Fred Lieb devoted a chapter in his memoir Baseball As I Have Known It to Hal Chase. Titling the chapter “Hal Chase: He had a corkscrew brain,” Lieb wrote about the troubled career of the once-great first baseman, banished from baseball after 1919 for fixing games. Lieb included a euphemistic mention near the end of the chapter that Chase died at 64 in 1947 “in dire straits.” The story of Chase’s years after being cast out of baseball is one of the bleaker tales in baseball history. It far surpasses that of Pete Rose, who’ll mark the 25th anniversary of his lifetime ban on Sunday.
If not for Chase’s many transgressions– according to Ken Burns, three managers publicly accused Chase of throwing games– he’d have been in the Hall of Fame decades ago. Even with his ban, Chase finished 25th and 22nd in the first two writers votes for Cooperstown. He’s still considered one of the best-fielding first basemen ever. Lieb wrote that Chase played the position off the bag like an infielder. Grantland Rice ranked Chase in 1942 with George Sisler and Lou Gehrig as one of the three best first basemen of the past 40 years, writing, “Hal could make plays around first base that no other ballplayer would even try to make.”
Rumored to have been the go-between who introduced players and gamblers before the ill-fated 1919 World Series, Chase’s SABR bio notes a couple of interviews he gave late in life to the Sporting News where he denied any role in the fix. He admitted to knowing of the plot ahead of time saying, “I did not want to be what I then called a ‘welcher.’ I had been involved in all kinds of bets with players and gamblers in the past, and I felt this was no time to run out.” But persistent rumors of his wrongdoing were enough to prompt his lifetime ban.
Chase kept playing baseball for years after his ban from organized ball, turning up in a semi-pro league in California in 1921 and continuing an itinerant career into his 50s. Chase, it should be noted, is far from the only man of his era to play well past his time in the majors, the wealth of minor and semi-pro circuits back then offering ample work for ex-big leaguers. Three Finger Brown, Chief Bender, and Iron Man Joe McGinnity, to name three, all pitched into their 50s. I suspect some players continued their careers for love of the game. Others like Chase clearly needed the money.
His run of bad fortune, random and self-imposed followed. He suffered lacerations after being struck by a car in 1936 and was hospitalized again in 1941 with a stomach ailment. Chase gave an interview to the United Press from the hospital after the latter incident, estimating that he’d earned $150,000 during his career but neglected to save it. The following year, he was written of again for telling police during a DUI stop, “You shouldn’t arrest a man as famous as I am. I’m Hal Chase, the baseball player.” [Oddly, the story lists Chase being booked into jail as Elmore Axel Chase, a salesman from Huntington Park, California. Baseball-Reference.com lists Chase with a full name of Harold Homer Chase.]
Then there’s the story shown above, from the Santa Cruz Sentinel on August 1, 1942. It details Chase winding up in Highland Hospital in Oakland after being found on a lawn in nearby Alameda. The story notes a woman telephoning police that a “ragged and tattered man was wandering on her lawn.” The story said Chase had been en-route to a wartime defense job from his San Jose home and “was, and perhaps still is, a victim of amnesia.” Another paper reported that the hospital offered this diagnosis came after Chase was initially diagnosed with a brain stroke. Candidly, his story reads a lot like one of prolonged alcoholism.
The baseball world will be sympathizing with Pete Rose over the next few days, issuing renewed pleas for his Hall of Fame induction. ESPN.com already has a lengthy article on Rose’s “25-year exile” on its homepage. It’s been a long time since anyone offered Hal Chase any sympathy.
“From the archives” is a Friday series here that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.
Others in this series: Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS