After just two articles on how the Hall of Fame has failed, I’ve decided their failures need to be highlighted in a regularly recurring feature at the HoME. That’s how frequently the Hall has failed.
For this piece, we’re going to look at Chief Bender, one of the two players elected by the Veterans Committee in 1953. Chief was primarily a starting pitcher for the Philadelphia A’s, though he did pitch plenty in relief and did play for a few other teams. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t throw a ton. In fact, only in his rookie season of 1903 did he eclipse the 250 inning plateau. And with few innings relative to his generation, that means few wins relative to his generation. When he was inducted, he ranked just 46th in career wins.
According to WAR, he’s the 131st greatest pitcher in history, at least until Cliff Lee passes him next year. That puts him a shade or two behind Steve Rogers and Brad Radke. We’re talking about a couple of talented pitchers there, just not Hall of Famers. He’s at about the level of Fred Lynn, Brett Butler, and Ellis Burks if we bring hitters into the equation.
1953 was the first year of what’s familiarly called the Veterans Committee (VC). The technical name, if you care about such things, was the Committee on Baseball Veterans. One of the reasons they were formed, no doubt, is because their Old-Timers Committee predecessors seemed to elect anyone who even knew what a baseball was – ten guys in 1945 and eleven more in 1946. The 1953 VC, which I don’t think we need to explore too deeply, included a bunch of “baseball men” and only two former players, Charlie Gehringer, the GM of the Tigers, and Branch Rickey, who held the same role with the Pirates. It wasn’t like more recent versions of the VC with many former players.
This certainly wasn’t your father’s Old-Timers Committee. The new VC elected only six players in the entire decade of the 1960s. In 1953, it was only Bender and deserving inductee, Bobby Wallace.
So if Chief Bender is kind of the equivalent of Brett Butler and Brad Radke and he was just 46th in wins at the time of his election, how did he get into the Hall of Fame? Before I try to answer that question, let me give it a little bit of context. Bender’s election wasn’t the crazily odd mistake that was Tommy McCarthy, the over-crediting of 41 wins that happened with Jack Chesbro, or even the Frankie Frisch/Bill Terry elections that we’re going to see later in this series. It had to have been something else.
Bender did golf with Grantland Rice, one of the preeminent sportswriters of the time, but there’s no evidence, at least that I find, that suggests Rice had any influence whatsoever on the Committee.
I don’t think his election was politics, nor do I believe it was the VC running amok. Of their other five selections in the decade, four were good ones. Rather, I think Bender is in the Hall because he was a winner. He was a proven winner, dammit! Like Jack Morris (that’s two hyperlinks for those who click on such things). His write-up at the SABR Bio Project cites Connie Mack, his long-time manager, who once said of him, “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 (Chief Bender) would be my man. That’s high praise from a man who managed the likes of Lefty Grove, Herb Pennock, Eddie Plank, and Rube Waddell.
Baseball loves winners. Everyone loves winners. And we can divide Bender’s winning into two categories, the regular season and the post-season. In the World Series, Bender was 6-4, which isn’t really such a great record. But his teams won three World Series, and he did have a sparkling 2.44 ERA. Three rings. You don’t win three unless you’re a winner. You can’t right?
Okay, okay. While those who spend much time analyzing the careers of guys like Hick Cady, Irv Noren, and Ramiro Mendoza might argue winning a World Series isn’t necessarily such a big deal as it pertains to an individual player, that point doesn’t fit the narrative here. So let’s just say Bender was a winner. Big winner!
In the regular season, Bender’s record could be twisted even more positively if we looked at only his win/loss record. Winners win games, right? They don’t lose games. And Bender had a very nice winning percentage. (Let’s forget for a moment that you and I both know winning games is far more a function of external factors such as your teammates than your innate ability to find a win).
Among pitchers with at least 100 career decisions, he’s 62nd in winning percentage. Okay. But if we look to pitchers with at least ten seasons, he’s 43rd. For those with at least 15, he’s 18th. And if we only look at those who had retired by 1950 with 15 or more years of experience, the list is even shorter.
1 Lefty Grove .680 2 Christy Mathewson .665 3 Pete Alexander .642 4 Kid Nichols .634 5 Jesse Tannehill .627 6 Eddie Plank .627 7 Chief Bender .625
Of the six pitchers in front of him, not one owns three World Series rings. And everyone in front of him is in the Hall of Fame. Well, all except Jesse Tannehill.
So is it possible that Chief Bender is in the Hall of Fame because the inaugural Veterans Committee thought he was one of baseball’s all-time great winners? I don’t know. But I do think it’s possible.
And I think Jesse Tannehill wishes he had better teammates.