetts, Gehrig found him afterward and told him "if you ever do land two good punches [on Chapman], I'll buy you the best suit you will ever own." (Chapman also fought with Ruth when he was younger.)

Chapman's reputation was so dismal that 15,000 New Yorkers filed a petition in 1934 to get of Chapman due to his antisemitic behavior. He had a fiery temper too, leading to problems with fans (particularly those who were Jewish) and umpires who dared call him out. It caused headaches for manager McCarthy, and while the Yankees never officially confirmed it, Chapman's attitude was a big reason why they were so willing to let him go in '36. It's just too bad that Powell, the player they got in return, was a racist shithead, too.

So it didn't matter that when Chapman left the Yankees, he was second all-time on the franchise list in stolen bases with 184. The Yankees won the World Series in '36 and the next few years in a row without needing Chapman's gross presence around the team (they apparently filled that quota with Powell, anyway). When Meanwhile, his reputation followed him around as he bounced around with the Senators, Red Sox, Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, and Phillies over the latter half of his career, never remaining anywhere for more than two years.

Chapman still had some great seasons in him. He hit the elusive 50-double mark in '36. He won another stolen base crown in '37 with 35 swipes. In his first full season at Fenway Park in '38, he hit .340/.418/.494 with 40 doubles and was promptly replaced the next year by another legendary rookie outfielder in Ted Williams. That was around when his career began to fizzle out as he lost speed; Chapman even returned to the mound for 25 games between '44 and '46 with the Dodgers and Phillies.

Some baseball executives liked Chapman though, so he continued to hang around teams, even after being suspended for all of 1943 as a result of punching a minor league umpire in the face late in the '42 season with Richmond. The Phillies even made him their manager in the middle of '45, hoping that that Chapman's fiery attitude would inspire the sluggish team to come together.

That decision would only bring them shame. Most people only known Chapman's name because of what he did with the Phillies when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. His bench jockeying nature never left him when he transitioned to the managerial role, and he ruthlessly taunted Robinson when the Dodgers came to Philadelphia. As noted in Chapman's SABR bio, his insults were absolutely horrific:

As to Robinson, Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrott wrote "Chapman mentioned everything from thick lips to the supposedly extra-thick Negro skull, which he said restricted brain growth to almost animal level when compared to white folk. He listed the repulsive sores and diseases he said Robbie’s teammates would be infected with if they touched the towels or combs he used. He charged Jackie outright with breaking up his own Brooklyn team. The Dodger players had told him privately, he said, that they wished that the black man would go back into the South where he belonged, picking cotton, swabbing out latrines, or worse." Commissioner of Baseball Happy Chandler had to intercede and demand that Chapman stop.

When the commissioner has to step in on a problem between a manager and another team's player, that's pretty bad. Chapman was forced to apologize and to make up for it, had to take a picture with Robinson, who handled the terrible incident about as graciously as can be imagined, though he fumed inside. The incident became a famous part of the Jackie Robinson story and was re-imagined in the recent movie 42:

Unfortunately, the movie did not need to take too many liberties with Chapman's character. He was reprehensible.

The Phillies could only deal with Chapman's shtick for so long, especially while they failed to improve all that much. He was on the hot seat anyway after the Robinson incident, and he was fired after a 37-42 start in '48. Just two years later, the Phillies turned it around and won the NL pennant.

Chapman never managed in the majors again, and after a few minor league coaching and managerial stints over the next five years, he left baseball for good. He became an insurance salesman in Alabama, occasionally coaching at nearby Samford University. He later regretted some of his behavior and hoped that perhaps since his sons learned from his racial problems, that he at least did right by them. He passed away from a heart attack on July 7, 1993 at the age of 84.

The saddest part was that even in his regret, Chapman still seemed to stick to the idea that all of his behavior was just bench jockeying. It was not. May future Yankees be better people.

Andrew’s rank: 54
Tanya’s rank: 49
Community rank: 60.6
WAR rank: 49.5

Season Stats

1930 21 NYY 138 565 513 74 162 31 10 10 81 14 6 43 58 .316 .371 .474 .845 116 2.7 2.4
1931 22 NYY 149 686 600 120 189 28 11 17 122 61 23 75 77 .315 .396 .483 .879 135 6.0 6.1
1932 23 NYY 151 663 581 101 174 41 15 10 107 38 18 71 55 .299 .381 .473 .854 125 4.3 4.5
1933 24 NYY 147 654 565 112 176 36 4 9 98 27 18 72 45 .312 .393 .437 .830 125 4.7 4.7
1934 25 NYY 149 665 588 82 181 21 13 5 86 26 16 67 68 .308 .381 .413 .795 110 3.9 4
1935 26 NYY 140 629 553 118 160 38 8 8 74 17 10 61 39 .289 .361 .430 .791 108 3.3 3.2
1936 27 NYY 36 156 139 19 37 14 3 1 21 1 2 15 20 .266 .338 .432 .769 91 0.3 0.4
NYY (7 yrs) 910 4018 3539 626 1079 209 64 60 589 184 93 404 362 .305 .379 .451 .830 119 25.3 25.4

Stats from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs


Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Barra, Allen. "What Really Happened to Ben Chapman, the Racist Baseball Player in 42?" The Atlantic, 15 Apr. 2013.

BR Bullpen


Robinson, Ray. "Jackie Robinson and a Barrier Unbroken," New York Times, 18 May 2013.

Wallace, William. "Ben Chapman, 84, All-Star Outfielder With Yanks in 30's," New York Times, 8 Jul. 1993.

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