“The winningest manager in baseball history saw his share of outstanding big-game pitchers. But when Connie Mack had everything on the line, Chief Bender was his guy.”
– National Baseball Hall of Fame
Chief Bender (May 5, 1884 – May 22, 1954) was born in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, as a member of the Ojibwe tribe. His father was German and his mother was part Chippewa. He was given the name “Mandowescence”, meaning “Little Spirit Animal.” His family had 160 acres on the White Earth Indian Reservation near Bemidji, Minnesota, where his father taught him to farm. But Bender had baseball on his mind. He graduated from Carlisle Indian Industrial School and attended Dickinson College.
In 1902 while playing for a semi-pro team in Harrisburg, PA., Bender caught the eye of Connie Mack after beating the Chicago Cubs in an exhibition game.
Mack signed the hurler.
In 1903, Bender debuted for the Philadelphia Athletics. The local press quickly dubbed him “Chief,” a common nickname for baseball players of Native American descent. Biographer Tom Swift wrote, “[Bender] was often portrayed as a caricature and was the subject of myriad cartoons – many exhibits of narrow-mindedness.” He continued, “After [throwing] one of the most dominating games of the early years of the American League, Bender was depicted wielding a tomahawk and wearing a headdress as though he was a happy warrior.”
He faced racism both on and off the field. On the field, opposing players would yell things like, “go back to the reservation!” But Bender would remain calm, sometimes smiling at the insults. After a dominating inning, he’d yell back, “Foreigners! Foreigners!” The fans, players, and even Bender himself would often laugh at the comeback.
But Bender was hardly accepted by white culture and the media. “There was scarcely a time when Bender was written about when his race was not prominently mentioned,” according to Swift. “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 [Connie] Mack’s wily redskin.”
Bender dealt eloquently with the taunting and improved his pitching each year, peaking in 1910 with a 23-5 record and impressive 1.58 ERA – the eighth season in a row where he lowered his ERA from the previous year. The Athletics won the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913, with Bender winning five of his seven starts in that stretch.
“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. ” -Connie Mack
In 1914, Bender went 17-3 – leading the AL in winning percentage for the third time in five seasons. But the A’s were defeated by the Boston Braves in that Fall Classic, and soon after many of Mack’s Monsters jumped ship to the newly formed Federal League with the promise of significant pay raises.
Bender ended up on the Baltimore Terrapins of the FL in 1915, but failed to recreate the domination he’d been known for while in Philly, posting a dismal 4-16 record with a 3.99 ERA. He was welcomed back to Philadelphia to pitch for the Phillies — the City of Brotherly Love’s other team — in 1916 and 1917, then made his last big league appearance in 1925 with the White Sox.
Bender retired with a career record of 212-127, good for a .625 winning percentage and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953.
He passed away on May 22, 1954.
Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com.
View Chief Bender’s Page at the Baseball Hall of Fame (plaque, photos, video).