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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #70 Ben Chapman

Chapman, a valuable piece of the early 1930s Yankees, is a controversial and uncomfortable part of baseball history.

New York Yankees Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Name: William Benjamin “Ben” 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+, 26.5 rWAR, 25.5 fWAR

Biography

Ben Chapman burst onto the MLB scene in 1930 as a 21-year-old. He quickly showed he had the bat to stick in the big leagues, along with a great set of wheels. Defensively, he was ill-suited for his initial position at third base and, before long, found himself relocated to the outfield where he was at least a marginally better defender.

Chapman played with the Yankees for six-plus seasons before the club dealt him to Washington. He left the Yankees as a four-time All-Star who twice found his name on the list of contenders for American League Most Valuable Player. Almost a century later, he’s tied for seventh on the club’s all-time stolen base leader list.

But Chapman’s legacy cannot be recalled in such a matter-of-fact tone. He is undoubtedly best known for racially taunting a young Jackie Robinson after retirement, when he managed the Philadelphia Phillies. Part of a longer history of uncomfortable diatribes from Chapman, that incident, alongside previous behaviors, casts a lingering pall over him and his place in baseball lore.

Early Life

An only child, Chapman was born in Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas Day 1908. Before long though, he and his parents moved to Alabama. Ben attended Powell Elementary School in Birmingham and eventually graduated from Phillips High School.

Baseball ran in the veins of the Chapman men. Ben’s father Harry, along with two of his uncles, Jim and John, all played minor league baseball as young men. Chapman was still a toddler by the time he began following the family trade and started working as a ballboy for the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association.

The Yankees or Purdue?

By the time he hit high school, it was apparent that Chapman shared the familial talent for baseball. In his senior year, he was a key contributor to Phillips High winning the Alabama State championship. Channeling his inner Shohei Ohtani, Chapman both pitched and played the field in high school, toiling on the infield.

Years later, he recounted his high school experience to the New York Post. Competitiveness, he explained, was key. “All a pitcher has to do in high school ball … is to throw the ball at the batter’s head and then feed him a wide curve on the outside for him to go fishing.” When the reporter inquired if that’s how he’d managed to throw a one-hitter in his senior season, Chapman responded, “What do you think? I hit four batters.”

The Yankees had seen enough and one of the club’s scouts offered Chapman a contract. His mother, however, was determined he go to Purdue University to play football, so Ben headed for Indiana. A month later, however, he decided Boilermaker football was not for him and he took his talents to the diamond.

So in 1928, the 19-year-old Chapman began his baseball career. Playing for the Class-B Asheville Tourists, Chapman hit .336 and earned a promotion to Double-A for the 1929 campaign. There, he exactly replicated the previous season, at least as it pertained to batting average. After back-to-back outstanding minor league seasons, Chapman was headed to New York.

Welcome to New York

Ben Chapman of the Yankees in Batting Posiiton Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

If there was doubt about whether Chapman would make the big club out of spring training in 1930, it did not last long. Manage Bob Shawkey announced Chapman would start at the hot corner six weeks before Opening Day. “… the husky Alabaman… approaches the start of the Yankees’ exhibition schedule as first choice third baseman,” the New York Times declared.

At the plate, Chapman did little to make Shawkey regret his decision to make the “strapping youngster,” as the Times described Chapman, the Yankees’ starting third baseman. When the dust settled on the 1930 season, Chapman finished with a .316 batting average, a 116 wRC+, and clubbed 51 extra-base hits.

Chapman’s glovework, on the other hand, left something to be desired. In 138 games, he committed 24 errors. His less-than-stellar infield defense left the Yankees with a decision to make on where to play him every day.

To their credit, they did not dither. An injury to Earle Combs, along with Chapman’s skillset making him a better fit in the outfield, led new manager Joe McCarthy to move Chapman off the keystone. His sophomore season saw him play predominantly in left field, though he sporadically appeared in right field and at second base.

“He didn’t get the ball away quickly enough for an infielder and lost too many double plays,” McCarthy explained years later. “He had a full arm action instead of a snap throw. This was an asset in the outfield but a handicap in the infield. There wasn’t any question that he belonged in the outfield.”

At the plate, Chapman handled his positional switch with aplomb. Only 22 years old, he had the best offensive season of his entire career. When 1931 came to a close, Chapman had compiled what would end up career-bests in at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, total bases, and wRC+. The 61 bags he swiped in ‘31 led the Junior Circuit, and for the first time he appeared in MVP voting, finishing 15th in the AL.

Despite winning 94 games though, the Yankees found themselves on the outside looking in, as they finished a whopping 13.5 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics for the AL pennant. Two years in, Chapman had yet to experience postseason baseball.

Chapman Gets a Ring

That mini-drought came to an end the following year. The Yankees returned to Murderers’ Row form by winning 107, trouncing the Athletics by 13 games for the right to play in the World Series. For Chapman, it was another excellent season. He again paced the AL in stolen bases, and eclipsed the century mark in both runs and runs batted in for the second straight season.

The 1932 Fall Classic, which pitted the Yanks against the Chicago Cubs, was the stage for one of baseball’s most iconic moments.

Chapman started in right field that day for New York and was uncertain whether the Babe really called his iconic home run. “He was pointing at Charley (sic) Root who had knocked him down,” Chapman wrote in a letter. “In my opinion, he did not call the shot, but he could have.” Not exactly a definitive answer. (Thanks, Ben.)

Chapman did his part to help the Bronx Bombers beat the Cubs. He played in all four games, collecting five base hits. He also made the most of his chances with men on base. Those five hits helped Chapman knock in six runs in the Yankees sweep of the Cubs. His biggest moment came in Game 3. In the bottom of the third inning, with the contest knotted at two, Chapman’s single scored Ruth and Lou Gehrig, giving the club a lead, one it held onto to go up two games to none.

Little did he know it at the time, but the 1932 World Series would be the only time in Chapman’s playing career that he tasted postseason baseball. But for a player three seasons into his big league tenure, Chapman had already built a nice resume.

An All-Star

Chapman was up to his usual tricks in 1933. He topped 100 runs scored for the third straight season, and he took home his third consecutive American League stolen base crown. He also made history. 1933 marked the inaugural Major League All-Star Game and Chapman was selected, the first of four times he appeared in the Midsummer Classic.

After teammate Lefty Gomez retired the National League in order in the top of the first, Chapman came to the plate to lead off for the AL. In doing so, he became the first American Leaguer to step to the dish as an All-Star.

As referenced above, Chapman was a regular visitor to the All-Star Game. He returned in each of the next three seasons, with 1936 marking the final occasion he played in the game.

Portrait of Jake Powell

The End of the Road

Chapman continued to give the Yankees more or less the same product every season through 1935. His batting average never dipped below .289, he walked as often or more than he struck out, and his wRC+ never sank under 108. Unfortunately, the glove continued to be an adventure. In 1935, roaming center field, Chapman managed the slightly ignominious feat of leading the American League in both outfield assists (25) and errors (15).

Meanwhile, that same season saw a 20-year-old Joe DiMaggio hit .398 for San Francisco in the Pacific Coast League. The writing was on the wall that New York would need to make room in short order for the young phenom, who had already been acquired. Chapman likely did not endear himself to Yankee brass with a holdout prior to the onset of the 1936 season, one that saw him publicly invite the club to deal him elsewhere. He eventually signed a deal with New York and returned to the club on April 6th.

When 1936 began though, Chapman was still a Yankee. A couple of months into the season, however, New York made a move. On June 14th, the club sent Chapman to the Washington Senators. Months after he dared the Yankees to trade him, Chapman found himself headed to the middling team in the nation’s capital. The Times speculated that perhaps Chapman was slowing down, with only one stolen base in the 36 games he had appeared in to that point in the season.

Chapman’s Ugly Legacy

Chapman stuck around the big leagues through the 1946 season, though he lost 1942 and 1943 to wartime service. He ultimately retired from the big leagues with a lifetime .302 average and 1958 hits, among some other rather impressive numbers. If only his story could have been one about on-field performance.

Jackie Robinson with Ben Chapman

After retirement, Chapman found himself managing the Philadelphia Phillies when the club played the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. Though he later apologized for his actions, Chapman viciously and repeatedly taunted Robinson. Heckling opponents, or bench-jockeying, was nothing new. Chapman had been on the receiving end as a rookie, taunted as an Alabama redneck. And the Jackie Robinson incident was far from the first time he’d been the instigator.

As Andrew recounted in his 2013 writeup of Chapman for this list’s predecessor:

“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.)”

In 1934, roughly 15,000 New Yorkers signed a petition asking the club to get rid of Chapman, who had a history of making anti-Semitic remarks while with the Yankees. He apologized to the team’s Jewish fans prior to the 1936 campaign, but Chapman’s penchant for unacceptable behavior was well-established long before 1947.

Chapman’s SABR bio recounts the repulsive things he directed at 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.”

There is no sugar coating an ugly incident from Chapman that rests in a longer, uncomfortable history of racism in Major League Baseball.

The Final Years

Decades later, Chapman reflected on his actions when he was younger. “A man learns about things and mellows as he grows older. I think that maybe I’ve changed a bit… I always went along with the bench jockeying…” After a pause, he tacked on, “The world changes. Maybe I’ve changed, too.” He expressed hope that his sons had learned to be better.

Chapman, whose son William made it as far as the minor leagues in the Cincinnati organization, retired back to Birmingham with his wife Ola after his time in baseball was finished. He died on July 7, 1993, of an apparent heart attack, leaving behind his wife and his sons William and Robert.

Staff rank: 70
Community rank: 87
Stats rank: 52
2013 rank: 52

References

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.

Baseball Reference

Ben Chapman.” CooperstownExpert.com

FanGraphs

New York Times.

Nowlin, Bill. SABR Bio

Pinstripe Alley

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.

Previously on the Top 100

71. Home Run Baker
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